Hook 'em and Shut Up: Thoughts on Pitching

I'm gearing up to go to RWA's annual national conference in D.C., so I'm reminded of a moment from last year's (in blessedly cool San Francisco, where I'd vote to go every year). One afternoon, I skipped out of the sessions and wandering around to see if I could find any of the hundreds of authors I know to hang around and shoot the breeze with. (What was called hooky in high school is networking here, and it's usually where I get my best intelligence on what's happening in the industry.) As I strolled along a corridor, I saw a lady whose name tag designated her as a first-timer to the conference and a fellow Texan, an unpublished member who was on her own and looking so nervous and miserable, I couldn't help but stop and say hi, then ask her how she was enjoying her first time as nationals.

She wasn't at that moment, she said. On her way to her very first editor appointment, she was tying her intestines into knots trying to recall her memorized spiel. Since she still had some time and I wasn't doing anything productive, I gave her a "We Texans have to stick together" line and asked her to come over to the chairs that lined the corridor and practice her pitch with me.

So she did, vomiting out this confusing mass of information designed to fill every second of her allotted ten minute appointment time. There was no stopping her to ask a question, no interrupting to clarify a point, and as motivated as I was to listen, I had a hard time figuring out what the marketing hooks might be, what kind of book this was (both genre and subgenre), what the length was and whether it was complete.) If I had been an editor, I would've given up, let her run her course, and sent her on her way, none the wiser as to how I might sell her story.

After she finished, I asked her a few questions, then looked for how it best fit this particular editor's interests. (She was pitching to an editor I know from my own publishing house. A lucky break, but a basic awareness of each house's lines and authors is critical. And not at all hard to find out.) So we pulled the marketing hooks that might possibly be relevant to and published by that house and crafted a sort of teaser line or two around them, along with the crucial info.

Here's a brief example (something I just made up) of the sort of thing you might lead with.

"Hi, I'm (give your name - your real name), and I've completed a 90,000 (or what have you) word light paranormal romance (or what have you) about a misunderstood (or name your own adjective) demoness (name your own noun) who wants to go straight and play for the other team (name your own intriguing goal.) Only centuries of prior bad acts and the handsome demon-slayer (another adj-noun combo) who's been pursuing her as long (obstacle) conspire to send her to Hell on Earth -- an eternity as a "performer" for a Chuck E Cheese-like party spot for kids. (Remember, this is a "light" paranormal, so I've set up a possibility with humorous potential.)"

Delivered calmly and in a friendly manner (sometimes after a moment of small talk and a handshake, depending on the pub pro), this spiel should take no more than a minute or two to deliver. Once you've finished stating your case (you might add, say, any publishing/significant contest credentials if you have them or that your book might appeal to, for example, readers of Angie Fox, Kerrelyn Sparks, and Mary Janice Davidson), then it's time to simply sit back and shut your mouth.

Let the agent take the lead from here, asking you questions about your story. Sometimes you'll actually see the spark of excitement ignite as the pro's imagination takes your concept and runs with it. And if what you've pitched is actually something this house publishes, you'll generally get a request to see either the partial or a manuscript.

So what if there's time left? Try asking some questions of your own about the publishing house and/or how the editor works. Or try asking (I ask this all the time of agents and editors) what the person's working on that he/she's particularly excited about right now. It's a wonderful snapshot of what may be up and coming in the market.

If you get into a give and take conversation with the editor or agent, you'll be much less likely to be nervous. Which is a very good thing, since I've never heard of anyone buying a project from an author who's just thrown up on her shoes!

By the way, I received an excited thank you note from the Texas woman I'd helped. She'd gotten a request from the editor, and she was absolutely thrilled about it. So was I, since once we figured out what she was actually selling, it sounded terrific.

Best of luck to those of you pitching at Nationals this year!


Nancy J. Parra said…
Oh - have fun at nationals... wish I were there. Cheers!
Thanks, Nancy!
Joni Rodgers said…
Great advice, Colleen, and not just for writing conference pitch fests. It's good to keep this approach in mind when your editor or agent asks the casual, "So what are ya workin' on?"
tapestry said…
You are an encourager, Colleen. Thanks for helping out MANY fellow Texans with your words and voice of experience. You could have just walked on by and left her (and us) in the fog.
Thanks, Tapestry. People have been so giving with me, it's hard not to return the favor when I'm able. Plus, I well recall how overwhelmed I felt at my first conference.

Take care, ladies!
Suzan Harden said…
Yoda saves the day again! Color me not surprised. *grin*
Lol, Suzan!

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