Reno, Nevada, July 27-31, 2005. A swarm of women descends, ready to take the publishing world by storm.
If you've never been to the RWA national conference, brace yourself now because there is nothing like the national conference. RWA has about 8,600 published and aspiring authors, at least 2,000 of which will all be milling about one hotel in Reno for the same 5 days. More importantly, those women are trying to sell books--at the conference and other chapter conferences throughout the year. That's almost nine thousand people all trying to fill about 2,100 available publishing spots (and that's not even considering Nora Roberts, who puts out about 20 books--new and reprints--each year).
So how do you become one of the 2,100? It all starts with a pitch, and if you've got an editor or agent appointment in Reno, you're up. So what is a pitch, exactly, and how do you give one that blows the editor or agent away?
A pitch is a verbal presentation an author makes to an editor or agent, typically at a conference, during an interview. The interview can be one-on-one or with a group of anywhere from three to ten people. An interview lasts from five to twenty minutes. At the national conference, interviews are one-on-one and usually about ten minutes.
So what's it like? Pitching a book proposal (or, I imagine, a screenplay) is one of the most horrifying experiences imaginable. Right up there with appearing nude in public. You know that Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry go to NBC to pitch their show about nothing? An interview with an editor or agent at a writing conference is sort of like that.
Big Name Agent: So, tell me about your book.
Me: It's really good. I mean, my mom likes it a lot.
Big Name Agent: What's the high concept? You know, is it "Desperate Housewives" meets "Antique Roadshow" or "CSI" meets "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy"?
Me: Um, no. What's a high concept?
Big Name Agent: Right. So tell me about your book. What's the internal conflict?
Me: Huh? Do I need that?
So now you've decided you're never going to subject yourself to that horror, right? Wrong. Even if you sell without ever pitching, you'll have to pitch to your editor. That usually goes like this for me.
Big Name Editor: So what are you working on right now?
Me: Right now? Um...
Big Name Editor: Your last book had that awesome Star Wars hook. How are you going to hook us this time?
Me: Well...I'm kicking around a few ideas.
Big Name Editor: Great! Tell me about them.
Big Name Editor: Like, what's the internal conflict?
Me: Huh? Do I need that?
This is no way to sell books, and luckily I realized that before I tortured too many agents and editors. Actually, delivering a good pitch is not rocket science. There are three important things to remember.1. Be enthusiastic!!!!!
Three things? You can do that, right? So let's start with number one. Be enthusiastic. I mean, really enthusiastic. If you don't love your book, if you can't get excited about it, why should anyone listening to you? I'm not saying you should have four double espressos before you go in there, but if you're soft-spoken or really laid back, I'm not saying it's a bad idea, either. Go into that interview smiling, you'll be nervous so use that adrenaline to keep your energy level high. Pitching is selling. Sell your book like it's the best thing since Gone With the Wind.
Be prepared is the second thing to remember. Before you even set foot on the plane to Reno, do your research. Who are you pitching to? What is he/she buying? Who does he/she represent? There's no point pitching your cigar-smoking, four-letter spewing, touch-as-nails protagonist to an editor of an inspirational press. You're wasting her time and yours, and she won't appreciate it.
When I was writing pitches, I referred to several articles on pitching to guide me. One of the most helpful was in the RWR Archives section in the Members Only section of the RWA national website. Agent Linda Kruger from The Fogelman Agency, wrote an article titled "Ten Minutes to Shine: Agent/Editor Appointments." She suggests using index cards to organize your pitch. Here's how to lay it out.
Card 1: Introduction to your book, include the title, word count, and categorize your book.
Card 2: Write an enthusiastic synopsis of your book. Keep it short and exciting. This is the place to give your high concept, if you have one (more on that below). You might think about this part of your pitch in these terms: Character Wants [Goal] Because [Motivation], But S/He Can't Have It Because [Conflict].
Card 3 and 4: Devote one card to your two main characters, their description, personality, etc. Also, tell the editor or agent why you love these characters. What makes them unique or memorable?
Card 5: You. Give a quick bio. If you don't have many writing credentials, then mention you're a member of this chapter or say something fun about yourself, like "I'm a chick-lit enthusiast: bring me a Cosmo, the next issue of Vogue, and the Shopaholic's latest credit card statement, and I'll be your friend for life." Don't be afraid to show your personality.
The last thing to remember is to be professional. Dress to impress. Wear something responsible-looking but not stodgy or over the top. Remember that this is an interview, and those go both ways. For card 6, write down questions you have for the editor or agent (these should show you've done your research). Card 7 should be answers to questions you think the editor or agent might ask you. These include the protagonist's internal conflict (that one's for me!), the novel's theme, other writers you enjoy reading.
Why is it so important to practice and be prepared for all of these questions? Because you will not remember your own name once you step into that room. I know. You're the sort who likes to wing it. You can't be enthusiastic if you've practiced the thing into the ground. I have seen many writers with this attitude crash and burn. Don't do it. Write that pitch now and practice it as much as possible, enough so that you don't have to read your pitch off the cards, but have them there just in case. Usually there are four editors in one room, and other people are pitching around you. It's a nerve-wracking experience, but it doesn't have to be. If you're ready, you'll come off looking professional. On the day of the pitch, get to the room early. Bring a pen, your index cards, and your business card into the interview. Nothing else. Do not bring your six-page synopsis or even a page of your book. Editors and agents do not have room to take your book home in their suitcase.
You're probably a bit overwhelmed at this point, but at the risk of overwhelming you more, I need to touch on one more aspect of pitching: the high concept pitch. In How To Sell Your Idea to Hollywood, Robert Kosberg credits the idea of high concept to Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. They created the term as a way to promote TV movies. Kosberg says, "The essence of high concept is that it is both brief and provocative. It piques the imagination and promises that big things are going to happen out of an ordinary situation." The high concept is designed to excite your audience and tease them into wanting to see more. At its most basic, it's a marketing and selling gimmick.
One caution when using high concept is to remember the difference between a hook and a pitch. The high concept is a hook--it intrigues the audience by raising questions. The pitch answers questions. You want the editor or agent to know you're pitching a complete, polished manuscript, not just an attractive idea. That's why, if you choose to use high concept, you should make it only one part of your pitch.
High concept can be tricky, and not every book has one. My chick lit The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Men I've Dated (Avon, May 2005) is about a Star Wars obsessed geek, looking for her Han Solo in the modern dating world. If I were to design a high concept for it, I'd say, "Princess Leia meets Square Pegs." See why high concept is so effective? Immediately, you get a picture of the book.
Still have questions about pitching? Check out these articles and websites.
© Shana Galen