On Saturday I, and 350 fellow authors were given the opportunity to pitch our stories to a team of literary agents from Curtis Brown UK. We each had seven minutes in a one-to-one session to convince our agent that our stories might be worth reading. One of those minutes was taken up by the agent reading the first page of our book to see if they liked the writing style, but for the rest of that time we had not just to sell our stories but to persuade our agent that only we could write that particular book.
I don’t know if there has been any research done on it yet but I suspect that seven minutes is a lot longer than some readers will spend browsing on Amazon when deciding whether or not to buy your book. A pitch is a pitch – whether to an agent or to someone who just loves to read. So use every opportunity you have to fine tune your written pitch on the Amazon product details.
Sell, don’t tell
A pitch is a sales pitch and you have to sell, not tell your story. Pitching is a method used to drum up interest from producers when selling film and television scripts and this was the first time I’d heard of it being used in the book industry. But then I figured that if we are selling or trying to entice readers to vote for our book on a writing website like Authonomy, what we are doing is pitching.
My first experience at pitching when at film school was such a disaster that I remember that I lost the agent’s interest in about the first 30 seconds. I had mistakenly mixed up a pitch with a monologue describing the plot and to make it worse I was performing in front of my peers. Luckily for me, I had a much better written pitch and the script was selected and I got to see my graduation film produced. I valiantly hoped that this particular agent would have a poor memory should I ever be in the position to pitch to him again.
Ten years later at a film festival in LA I got the chance to pitch a feature film project to a number of different film industry professionals. I recalled my previous experience and was determined to do better. This time we were pitching one-to-one and I pitched the story in total eight times. By the fourth time I was getting the hang of it. The pitch by then was much more of a Q & A – the executives were asking questions and I was answering them and it felt far more natural.
By the time it came to the end of the last pitch I didn’t want to stop. The particular executive advised me that it would be a hard sell to convince a Hollywood producer to set a film in exotic locations like New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica. Instead, he suggested, why not write it as a novel first? This turned out to be the best piece of advice I could have received so from now on, instead of fearing pitches I rather look forward to them.
That’s not to say that six years on from that amazing experience in LA that I am getting any better at pitching, but this time round I’d worked out that just as important as selling the story was finding the spark that provokes a question. If nothing came of the pitch I would be able to take another look at my Amazon ‘Product Description’ to see if I could perhaps inject something fresh into it to entice new readers.
In the first 30 seconds of my pitch, when I was busy describing the genre of the book – that it was a thriller with environmental themes and was the first of a trilogy the agent stopped me mid flow. In the UK, unlike LA, where they might think you are an idiot but are too polite to tell you, people will tell you straight, whether something is working or not. In my enthusiasm I was running before I could walk. Everything that I thought I knew about selling books turned out to be wrong. I needed to emphasise that the book was a thriller and fulfilled all the important aspects of a thriller – pace, excitement, action and so on. The theme was secondary. Secondly, as far as the agent was concerned, why was I talking about a second book when I hadn’t properly ‘sold’ him the first?
Then I threw in a bit about it “being a thriller set on four continents – including Antarctica.” And from the positive reaction I received from this I then knew that this was the bit that interested him, that even though there were 350 other pitches to hear that day, the chances were that Antarctica might not feature in too many of them.
I had one final hurdle to overcome which was to sell what the book was really about; which was not the theme (too general) and not the plot, (too specific). I chose to describe it as a story of a young, naïve woman, full of bravado and superficially self-assured, who at the start of the book thinks she knows it all. By the end she realises that she knows nothing at all and that the target she thought she was going for had simply moved.
In the last remaining minute we had left the agent had to read the first page (and I took a gamble on this and directed him to the first chapter rather than the prologue). And then in the space of 30 seconds he had to make a decision whether or not to invite me to submit the manuscript, which he graciously did.
Now I know we don’t get a chance to pitch to a literary agent every day of the week – and this was underscored by the sheer number of people at this event, one of whom had travelled from Texas and another from Cyprus. Those of us selling our work on Amazon or trying to compete for a place in the top five on the writers critique site Authonomy, for the chance to have our work read by a publisher, are competing with not merely hundreds but potentially hundreds of thousands of other books out there.
So from now on, I am going to canvass feedback from as many potential readers as I can, where they think there might be room for improvement in the pitch. You can soon tell if you’ve engaged someone or not, just by their body language. Don’t bore them but be as enthusiastic as you can without going over the top. As someone remarked recently, we can get so caught up in our writing that it’s very hard to step back and look at something from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about our work or our book. And it is perhaps those readers who we need to reach out to the most.