Perfecting Your Pitch – Make ‘Em Slobber

July 26, 2012

I was at a writer’s conference last weekend, where we had tons of fun, talked to a lot of talented writers, and heard a lot of fabulous stories. One thing that stood out at me is varied approaches authors took for the one-on-one pitch sessions. Some were shaking so badly that I wanted to give them a big hug. The idea that I, or any of my colleagues, are worthy of a fit of the shakes is ludicrous. There are times when I should be feared, but this isn’t one of them.

Conferences are fabulous things that allow agents, editors, and authors to collide in cosmically-perfect deliciousness. We are there for the authors – on call 24-3 (most conferences are about 3 days long). Additionally, authors can pitch their ideas and books to us in a more formal setting. The downside is that they’re timed and range from 10 down to 3 minutes. THREE MINUTES. Gah.

So how do you cram your fabulosity into 3 steenkin’ minutes? Clarity and brevity are your best friends. Most conferences send out advice to those who are doing pitches, but I thought I’d pass along some of my observations that may enhance authors’ Slobbery Factor. And keep in mind, this doesn’t pertain strictly to conferences, but anywhere you find yourself talking/pitching your book.

Memorize

Rarely are authors trained actors, so it’s impossible to sound natural while reciting your pitch. Because you’re reciting, you’re not engaging with me, and I want to get a feel for you and your story. Instead, I can almost see your brain kicking into high gear in order not to miss a single point. Your focus is on not screwing up, not on engaging me.

Whether it’s at a writer’s conference, a bar, or hanging out in your backyard, the idea is to connect with the person you’re talking to, and memorizing your pitch creates a barrier that’s hard to penetrate. I found this when I stopped authors in mid-pitch to get clarification on a point. My interruption threw them off, and I felt terrible for causing them to stumble around while mentally trying to remember where they’d left off. It was all very unnatural.

Hook – That One-Sentence Piece of Loveliness

A little tool that may help you is relying on your hook to do the enticing. I found myself asking many times over the weekend, “What’s your hook?”…meaning, what is the main pulling feature to the story? Puzzled as to what I was asking, authors gave their full pitch, and neglected to include the compelling elements that would pull me into their story.

In the world of publishing, less is better. If you’re taking five, ten, fifteen minutes to explain your story (which happens a lot), then I’m searching my purse for a rope and checking out the ceiling rafters.The idea is to get people asking for more, not looking for a way to check out on a permanent basis.

If you keep your hook to one sentence, then you’re inviting people to lean and and ask for more.

Example of a miss:

Janie works in a science lab and sees firsthand how hilarious and poignant her experiences are when working with patients.

The problem is those hilarious and poignant stories are the hook, and that is what’s missing here. The author has reduced her character to a one-dimensional chess piece who is simply moving around those stories. Nothing compelling here. It’s a pass.

Example of a hit:

A reluctant romance publisher works overtime to protect the identity of her newest author, an internationally known legal thriller, from a nosy book reviewer desperate for a juicy story in order to save his own career.

It’s a very quick overview. If you spice it up with adjectives, then you have the building blocks for the other guy to ask for more.

  • What made the publisher reluctant?
  • Why does she have a famous legal thriller author as one of her romance writers? Ooo…a book reviewer is desperate to save his own job and is looking for a juicy story…yes, yes, tell me more.

My book is a movie just waiting to happen”

I winced when several authors said this before I had any inkling of what their story was about. All authors believe their books would make a great movie…tell me something I don’t know. This isn’t a selling point. Your story is, so focus on that. If at some point there is an offer for movie rights on your book, I’ll toast to your awesomeness and pray you remember us little people.

Character-driven stories – lead with that

Seconds before the dinger rang, I concluded an author’s story was character-driven instead of plot-driven. I suggested she lead with that because her characters are the hook. If she can convey the deliciousness of her characters, then I’ll likely follow her into the gates of hell.

Is your story character-driven? If so, think about focusing on the personal characteristics that will naturally draw us in.

Example

Twist McPherson’s public recommendation that her ex business partner go screw himself intersected nicely with her desire to enjoy her permanent hiatus from the rat race, free-flowing Harvey Wallbangers, and basking in the sun. Navigating the helm of Dirty Little Secrets Publishing while herding five saucy writers and one reluctant internationally famous legal thriller was never a part of the plan.

Keeping the focus on the main character keeps us engaged in her adventure. It keeps it personal. If the character is interesting, an agent or editor will do the logical thing and beg for more information.

Focus on your main plot – not subplots and twists

Many authors have a hard time keeping their focus on the main plot. Because they know their story inside and out, they get caught up in all the connected subplots and twists. As a result, the other guy is checking to see how sharp those butter knives are and whether they’d cut through jugular veins without too much resistance. In a word, it’s boring.

If you’re tempted to spend fifteen minutes explaining every nuance of your book, be prepared to see people’s eyes glaze over. These subplots and twists often lack context when describing them, so they make the story sound mushy and disorganized in a pitch. We don’t need all the ancillary stuff. Those are the sweet little gifts that enhance the plot…but it isn’t the plot. Remember, less is better.

Audience

I bleat about this all the time, but it still remains a tough issue for many writers. You need to understand who your intended audience is so we know how to promote and market your book. Obviously, genre writers have an easier time with this, but it never hurts to have a healthy respect on how to nab your readers. I use this example quite often, but my Two Surfer Dudes post illustrates the importance of knowing your intended audience and being able to promote to them.

Mr. Two Surfer Dudes’ initial audience was other surfers, so we suggested a promo plan that got him in front of that audience in such a way that it exploited his platform (being a well-known surfer at that particular beach) in order to sell a very strange book.

Too often, authors don’t consider their audience and tend to say, “My book is for everyone.” Cool; do you know how to find “everyone”? I sure don’t. Is there something you can pull from your book that will appeal to a specific audience? Nothing is worse than asking the question and hearing, “Um, I don’t really know.”
Promotion

“How do you plan on promoting your book?” is a common question that I ask every author. That question is cropping up more often in fiction as well. And it doesn’t matter how you plan on publishing your book, mainstream trade press or DIY, you will need to promote your book on some level. If you’ve given this some thought…and you should…then an editor will want to hear it. The better your plan, the easier it is to become excited about a new project.
Platform

Platform and Promotion go hand in hand. As a publisher of nonfiction, I’m pretty sassy about authors having a platform in order to propel their books. We’re looking for that “resident expert” that quantifies their fabulosity. Fiction is a bit tougher, but Mr. Two Surfer Dudes proves my point about how a platform can mean the difference between indifference and “hey, dude, gotta buy your book.” Just because you’re a novelist doesn’t mean you can’t develop a platform that will enhance your footprint and make your editor love you like I love the beagle’s margaritas.

As writers, we never stop pitching our books, so it’s important to know how to do this in a manner that will make ’em slobber. Go out and embrace your brilliance.


Doing the writer’s conference bugaloo

August 16, 2011

I love conferences. I say that all the time, but I mean it. It’s the only place where I get to talk to my favorite people (authors) while taking the pulse of how people perceive the direction of the publishing industry. As it turned out, authors had many questions on their minds.

What about agents adding publishing services?

Hooboy, this was a hot topic that revealed varying opinions. Authors were confused. Editors shook their heads in wonderment, and agents both defended and reviled the idea. Many agents were very uncomfortable with the idea, saying exactly what I’d said: “I’m very uncomfortable with this idea. My job is time intensive enough as it is. If I added publishing services to my day, I wouldn’t have time to do my main job – which is selling my authors’ manuscripts. Besides, I don’t want to give the appearance of there being a conflict of interest.”

And that is the crux of the problem – time and perception – and I’m glad to see agents whom I admire and respect feel the same way. As I’ve said before, I know how time and labor intense my job is. If I decided to also represent authors and sell them to other publishers, not only would I be accused of a conflict of interest, but I wouldn’t do my own authors proper justice.

The other side of that coin is that agents who have become publishers claim they’re hiring people to take care of this end of the business, thus allowing them just as much time to sell their authors as before. This flies in the face of logic for me because the reason they’re doing this is to keep themselves afloat. It’s a profit center for them, so hiring people impacts their bottom line.

Authors are right to question this idea because it impacts their writing careers. Out of all the agents at the conference, those who approved of agents-as-publishers were in a large minority. Interesting, no?

Ebooks

This was an interesting discussion because ebooks have really gained their rightful place in the publishing industry. Where it was easy to poke fun at e-publishers back in the day, there were two e-publishers at the conference who are making some very good money. How far we’ve come!

Of course, everyone wants to know if ebooks will edge print books out of the scene. Since no one possesses a crystal ball or tinfoil hat, all we can do is conjecture. But there is no denying that ebooks are here to stay and that more people are buying more ebooks.

The decision becomes whether authors are ready to make the leap to only see their books in ebook format. Those I talked to still wanted to see their books in print – and I don’t blame them. Perception doesn’t happen overnight, and print books have always been the litmus of success. POD and vanity publishers have taken that viewpoint down a peg, which is, again, the result of publishing evolution. But for the most part, authors still have that desire to hold a physiscal book because, as one author put it, “Holding my book in my hands makes it real.”

But publishing is expensive, and e-publishers save on print runs and warehousing costs. I spoke with one an editor from a former-print publisher who was floundering last year and was on the verge of closing their doors until they found new life and prosperity by going ebook. Now they’re doing well and are able to pay their editors and hire more because sales are booming.

I love a success story. But here’s the thing about e-publishers – they’re genre. The successful e-publishers are romance, horror, thriller, SF/Fantasy. These genres have a faithful readership and will glom onto anything genre.

Many writers are mainstream fiction, and this remains the hardest sell of all. This means that you’ll find fewer successful mainstream fiction e-publishers. In fact, I’ve noticed that the mainstream fiction section of successful e-publishers is very small. It’s the genre stuff that keeps the mainstream fiction ebooks afloat.

The same can be said about nonfiction. The readership for nonfiction is varied and fractured, so e-publishers avoid this genre. On the flip side, print publishers release their books as ebooks as well in order to appeal to those who prefer e-readers.

And this brings me to another “Hmmm” moment. If ebooks sell best with genre, then what is the future for mainstream fiction and nonfiction in terms of e-publishing? So far, those don’t exist in any great numbers, so will mainstream fiction and nonfiction remain the only viable print-publishers?

Again, without a crystal ball or tinfoil hat, it’s hard to predict the future.

Distribution

This conversation went hand-in-hand with the future of print publishing. Distribution is the lifeblood of our industry, whether you’re an e-publisher or print publisher. I’ve seen many e-publishers whose books were only available on their own website. Unless that publisher is really well-known, then one wonders how they drive the marketplace to their online store.

Likewise, I’ve claim to have distribution, but it only amounted to being with Ingram and Baker & Taylor. Just to refresh everyone’s memory, this is warehouse distribution – meaning that they are a centralized warehouse for bookstores and libraries to order from. They don’t have sales teams who actively pitch your titles to their national accounts and bookstores. They don’t market and promote your books. Ingram and B&T simply fulfill orders.

Publishers who rely on Ingram and B&T are akin to the e-publishers who only make their books available on their site. In either scenario, the author will be the one responsible for making sales because the publishers don’t have the money to market and promote.

Swimming to the top of the heap

As always, authors are interested in discovering how they can swim to the top of the heap. If there was a magic bullet, I’d happily share it. But there isn’t. Success takes hard word, knowledge, and luck. And this is why I continue to promote conferences. There is no other place where you can talk to agents and editors, and get their advice, feedback, and recommendations. We are on call the entire time we’re at a conference, and it’s because we are committed to helping you swim to the top.

If it were easy, everyone would be a bestselling author. But I like to think of the diamond analogy – that diamonds are made because molecules are forged together under extreme pressure to create something beautiful. It’s that learning process – about writing and the industry – that gauges the pressure you can withstand.

ADVICE

Aside from the discussions that fueled the conference, there were some observations that I thought would be helpful in making for a successful conference:

Bring Money: That isn’t meant to sound as grubby as it came out. What I mean by this, is there are always book signings at these events, and it’s great to be able to support your fellow authors. Even though I read from my Kindle app, I bought a couple books because a) they weren’t available in Kindle, and b) I really wanted to read those books.

Booze: Now don’t get me wrong – as much as I kid around, I’m really not much of a boozehound. But conferences always provide a bar at the evening mixers. Depending on the hotel, those glasses of wine can run $9 per glass…which is highway robbery. That said, there is nothing that eases fears and anxiety than a pouty red or crisp white. And this is where we do so much of our chit chat with authors. Liquid courage. Besides, what better opening can you have than to offer to buy your favorite agent or editor a glass of wine. Last time an author did that to me, I ended up signing her. These special conference bars only accept cash.

Bring Pages: There were several times that I was interested in someone’s book and asked if they’d brought pages. They hadn’t. Even if no one ever asks you for pages, always bring them. Chances are that had I had those pages, I may have offered a contract on the spot because I loved their idea and knew I could sell it. As it is, I have to wait for them to email the pages to me. Be a good Girl Scout and be prepared.

Agents and editors are far from blase when they see something they think has huge potential, and they are like little kids in that they want instant gratification. We’re pathetic that way.

Warning

No conference would be complete without a couple warnings, right? Here are a couple of consistent problem areas that I see.

“Everyone”:  Whenever I asked, “Who is your intended readership?” I got the requisite reply: “Everyone.” I’ve heard it so much that I call it “Everyone-itis.” We have Alzheimer groups in our Rolodex, we have heart disease groups in our Rolodex, we have travel groups in our Rolodex, but I can guaran-dang-tee you that we do not have “Everyone” in our Rolodex.

This is a question that will dog you for you entire writing career, so you would be well-served to have that figured out. Besides, wouldn’t you find it easier to know to whom you’re writing?

Eye contact:  I’m the first to appreciate how hard it is to do a one-on-one with an agent or editor. Personally, I think we’re far less scary than agents! We all honor the fact that you’ve made the move to stick your big toe in the water and test the temperature. It seems a shame not to present yourself in the very best that you can be.

When an author insists on reading their pitch rather than simply engaging us, I feel like they’ve put up a wall that I can’t penetrate. We have precious little time in which to get to know you, and I can’t meet you halfway if you’re staring at your page. Practice in the mirror or with your friends or family.

DON’T MEMORIZE YOUR PITCH!! I had a few authors who did, and it sounded canned and stilted. A few times I’d wait for them to take a breath and ask them a question. It threw them completely off balance because I messed with the playing field. I didn’t do it to be rude, but I honestly wanted to engage them, not their perfect memory.

Smell the Roses: Last of all, enjoy the process of writing, of networking, and going to conferences. You’ll go home feeling like your brain is about to explode, but over the course of time, bits of brilliance will seep through and you’ll realize you learned far more than you thought. Conferences are that diamond-making pressure I talked about earlier. Embrace it because the end product is a beautiful diamond – just like you!


Saturday fun and writer conference ponders

November 7, 2010

Verna, Chris, and me...I'm the short one. As always.

We had a blast driving down to LaJolla (San Diego) and meeting up with our fabulous author Chris Baughman and his lovely agent Verna Driesbach. Happy sigh…there is nothing cooler than meeting one’s authors and being able to thank them for their incredible talent in person.

Chris and Verna were attending the La Jolla Writer’s Conference. One should go for the incredible venue – right on Mission Bay – but really one should attend this conference because conference organizer Antoinette Kuritz puts together one of the most intimate conferences I’ve ever seen.

Many say that bigger is better, but in this case, I’m not convinced. Antoinette keeps the numbers small so attendees can enjoy some personal time with some very heavy-hitting players in the industry. I even had my squee moment by meeting John Lescroart – a talent I’ve followed since the very beginning of his literary career.

While there are fewer people with whom to network, those who are there are more likely to remember you. I can attest to the mind-numbing buzz I get after attending a typical conference. It’s exciting, but I meet so many people that faces and names tend to blend into each other. La Jolla offers some seriously strong networking where deals will be made.

For example, even though Fred and I didn’t attend the con, Antoinette pitched two books to us. Intimate in this biz is a godsend, and if you’re in a position to get thee to a small, important con, then do so post haste. Chris found Verna at this same conference, and look at him now – we’re ready to blast this talented, brilliant guy into the ozone.


I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again…

October 24, 2010

Behler authors ROCK.

So, I’m here at the Florida Writer’s Conference, which is wonderful. On top of all their wonderfulness, they have a lovely thing called the Royal Palms Literary Awards. Two of our authors were finalists. Yay!

While they sat and grit their teeth in typical “I’m so freaking nervous, I could eat rusty nails” fashion, I knew they were going to win.

And.
They.
Did.

Donna Ballman won in her category for The Writer’s Guide to the Courtroom: Let’s Quill All the Lawyers, and Kim Petersen won Honorable Mention for Charting the Unknown in the Memoir category.

Of course, all this set off a flurry of buying the remaining copies of their books in the bookstore. Ah, the stuff that brings a tear to me heartless soul.

And my book? Tackle Box? Yah. Um. I forgot to send them to the conference.

I don’t wanna talk about it.

Ladies, take a bow!



Among my people

September 27, 2010

Have you ever noticed that people don’t understand you? I’m not talking about your everyday life, but your writerly life. Ours is a solitary endeavor and requires a certain amount of understanding from our loved ones to allow us the time to nurture our artistic pursuits. And as lovely as our family and friends are, they don’t really understand us – nor should they.

We’re whacked. Sometimes even I worry about me. I mean, what normal person writes scenes in the shower?

If we’re novelists, we dive into our souls to dredge out characters and plots that require lots of emotion and thought. Even nonfiction writers aren’t immune to prolonged hours alone putting verbs and nouns together in an artful manner. So at the end of a day of writing, we want to share our thoughts and frustrations.

Only, are they really listening? Can they really understand the fact that you’ve hit a wall in your book and you can’t go any further because it happens to be a pivotal scene that impacts the rest of the story? More than likely they’ll think you’ve been sniffing glue.

That’s another thing I lurve about writers conferences. I’m among my people. Everywhere I walked this past weekend at the SCWC in beautiful Newport Beach, I overheard bitsies and piecies of conversations.

Author 1: “I had to work for three weeks until my fantasy world finally sounded real.”
Author 2: (nodding sagely) I so get that. Took me a month before my Sci Fi world was real.
Thoughts of any normal person walking past: “Good holy laser blasters and unicorns…they’re freaking MADE UP…how REAL do they have to be?
If Authors 1 and 2 could read person’s mind: (shaking heads piteously) Meh, you so don’t understand.

And they don’t. And that’s ok. They’re outsiders. They’re pathetically normal. They’re to be pitied – or so I like to tell myself.

At the conference, I was paling around with a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time. Over breakfast, I related a story about the time I was writing a particularly emotional scene in my novel Donovan’s Paradigm. I finished the scene and burst into tears, sobbing like a freaking two-year-old who lost her little pink pony. My precious hubby came running downstairs, his face stricken. “What happened? Are you ok? Omigod, how can I help?” Truly one of the nicest, dearest hunks of manmeat ever to walk the earth. But he’s NOT a writer.

“I killed Hans!” I wailed.

He reared back and just stared at me. “You’re crying because you killed off a fictional character?”

“Y-yess,” I blubbered. “You know how much I loved Hans.”

Hubby just shook his head and went back upstairs, muttering, “Good god, she seemed so normal when I married her…”

My buddy commiserated – totally understanding my sadness. “I know what you mean. I had to kill one of my characters, too, and I just wept. But I made sure I was alone.”

Now, I ask you…where on earth can writers get away with this kind of conversation and not be carefully avoided or have offers of a long hospital stay?

Conferences, people. You must do at least one in your career. Agents and editors are at your fingertips for the entire weekend , and we don’t bite…much.

This is the place where magic happens – it’s our literary Disneyland. In fact, a very dear friend is about an inch shy of obtaining an amazing agent – I’m talking super agent here. And it’s because he read her advance submission and practically wrestled her to the floor demanding the full with the intent for signing.

As for moi, I asked for two fulls that I’m very blottwaddled about.

And besides, you’re among your people. No one will think you a page shy of a full chapter for channeling one of your characters.

Really.


PNWA conference

July 27, 2010

I feel like I’m having one of those “What did you do during summer vacation?” moments – only it’s over a weekend, not three months. I know I blather on about writing cons after returning from one because it’s a constant reinforcement of how vital these things are.

My weekend in Seattle proved no different, except that my Wow index has just blown through the top. The Pacific North West Writers Association puts on one of the most amazing cons I’ve ever been to – and I’ve been to a lot. Never have I seen a more talented and prepared bunch of authors as I did at this conference. And believe me, I asked a bunch of very funky questions.

“How would you promote this book?”
“Why did you write this particular book?”
“What makes you the best person to have written this story?”
“Have you thought about turning that into nonfiction? And if not, why?”

…And on and on. And these savvy writers had the answers. Le wow.

This was one of the most intense cons I’ve ever worked as well, but the mix of authors, editors, and agents was absolutely delightful, and many of us sat together outside in the courtyard, late into the night, tossing back glasses of wine and laughing far too hard.

I say it every time, and this is no exception:

THIS IS THE ONLY TIME AGENTS AND EDITORS ARE THIS ACCESSIBLE. TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE.

You can ask us anything and everything – at any time. Well, ok, bathrooms are off limits. But if we’re rushing to an appointment, you can walk with us and pitch. Or just yik yack.

Some things that I think all authors should have on them are a business card, your first three chappies, a one page synopsis. I’m not saying we’ll necessarily ask for all of those, but I asked many authors for their cards. A couple I asked for pages right then and there. I asked for full manuscripts from five authors as well. This is very unusual to have that many requests. But they are that good.

And one particular author is so in my gunsights that I’m taking her full with me while I make another escape to the desert. I’m telling myself I deserve this bit of vacation (again) because I’m exhausted from being charming for three full days.

The point of this is to point out how vital conferences are. No, they aren’t free, but can one really put a price on networking and a possible contract offer? Or a valuable education from an agent or editor who offers feedback on their pitch or their story?

My brilliant and talented author, Adam Eisenberg, (A Different Shade of Blue) – who lives in Seattle and took me on a lovely tour of the city – quoted something that Mark  Sideman told him:

“When you are telling a story you are casting a spell, letting people come and play with you in the world you have created.”

– Mark Sideman

And you know what? That is exactly what these brave authors did this past weekend, and I was absolutely charmed and humbled at the collection of talent.

Face it: Authors rock it.


Buh bye

July 21, 2010

I’m off to Seattle for the PNWA conference. If you’re going, please trip me (preferably near the bar) and say hello – then buy me a drink. Kidding, kidding. About the drink. Do come to say hello.

If you’re not going, tidy up after reading the blog, and don’t mess up the place. The beagle will be watching.


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