Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bouchercon: Pitch Perfect

-Marcus Sakey

As August draws to a close, there are a couple of failsafe signals that fall is coming: the temperature has returned to windows-open level, the days are growing shorter, and half the emails in my inbox have to do with Bouchercon.

The mystery genre’s largest conference, Bouchercon is a four-day orgy of shop talk and writing tips, packed with opportunities to meet your literary heroes in the bar or blow the mortgage in the bookseller’s room. For hundreds of hopeful authors, it also means something else: the dreaded agent pitch.

As a guy who signed with an agent less than a year ago, I relate. So with Bouchercon a month a way, I thought I’d share some of the tricks I picked up, in the hope they’ll help someone else.


GOOD NEWS / BAD NEWS

In the old days, authors used to submit to editors directly. Today, most of the big houses won't accept unsolicited submissions. To get read at a major house, you need an agent.

But here's the good news: agents want books. Desperately. People become agents because they love good books. All you have to do is show them that yours is a good book.


BE PRESENTABLE

First impressions matter. Dress appropriately — business casual— and greet them with a smile and a handshake. It's easy to be nervous, but remember, these folks want what you're trying to sell. So take a deep breath, wipe your palms off, and let them see that you believe in yourself.


BE PREPARED

You paid for your book with sweat and tears. Don't skimp on your pitch. Write it in advance to make it as compelling as possible. Here's the pitch I used for The Blade Itself:

Danny Carter used to be the man with the plan, a cool-headed criminal who always made the smart play. But these days he doesn't think about his past. He's built a normal life, with a job, a long-term girlfriend, and a condo as far as possible from the blue-collar streets where he grew up.

But when his former partner Evan is released from prison, Danny's carefully constructed world begins to crumble. Evan is now a hardened killer with dreams of a big score. He wants to ransom the son of Danny's millionaire boss — and he needs Danny's help.

Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

It's a character-driven thriller about 90,000 words long, in the tradition of Dennis Lehane or George Pelecanos.

Can I send you the first 50 pages?


KEEP IT SIMPLE

Notice how brief that is? The goal is to trim out subplots and side characters, and boil the plot down to its essence. Get people excited with the idea.

Also, you shouldn’t expect the agent to remember a lot of names. They're listening to this, not reading it, and they may hear a hundred more over the course of a conference. To assure you don’t lose them, use the name of your main character and refer to others by their role.

Lastly, and this is crucial, the pitch must establish the stakes. What is at risk? We read novels to see how characters perform in situations we've never had to face. There has to be risk, and you need to lay it out clearly.


KNOW YOUR STORY, KNOW YOUR PITCH

While there's no rule against bringing notes or a printed sheet into a pitch, it doesn't inspire confidence.

At the same time, don't memorize word for word, or you'll seem mechanical. Instead, read it over and over until you have the gist down cold. That way you'll be fresh and engaging. Don't worry if you don't say every single word you wrote.


RESPECT THEIR TIME

For an agent, attending pitch sessions can be grueling. They're locked in a tiny room in the basement of a hotel, listening to a series of strangers. Sure, they're panning for gold. But there's a lot of mud to sift through.

That means that one of the best things you can do is be brief. Sessions are often scheduled to last ten minutes; be able to finish your pitch in one. Don't worry that you won't hit every detail. You’ll have allowed plenty of time for the agent to ask questions. And with brevity, you demonstrate that you understand the rules of storytelling well enough to clearly explain your own.

Besides, an author who leaves an agent time to go to the bathroom and get a cup of coffee is an author who can count on that agent's goodwill.


AFTERWARDS

If you’ve been confident, prepared, and respectful of their time, chances are good an agent will ask you to send a partial (usually the first 50 pages) or even the whole manuscript. Congratulations!

When you send it, include a brief cover letter reminding them where you met and summarizing your story. Be sure to mark the envelope or email REQUESTED MATERIALS in big black letters. Agents get hundreds of blind submissions a week, and you don't want to be lumped in with them.

After all, you were pitch perfect.

42 comments:

Libby Hellmann said...

Great advice, Marcus.

Do you remember what David Morrell said at Love is Murder? He was talking about boiling down your pitch to one or two sentences... (at least for the purposes of conversation and/or emails)..making sure to mention the themes or issues of the book... he called it developing your "platform"... I realize that's the way Hollywood works, but it's sad to think we need to do the same thing with novels. Are attention spans that truncated nowadays?

ab said...

Thanks for the advice, Marcus.

Sara Paretsky said...

My agent, and a number of other agents, like to get a pitch letter, not more than one page, with a summary of the storyline, what you bring to telling the story that makes it interesting, and where in the genre you see your story (it's like Marcus Sakey, or Caroline Hart's work.) ALWAYS include an SASE. Don't send a pitch letter for a book you haven't written-people get contracts for unwritten non-fiction, but fiction is tricky; you may have a good idea but not be able to figure out how to put it in book form. And never send unsolicited chapters. We know your book is better than anything written by Eliot or Dickens--but the agent is swamped with mail and won't look at unsolicited mail.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

All great advice.

A few months back, the Media Bistro website MB Toolbox asked if they could reprint the query letter I used for Cast of Shadows, so for what it's worth, here's my story of agent acquisition, with a repeat of Sara's caveat about querying an agent without a finished manuscript. There was no one in the world who knew less about book publishing than I did when I started this process.

And Libby, it probably is unfortunate that a writer needs to boil their pitch down to a sentence or two, but nevertheless I find that process is helpful when I'm writing, not just selling. When you have a concise idea of what your story is "about," I think it helps you focus.

Sara Paretsky said...

If you are looking for a publisher, and someone offers to publish you for a fee, please consult this website first:
http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/peba.htm
They collect data on firms that may be ready to take you for a ride.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

Great pitch, Marcus. You hit all the right beats. I can see why Scott wanted to read the book.

I come from the Hollywood tradition, so I'm used to this kind of thing.

Yes, it's unfortunate that a pitch is boiled down to the basic elements, but people ARE busy -- and, frankly, if your book doesn't have a strong hook these days, you're probably going to have to work very hard to get anyone to read it.

Every book has a basic spine and that's what you need to pitch. Those you're pitching to know that the writing will make all the difference, but if you can't boil the work down to that basic spine, then perhaps you're doing something wrong.

ab said...

This is an interesting dilemma. How do you boil "Short Cuts" down to two sentences? I guess it can be done - but it takes some authorship... (if there isn't such a word as "authorship", I just invented it!)

Then again, I do sympathize with swamped agents. I don't know how to get an agent covering the English-speaking market, but maybe this post, and the advice from Sara and Kevin, might encourage me to have a go.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

There is another practical reason for creating the simplest, most concise sales pitch possible.

Your book will be be pitched multiple times in its life and except for the first one you won't be in the room when it happens. You pitch the book to your agent. Your agent pitches the book to an editor. Your editor pitches the book to the marketing department. The marketing department pitches it to booksellers. Booksellers pitch it to readers. And so does the flap of the jacket which, incidentally, is only going to be about three sentences long.

If the message isn't simple it's going to be a mess by the time it gets to the reader.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/peba.htm

Sara, Great link!!!!

We get so many people contacting us presenting themselves as authors and I spend hours googling them. This will save me a lot of time!

Jon

JA Konrath said...

Excellent advice.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Have an elevator pitch ready too. Very short. Hugh Holton had written five unpublished novels when he attended a Bouchercon. The last day, he was riding down in an elevator with an editor who had seen him on the cop panel. The editor asked whether Hugh also wrote fiction. The rest is history.
Barbara D'Amato

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