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Discover the best way to present your book to publishers, and learn strategies for creating a compelling pitch for your book idea or manuscript.
In this first week, we’ll work through the terms associated with pitching, and learn the difference between a pitch, a proposal, a submission and a query letter. We’ll also explore different approaches that are best suited to fiction and non-fiction projects. Through a combination of lessons, audio and activities, you’ll learn to create a pitch that is just right for your book!
But first, let’s get to know each other a little better.
Over the next four weeks, you will have the opportunity to know a community of writers who are also on the path to being published. Make the most of your shared experience by getting to know the others in the course, so you will feel comfortable sharing examples of your pitch materials and giving and receiving feedback.
WHAT TO DO:
Introduce yourself to your online classmates. Go to the Icebreaker Forum and introduce yourself to the group. Do this by sharing three details about yourself, just to break the ice.
- What did you have for dinner last night?
- Where were you born?
- What book would you most recommend and why?
Feel free to ask questions and interact with your fellow students – getting to know each other is what the exercise is all about!
Hi, I’m Sally. Here’s a bit about me:
- I had pasta with tomato and basil sauce – the easiest thing I could find in the cupboard after a long workday!
- I was born in Sydney – still my favourite city in the world after living in London, Brisbane and California.
- Right now, I would really recommend Geraldine Brook’s ‘Caleb’s Crossing’ for its amazing evocation of another era. Truly transporting literature!
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Topic 1: What Is A Book Proposal?
Listen to the audio for this section below, or download the PDF transcript so you can easily find that golden bit of information.
If there’s one thing most publishers and literary agents really hate to see, it’s a manuscript. You’re probably surprised by that. Most new authors are. The fact is that agents – and publishers – return most manuscripts to the author without ever having read them. They just do not have the time or staff to wade through the enormous number of manuscripts they receive from hopeful authors. For a big publishing house, it can number in the thousands each year.
WHAT AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS REALLY WANT IS A BOOK PROPOSAL.
In the US, your initial submission usually consists of just a letter. In Australia, it’s usually a letter or a proposal document covering the key points about the book, plus some sample chapters.
But let’s back up a bit here and define some of these terms:
- A query letter: is your initial approach to a literary agent or a publisher in the form of an email or letter, asking if they would be interested in seeing your manuscript or a more detailed book proposal (see below). It is usually no more than a page, including a brief description that captures the essence of your story.
- A cover letter: is similar to a query letter but it is sent along with a more substantial proposal, or a partial or full manuscript. It is no more than a page in length.
- A pitch: can mean three different things. 1. As a verb, you “pitch” your book to a publisher, to persuade them to sign you up as an author. 2. A “pitch” – or “elevator pitch” – is a brief verbal or written depiction of your book, generally a couple of sentence at most. 3. “Pitch” also describes any materials you submit to a publisher.
- A proposal: is a complete package of materials submitted for an agent or publisher’s consideration. The term usually relates to non-fiction, where you will be expected to include an author biography, chapter breakdown, and other materials – we’ll go into this later in the course. For fiction projects, “proposal” also refers to your initial query letter.
- A submission: is generally synonymous with proposal – see above. It’s also used as an all-encompassing term to describe the materials you send to agents and publishers when you are seeking publication.
Confusing, I know! In essence, though, all of these things are designed to hook a publisher or an agent on your book so that they want to read it. It’s a bit like the way a back of book blurb entices the reader to buy it.
In the world of publishing, the query letter or proposal is key. With a great submission package, a successful author can land an agent who will go in to bat for them when it comes to signing contracts, and win over a major trade publishing house who can bring their expertise to bear in the editorial, marketing, production, publicity, sales and distribution of that book. All of it starts with the initial proposal. That’s the way to get your foot in the door.
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Topic 2: Fiction Versus Non-fiction
Many of the same rules apply whether you are pitching fantasy, self-help, YA or memoir. It’s got to be fresh, it’s got to be compelling, it’s got to be presented professionally. Agents and publishers looking for fiction, though, mostly want to move straight from query letter to partial or full manuscript.
The most important thing with fiction is the writing itself, so your sample chapters must really shine to capture an agent or publisher’s attention. They won’t read very much in the first instance – maybe just a few pages will be enough to tell them whether you can write and what your voice is like, what the essence of the story is.
For non-fiction, the bigger picture is particularly important – the author’s background and credentials, any competing titles, particular marketing opportunities. That’s why non-fiction writers need to create a more extensive book proposal. In week 3 we will discuss in more detail all of the elements that go into a great non-fiction proposal. However, everything presented in Weeks 1 and 2 will be relevant to authors from both camps.
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Topic 3: Why You Should Write A Pitch
Firstly some statistics… Each yearthefounder of Nelson Literary Agency, Kristin Nelson, posts her agency’s statistics on the number of queries received, manuscripts read, and deals done. It makes for frightening reading, but it’s great information. Here’s how 2013 looked at Nelson Literary:
- Read and responded to 35 000+ queries last year.
- Requested 67 full manuscripts.
- Signed 7 new clients.
- Sold 40 books (as in, signed contracts with publishers for 40 titles).
Pause for breath as you take that in. No doubt, reading those 35 000 queries took a LOT of time. Then the Nelson agents had 67 full manuscripts to read at an average of, say, eight hours per manuscript (67 x 8 = 536 hours or 67 full work days!). And that is NOT counting the manuscripts her existing clients were sending her.
Australian agents receive significantly fewer submissions, but they would still number in the four figures each year. Given that agents have to manage all the other business of running a literary agency, it’s not hard to understand why they often take a long time to read manuscripts!
Each one of the 35 000 writers who queried Kristin would have believed that they had written something worth publishing. And she felt 67 were MAYBE worth publishing, and it turned that she rejected a further 60 of those possibilities.
When you are preparing your own submission, it has to be the absolute best it can be. ‘What does this involve?’ you might ask. Well:
- Take your time to draft and draft again
- Do your research on the market
– Has anyone already published a book like yours?
– Is anyone buying and reading a book like yours?
You must think about the sales, marketing and publicity aspects of being an author because all of that is important if you want to get published. If you show you have done the research a publisher or agent is more likely to take notice, particularly if you present a good argument.
While all of this might seem quite daunting, as a writer, you are best equipped by understanding that your creative work has to enter the world of business.
Seven of those new writers got through, your aim, is to be one of those seven.
You need to play the publishing game, which moves along these rules:
- The pitcher (author) sends their proposal to the slush pile of both agents and publishers.
- The commissioning editor/agent looks at it (30 seconds).
- If interested, they will set it aside for more detailed review.
- Agents will contact the good ones and move towards an offer to represent.
- Publishers contact good prospects then develop a New Title Proposal, which they present at an acquisitions meeting with key staff (sales, marketing, publicity, management).
- If the team likes it they will agree on a publication date, RRP, print run etc.
- Or they may request more info or discuss revisions needed.
- Subject to all of this, an offer to publish will be made to the pitcher (author) or via their agent if applicable.
- Once accepted, a draft contract will be sent to the pitcher (author) or via their agent if applicable.
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An elevator pitch is the description you might give someone who asks about your novel, that is short enough to deliver in an elevator ride (hence the name!). You don’t have much time, so your pitch needs to give a concise yet enticing sense of what your manuscript is about. Enough so that when the elevator “dings” and you have to get off, your companion (who happens to be head of a prestigious publishing company!) hands you his/her card and asks you to send them more material.
WHAT TO DO:
This activity comes in two parts: writing and critiquing.
Part One: Writing Your Pitch
Write between 100 and 200 words for your “elevator pitch”.
For fiction, include the five Cs: Category (genre), Called (title), Concept (the overarching idea), Conflict (the main obstacle or problem to overcome), and Characters.
For non-fiction, aim for GNEPS: Genre, Name, Expertise (why you are the best person to write it), Problem (what you are solving), Solution.
- Write it offline.
- Once you are finished, post your pitch in the Elevator Pitch Forum.
On her blog QueryTracker, writer Carolyn Kaufman gives some great examples of “concept sentences” or loglines for Gladiator and Titanic:
“When a Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane and corrupt prince, he comes to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge.”
“A young man and woman from different social classes fall in love, and must outwit her abusive fiancé, while trying to survive aboard an ill-fated voyage at sea.”
A fully fleshed-out version of the Gladiator pitch could read something like:
“I’ve written a historical drama called Gladiator. A man robbed of his name and his dignity strives to win them back, and gain the freedom of his people. In the year 180, the death of emperor Marcus Aurelius throws the Roman Empire into chaos. Maximus is one of the Roman army’s most capable and trusted generals and a key advisor to the emperor. As Marcus’ devious son Commodus ascends to the throne, Maximus is set to be executed. He escapes, but he is captured by slave traders and his family is killed. Forced to become a gladiator, Maximus’s battle skills serve him well, and he becomes one of the most famous and admired men to fight in the Colosseum. Maximus believes that he can use his fame and skill in the ring to avenge the loss of his family and former glory. As the gladiator begins to challenge his rule, Commodus decides to put his own fighting mettle to the test by squaring off with Maximus in a battle to the death.”
Part Two: Pitch Feedback
Sharpen your positive critical skills by returning to the pitches that you shared in Part One.
Choose three of the pitches and reply to the posts offering some critical feedback to support your fellow writer to sharpen their pitch. Offer:
- ONE overarching good thing about the pitch. Perhaps something that struck you when you first read it.
- ONE thing that caused you to pause or think that perhaps this might not be the story for you.
- ONE reason you might consider to read on, or perhaps offer a suggestion about something you wanted to know more about that wasn’t included.
KEEP IN MIND: The way you improve your writing is to improve your ability to work out what works and what doesn’t. Share your comments around so that everyone gets a couple of responses from their fellow writers.
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Week 1 Exercise Checklist
Icebreaker Activity: Introduce yourself to the group with a short bio on the Icebreaker Forum.
Elevator Pitch Activity: Write your own 100-200 word elevator pitch and post it in the Elevator Pitch Forum. Once you’ve posted, provide critical feedback on at least three other pitches from your peers.
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