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The Art of the Pitch

October 26, 2015

I got into a conversation with a friend about query letters last week. It’s too early for me to even be thinking about writing one, but she didn’t know how the process of getting traditionally published tends to work, so. There we were. And as is often the case, something occurred to me that I’d already known but not really known, if you know what I mean.

My day-job is in a bookstore, and one of my major (and funnest) jobs is, essentially, pitching books to people. I’ve been doing this for, good gods, seven years now and I’d like to think I’m pretty good at it. What re-occurred to me is that that skill set is one I can use to pitch my books to agents and editors, and probably one I can share to help others do the same.

There are two types of pitching: the review, which corresponds more to the query letter, and the handsell, which is more like an elevator pitch.

Let’s do that one first.

Handselling is the physical, verbal act of recommending books to people. Most people don’t want to listen to a long, academic style analysis or a full plot summary, so the trick is to boil the book down into as few words as possible. This usually means a sentence or two about the premise but can mean keywords for me too. I try to make the book sound exciting and interesting and give it a hook—why someone would want to read it. Frequently that’s why I liked it and what made me pick it up.

Click the links below to compare my pitch to book summaries and get a sense for how this works. (Sorry, this isn’t entirely a teachable skill, you kind of do just have to practice it, and anywhere, my actual tips are below.)

It helps to have actually read the book, but it’s not necessary. I can and do crib from the back cover, online reviews, and coworkers, because there is no way I am reading the approximately one zillion titles we have in stock. It also helps to know a bit about who you’re talking to, why they like to read books, what books they’ve liked in the past, how much time they have. This is akin to researching agents before querying. If someone reads a lot of historical mysteries, I might pitch a modern-day mystery with historical underpinnings or a non-mysterious historical novel, but a space opera or suburban drama wouldn’t be for them.

In one sense, my written reviews are like my handselling pitches, but longer. I still try to encapsulate the plot, the hook, and why I think people will like it, but the reviews tend to be about twice to three times as long as my pitches. I have more space, for one thing, and because it’s in writing (a.k.a. something people will be reading rather than listening to) I let myself go into more detail and get more personal. I write about what really stood out to me, or what books I think the book’s like, or what people I think would be most interested. I also include warnings, like my “scared of the dark” one above or, like in one book I’m recommending these days, “this is about Christ the man, not Christ the Lord.”

Thing is, and this is where the query writing really ties in I think, my first draft of a review tends to be keywords, just like in my handselling. I write down adjectives and moods and the very core bits of the plot—who, where, why—and then I sculpt the sentences around those. I go from “laugh out loud, great heroine, thought-provoking, cool magic, amazing” to something like, “This amazing fantasy will make you laugh and make you think. I loved the magic (and the puns) and now I want to meet the heroine!” My basic review formula is something like: sentence or two for plot, sentence for whatever was the best part, sentence for how I felt or what else I liked about it, optional sentence to list who might like it or provide read-alikes.

I know that’s not exactly how Queries Are Supposed To Be Done, but it’s similar at least and the point’s the same—you want someone else to say, “Yes! I want to read that! Gimme!” I’m not telling you how to write your query letter and this won’t work for every querier or every reader-of-queries, but if my tips help at all, great! Fantastic! Go you! (Let me know?)

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 26, 2015 4:34 pm

    Having written queries and having received rejections, I think there are two hurdles. These are challenging but can be fun to solve, which I haven’t as of yet. First, despite their claims to the contrary many agents and publishers aren’t really looking for good writing as much as writing they think they can sell. This being the case, they can be restricted by formulaic judgment. Second, due to said judgment, their query guidelines, if met, often force the writer to misrepresent the true nature of his or her work. Still, one should try and negotiate this difficult system…

    • anassarhenisch permalink*
      October 27, 2015 11:06 pm

      Absolutely! My hope with this post is to help people write queries that make their books sound like they’ll sell (rather than sticking to a bland formula or some such). We just have to do the best we can!

  2. Harold Rhenisch permalink
    October 27, 2015 9:41 pm

    Your strategy sounds great.

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