Pitch Perfect

Pitching at a conference is scary and intimidating. So why do it? After all, a writer’s natural element is on paper not ‘face to face’ – right?  Well, not any more. Today’s authors are expected to be brilliant story sellers, as well as story tellers, and your pitch is only the first step in a lengthy and complex sales process. All the way down the publishing line, pitching is used as an essential tool to sell books; even after your book is sold, you’ll be expected to market it. Conference pitching is the perfect way to hone your verbal marketing skills and leap-frog the slush pile! And who wouldn’t want that?

It’s a good idea to approach your ‘one-to-one’ as you would a job interview or business meeting. Keep a specific goal in mind – not to sell your book on the spot- that rarely, if ever, happens; instead, aim to get feedback and persuade the agent or editor to want to read more of your work. And try not to be over-awed. Remember, agents and editors are co-professionals; the triptych of author/agent/editor is a symbiotic one. The author provides the writing skills, creative talent, and a social platform to promote their book; the agent offers advice, professional contacts, market knowledge and the ability to negotiate contracts and fees; the editor offers the means to get your work published, including critique and comment that will raise your work to the necessary standard, the provision of copy and proof reading, as well as help with marketing and publicity. Remember too, that agents and editors don’t give up their precious leisure time in order to terrify authors. They do it because, like us, they’re passionate about books and want to discover new, electrifying writing.

Yours, possibly, if you get it right.

But first you’ll need to squash the ‘butterflies’. In order to do that it might be useful to understand what happens when you get nervous, and how to control the physical symptoms. Heightened anxiety is a primordial response to danger caused by an adrenaline rush that triggers a fight or flight’ response. Our ancestors had to make instant decisions on whether to pick up a club, or skedaddle, when faced with snapping predators.  This response affects the body in a number of ways: it accelerates the heart and lung functions, prevents the parotid gland from producing saliva, and impedes the stomach action, resulting in – you’ve guessed it – shallow breathing, a pounding heart, fluttering stomach and dry mouth.  Recognise the signs?  The good news is you’re not alone. Everyone gets nervous. Fact. The quickest, most effective way to stop nervous jittering, is to take several minutes to control your breathing immediately before you pitch. Breathe deeply and slowly – in through the nose and out through the mouth, then drop your shoulders and repeat a mental mantra like ‘calm’ or ‘relax’. A sip of water often helps, as does a smile when you first meet your agent or editor. Try to focus on making a good first impression and connecting with them before you launch into your pitch. They’re co-professionals, remember. Not scary predators.

So what about the pitch itself – how should it be structured? Basically, there are no set rules. You’re the best ambassador for your book, so choose a pitching style that suits your personality – one that you feel comfortable with.

As a general guideline, your opening should include the basics: the book’s working title, word length, where it sits in the historical marketplace, who it’s aimed at, and a ‘hooky’ summary outlining the story. You could also say why you think the agent or editor you’ve chosen to pitch to might be particularly interested in your book considering their client list or authors or areas of expertise. It might be helpful to consider what your main protagonist wants (goal), why they want it (motivation) and who, or what, is stopping them from getting it (conflict). If you decide to include a ‘high concept’ sentence (comparing your work to others – X meets Y) that’s fine, just make sure it’s unforgettable and logical. The best example I’ve heard for a ‘high concept’ tag was for the film Alien, which was pitched as: “Jaws in outer space”. See what I mean? Punchy. Accurate. Memorable.  But don’t force it. If your personality suits a more straightforward style, then skip the hyperbole and keep it simple.

Once you’ve synthesised your plot and written down what you want to say, the key to a smooth pitch is the three ‘P’s: preparation, polish, and practise. Practise your pitch until you can deliver it effortlessly within the timeframe. It also helps to write down ‘memory’ trigger points on an index card while you’re learning, and then use that as an aide memoire if you freeze during the pitch. And don’t forget to leave a couple of minutes at the end for the agent/editor’s questions. Things like: Why have you chosen this point in history? What’s different about your book? Would men read this story? Would young adults? Etc., etc. While you’re pitching it’s also worthwhile considering whether the chemistry is working between you and the person you’re pitching to – could you work with them collaboratively? Because that’s exactly what they’ll be wondering about you.

Above all else, try and keep a sense of perspective. Concentrate on what you have to say, not how you feel. There’s nothing worse than watching someone falling apart at the seams – for both parties. So, relax! This pitch won’t be your last chance for publishing success, and besides, what’s the worst an agent/editor can say? ‘I’m sorry, it’s not for me?’  In which case, they’ve done you an enormous favour. Smile and thank them for their time, then mentally cross them off your list for this book.  There could be any number of reasons why they’re not interested. Maybe it doesn’t suit their perception of current market trends. Maybe they have a similar book already on their list. Maybe you haven’t done enough initial research to discover what your agent/editor is actually looking for.  (Remember what I said about preparation?) Whatever the final result, pitching at a conference is a fantastic learning experience that you can take forward to your next pitching session. Like most things in life – the more you do it, the more expert you’ll become.

Many of our agents and editors have generously offered pitching advice, so please read and digest your particular agent/editor’s suggestions carefully. In fact, read them all and go to their websites as part of your preparation. If an agent/editor has asked for a pre-conference example of your work then please send it to the email address provided, clearly marked ‘HNS Conference Pitch’, at least three weeks before the conference.

Good luck! If you need any further advice, I’m only a couple of clicks away – please feel free to email me at: barbara.alderton.1@googlemail.com

In her previous role as International Advertising Sales Director and Managing Director of a technical publishing house, Barbara Alderton spent more years than she’d care to remember teaching pitching and presentation techniques to International Advertising Sales Executives.