The Perfect Pitch for a Nonfiction Book: 11 Ways to Excite Me About Reading Your Proposal

The role of the writer is to make bouillon cubes out of chicken soup.

–Susan Sontag

Whether you’re talking about your book to a friend or an editor, the content of your book has to be scalable: You have to be able to capture the essence of it about it in a tweet, a one-paragraph pitch, a one-page query letter, and a proposal.

Pitching your book will take less than thirty seconds. How can you generate maximum excitement for your book in as few words as possible? Without being self-serving, the perfect pitch describes the essence of your book, why it will excite book buyers, and what’s most impressive about your platform, promotion plan, and credentials.

Six of the eleven parts of a pitch are optional; you may not need them. A pitch for a narrative nonfiction book, such as a memoir, will need two or three sentence about the setting, the subject, and the story.

Platform and promotion won’t be as important for certain kinds of books such as reference books, or for small or for midsize houses outside of New York. Here are eleven possible parts of a pitch that will excite me because it will arouse the interest of  editors in the Big Apple:

1. A sentence with the title and the selling handle for the book, up to fifteen words that show why it’s unique or commercial.

2. The model(s) for your book: One or two books, movies, or authors–“It’s The Tipping Point meets The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

3. (Optional) The length of your proposal. Proposals have an overview about the book and author, an outline, and sample text, usually about ten percent of the manuscript. They usually range between 35 and 50 pages. The right time to pitch your book is when your proposal is ready to sell. But if you have the chance to pitch your book before your proposal is ready, take advantage of it.

4. (Optional) The length of your manuscript, if it’s ready to submit.

5. (Optional) The names of people who will provide a foreword and cover quotes, if they’re impressive.

6. (Optional) Mention if you’re proposing a series.

7. (Optional) Information about a self-published edition that will help sell it.

8. The most important thing about your platform: what you are doing to give yourself continuing visibility on the subject, online or off, with potential book buyers, and if the number is impressive, how many of them. Wrong: “I give talks.” Right: “I give X talks a year to Y people.”

9. The most effective thing you will do to promote your book, online or off, and if the number is impressive and appropriate, how many of them. Wrong: “I will sell books.” Right: “I will sell X books a year.” Your promotion plan must be a believable extension of your platform.

10. What is most impressive about your credentials: your track record; experience in your field; years of research; prizes; contests; awards in your field.

11. (Optional) Anything else that will convince agents or editors to ask for your proposal.

For another approach to pitches, read agent Katharine Sands’ excellent book, Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye. Elizabeth and I have chapters in it. Katharine will be doing a breakout session on pitching, and a two-hour intensive, open to the public, at the San Francisco Writers Conference, February 16-20, There’s more about platform, promotion, and proposals in the fourth edition of How to Write a Book Proposal.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community
February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / Mike’s blog: @SFWC /
San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


Reading Good Memoirs So You Can Write One

Many thanks to author and teacher Laura Davis for this great advice for memoirists:

If you want to write a memoir, it’s essential that you read good ones. Become a student of the genre. What I ask my students to do is to learn to read as a writer, not as a reader. This means studying a book, not just being entertained by it.  I ask my students to read books twice—once to fully inhabit the story, to experience it as a “naïve reader.” And the second time to read beyond the story—to look at the choices the author made and analyze why he/she made those choices.

Some of the questions you can ask yourself when you’re studying a memoir are:

       1. Why did this author start the story where she did? Why did she end it where she ended it?

       2. Does this writer have empathy for all the characters in the book? Why or why not?

       3. What do you think was left out?

       4. How is the memoir structured? Why?

       5. What did the author choose to reveal about herself? Not reveal?

 Here’s a list of some of my favorites, just to get you started:

      1.    Road Song by Natalie Kusz

      2.   Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

      3.   Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

      4.   Half the House by Richard Hoffman

      5.   I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

      6.   Jarhead by Anthony Swofford

      7.   Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

       8.  The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber

       9.   Annie’s Ghosts by Steve Luxemburg

       10. The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls

       11.  Farm City by Novella Carpenter

       12.  Madness by Marya Hornbacher

 Laura Davis is the author of seven bestselling books including The Courage to Heal, Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, and I Thought We’d Never Speak Again. She teaches writing in Santa Cruz and around the country. There are still a few spaces left in her upcoming Memory to Memoir Retreat at a beautiful retreat center above Santa Cruz, on the weekend of November 4th-6th.

Laura Davis:

Memory to Memoir Retreat:

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / 415-673-0939 / / @SFWC / / 1029 Jones St. / San Francisco, CA 94109 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU