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, www.sfwriters.org. 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 / www.sfwriters.org / [email protected] / Mike’s blog: https://sfwriters.info/blog @SFWC / www.facebook.com/SanFranciscoWritersConference
San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / www.sfwritersu.com / [email protected] / @SFWritersU

 

Writing Wisdom

A Dan Piraro cartoon in Parade showed a medium sitting across a table from a customer with a netbook computer in front of her, and she’s saying: “We don’t use a crystal ball anymore. We just Google you.”

An editor interested in buying your book will Google you to get a sense of your presence online. Instead of a crystal ball, they’ll use a computer-generated profit-and-loss statement, along with feedback from colleagues, to help justify buying your book.

What wisdom about writing can I offer that will help you convince editors to say yes to your book? One or a series of books could be written about the wisdom you can gain from doing a job or practicing an art or skill. Some examples:

Biking

  • Riding uphill is harder, downhill more dangerous.
  • You have to know your bike, yourself, and the territory.
  • You have to expect the unexpected at any second.

Photography

  • You have to be the right distance from your subject.
  • You have to balance color, foreground and background, tension and harmony, and the elements in a composition to create unity.
  • Knowing how to use your camera will help increase your creativity.

Driving a Taxi

  • You have to look at what’s around you but also in the distance both for traffic and for passengers.
  • You will have slow and busy periods.
  • You will have good and bad luck; you hope that they will balance each other.

Writing

  • Reading is the doorway to writing.
  • The best reason to write is that you must.
  • You have to capture readers’ interest immediately and keep it as long as it takes them to finish your book.
  • If you have a problem with your writing, focus on something else, and your subconscious usually provides the solution.
  • Your proposal or manuscript is finished only when the people you share it with can’t figure out how to help you improve it.
  • You need mentors to supplement your learning about writing, agents, promotion, technology, and publishing.
  • The models for your books and career will light the way until you’re ready to find your unique path.
  • You have to maximize the value of your book before you seek and agent or publisher by test-marketing it, building your platform and communities of fans, and developing a promotion plan.
  • Promotion is more challenging than writing.
  • The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself (Katharine Sands).
  • Publishers and literary agents are eager to find new writers as new writers are to be discovered.
  • Your passion for writing and sharing your work will see you through the challenges of being an author.
  • You will meet those challenges more easily if you’re clear about your short-  and long-term personal and professional goals.
  • You will succeed if you persevere, and the harder it is to achieve success, the more satisfying it will be.
  • And as I mentioned in the previous post, luck has a lot to do with a book’s success.

I found one of my favorite pieces of wisdom on a cloth bag that Workman Publishing gave away one year at BEA: “The more you garden, the more you grow.” You can grow by acquiring wisdom from any endeavor and you can apply it to writing. The more conscientious you are, the more you’ll learn. May you have all the luck you want, and may the wisdom above speed you on your way.

End Rejections and Obstacles Immediately

Where you stand depends on where you sit.

–Miles’s Law

It’s been said that you have about the same chance of winning the lottery whether or not you buy a ticket.

I received an email from a writer who I’m sure believes that you have about as much chance of getting a book published whether or not you write it. He is so discouraged by the process that he’s going to stop writing. I wrote to him, and here are my thoughts on his predicament:

As a writer whose work has been rejected often and an agent whose submissions to editors have been rejected thousands of times, I empathize with you. Want to stop getting rejections? Don’t submit anything. That and self-publishing are the only ways to do it. Otherwise, accept the inevitable. The New Yorker rejected a story by Saul Bellow after he won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Publishing is a business that guesses wrong most of the time. More than 80% of the books that are published lose money, and agents and publishers reject bestsellers. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has that title because it was published by the 22nd publisher to see it.

Publishers want to publish books with pride and passion. They love literary books as much as they need commercial books, and bestseller lists include both kinds of books.

I’m sorry you haven’t been able to connect with an agent or editor. Their jobs depend on them finding new writers and helping them succeed, and it’s the best part of their job. But they accept less than one percent of the submissions they see.

You’re angry because they send form letters. But  agents and editors receive thousands of submissions a year, so they can’t take the time to write personalized letters.

Your query letter may be part of the problem. Agent Katharine Sands says: “The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself.” This is why you need readers who can assure you that every word is right, and your that letter has the impact you want it to have.

Your proposal or manuscript may also be the reason why you haven’t sold your book.

How many competitive books have you read to establish criteria for your book?

What books did you use as models for your book?

How closely does your work meet the standards they set?

How many drafts did you do?

How many qualified readers gave you feedback on your work as you were writing it and after you finished it?

Agents and editors can tell instantly whether someone can write and knows how to start a proposal or manuscript, and because they’re swamped, they must decide as quickly as they can whether to keep reading.

Are they infallible? No.

Do they make mistakes? You betcha.

At the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, bestselling thriller writer Steve Berry said that his first five novels were rejected eighty-five times. Five of Sue Grafton’s first seven novels were never published. After Danielle Steel’s first novel was published, she wrote five more that were never published.

Although technology can accelerate success in the arts, writing is the easiest of the arts to enter. All you have to do is sit down and start putting black on white. It’s also the easiest in which to succeed. You may feel better about your problems if you talk to actors, artists and dancers about the challenges they face.

You have to have faith in your work and yourself and keep writing. You’ll become a better writer with every book. Sure, you’ll go through periods of doubt, but if you persevere and have readers to critique and encourage you, you will work your way through the doubt.

Want to eliminate all of the obstacles in your life immediately? Eliminate your goals. No goals, no obstacles. The challenges you face are commitment tests. The larger your literary and financial goals, the greater the obstacles you will have to overcome to reach them. And the sweeter your success will be when you do.

Ray Bradbury once said that when you’re starting out, you have to learn to accept rejection. When you succeed, you have to learn to reject acceptance. I hope you’ll have that problem as soon as possible.

If anything can stop you from becoming a writer, let it. If nothing can stop you, do it and you’ll make it.

Comments and questions welcome.