The Art of Pitching Your Book (with Katharine Sands)

February 23, 2018 - -

Katharine Sands

An editor and literary agent with over 26 years in the publishing trade, Katharine loves practicing Pitchcraft for books that benefit readers' lives in fresh looks, new intel and urgent storytelling.

My name is Katharine Sands and I'm a literary agent in New York City. Also, I've worked as an editor with Big Five publishing houses and I'm delighted to be speaking to you today about PitchCraft.

What is PitchCraft?

PitchCraft is the writing that you do about your writing. It is the speaking that you do about your writing. It's the answer to what is your book about. This requires as much passion and as much craft and as much attention as the writing itself. Often, writers absolutely hate the step of pitching or querying or proposing a book. That's okay, and for anyone who's very new to this process, it can be quite daunting. But there are several guiding principles I hope to share with you today.

This is meant to be guiding advice. There are no rights and wrongs, and sometimes it's worth hearing different opinions and then seeing what do you uniquely feel you offer. But what I find in my 26 years in book publishing is that this is the step that everybody hates, but it is unarguably the most important one. Why is that? Because this is the step from which everything else springs, whether or not you want an agent and a traditional book publishing deal, or you're seeking to get a blurb or to get your work noticed or reviewing attention or to appear to conference, anything like that, you must pitch, query, and propose. And this never goes away because ultimately you're looking to get readers.

ABP: Always Be Pitching

Your writing life is divided into an arc: You get ready, you get read, and you get readers. At each and every stage you need to be pitching. Now, pitching is not about selling, that's a mistake. It's not that you're selling something. You're sharing. Substitute the word 'share' whenever the word 'selling' comes up for you. I'm going to be talking to you about fiction, nonfiction, and memoir, and at the very end, I'll be happy to take your questions.

So, what do you do? There are several things you need to understand about your PitchCraft. First of all, put your hands over your eyes. That is the condition the person who is hearing your pitching person or reading your pitch and query letter. Is it? They don't have a clue, they don't know the first thing about you or your work, or what's exciting, and what's on offer.

You need to understand that you only have a short amount of time, maybe it's 250 words, maybe it's one page if it's a query letter, which would generally be sent by email today. Whatever you are introducing, it is going to be the first and only introduction that the person who might be in a decision making context is going to be hearing or reading. You've only got time perhaps for four or five clear core points. Here's some homework. By the way, you can take your hands off your eyes. You have to do some homework. Write five different sentences down. Maybe on index cards. Maybe on pages. On each page, you can only put one core point. I've got some formulas to help you with that.

The Pitch Formula

I've adapted my formula from the great Donald Maass, who's an agent and the author of many wonderful books, putting The Fire In Fiction, The Career Novelist, Writing a Breakout Novel are some of the best-known titles that he's written. He says when he approaches a query letter for fiction, the first thing he looks at are these elements:

  • setting,
  • protagonist,
  • problem.

Now, 'problem' might be called 'the inciting incident' or an 'event' in a writing class, but what he means by 'problem' I call 'the pivot.' My formula, the way I've amended this is:

  • place,
  • person,
  • pivot.

Let's look at the first one of those.

Place or setting: Where am I? Am I on a planet in a galaxy far, far away? Am I in Brooklyn? Am I in Los Angeles? Am I in Dubai? I have no idea because remember, the person who's hearing your pitch or reading your pitch has no idea. They're in this condition, total darkness. You want to give a quick snapshot, what might be called the establishing shot in a screenplay, just to give them a feeling for where they are. You don't need more than one sentence for this.

Person or protagonist: Remember, your pitch is a movie trailer essentially and you really want to think of it as a movie trailer. Of course, the pitch or query has a bigger job to do, it's your job interview basically. Because you are applying for the job of book author, and that includes if you are going to be independently published and you want your reader to be attracted to your work, because PitchCraft will follow you throughout the industry, so you really want to think of your pitch as a passport. Setting, protagonist, problem is Donald Maass’s formula, and mine is place, person, pivot. Place, person, or protagonist, thinking of this as a movie trailer.

Pivot or problem: To some, this is the inciting incident, but what I like to call 'the pivot.' This is the moment of exciting and dynamic storytelling. You want to make sure those elements are there.


Then if it's nonfiction it's slightly different. I have something of a formula, which I might call "rivet, pivot, and hit it."

  • Rivet: you have to think of your five clear points. Each of these points are rivets or lynch-pins.
  • Pivot: again, is the dynamic turning, the difference at the end of reading the book for the reader. What are we going to do differently or understand differently? Are you setting out to prove something, explore something, share something?
  • Hit it. You want to make sure that you sum up the clear points and that's all the time you have and it's all the time you need.

So, why you? You really want to understand that. That's going to be your fourth page or index card. Why you? Then the fifth is why now. Why now? What is timely, zeitgeist-y, different, fresh, unique information that only you know or have observed or have assembled? You want to hit these on the head, really hit them on the head.

Another thing for people who are writing a memoir, and this is to some extent true for narrative nonfiction, you want to understand that there is an interior journey and an exterior journey. And you want to refer to these things exactly that way, you want to see these as structural in your pitch, whether it's verbal or written.

Making the perfect pitch

Getting back to how you want to approach making the perfect pitch, which is a subject I've grown to know and love very deeply in my work as a literary agent and also as a developmental editor because it's really how every single thing that can happen to a writer and author begins. You don't want to be daunted by it. You really want to see this as an opportunity. Yes, it's a hot seat, but it's also where you get to show the best of the best of the best of you. It is, again, the decision-making step for whoever is hearing or reading your pitch, pitch, query, and proposal being used interchangeably.
But you could have the magical imagination of JK Rowling and the sparse economy of Hemingway and possibly the talent of whoever possibly really wrote Shakespeare, there's some controversy there, and you still need to pitch, query, and propose throughout your writing career, not just to get a yes from a literary agent or from a publishing house, but to get any other kind of promotional opportunity or yes in any way that you're going to get and ultimately from readers, because your writing life, all writing lives are divided into the following arc: you get ready, you get read, and you get readers.

Under getting ready, two steps. You want to be published and you have an idea for a work. Quick mention. You may have ideas for many works, but you can only pitch them one at a time or they tend to cross circuits somehow. Then the third would be to practice your PitchCraft which you want to do to the mirror, to the cat, to your loved ones. Sometimes I suggest in a writing class, you want to tear pictures out of magazines of your ideal intended readership, what we in publishing might call the primary readership, and you really want to paste these up on the wall and look at them. That's your audience or your viewership if you're working on a screenplay. You want to understand that these people have got to become engaged and excited and seduced actually by your work, the things that are most exciting to you, you want to share that excitement but also convey them clearly.

Querial Killers

A couple of things don't always work well in for new pitches. There are a couple of rookie mistakes, which I've come to think affectionately as "querial killers." Those are the series of mistakes that newer writers often make when they set out to pitch their works, and those are a couple of things.

1. Being too general

Being specific is always better than being general. General comments, and I would include under this theme, for example, all day long an agent or an editor is reading my work it has a theme of redemption. That's white noise as we might call it. That doesn't really say anything. It's a generality and it doesn't paint a picture. You're really there to show your storytelling instincts.

2. Assuming that others know the same things as you

This is another rookie mistake: to forget that the person who knows nothing about your work is not going to understand a theme, which would be inherent in that work once they read your work. When you review your query, you want to make sure that you aren't giving information. This is also as true for the title and certainly a theme, you're giving information that would be relevant and relatable and make perfect sense, but only after reading the work. No, it's got to work before then, in this context. This isn't more important than writing itself, but this too is a craft.

You want to think if you were going to be Olympics, this is your triple axel, this is your best work. You're showing something muscular. You're also showing your instincts. People often think that it's fact-based. It really isn't. The first things an agent or even an editor will be looking at are your storytelling instincts, your sense of drama, your observation, your eye, or your camera as we might say of a filmmaker. But that's what you are as an author. They're not really looking at the facts per se. They're looking at what you might do with a moment or the use of language.

3. Trying to fit everything in

Another 'querial killer' is to use the panoramic lens and to try to give the entire scope of a work. You only have time for elements. We're only looking initially for sparks, so a moment, a line that's funny, or a statistic that's new, that is then married to that pitch that shows why this book, again, remembering that you're answering the questions why you, why me, why now, and you're showing, really drawing upon the outer world, what might be called the zeitgeist to in a sense make a case for your work.

Think about takeaways

Here's another point you want to understand. After you've written your five different sentences out, one to a page, remembering that these would be called takeaways. What's a takeaway? It's the thing that a person can take away from your work, which means tomorrow I could repeat those five elements back to you. That's a good litmus test for you, to see if your pitch is ready to be sent out in the form of a query letter and/or to be a verbal pitch in a conference setting where many agents and editors turn up these days to meet new writers, which they truly want to do at all times.

That's the positive here. Agents are always looking. We're always looking for new, fresh, interesting, debut authors. That's always a plus to sometimes be new. People often think it's the opposite, but you have no negative track record so they're looking to discover. But you want to show them what there is to discover. Discovery is truly the lifeblood of this industry.

So back to your homework. Remembering this. You're going to put pictures of faces on a wall that represent your ideal intended readers. Before you work on your pitch, your practice, your PitchCraft as I would say, you're going to cover your eyes and understand that the only information that's going to get through that darkness, that pitch blackness to the person hearing your pitch or reading it is exactly what you spoon-feed them. We can only take in nuggets. We can only take in elements, not the scope of your work.

Because when you look at the pictures on the wall you want to understand that you are like a lawyer, you're like Atticus Finch arguing for the life of an innocent because you are, you, this query or pitch or PitchCraft is your plea for life, for the life of your work, and it's the way the doors open for you.

You're going to start with blackness, look at the pictures. Then you're going to put the five pieces of paper on the floor or your desk and on each one, one sentence. The sentence will cover those elements, the most important being place, person, pivot, and then why you and why now. With nonfiction, just to underline that a little bit more, the rivet, pivot, and hit it. The rivets, again, those are clear core points that encapsulate one of the most important takeaways, the takeaway being the thing somebody can take away and repeat back to you, being specific, avoiding generality.

Should a book be completed before you pitch?

There are different schools of thought on that. Not necessarily. A thing to remember about agents and editors is they get most excited by something that they can actually publish or as Hamlet says, “The readiness is all,” so the closer you are to being ready, the better. But that's not strictly true because as I mentioned earlier the love of discovery is such that if someone were to maybe meet you or respond to your work on the early side, that's fine.

But bear in mind that one of the 'querial killers' is to go in too early, early meaning it's not quite developed. It might just be a nugget of an idea or you would truly benefit from some more drafting and maybe some editorial support or to actually work with a developmental editor, which today is advisable because it is a competitive marketplace of course and you really want to nail it the first time and it's got to happen fast.

Today we have, as I said, a lot of noise and a lot of things to choose from, and people are reading on devices on subways in New York and on bank lines and increasingly on their watches. So if people actually are conducting business on their Apple watches, which would seem to be a thing out of Star Trek but is definitely our modern world.

Other things you can do to really practice your PitchCraft, pretend you're going on your very favorite interview show. You absolutely want to envision and feel and imagine that you can get there, remembering you're doing your readers a favor, you're sharing, you're not selling something. Let's say you really, really were published and readers found you and your book is succeeding and you are promoting it and going to be interviewed. What are the top questions you would like to be asked? Because if you do get interviewed, usually a producer will ask you to supply some, and these can fall into different categories. Some of the questions might be: What was the experience like writing your book? Was it agonizing, transformative? What led up to it? Is this something that's treasured in the family attic that you've converted into a novel, which you may recall the novel Cold Mountain was, or something faith-based or from your professional career?

It could be any number of things that you're just imagining and creating on a canvas. You really want to have those questions written out because that can form the basis for your pitch, the very interesting features, which can include you and your experience in writing it, but then moving on to what is it based on, what are your inspirations, what informs this work. Sometimes there's a pop of inspiration and sometimes it's something that comes from people putting in meticulous historical research. All of that is interesting and useful.

While you're honing those questions to understand what you truly offer, and that again, gets back to readers because you get ready, you get read, and you get readers. What are the readers really, really, really going to find that's fresh and unique? Those are really big buzzwords in publishing.
Sometimes fresh and unique can simply be that it's an update on something that's come before, or there are untapped sources, or sometimes it's demographic, someone we haven't quite heard from before maybe based on something like age or orientation. All of that is very, very useful and interesting, and again, that speaks to why you, why now, but also your lens, your camera because that's what you're offering up in your pitch, your camera, your lens, your unique voice, your storytelling ability, that's what someone is listening in for and evaluating when they meet you or they read your pitch.

What tips do you have for going face to face with an agent?

Well, first, you want to to some extent understand the agent’s mindset, the agent you are facing possibly at a conference or even if you bagged one at a dinner party or on an aeroplane, that again is why you want to practise your PitchCraft and have it ready to go at all times because truly I have found clients in all sorts of social situations, including a bathroom line, no kidding, which is never where you're supposed to pitch an agent, but just meeting an author whose talk, who was walking her talk and who had something to share, that can take place anywhere.

My tips, of course, be succinct and professional. But remember that being pedestrian doesn't serve you. You're not asking for a bank loan. You are looking for someone to respond, again, to your dramatic storytelling instincts, or your wise observation, insight, and advice. You want to find that if you've done your homework, and I'll know if you don't, to make those five core points really stand out. They've got to be fresh and unique and different and specific. It cannot be something that sounds like anything else because it's too easy to pass on those. When you meet an agent, you want to understand that anything that pops or engages is much more interesting than something that vaguely seems hazy or as if we've heard it before.
These are pretty grizzled eyes and ears. We've often heard many, many things that sound similar, and not to take anything away from anyone's work, but we are trained to hone in on the freshness. You really want to lead with that, and you want to think as you're doing your five clear core points, which you want to write down and rehearse because that is what forms your pitch, at the same time as doing the second exercise, which is to write out the interview questions, which gives you a feeling again for your readership. It's a rookie mistake to be very excited about writing and what you're creating and to forget what readership really means and how people need to discover you.

Author Platform

That's a big buzzword today, discoverability. An agent will have some questions about what's called your platform. Just briefly what's a platform. A platform is a foundation for a book. When it comes to publishing, essentially it means every way that you can be in front of your readers. Again, the word 'discoverability' seems to be gaining on 'platform' as the most used and most powerful word. And yes, we are looking at social media for things like Instagram followers and so on, but that is not necessarily the only way we're evaluating and choosing.

One of my favorite quotes about writing just to end the presentation part and then I'm going to focus solely on questions is, comes from Frank McCourt who was asked, and you may recall, he was the author of Angela's Ashes. He was asked about the role of social media and technology and writing, and he said, “Shakespeare had a quill.” I love that because that speaks to what I truly believe about PitchCraft, one, your pitch is what opens the doors, it gets you discovered, it gets you to the yes, and it gets you to the next rung. But in the end no matter how many ways we look at evaluating the technology behind all of this, it really comes down to a heart and a mind, and we need writers for that. The robots can't do it yet, no matter how much they come up with at Amazon.

This has been a real treat for me. I’m new to Reedsy and I just love what it offers as a community, and I hope to hear from many of you. Thank you so much for your time and attention. I'll say goodbye now. Thanks again.

Many thanks to Katharine for hosting this webinar!

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