Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Making pitches perfect: Advice from the A-team, Arielle Eckstut & David Henry Sterry

HALLIE EPHRON: Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are turning themselves into one of the literary world's entreperneurial power couples, though perhaps the term "empowering" couples is more apt. They bill themselves as "The Book Doctors" with their mission--
Making better books one author at a time.

Arielle is an agent-at-large at the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, one of New York City’s most respected and successful agencies. David is the author of 12 books on a wide variety of subjects, from memoir, to YA novel, to sports, to anthology, to reference, and a regular Huffington Post contributor.

They've written "The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published," and this summer I had the pleasure of being a judge at Book Passage's Mystery Writing Conference at one of their "Pitchapaloozas." Brave aspiring-to-be-well-published writers took courage in hand and stood before the crowd to deliver their pitch. Time limit: 1 minute.

Then we on the judges' panel rendered the verdict. Honest but kind. The photo on the right shows the talented winner. It was obvious to everyone in the audience, as well as the judges.

I'll let Arielle and David tell us about what they've learned by running Pitchapaloozas all over the country. Arielle, David, what makes a great pitch, and to what kinds of pitfalls do writers fall prey?

Before we reveal the secrets of a great pitch, let us explain why your pitch is one of your most important tools—a tool that will be required from the moment you tell someone, “I’ve got a brilliant idea for a book!” And that person says, “What is it?”

Your pitch is going to follow you through and past the publication of your book. You’re going to need it entice an agent. An agent will then use it to entice an editor. An editor will then use it to convince their publicity and marketing departments and their sales department to hop on the bandwagon that is your book.

Once your book is bought by a publisher, the publicity and marketing department will use your pitch to attract media. And the sales department will use your pitch to get booksellers to stock your book.

Booksellers will then use your pitch to sell your book to customers. If you’re choosing to self-publish, you’re going to need your pitch to help you build your audience. You’re going to need it for the copy on the back of your book. You’re going to need it for your website. You’re going to need it in order to get any press. And you’re going to need it to sell.

Your pitch is your #1 sales tool. A great pitch is a key that can open many doors. It allows you to grab people’s attention in under a minute. Without one, you’ll probably still be talking long after someone’s eyes have glazed over, or worse, walked away. Your pitch will be constantly evolving and will develop over the months and years that follow.

So what makes for a great pitch?

Every book makes a promise to its readers: to educate, to challenge, to amuse, to romance, to inspire, to entertain. A pitch must take your particular promise and deliver it lickety-split.

The beauty of a major league pitch is that it contains the juicy essence of your book, it’s over in no time at all and it leaves the crowd oohing and aahing in awe. Your pitch should entertain and delight, pique interest or give pause, depending on what kind of promise you need to deliver. At the end of your pitch, you want the person you’re pitching to say, “Wow I can’t wait to read that book!” or “I can’t wait to tell Terry about this one so we can book you on Fresh Air next week!” or “We’ll take 1000 copies!” or “On behalf of HarperCollins, I’d like to offer you one million dollars!”

Now for the pitfalls! Fiction writers have a few favorites:

1. The plot-heavy pitch: There are a number of pitches we’ve heard over the years that would still be going on if we didn’t have our minute timer. That’s because some writers think that every detail of their fabulous plots need to go into their pitches. Wrong! Nothing is more boring than a recitation of plot. Get a birds-eye view. Think movie trailer. And read LOTS of jacket copy so you understand how to give only the necessary twist and turns of your plot.

2. The hilarious, tear-jerking, thrilling pitch: Lots of people like to fill their pitches with adjectives to try to convince readers how great their book will be. Please, don’t tell us how funny, sad, page-turning your book is. Write a pitch that makes us laugh, cry, scream, “I want more!” It’s like those people who wear t-shirts that say “SEXY” across the front. Let your readers be the judge!

3. My book is like…: Agents, publishers and even readers tend to like books that are similar to something they already know, but with a new twist. That’s why it’s great to add what we call in the business “comp titles” to your pitch. “Comp” is short for comparable and it gives your audience an idea of where your book will sit on the shelf. Are you more Rhys Bowen or Hank Phillipi Ryan?

4. Title Torture: Don’t forget your title! That’s part of your pitch. A great title can help sell a book. Don’t wait for an agent or publisher to come up with that blockbuster title.

Once you’ve got a pitch you’re happy with, start testing it out on everyone—people who read books like yours, booksellers, even your cat. The more practice, the more perfect the pitch!

HALLIE: Thanks, Arielle and David. So enlightening!

We all know that step one is getting published is to WRITE A GREAT BOOK! But that doesn't get it published. Thanks so much for your great advice and for a terrific book.

Are you perfecting a winning pitch? Arielle and David will be hanging around today to answer questions.


  1. so much fun to have you guys visiting Jungle Red! I see you'll be at my home town bookstore, RJ Julia this weekend! I can't wait to meet you.

  2. Come introduce yourself to us, Lucy! Are you planning to pitch? Cheers, Arielle & David

  3. Oh, thank you! (Love seeing my name..:-) )

    And this is so valuable--and just what I need right now. One thing that's frustrating me--I can put together a pitch that looks good on paper...but actually SAYING those words out loud is a different, er, story.

    I hear people saying their pitches--and it sometimes sounds as if someone turned on the pitch switch. They don't sound natural.

    Any thoughts about this? Or do you expect to hear a canned-sounding thing?

  4. Guys, you make pitching sound like fun. Thank you for the tips.

  5. Lucy is our very own Lucy Burdette--who pitched a new series not so long ago and scored a several-book contract for a series starting with "An Appetite for Murder" (Penguin, February '12) and featuring a Key West food critic.

    Lucy, remember when you were laboring over your pitch... I know it was in writing so that was different. But whatever you did worked -- any insights??

  6. Hank, somehow it's comforting that you occasionally get tongue tied. File it under: misery loves company.

  7. I see that a crucial piece of punctuation was left off my comment to Lucy. It was supposed to say "Are you planning to pitch?!" The lack of exclamation point changed the meaning completely. A great writing lesson in and of itself!!!

  8. Well, awww...Hallie. But I have this idea that a pitch should sound--almost spontaneous. Which would mean, of course, it really has to be practiced.

    And NO ONE in real life begins a sentence: "A disgraced television reporter..."

    So I figure: you need a headline, putting it in a category.

    "It's a suspense thriller, about a..

    And Arielle and David--does the pitch give away the secret?

  9. We believe the verbal and written pitches are actually the same. However, to have your pitch roll off your tongue takes A LOT of practice. We really encourage people to memorize their pitches and to videotape themselves performing it. Nothing like watching a video of yourself to make you want to puke. BUT, it's so helpful and will improve your pitch immensely.

  10. Hi Rhonda, the funny thing is that pitching can be fun! But it takes awhile to get there. It took us six months to develop our pitch and we worked on it almost every day.

  11. The pitch should NOT give away the ending. You want people to leave your pitch saying, "OOOh, I can't wait to read that!" If they already found out that the butler did it, then why read?

  12. Hi Arielle and David,
    What a great pitch for the pitch! You've convinced me and given us all a great (and necessary) education about the part of the business that does not come easily.

  13. Arielle and David--I enjoyed meeting you at Book Passage and Kimberly's party. It's been so long since I've had to pitch anything that I know I'd be clueless, but I do read new writers submission letters in which they tell everything from their first job to every plot twist in their story.
    Good luck with the book!

  14. I've never had to pitch, but I have had to come up with flap copy and back cover copy for my books at times. The process sounds very similar!

    And then there are the interviews, when someone asks you to describe your book in 75 words or less. If I had known about Arielle and David's approach earlier, I could have saved myself some headaches...

  15. I'm crossing my fingers that you make it to the Ohio area eventually. I'd love to see a Pitchpalooza in real life!

    Your book will have to do for the moment. I'm 3/4 the way through and have worn out a whole highlighter.


  16. Am I on the right track with this pitch for E-Force?

    Colt Kelley, a disillusioned employee of an environmental organization in Aspen, finds his life shifting into high gear when he stumbles into an unexpected romance with a beautiful woman with a turbid past. But the newfound bliss is obliterated by E-Force, a clandestine group of militant radicals engaged in an escalating campaign of destruction against the Colorado assets of AmeResort Corporation. A dark conspiracy lurking below the eco-terrorist facade thrusts Colt into the cross hairs of law enforcement and a lethal network of merciless thugs and corrupt cops. Pressed into a race against time and ruthless evil, Colt must stop E-Force from hurtling toward an unthinkable act of terror. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

    I'm curious to know what you think.

    James D. Kellogg

  17. James--my (unrequested) two cents? What makes your book different from the other thrillers in this genre?

    This sounds suspenseful--but it's a little lacking in the specifics that would make it stand out.

    What do the rest of you think?

    (oh, this is Hank talking..)

  18. Thanks for the insight, Hank. It probably comes down to the eco-terrorist aspect and the Colorado mountain resorts. I'll think of a better way to make E-Force stand out from other a 1-minute pitch. :)


  19. OK question, I have a ms, whereby the heroine must battle her own 'issues' as well as evil Jaden, who thinks she holds the 'key' to becoming god like.

    So I thought the pitch might be, Khatlynne battles evil entity, and discovers love for her human-guardian who has a secret.