Sunday, April 17, 2011

Avoiding Book Pitches that Mislead - A blogshop with Pitch Alchemist, Diane Holmes

I hate to lead this post with a bummer of a statement, but there's nothing worse than being "sold" by a pitch (query letter) that promises a particular reading experience only to be delivered something you totally didn't expect (not in a good way) or a piece of work that felt slightly off from what was promised in the pitch or that flat lined altogether. It's a let down. Agents, editors and all their submissions reader bees experience this every day.

And we know you're doing all you can to capture lightning in a bottle with your pitch. Pitch crafting is hard! I hear this from a lot of you. But it absolutely can be taught, writers. Fortunately we've got Diane Holmes, chief Pitch Alchemist and the woman behind the curtain at Pitch University, an online everything-book-pitch resource for writers, here to help you understand the difference between a pitch and a synopsis and also, the importance of pitching your book accurately.

You've got one opportunity to hook an agent or editor - capture them with the right pitch!

DH: There are a lot of things we writers worry about when struggling to create a pitch (or write a query letter) for our books. We worry that it won’t make sense. We worry the editor or agent won’t like it, because we didn’t say the right thing. We worry that our manuscripts will never even get the chance to be rejected, because our pitches get a “no.”

But no one worries that we’ll get a “yes” for the wrong reasons. That in our best efforts to say something interesting and hook the agent and condense hundreds of pages into a couple sentences and find the “hookiest” details, we’ve totally mislead our audience.

Sometimes, in our best effort to capture the essence of our book, we create a pitch that lies.

“Wait!” you say. “Every single detail in this pitch is true!” And I know it is. That’s why we don’t realize that we’re even lying. The only one who catches the lie is the person who believed the pitch, expected a book based on the pitch, and then read the manuscript presented to her. That person knows the story she’s reading isn’t at all what she expected.

Okay, let’s look at what happened.

The word we need to understand is “imply.” Pitches (and query letters) don’t just tell the reader what’s included in the book, they imply…

· what the entire book will focus on and

· how it will unfold from beginning to end.

Let’s look at an example:

Here are 4 pitches for the book Tell No One by Harlan Coben.

Pitch 1:

Eight years ago, Beck’s wife was abducted and murdered by a serial killer while the couple swam together at a secluded lake. Except now he begins to receive emails from here, saying things that only she could know.

Pitch 2:

A doctor who works in a free-clinic is pursued by the police when a serial killer’s victims are discovered on his family’s land… the same serial killer who supposedly killed his wife 8 years ago.

Pitch 3:

A billionaire must stop a man from digging into the death of his wife.

Pitch 4:

An inner-city doctor at a free-clinic must rely on a drug dealer to stay alive as he tries to find out who framed him for murder.


These pitches contain accurate information in the sense that you can find these detail in the novel Tell No One. In fact, they’re even essential details. But each pitch is implying a completely different book and setting different expectation for the reader.

Even more critical, pitches #3 and #4 do not match how the book opens (first 50 pages). In fact, if you read the first 50 pages, you’d feel irritated and misled, because “this is a completely different book from the pitch.”

And if you’d read the first 50 pages, you’d feel that pitch #2 really missed what was most essential and exciting in those pages (the emails from his dead wife).

Only the pitch #1 seems derived from what’s important about the book… from the point of view of a reader who has picked up the book and begun to read.

Wait, didn’t I say that pitches tell what the entire book is about from beginning to end?

What’s all this about the first 50 pages?

Answer: You’re not trying to pitch everything the book is about. That’s re-telling your story. Remember, you’re implying your story in a pitch, and you imply by getting the reader started in the excitement of the story (what’s crucial, what turns the engine, drives the character, and must be resolved at all costs), as well as sharing the trajectory of the story.

Oddly enough, this is also what the beginning of your book does.

Your Takeaway: If an agent says, “Yes,” to what you pitch, it’s because she believes the book will be a match for her tastes, her agency, the market, and all the other variables. If what you deliver seems to be a different book, then that ‘yes’ you thought you heard was a ‘yes’ for the pitch only. Not the book.

Perhaps you’re hoping the agent will love what you’ve sent even more than what she expected. But few people enjoy getting excited about receiving one thing only to have it swapped out with something else. In sales, this is called “bait and switch.”

The best strategy is to fulfill every expectation, and then blow them away by giving them more.

Get an agent excited about your book by creating a pitch that accurately implies the project, then fulfill those expectations with your manuscript and dazzle them with your writing chops. Get a yes that’s really a yes.

TLC: Now, my dears, here's my one addition to Diane's message - not only do you need to ensure you're delivering what you pitch, but you need to ensure the writing you're pitching is spectacular! Your pitch could be well crafted, but if the writing isn't "there" you've wasted your time. Ultimately, the writing has GOT to grab that agent, that editor, that reader and not let go until they finish reading the manuscript. Promise me you'll craft your perfect pitch after you've crafted your best work.

Your Action: Questions? Solutions that have worked for you? Share them with us!

Here's to a fruitful week, writers!

About the Contributor:

Diane Holmes is the founder and Chief Alchemist of Pitch University, the first online, no-cost resource where writers who "suck at pitching" can learn to pitch their books from the agents and editors who make their living doing it.

Diane brings her background in marketing, writing, and community building to Pitch University.

She’s founded writers’ groups, co-owned a small press, had plays produced, written novels and scripts, run writer's contests, held offices in writing organizations, taught writing… and just like you, she sucks at pitching her own books.

Pitch University is the only website devoted to learning how to verbally pitch your book and answer the question, “What’s your book about?” in a way that actually sells your book. And the best part? You learn from the experts who pitch books for a living: agents, editors and experts. Learn. Pitch. Sell.

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