October 16, 2008

Personal essay: The fine art of the book pitch.

(Recently I was asked by the publishing company HarperCollins to be an occasional guest contributor to their official Authonomy blog, a cutting-edge online experiment in which authors upload their unsigned novels and other authors rate and review them. [Americans, think Project Greenlight for books.] Even better, they've graciously given me permission to reprint them here at the CCLaP site as well, a day or two after they originally run at Authonomy. The essays will be coming once every couple of weeks throughout this winter; you can find them all on the main personal essay index page of this website.)

So for this first guest entry at the Authonomy blog, I thought I would take on a subject I've tackled before in the site's forums; and hopefully this will also give people some idea of where I myself am coming from as merely a reader here and not a contributing author...

As a heavy user of this site, one of the things I do here is subscribe to the "Latest Uploads" RSS feed; every morning, then, as I sit down to my computer and my first cup of coffee, the first thing I'm greeted with are the pitches for all the manuscripts posted in the last 24 hours, anywhere from 10 to 40 every single day. But at the same time, there are of course all kinds of other things I'm trying to get done each morning too -- responding to emails, reading the news, God forbid actually starting my workday. As a result, like most others, I tend to rush through these pitches as fast as I can realistically get through them; just like any junior editor at a publishing company facing a pile of unsolicited queries on any given morning, I too am usually looking for any excuse possible to skip over as many as I can, as fast as I can.

And man, as I've learned this year, there sure are a lot of opportunities to do exactly that; I've been shocked, frankly, to see just how many non-informative, virtually useless pitches are in fact floating around out there, things that sound more like the gimmicky taglines of bad Hollywood thrillers than what pitches are supposed to convey. Because let's not forget, just like in the movie business, book pitches are mostly for the actual executives within that industry, as a way of giving them a snapshot idea of your project as quickly and cleanly as possible; what's for your potential audience is actually the larger synopsis which Authonomy also lets authors fill out, which you can think of more like a traditional dust jacket containing more traditional dust-jacket-type flowery descriptive copy.

In fact, for any author wishing to enter the rough-and-tumble world of mainstream publishing, a good (and sobering) first step is to merely acknowledge just what kind of overwhelming competition they're up against; as mentioned, for example, there are currently 10 to 40 unsigned manuscripts getting uploaded each day merely here at Authonomy, for a total of 300 to 1,200 new titles every single month. And given that even heavy readers can barely make it through 25 such manuscripts each month themselves, this simply leaves a whole pile of books that most of the public will never realize even exist. And if that fact depresses or overwhelms you, than perhaps mainstream publishing is simply not the best option for you; maybe it would be more creatively but not financially satisfying to you to go the route of small presses, self-publishing, a strong online presence only, or all kinds of other options at a modern writer's disposal.

If you want your manuscript to come to the attention of an agent or editor, though, it behooves you to get your point across to them as quickly and clearly as possible; if your pitch doesn't immediately stand out in such an environment, if it doesn't immediately strike some kind of chord with that executive, then into the rubbish bin it goes with another 8 to 38 of the pitches received that day. Because let's never forget, publishing executives are human beings too (gasp!), and as such each gravitate towards their own specific likes; in fact, this is a large part of how a literary agent develops a reputation in the first place, is by becoming known for representing a certain type of book or another. For example, some of the books within the general culture that I myself immediately respond to favorably when coming across include hard-edged science-fiction, steampunk, cutting-edge experimental work, ultra-smart romantic comedies, and dark tales of sexual dysfunction; and when I'm reading through pitches each morning, I'm specifically on the lookout for such books and more, with my attention literally perking up a little each time I come across a pitch that has something to do with them.

All publishing executives are like this, just like all book lovers are like this; and that's why you owe it to yourself to make your pitch as clearly descriptive of the book's story and tone as possible, instead of the gimmicky Hollywood tagline so many here are guilty of. Like, let's just take a really well-known book from history to use as a case study, for example F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and look at the way it could be described if being posted here as an unsigned manuscript tomorrow...

"Murder! Intrigue! An insular circle of wealthy friends play a more and more dangerous game, resulting in deadly consequences for all. A must-read political thriller."

Now, from the standpoint of what we're talking about today, this is a freaking terrible pitch, because it tells us almost nothing unique about this particular book's story or tone; it is a description that could literally be applied to a dozen other books uploaded that week, giving us no motivation for picking it over the other eleven. Imagine, though, writing this kind of pitch...

"A jaded but witty look at the shell-shocked 'Lost Generation' after WW1, examining the apathy and nihilism of the age through a clever noir plot and tight minimalist dialogue."

Hopefully you can see by now why this makes for a much better pitch, because in a mere 30 words it conveys not only a lot about what the book's about but also how it reads -- not just a historical noir, but a witty and tight and profane one, one that will undoubtedly contain a lot of prurient material and undoubtedly handle it in a controlled, urbane way. This is yet more information most publishing executives are looking for, so is best to simply give it to them right away; some editors simply work better with talky, digressive manuscripts, while others work better with the opposite.

And then finally, as a former author myself and now a champion of cutting-edge work, let me offer this last bit of advice -- that pitches, synopses, queries, and other business-related aspects of the publishing process are the absolutely last things you should be thinking of, a necessary evil to not even contemplate until long after the book itself is finished. In our day and age, unfortunately, those who wish to have popular mainstream creative careers must be part artist, part business expert; at a certain point in the process, one simply must deal with such issues as selling the concept, selling the finished book, marketing and touring and promotional material and all the rest of the unpleasantness. It's best, however, to think of these two parts of the process as literally two halves of a creative brain, with a toggle switch between them letting only one half be active at any given moment: EITHER you're an artist on any given day, writing a book as weird or unique as you want, under no obligation to please anyone but yourself; OR you're a business expert, now with a finished manuscript and a need to sell it to a million potential fans. Although many of my guest essays here will be dealing with the business side of the equation, I do believe that there should be a clear demarcation between the two; I always think an artist should only be an artist at first, while they're actually writing their book, and only afterwards start contemplating how to best sell what they created to others.

Many thanks again to the folks at HarperCollins for inviting me to be a contributor here this fall and winter. If there's a specific topic you'd like to see me take on, by the way, feel free to drop me a line at [cclapcenter at gmail.com]. Happy reading!

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:09 AM, October 16, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction |