Monday 20 June 2011


Following last week's mini-post bringing you a wonderful YouTube lesson in how (not) to pitch your book to an agent, let's focus on this essential bit of the writer's kit: the perfect pitch.

The perfect pitch for your book is:
  • Whatever is the best way to show your book in its most compelling light. "Compelling" as in "compelling the listener to want to read it."
  • Perfectly devised for a specific situation. In other words, the perfect way to pitch your book in a covering letter is not necessarily the same as the perfect way to pitch it to an agent you happen to have met in an elevator. Or to a reader who is thinking of buying it.
The perfect pitch has one purpose and result: to hook the person who hears or reads it, making him think, "Wow, I absolutely must read that book." It has, therefore, "must-read" factor written all over it. That word "hook" is crucial. In fact, we can call our pitch the hook. A good pitch hooks the readers.

How short should it be?
  • As short as possible.
  • As short as the purpose demands.
For example, you might need a short snappy phrase for a strapline (the bit you sometimes see beneath a title.) Or you might be writing the blurb for the back of the book - authors often do this in conjunction with their editors. (Note, "blurb" in the US usually means the eulogising quote from a wellknown person, which is called the "puff" in the UK. We are not talking about puffs. We are not talking about praise, but something more objective and informative.)

When you are delivering an oral pitch (such as in the elevator pitch video), in a situation where you suddenly have the chance to tell someone about your book, you have as long as it takes for the listener's eyes to glaze over, divided by two - in other words your pitch must stop well before the eyes glaze over. You have to stop with them wanting more.

In fact, that sentence sums up your aim: the listener or reader needs to want more.And "more" is, ideally, your book.

Who needs your hook and when?
First, you do. Now. You need to know exactly what your book is about, what its core is. I find the best way to focus my mind and heart on this while writing is to have my hook honed from the start. Imagine you are writing the cover copy for your book before you've written the book.

Second, you do when you're pitching to an agent or publisher, whether in an elevator or in your covering letter or query. Again, in an elevator is different from in a covering letter.

Third, the agent does when pitching to a prospective publisher.

Fourth, the commissioning editor needs it when pitching to the pointy-lapelled sales and marketing people in the Acquisitions meeting.

Fifth, the pointy-lapelled people need it when pitching to bookshops, reviewers and key influencers, bearing in mind that the pointy-lapelled people often haven't read the book so they need to know what they should say about it.

And finally, the booksellers need it to explain to customers why they will love your book and must buy it.

Let's look at some examples of hooks.

THE HIGHWAYMAN'S FOOTSTEPS. Now, the title gives a substantial amount of information. It tells us that the book is historical and that it's an adventure story. So, my hook doesn't need to incorporate this. (NB If I was writing a covering letter, I'd still say that it's historical, because that's a rule of covering letters, but it does not need to form part of the hook.)

The cover blurb says:
When high-born William de Lacey saves a highwayman's life, he cannot guess how his own life will change. He may have escaped his father's sneering contempt, but has his easy childhood prepared him for the terrifying dangers that he must face now? The stark, ghostly moors are as hostile as the pursuing redcoats, and Will must make some difficult decisions if he is to escape with his life.
I've put in red the phrases that give crucial information, either about content or mood. They tell us what this book is like.

But that is not the only way we could have done it. After all, one hugely important aspect of the Highwayman's Footsteps is that the story is actually about two people, Will and Bess. And Bess's story is perhaps even more powerful than Will's, as she is the imagined daughter of the highwayman in the Noyes poem, The Highwayman. So, why didn't we include that?
  1. We could have done.
  2. But it would have been too long.
  3. The story is told through Will's voice, and hooks should focus on the main character.
  4. There is a possibility that saying that the book is based on a poem, and then only being able to mention it briefly in the blurb, without being able to demonstrate the vast power of that poem, could have put some people off.
So, a lesson is that you have to be ruthless. Also, that's just the hook for the cover copy - if I was pitching it in a covering letter, I'd have a bit more space and I would have mentioned Bess and her dramatic childhood.

But there was another sort of hook for this book, too. I came up with a strapline which, though not actually on the cover, was used for promotional materials: "Robert Louis Stevenson on caffeine." This hook worked brilliantly for the sales team because it was very memorable, very different and had an edginess to it that made people a) smile and b) take notice.

Wasted is a hard book to describe in a short pitch, because it's about many things and I couldn't possibly exaplain them all briefly. Also, the title gives very little information. So, here's what I came up with, not for the cover but when explaining it briefly to anyone:
Wasted is about chance, luck, risk, danger, obsession, passion, alcohol - and why leaving the house three  seconds earlier could change your life.
There is also a strapline under the title:
When danger, passion and chance collide.
Do you see how the strapline works as a strapline but not as a pitch? It doesn't tell us enough to be a pitch. A strapline tells us a bit more about the title / book, but not enough to be a pitch.

The back cover copy reads as follows:
Jack is obsessed by luck. He lets the toss of a coin rule his actions, whatever the risks. Chance brings him Jess, a beautiful singer who will change his life, but their luck won't last forever. During a night of heady recklessness, they run out of choices. Now it is the reader's turn to take a risk: spin a coin and determine life or death.
See how both Jack and Jess are mentioned? That's because they are equally the main characters. Note the key words in red.

Photo by Andrew Culture
With non-fiction you need to make your pitch identify what is different about this book, compared with its competition - the USP, in other words. Here's the back cover copy:
You want to make a publisher say yes? First understand why they say no; then apply that knowledge to your book. Nicola Morgan - the Crabbit Old Bat of the renowned blog, Help! I Need a Publisher! - has made publishers say yes around ninety times. Now she offers her expert advice and experience, whipping your work into shape with humour, honesty, grumpiness and chocolate.
But this is too long for a press release headline, for example, so for that we have:
Honest advice from a proven expert.
Do you see how your pitch must fit both your book and the context of the pitch, giving something a little different depending on what it's for and who it's aimed at? It must hook the reader or listener, making him feel, for non-fiction, "Yes, that is the book I need." Or for fiction, "I'd love to read that book."

Try not to seek or be bound by rules such as ideal word counts. Try instead to focus on one thing: what is the best way for me to sell this book to this reader?

IMPORTANT POINT ABOUT COVERING LETTER PITCHES: in your covering letter, it's generally better to avoid big unanswered questions, such as, "Will Johnny save the world?" or, "Will they discover that love does indeed conquer all?" In the covering letter, the agent or publisher does need some suggestion as to how the book ends.

And now, here's your chance! I used to do Submission Spotlights on this blog (and may do again), giving you the chance to send me your tailored submissions; I would then pick one and put it up on the blog for other people to comment on, in public. It worked really well and comments were very helpful and constructive. Well, I'm now going to do that with pitches.

Here are the rules (and NB I took down this post and changed / clarifed Rule 2 shortly after originally posting it).
  1. Email your proposed pitch to in the body of an email, not as an attachment.
  2. Your pitch should be written as though taken from a covering letter to an agent. Omit everything else from the letter, such as the stuff about you, and the intro/closing bits. Simply include the one/two short paragraph pitch about the content of the book.
  3. There is no maximum word-count because you must use your own judgement, bearing in mind the task in hand. You will be pilloried if it's longer than it "should" be, longer than it needs to be. Shorter is better than longer, but you do need to get in enough info to entice and hook the agent or publisher.
  4. Do not state the genre. Instead, it should be obvious. (And anyway, in a real covering letter you would have done that at the beginning.) Do not state the book's length.
  5. Please also provide a title for your book, but this does not come into the actual pitch paragraph.
  6. Please put the words PITCH PITCH in the subject line.
  7. You do not have to use your real name. Please tell me what name you would like me to use if I select your pitch.
  8. Edited to add: NO DEADLINE - this is ongoing. You send them when you wish and I select and post when I wish.
  9. By sending your pitch you agree to the following:
    1. It may or may not be put on this blog - please do not be offended if I don't pick yours. I may be inundated.
    2. You are offering your pitch hoping for genuine constructive criticism, not merely praise. Commenters will be encouraged to be honest, without being hurtful.
    3. This is a serious exercise - please don't send a deliberately ridiculous pitch!
    4. You acknowledge that I bear no responsibility for any negative consequences to this exercise, although I will undertake to remove any defamatory or otherwise over-negative comment on my blog as soon as I see it. I bear no responsibility for the very remote possibility that someone might use your idea - as you know, there is no copyright on ideas. You take the same risk as you do when you pitch your idea or put your work up on any public forum. Your words are your copyight and remain so when published on this blog.
That's it! Now, get pitching. Meanwhile, do ask any questions or make any comments about hooks and  pitches below.


Anonymous said...

I have a question: isn't a pitch to an agent or publisher different to blurb on the back? An agent or publisher wants to know the story, don't they? But a reader doesn't - they just need to be intrigued enough to want to read more, don't they? Please excuse the naivete!

Rachel Selby said...

Great article - makes me want to write a book. Obviously I already wanted to write a book (or ninety) or I wouldn't be reading your blog. Thank you for the motivation.

Nicola Morgan said...

Clare - am not at desk but when I am I'll add something to clarify. I am trying to get over that pitches are different depending on the context and reason. In your covering letter you might use two paragraphs if the story absolutely demanded it. So, yes, the back cover is different. But I will clarify. You are not being naive!

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Straight on it! Thank goodness this isn't about musical pitch.

Very good point about the writer being the first person who needs the hook - I think that's often the problem when we start to flounder either with a saggy middle or with the first rewrite - we're not quite sure what to keep and waht to throw because we're not 100% convinced of our hook.

Sally Zigmond said...

Is there a deadline for this, Nicola?

Nicola Morgan said...

Sally - no. It's like the Submission Spotlights - people just sent things as and when and I posted them as and when. I'll add something to make that clear. Sorry.

Nicola Morgan said...

Chandra - I have deleted your spam comment. Thanks for your contribution to making my life more difficult.

Kath McGurl said...

Great article and brilliantly timely - I spent yesterday afternoon having a go at a covering letter (am not ready to send my novel out yet but am going on a course How To Sell Your Novel in a couple of weeks time). Will see if I am brave enough to try my pitch on you/this blog's readers...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nicola - working on it right now! :)