Monday, March 15, 2010


By Nancy Martin

For the last couple of years, I’ve been lucky enough to be part of SinC Summit Team—the group that travels to visit various publishing entities to learn the latest industry news and report back to the membership. If you’re ever asked to be a part of this team—do it! The first year of my service, we went to NYC to meet with agents, editors and publishers to learn what was happening in our genre. The following year, we decided the industry was in too much of a state of flux in New York, so we chose to go to the Midwest to learn more about the distribution part of the biz.  I recently found some of my trip notes, and a common theme emerged—one I hadn’t noticed before.  It seems only right to share it with my SinC siblings.

I’ve been writing books for nearly 30 years.  My first book was published in 1983, and my most recent, OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION, is almost my 50th book. (Honestly? I’ve lost track.) I’ve had 3 agents in those 30 years, 10 editors and 8 publishers.   Because writing pays the mortgage, I keep up with the business. I pay attention to trends and what makes a difference in a writer’s career.

Right off, let me say that DIY PR bores the heck out of me.

So I was happy in 2008, when we met with one agent who voiced the opinion that an author can’t do much, PR-wise, to help her career—except write a great book.  And another and another.  In an era when some desperate publishers ask authors to be bloggers, Tweeters, filmmakers, web designers, stand-up comedians, marketing whizzes and let’s not even mention the hours required to build a social network, it’s a relief to hear somebody say that our time is probably better spent doing what we do best—writing books.

But here’s the newsflash: Over and over, we heard about the importance of another writerly skill—pitching.  You know—telling someone about your book in a concise and entertaining way. It’s not just a skill used for acquiring an agent anymore.

After meeting with the opinionated agent in 2008, the team walked through the lobby of a publishing house auditorium where the house’s Sales Conference was taking place.  In the lobby, dozens of nervous editors were practicing their presentations. Over the years, I’d heard a lot from my editors about the dreaded Sales Conference.  It’s the day when all the editors appear in front of a panel of sales and marketing staff from their own house to do the song and dance of pitching our books to them.  From the info heard at Sales Conference, the sales and marketing people take the best material to advertise ours book in the company catalog, to pitch it to distributors and booksellers and eventually sell our books to the public. 

How funny is it that years after we authors have successfully pitched our books to our agents, the same material is used to sell the book down the food chain?

One word came up over and over in our other meetings, too:  Positioning.  It means finding your book’s “position” among other books. Whose books are similar to yours?  (And can you get a blurb from that author?) What sub-genre do you belong in? Where would the book be shelved at Barnes & Noble? What kind of cover might best signal your position? What kind of cover copy?

What can authors do to help communicate what a book is? Provide the best words possible. The communication begins when the author conceptualizes her book at the beginning of the writing process or perhaps as late as a query letter. I even use my pitch when I’m featured at a book signing and trying to encourage readers to buy. It’s brief, catchy and entertaining. But everybody else connected with your book needs a pitch, too. 

When pitching, I include:

    The genre (Which will imply plot.)
    The protagonist (Summarized in very few words.)
    The problem of the story.
    The world of your book.
    An X-factor (Something that sets it/you apart)
    Your platform. (Why you’re the best person to write this book.)

All that in a sentence.  Two at the most.

What pitching isn’t? Telling the story.  It’s not even picking out the major plot points. Can you define your book in a high concept way? Use contemporary cultural references to show how your book fits into the current climate. Employ cultural idioms, make comparisons to bestsellers or what’s happening in TV, film or music. Use key words that establish the world of your book. Above all? Entertain.

If you can’t do that . . . well, for godsake, try. Because we’re the ones with the words, dear siblings. We need to help the rest of the publishing team sell our books.


Nancy Martin is the author of nearly 50 popular fiction novels, including the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries. She serves on the board of Sisters in Crime and teaches writing workshops around the country. OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION, a chickaboomboom thriller, features Pittsburgh bad Roxy Abruzzo, who rescues people who can’t go to the police for help. “It’s a good time in a bad neighborhood,” says Harley Jane Kozak.


Ellis said...

Thanks, Nancy. That's good information, especially the part about what to include in the pitch. It's a hard thing to do, but I see the value of it. Back to work on mine. :)

Carol Silvis said...

Thanks, Nancy. I have been reading a lot about the blogging, tweeting, and social networking for authors. It's good to hear another perspective that allows writers to just write.

Mary Kennedy said...

Nancy, this is fabulous information to have. As usual, you are right on target! Thanks so much for posting this.

Sheila Connolly said...

It is so encouraging to hear that DIY PR is not the solution for everything, from one who knows what she's talking about. Thank you! Writers should write, not shill.

Pitching is something else entirely. It's not easy to boil your 100,000-word book down to three or four memorable sentences that capture both the substance and the voice. You might add, don't let marketing hijack it with cutesy cover copy--work with them to make sure they get it right.

nancymartin said...

HI, Ellis! Nice to see you here! Pitching is very hard to do because it must boil down a whole book into its most marketable bits. What a headache.

Carol, I think this opinion goes against conventional wisdom.--But for those of us who prefer to write, not constantly plug ourselves, it's a relief to hear.

nancy martin said...

Hi, Mary---I so appreciate what you do for other writers, giving them review space. (And I love your new series.)

Sheila, I'm glad you mentioned voice in your comment. It's hard enough to capture the essence of a book in a sentence or two, but doing so in the dynamic voice of the book---even more challenging. A funny book deserves a witty pitch. A suspenseful thriller needs a pitch that demonstrates exactly the writerly skill that makes the book so thrilling.

Anonymous said...

Do you remember your pitch for Roxy? I love her, by the way.


nancy martin said...

I can dig up my original pitch, Kathy, but I put the current version in my sig line: (Although it's missing a word on this blog page!) "OUR LADY OF IMMACULATE DECEPTION, a chickaboomboom thriller, features Pittsburgh bad girl Roxy Abruzzo, who rescues people who can’t go to the police for help. 'It’s a good time in a bad neighborhood,' says Harley Jane Kozak"

When in a face-to-face situation, I make this pitch a little more casual, but the focus is on Roxy--the primary element of the book. The plot is secondary to her character.

Steph Damore said...

Thanks Nancy for the pitching 411. It does seem like a headache to write, but sounds so good when done right.

Marcia Talley said...

Yes! What you said. I sometimes refer to this as my "elevator speech," the two sentences that you can reel off at a conference when someone is riding down the elevator with you, notices your nametag and says, "So, what is your book about?" It's got to be good enough to send them straight from the elevator to the book room, credit card in hand! Love your "pitch" by the way. Encapsulates your book perfectly -- I read it, and I love Roxy!!

Jan said...

Wow! 50+.That is just amazing. If I ever try my hand at writing (pun intended) I know who to e-mail! Thanks for the great information.