Nail Your Pitch: Avoid the Common Pitfalls and Sell Your Story

Many of today’s best-selling books were written by once-unknown authors—authors who had very little to no platform at all—like J. K. Rowling when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. So how did word get around?

It all comes down to the pitch.

Two Kinds of Pitches

Most of the time the word pitch is associated with authors trying to pitch their manuscript to agents or editors. But there’s a second, and equally important, phase of the pitch: readers pitching books to other readers.

I recently read (and loved) The Help by Kathryn Stockett, which was recommended to me by my next-door neighbor. I was one of thousands who catapulted Stockett to fame and fortune (after first being rejected sixty times by literary agents ).

In fact, I rarely read books based on genre or best-seller lists but instead on the recommendations of friends and family:

A pitch can be powerful because it not only advertises one book but all of the author’s books. After having read Unbroken, for example, I went on to read Laura Hillenbrand’s first book, Seabiscuit, which I then pitched to several of my friends.

However, readers will not pitch your book unless you give them a very good reason to. Something about your book needs to be unique and exciting, but at the same time, relatively easy to explain. That’s where a book’s pitch comes in.

Take Harry Potter, for example. The series has many intricate plots and characters, but the overall story is easy to pitch:

A boy discovers that he’s a wizard and that the darkest wizard of all time wants him dead.

How to Craft an Enticing Pitch

If your book doesn’t have a clear and enticing pitch, it will have a hard time getting traction. Randy Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies lists the numbers of times a book has to be successfully pitched before it has a chance of becoming a best-seller:

  1. You or your agent sells your book to an acquisitions editor, who brings it to her publishing committee.
  2. The acquisitions editor sells the concept of the book to the publishing committee, who offer you a contract with royalties and advance payments.
  3. The acquisitions editor then sells your book to the sales team, who are in charge of fulfilling orders from bookstores.
  4. The sales team sells your book to professional buyers, who also place orders for bookstores.
  5. The catalog copy and back-cover copy (which have hopefully been perfected by a production team that’s rooting for you) sell your book as well.
  6. The sales teams at bookstores (or the back cover of the book itself) sell your book to readers.
  7. Your first wave of readers sell your book to their friends, and their friends sell your book to their friends, etc.

If a link is broken or missing anywhere in the selling chain, the road to best-sellerdom becomes that much more difficult, if not impossible. (And if you self-publish, you alone must successfully link all the steps leading up to number seven.)

What Is, and Is Not, a Pitch

This is where many writers get lost. The purpose of a pitch is not to convince everyone of the awesomeness of your book. The purpose of a pitch, as explained by Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies, is to “tell people immediately whether they belong to your target audience.”

Remember that you’ll never write a book that appeals to everyone. If someone doesn’t fit your target audience, that’s okay. You fail quickly, which allows you to move on to the next person. But if someone does belong to your target audience, then you succeed quickly.

Ingermanson also argues that a pitch should actually be called a storyline, because it allows you to focus on accurately explaining your book rather than on desperately trying to sell it.

Now that we know what a pitch is (or a storyline) Ingermanson explains what it should look like:

It’s short. You want it to be short so you can memorize it easily and say it quickly—and so can everyone else in your selling chain.

It’s emotive. Fiction is about creating a powerful emotional experience, so your storyline needs to tell what emotive experience your story will deliver.

It arouses curiosity. Your storyline shouldn’t give away the story. It should raise a question that demands an answer.

Your Pitch Checklist

Ingermanson then gives a detailed checklist on how to build your pitch/storyline:

Shoot for twenty-five words or less. If you can do it in less than fifteen words, you get extra credit.

Limit your storyline to just a few characters. One or two is ideal. Three is the maximum.

Tell only one thread of the story, either the most essential one or the most interesting one.

Most of the time, don’t name the characters. Instead, describe each, aiming for internal consistency that promises conflict. A “one-armed trapeze artist” is infinitely more interesting than “Joe.” (However, whenever a famous character—such as Houdini or physics pioneer Marie Curie—plays a role in your novel, consider bending this rule and naming him or her in your storyline.)

When writing the storyline for a historical novel, tell the time period and geographical setting if they add potency to the brew.

Use adjectives that evoke empathy or cast a character as an outsider. The word young frequently shows up in storylines because it implies vulnerability and appeals to modern youth-oriented culture. References to gender may set up romantic tension or show characters who cross stereotypes. You can tolerate some redundancy if it heightens the wallop.

Don’t be afraid to use a small amount of hype with a verb such as battles or struggles.

Backload the storyline by putting a surprise or some emotively punchy words at the end of the sentence.

Examples of Great Pitches

Writing Fiction for Dummies gives many great examples of pitches. Here are a few:

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown (thriller)

“A Harvard symbologist and a female cryptographer solve the puzzle of the Holy Grail in a race against death across Europe.”

Highlighting male and female characters promises a bit of romantic tension, which is always good, even if it’s not central to the story. In this case, the storyline is already high-octane, with three separate phrases that generate emotive responses: “Holy Grail” connotes “religion,” “race against death” is a stock phrase for thrillers, and “Europe” adds an exotic flavor that appeals to Americans.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold (literary)

“A young girl watches the turmoil in her family from heaven after being raped and murdered by a neighbor.”

This storyline highlights the unusual story premise—watching from heaven. Note how we backload several traumatic words (“raped and murdered by a neighbor”). The story is too harrowing for some readers, and this storyline tells them immediately that they won’t be able to handle it.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (romance)

“A young English woman from a peculiar family is pursued by an arrogant and wealthy young man.”

This storyline puts on display the weaknesses of both the young woman (“from a peculiar family”) and her suitor (“arrogant”). It raises the questions of whether the man will succeed and whether the reader should want him to.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (fantasy)

“A hobbit learns that destroying his magic ring is the key to saving Middle Earth from the Dark Lord.”

Notice how very many characters we’ve left out of this storyline: The wizards, the elves, the orcs, the Ents, Gollum, Shelob, Tom Bombadil. We’ve also left out all the important places: The Shire, Rivendell, Lothlorien, Rohan, Minas Tirith, even Mordor. We’ve stripped it down to our hero Frodo and the Dark Lord. In a battle between good and evil, just showing the symbol of good and the symbol of evil is okay.

Writing Fiction for Dummies has many other great tips for breaking into the publishing world; I highly recommend it.

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3 Things You Can Do Right Now That Will Get You Published Faster

If you want to get ahead of the publishing game before you even hammer out that first draft, you need to write these three things first:

  1. Your pitch
  2. Your synopsis (or your book jacket, for you pantsers who don’t like much detail)
  3. Your query letter

You do not have to know every detail of your story before you sit down to write it, but you absolutely do have to know the details that will make your story unique and riveting. In other words, you have to know the details that will make the publishing industry give a damn about your book. 

I’m not saying that you should only focus on what you think will sell (which usually never works anyway because you either guess wrong or you find yourself at the tail end of a dying trend); what I am saying is that you need to be realistic.

If you want to traditionally publish, you need to win over an agent, an editor, and eventually an entire publishing house before your book hits the market. That means you need to know how to pitch your book to their bottom line.

(And if you want to indie publish, the game is pretty much the same. You still need to convince people—i.e., your readers—in a very short amount of space that your book is worth buying.)

So it makes sense that the first thing you need to do with a potential story is figure out how you’d pitch it. The worst thing you can do is finish writing your book, only to rudely discover that what you thought you were going to write—and what was going to skyrocket your book to best-sellerdom—isn’t actually what you ended up writing after going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole.

Why You Need a Pitch Before You Write

A pitch isn’t just to sell your book; it’s to keep you focused during the writing process. Tape it above your computer and ask yourself every day, Is this still what I’m writing about, or has it changed?

If it’s changed (and if you’re a pantser that’s probably the case), that’s okay. But now you need to figure out what it is you are writing about—because there’s a good chance you’re not writing about anything, at least not anything publishable, and you’ll have to do a lot of re-writing.

Must-Haves for Writing Pitches and Queries

For some great examples of professional pitches, subscribe to Publishers Lunch, the free daily email from Publishers Marketplace, which lists recent book deals and their one-sentence descriptions. Simply by reading this one thing every day you will better understand what sells and how it sells (i.e., how to write a pitch that’s worth pitching). 

For query-letter writing, check out this excellent article from Jane Friedman: The Complete Guide to Query Letters That Get Manuscript Requests.

And to top it off, in an upcoming post I’ll share the best advice I’ve found on how to nail down your pitch quickly and painlessly.

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