Sure, You Can Write a Good Book, But How’s Your Pitch?

Aspiring author at the Politics & Prose Book Store 2012 Pitchapalooza!

  • John Belushi meets Betty White when a newly divorced mother in her fifties tries to turn her life around by reliving her collegiate years and moving in with a group of fraternity brothers – becoming the house mother they never knew they needed and finally living the adventure she always knew she could. 
  • Confessions of a Worry Wart explores the all consuming anxiety of a woman who blogs about “worry”, and worries about blogging and basically everything else. From her dog’s happiness and her twenty-something daughter who moved to Colombia, to her ex-husband’s therapist and her fear of dying by way of an out of control ceiling fan, Ms. Worry Wart is the quintessential protagonist struggling with life and with herself. 
  • A young medical student starts researching the life of his recently departed grandfather – a former Mormon who became a pioneering surgeon in the field of gender reassignment, and gained infamy on the black market of the medical world. 

Sounds like a new lineup for primetime television, huh?

These are actually books. More specifically, they’re ideas for potential books – also know as a pitch, which is a writer’s passport to become a publishing house’s latest literary darling and getting their book to the top of Amazon’s recommended new releases list.

If there’s one essential thing that I’ve learned from years of media and public relations work is the art of a finely tuned pitch – a concise, well-delivered and engaging summary of a story – and how it has the power to earn visibility for an idea and its originator.

While I attended the Politics & Prose Book Store recent edition of Pitchapalooza! and do have dreams of New York Times Best Seller grandeur, I was glad to be a spectator and passed on tossing my John Hancock into the overflowing fishbowl of eager pitch-ready writers.

  • Over the course of 90 minutes and out of a room of a hundred aspiring writers, twenty-three were randomly selected to tell a group of book industry insiders in 60 seconds or less why their story was the sole idea worthy of a personal introduction to an established publisher and agent. 
  • The gatekeepers slash panel of critics – a matrimonially-connected duo of self-proclaimed book doctorsa rep from Penguin Books; and a local book agent who also specializes in publishing and media law – delivered honest, comical and quote worthy feedback on every pitch that was delivered.
  • Eleven of the pitches were ideas for really interesting memoirs. Another was a poetry book about travel. One was about a mischievous pug. The pitch after that was a history of cartography. Two writers wanted to intersect tales of immigration and with third-person narratives. The rest were duds. 

Before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series made tweens and adults camp out in their pajamas while clutching bookmarks, or Nicholas Sparks became the 21st century’s male reincarnation of Jane Austen, their first successful book needed to be pitched and pitched well. Potential publishers had to be sold on and believe in their stories.

Of the Pitchapalooza! entries, the three mentioned initially above were my favorites. I’ll reveal later on which was designated the overall winner by the panelists. Feel free to guess beforehand, but try not to scroll ahead. I’m about to tell you what I learned from this event and the panelists.

  1. Whether it’s a memoir, biography or young adult novel, make sure your book and its pitch has a clearly defined arc. Your arc is the progression of the main protagonist. If Harry didn’t mature from unproven and orphaned legend into Quidditch all-star and magically unmatched hero, Rowling might still be a struggling single mother instead of a internationally-known billionaire.
  2. If you can’t describe your book in six words, you have a problem. Five sisters fearlessly seek true love (Pride & Prejudice). Black career woman comically navigates dating (Bitch is the New Black). Toddler-aged preacher’s son cheats death (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back). Teenage boy discovers temperance and friendship (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Take note.
  3. Don’t make your pitch plot heavy. Think of the blurb on the back or inside cover of your favorite book – that’s the pitch. That’s what drew you in. 
  4. Visualize your book’s pitch like a movie trailer. You have one minute, perhaps even two, to hook your audience. Your words should paint a picture.
  5. When in doubt, use comparable titles. If your book is a Charlotte Bronte twist on The Grapes of Wrath, say so. Will readers think it’s like Running with Scissors mixed with a little Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? Don’t be afraid to express that in your pitch. Readers like the familiar. 
  6. Publishers love numbers. If your story centers around an introvert, elite gymnast, Mensa member, or paranoid schizophrenic, say how many there are in the world or the city the book is based. Make the publisher and the reader care about the protagonist and others like them.
  7. The book industry is fanatical about categories. Like a location means everything to the success of a neighborhood shop or restaurant, the same applies to books. The category that designates where your book lands in a book store could mean the difference between a single printing of 5,000 and one million sold. Whether it’s science fiction, humor or travel, choose your book category wisely.
  8. An independent book store is a writer’s best resource. Visit frequently. Study the books that you enjoy and writers you want to emulate. Learn the various category of books and which publishers specialize in those genres.

Now that my very scaled down version of Book Pitching 101 is complete, I’ll reveal the Pitchapalooza! winner.

The story about the transgender surgeon had attendees gasping 15 seconds into the writer’s pitch. We all should look forward to his book’s debut. And while he’s working on his masterpiece, you and I should continue plugging away at our own, because as one Pitchapalooza! panelist, David Henry Sterry, said:
The good news is that anyone can get published. It’s a great time to be a writer. The bad news is that anyone can get published. There’s a lot of competition out there

Two books every aspiring author should read.


I Love You, Jon Stewart. You Bookworm You.

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Not sure which joke in the above interview is better – the one about “The Help” or the references to the founding fathers’ penchant for enslaved labor. 

Among the cast of late night television show hosts, very, very few include much substance in their daily shtick other than Charlie Rose, Stephen Colbert, and Colbert’s comical kindred spirit, Jon Stewart.

In addition to stalking,, and my local library for literary recommendations, I have come to rely on Jon Stewart’s consistent guest list of award-winning writers, historians and biographers to keep my handbags well stuffed with new books – despite the expert judgement of Dr. Oz.

This week, Stewart interviewed author Elizabeth Dowling Taylor about her new book – “A Slave in the White House: Paul Jennings and the Madisons” – which tells the story of Paul Jennings, a slave of President James Madison who was  forced to purchase his own freedom and, as well as the freedom of his children, following the deaths of President Madison and his wife, Dolley Madison.

I’m adding this book to my early 2012 reading list and also hope to catch Taylor discuss her latest work at Washington, DC’s literary haunt, Politics & Prose, on Sunday, January 29 at 5pm ET.

Another great recommendation from my favorite late night bookworm. Thanks, Jon!