Friday, May 25, 2012

How to Get a Book Deal When You Suck at Pitching

I am good at many things. Pitching a project, however, is not one of them.

I have a friend who is an amazing pitcher. She is ready, at any time, to say a few sentences that rivet your attention and leave you craving more.

Me? Before I go to a pitch fest or writing conference where I'm a participant instead of faculty, I practice my pitches for a month. I practice everything, from "Hi, I'm Ami Hendrickson" onward, saying the words out loud and timing myself. It's true. If I don't, I know from heinous experience that I blather. I skip over important bits or go haring off on interesting rabbit trails instead of presenting the inciting incident in a way that makes an iota of sense. In fact, practicing out loud is one of my go-to Tips for Surviving the Pitch Session.
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If I don't practice to within an inch of my life,
my pitches become Giant Sucking Vortexes of Awful. 
Not everyone has to practice like I do. Some people are pitching rock stars. Sadly, I must have been in the cosmic little girls' room when God was doling out pitching talent.

Fortunately, though pitching is an important skill in a writer's career -- one that every writer, no matter how pitch-challenged she may be, should strive to master -- it is possible to get a book deal signed even if you can't pitch your way out of a paper bag.

Everyone's road to publication is different. I can only tell you what worked for me.
  1. Put yourself out there. Get out of the studio. Get away from your computer. When you are at a conference or networking event, for the love of God, get off of your freaking phone! Go where you know people who work in publishing will be. Attend their classes. Shake their hands. Ask knowledgeable questions. Meet. Greet. Repeat.

  2. Be yourself. Do not posture. Don't compare yourself to a famous author, living, dead, or fictitious. Don't talk all about yourself. Just be yourself. Be the person your best friends love to hang with. At no time should you remind the people you're talking to of a strutting rooster or a hot air balloon. If you already know you suck at pitching your book, then don't pitch your book. Not at first. Pitch yourself instead. Best way to do that? --

  3. Pay Attention. See, once you stop talking, then others can start. And since they're in the industry you want to break into, they probably have a ton of information that you need. So listen. Show genuine interest in what the publishing pros have to say. Engage. Pay attention. You'll discover who is looking for what and where different agents' and editors' tastes run. That knowledge, plus the personal connection, can be invaluable.

  4. Know what you can do. You may not be a pitch-meister, but you sure 'nough better be able to write. Don't say you can write a book if you have never finished a book. Don't claim to be able to write a screenplay if your hard drive is full of half-finished scripts, but you've never typed "FADE OUT." Knowing what you can do, and saying what you can deliver isn't bragging; it's networking.
  5. lolcats funny cat pictures
    A writer who doesn't network is as fulfilled as a cat in an aquarium.
These are the tenets that worked for me. I got my first book deal -- and nearly every writing gig since -- by following them. I was participating in a horse training clinic and shooting the breeze with the trainer (whom my horse nearly killed, but that's another story) when he asked me what I did. I told him I was a writer. This was true: at the time, I wrote for several local newspapers and magazines and had worked in an advertising agency. But my passion was for my novel and my recently finished screenplay.

That encounter led the trainer to call me some time later when a publisher approached him about writing a book and he knew he needed help doing it. I was 9 months' pregnant at the time, but when he asked if I wanted to write his book with him, I said "yes." You can't always choose the circumstances of your break.

The publisher was initially reluctant to take a chance on me, an "unproven" writer, but the trainer insisted I was who he wanted to work with. Though he had never seen a word I had written, he knew me. He'd seen my work ethic at his clinic. He knew we could work together.

The resulting book is a perennial bestseller for the publisher. That project led to others... which led to others... I have been blessed to write books and other materials for world-class experts in their field -- and I still suck at pitching.

In my last post, "The Problem With Pitching," I lamented the fact that some writers pitch better than they can deliver. I'm working right now on a project that sold on the basis of a pitch, but which is currently languishing in Development Hell because the writer didn't deliver anything usable. So the director called me. I may not be able to pitch. But I sure can produce.

I'm not for a moment suggesting that you give up on learning to pitch well. I believe that pitching is like any skill: no one is born knowing how to do it. It can be learned like anything else.

However, some people just "get" how to pitch better than others. If you're like me, and are still struggling with perfecting your query letters, elevator speeches, and pitches, take heart! Even if you don't pitch a perfect game, you can still play!

Get yourself out there, play nice with others, pay attention to what the pros say, and be confident in your abilities. In my experience, those four things can build a solid writing career while you continue to perfect your pitch.


TISH said...

Honest and inspiring. Thanks for posting.

Anonymous said...

Great advice, pitching myself and my work is something I never really thought about, and certainly something that I lack in.

This has given me a lot to think about, thanks.

Ami Hendrickson said...

TISH & Diego Green,
Thanks for your kind comments. Good luck on your pitches. But more importantly: good luck with your careers!