Insider Tips on Pitching to Publishers
27 Apr 2010
Publisher Mark Booth gives his insider editorial tips on how writers can best present themselves to agents and publishers. The talk was originally given at this year’s London Book Fair in a seminar sponsored by the Daily Mail.
I sometimes hear colleagues in the business say that if a script is any good it will eventually get published. Personally I see no reason to believe that’s true. There would have to be some providential order in the universe, some very powerful and benevolent god of publishing.
No, I believe that when you try to get a book published, the odds are stacked against you. So the question is how do you improve the odds?
I don’t claim to speak for other people in the business. What follows is one editor’s advice.
When you are writing your book you can be as subjective as you like, tracing new directions of the heart, capturing the most fleeting and mysterious experiences on the page, finding muscular new ways to use language that quicken the blood. But it seems to me that when you sell your book, when you try to get it published, you should try to be as objective as possible. Let me explain…
My first job in books was in a book shop, one of Tim Waterstone’s, and I was amazed to observe the publishers reps as they came in to pitch their books. The rep would have a half hour appointment and pitch perhaps 30-40 books, going through the catalogue with an order form. And the bookshop buyer would say ‘1 copy, 2 copies, no, no, ten copies, 3 copies’. Each book would get a maximum one minute pitch. You might think that’s a travesty - that no book should be rejected after just a minute. After all it might be someone’s life work.
But that was the commercial reality.
The selling process is a bit more high tech these days, but the principle remains the same: to make its mark in a commercial environment a book needs a good, very brief pitch.
So my advice is this: work on that pitch in the hope of starting a chain reaction. It will perhaps lead to a junior editor pitching it to a senior editor, the senior editor pitching it to the sales department, the marketing department and the MD, so that an offer is made to publish. As this chain continues, it’s then pitched by the sales department at a sales conference and eventually someone in the sales department pitches it to Smiths head office or a rep pitches it to a buyer in your local Waterstones.
You may be thinking to yourself ‘Well I appreciate that the rep or buyer won’t have time to read my script, to savour its nuances and consider its finer points, but surely that’s what an agent or editor will do?’
I can’t speak for agents, but let me tell you about the job of an editor in a publishing company today. When I was an undergraduate my ideas about publishing came from reading about the Hogarth Press in Anthony Powell’s memoirs and elsewhere, and I imagined myself sitting on a lawn in deckchair, reading scripts and engaging in erudite discussions with Leonard, Virginia and Lytton. But it’s turned out to be rather more like being an account executive in an ad agency.
An editor will have to attend acquisition meetings, marketing meetings, scheduling meetings, budgeting meetings, production meetings, jacket and design meetings. For many of these he will need to prepare reports or presentations. These are the weekly internal meetings, and they are more or less compulsory. Editors will also have to have meetings with authors, agents, scouts, foreign publishers and rights directors. They will probably have to answer more than 100 emails per days, and also have very complicated and time-consuming forms to fill in for the finance, marketing, contracts, and sales departments. They may receive any thing between 30 and hundred submissions per week – either in the form of completed manuscripts or sample material or proposals.
God doesn’t send the hours for all of this.
Out of all the submissions that come my way some demand attention because the author has a great sales record already. Every editor has close relationships with some agents, will trust their judgment and read a script that they recommend. Sometimes a book will already be selling for a lot of money in other territories in which case it becomes a hot book and many editors will run after it.
Apart from that it’s down to the pitch. You need to draw the editor in with it, to make the editor want to spend time on it.
The most important parts of the pitch should be
First, the title. Make it as memorable, resonant, as full of promise and punchy or intriguing and mysterious as possible. Here are some that spring to mind:
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
THE KILL ZONE
Bear in mind, too, that these days computer search engines are going to be very important in bringing your book to the fore – so combinations of words that are not only memorable but also unusual will help.
Second the subtitle or strap-line. If your book is non-fiction and you have short impactful title, the subtitle will need to do the work of telling the reader exactly what the book is. It should be 15 words or fewer.
ANGELS IN MY HAIR The true story of a modern-day mystic
LIVING WITH RUTHLESS PEOPLE How to deal with the psycho in our life
FAM Rolling with a London girl gang
If your book is commercial fiction, it’ll be helpful to have what is sometimes called a strap-line, a line of advertising copy that conveys not so much the contents as what the reading pleasure will be. Filmmakers are the masters of this art and employ very expensive advertising agencies to come up with lines like
IN SPACE NOONE CAN HEAR YOU SCREAM
A strap-line like this (I think it was for Alien) conveys what is called the high concept of this film – what was unique, new and exciting about it – in this case that it was a horror story taking place in space. Another favourite of mine is
EIGHT LEGS AND AN ATTITUDE
This, for the film Arachnophobia, tells you it’s a comedy, but also that it’s comedy-horror.
Here is one that Sky use to advertise their min-series of Chris Ryan’s STRIKEBACK
THE SOLDIER MAKES THE DECISIONS THE MAN MUST LIVE WITH THEM
Another very neat and effective way of conveying high concept that books have learned from movies is the ‘meets’ convention:
JANE AUSTEN MEETS SEX IN THE CITY
JANE AUSTEN MEETS THE EVIL DEAD
Don’t be afraid to yank together two concepts together in surprising and outrageous ways, even if yours is not a humorous book. Editors will warm to evidence of a sense of humour and an evident facility for thinking about books in market terms.
Third, I’d recommend writing a blurb of no more than 400 words. What you are writing here is partly the blurb you dream of reading on the dust jacket or cover of your book when it is published. You are here your own literary critic, praising your book, not in an empty, gushing or clichéd way, but in a very precise literary-critical way that conveys the flavour of it, that makes the reader salivate and want to read more. The prose here should reflect the style of the book – whether poetic, exciting or funny, and if the book is intended to be funny make sure the blurb contains at least one good, memorable joke. I’d recommend working and reworking this passage as much as any passage in the book itself.
This blurb should also compare your book with books published recently that have been successful – bestsellers, prize winners – preferably within the last four or five years.
Lastly you might add a couple of lines on your self. Why you? Why now? Is there anything in your life story that might help with publicity? Do have any contacts in the media? Now is not the time to be shy.
An editor will be able to read all this, a page’s worth in a minute or so. This is your one minute pitch.
It’s may take you days, but if you do this successfully, you will have drawn the editor in to wanting to read the body of text attached and, equally important, you will have got him excited, imagining how he is going to sell this script in house, daydreaming about how he will be carried shoulder high out of the company’s annual sales conference, because he has found the book that will reverse its flagging fortunes.
I’ll let you into a secret. Editors are often pretty insecure people, overworked and underpaid, many constantly in fear of losing their jobs. Many are not even very well educated or well read or very good at prose themselves. A few years ago I was listening to some editorial colleagues presenting books and it struck me how few of them had any feel for language. I watched them cast around, looking slightly uneasy until they had managed to lay their hands on exactly the right cliché to fit the book they were trying push. These clichés were all of the ‘I couldn’t put it down/sat up all night reading it/I live it/feel passionate about it/ laughed on the train’ variety.
Those who can, write. Those who can’t edit. Remember, you are the writer. You cannot rely on editors. It is up to you to say articulately and in a few telling phrases what is great, new, unique and therefore saleable about your book.
I realize this sounds prescriptive, but what I’ve tried to convey is what the submission of a proposal looks like from an editor’s point of view – and what in my experience is most likely to be helpful to an editor when it comes to making a recommendation to the company to take a book on. Very few editors have say-so when it comes to a publishing company’s decision to make an offer.
So when you’ve identified your editor, don’t treat him with too much respect, but do please be kind to him.
One more point. Don’t fall into the trap of imagining publishing as a remote citadel, hard to breach, where authoritative and definite judgments are made. Think of it, rather, as a plane occupied by several warring armies in their various camps. I was amused the other day to read Martin Amis rubbishing Nobel and double-Booker prize winner JM Coetzee as having no talent. Amis is probably this country’s most gifted writer of comic prose, but he cannot see the point of Coetzee. You see, they belong in different camps, to different schools of thought and taste. I don’t know if, for example, Smollett or Sterne ever wrote about plain-writing Daniel Defoe in similar terms, but I suspect it has ever been thus. It is certainly how Flaubert described publishing in L’Education Sentimentale
So look on publishers’ and agents’ websites, look on industry newsletters and blogs. See who is buying and selling what. Look at what individual agents and writers are saying, and find the agents and editors who belong to the same camp as yourself. Look for kindred spirits.
Mark Booth, formerly Publishing Director of Century at Random House is now Publisher of Coronet at Hodder and Stoughton. He is author of the bestseling The Secret History of the World - under the pen name Jonathan Black - published by Quercus.