Pitch Perfect

by Pam Burford

Identify Your Quarry

When planning to attend the LIRW Annual Luncheon or any other industry networking event, your first step is to target the publishers and/or agents who handle the kind of book you’ve written. (Do your homework ahead of time. Literary Market Place, Writers Market, and Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents, available in the reference department of public libraries are a good place to start.)

For example, if you’ve write a 55,00-word contemporary romance, don’t bother approaching single-title publishers such as St. Martin’s or Pocket. The only publisher for short series romance at this time is Harlequin/ Silhouette. Similarly, TOR/ Forge might be interested in a futuristic or fantasy novel that incorporates a love story, but it’s not the market for straight romance.

Agents also specialize in certain kinds of books (though you can assume any agent who makes an appearance at an RWA chapter function represents romance authors).

Don’t assume you should only target the publisher’s senior editor or the biggest name in the agency. Often it’s the hungry assistant editor or the up-and-coming agent who has the time and enthusiasm to champion your book, not to mention the desire to add a bright new name to her growing stable of authors.

Manners Count

Be cognizant of business etiquette. Don’t attempt to hand an agent or editor any of your work right then and there. Don’t monopolize her time, no matter how receptive she seems or how well you think the conversation is going; she’s there to circulate. Don’t ambush her in an inappropriate venue. One agent I know had an aspiring writer shove a book manuscript under the ladies’ room stall she was occupying. All I can say is, if that writer wanted to be remembered, she succeeded!

At networking events and conferences, dress professionally. Think New York business attire: a pants suit or a skirt suit, business-like dress, or neat separates. No jeans or sneakers. No frills or sequins unless it’s a formal occasion such as the annual RWA awards ceremony or a fancy reception. The LIRW Luncheon (which started several years ago as a Victorian Tea) has its own unique, summery character. You won’t be out of place in a seasonal dress or longish skirt. The look should be sedate garden wedding, not resort wear. If in doubt, go for the crisp business outfit. Bottom line: you want to look put-together and feel confident.

The Pitch

The pitch is simply you describing to the agent or editor very briefly what you’ve written and asking if you may send it to her. Having met you in person, she’ll almost always say yes. And this is the huge advantage of “face time.” Rather than sending a query letter or proposal to someone who has no idea who you are, and then having to wait several months praying that the recipient will ask to see the entire book, you can go home from the event, pack up that sucker and send it on its merry way.

Okay, you’ve shaken the person’s hand and introduced yourself. Now what? Start with a nutshell description of your book: “I’ve written a 100,000 word western historical called Alluring Hombre.” It helps if your book incorporates one of the tried-and-true romance themes (marriage of convenience, Beauty and the Beast, amnesia, etc.). Work that into your pitch, along with your story’s setting, external conflict, and any other critical information. You might consider comparing your work to that of a particular author, or your book to a particular bestseller. Your aim here is not to appear like a cookie-cutter copy, but rather to help your listener mentally categorize your project, to equate it with a type of book that has a proven track record. If you’ve won awards, have published articles or short stories, or have any other writing credentials, don’t be shy about mentioning it, both in your spoken pitch and in your cover letter.

It’s a nice plus if you can take advantage of what Hollywood types call the ‘high concept,’ i.e., a concise marketing phrase that captures the essence of your story. For example, Myra Platt summed up her Golden Heart-winning historical with the intriguing words ‘Bambi meets Godzilla, and Bambi wins.’ My August ’99 release, A Class Act, has the hero and heroine sharing a house during a week-long high school reunion with some of the more colorful characters from their past. My high-concept description of this book was: ‘a red-hot Big Chill.’

When crafting your pitch, it helps to think in terms of back-cover copy, the kind of sales teaser you see on the back of paperbacks. Your best bet is to work out the wording of your pitch beforehand–and make it short! This is not meant to be a comprehensive synopsis. This is not the time to describe scenes, backstory, or secondary characters. You should be able to lay out the essentials of your story in two or three sentences.

Be alert to your listener’s body language; wearing out your welcome is not the way to win friends and influence editors and agents. If it’s clear that she’s bored or distracted or in a hurry to get somewhere, wrap up the discussion quickly. At the conclusion of your meeting, thank her, shake her hand again, and tell her when she can expect to receive your book. It’s good form to offer a business card; you can write the title of your book on the back.

Don’t Forget

Because the recipient requested your work, write in big letters on the outside of the package Requested Material so it doesn’t spend time in the slush pile or get automatically returned by the mail room. If she gave you a business card, paperclip it to your cover letter so she knows right away that she’s met you. Refer to your meeting in the first line of your letter (e.g., ‘It was a pleasure speaking with you at the Long Island Romance Writers Luncheon on June 11th. Thank you for asking to see my book Throbbing Splendor.’)

Good Luck!

Pamela Burford is the founder of the Long Island Romance Writers and the author of 12 romance novels. She’s currently working on a mainstream novel. Learn more about Pam at http://www.pamelaburford.com/.

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