(from March Hearts Talk) by Sue Price and Sharyn Swanepoel, Pitch Coordinators
If you plan on attending the 30th anniversary RWA conference at the Gold Coast in August 2021, start planning now to pitch your completed manuscript to publishers. This year’s Pitch Coordinators, Sue Price and Sharyn Swanepoel, asked RWA members Anna Ugrinic, Bronwyn Stuart, Donna Munro, Maggie Mundy, Nancy Cunningham and Stephanie Mayne (who came up with the title) if they would share pitching pearls of wisdom. Thankfully, they said “Yes!”
What are your top tips for a successful pitch?
Anna: Know your story and be yourself. The agent/editor on the other side of the table isn’t there to cross-examine you – they want your story.
Bron: Don’t be scared! As long as you’ve done some research and know the pitch-taker publishes what you write, they can only say yes or no.
Donna: Be prepared by practising your elevator pitch until you know it by heart. You must understand the essence of your story to be able to sell it. And, if you don’t love your MS, who will?
Maggie: Keep it simple. Be polite. It’s a pitch not a synopsis. Get a good tagline to grab attention.
Nancy: Keep your pitch punchy and brief – the main part of your pitch should be no more than a few minutes.
Steph: Six weeks out – immerse yourself / refresh on all things pitching e.g. YouTube, Hearts Talk author suggestions, etc.
Four weeks out – write your pitch and read it out until it sounds natural.
Three weeks out – get over your self-consciousness by recording yourself in the mirror / on your phone and playing back in the car/alone. Note when you don’t sound confident/say ‘um’ too much. Continue practising, recording, playing back until you break through the cringe to Bring It On!
One week out – give it a rest.
Pick it up again before the pitch appointment, with public speaking nerves and awkwardness ironed out, ready to go!
Anything you regret doing in past pitch appointments? What do you wish you’d done instead?
Anna: Years ago an editor was typing everything I said into her laptop then didn’t want the story. I worried about it afterwards. Now I would call a halt to a pitch if it was to happen again.
Bron: I got a little cranky once when I pitched a book outside of the Regency ballrooms and when the editor said they only want glam ballroom romances, I kind of switched off rather than asking questions or probing more.
Donna: (Zoom pitch 2020) In my synopsis, I left out an important plot point. When I mentioned it during the pitch, the agent probably assumed my manuscript was incomplete. She asked why I left out something crucial to the story. I thought I had to give her a blurb. Even if it says the blurb, clarify if it should be a synopsis. Don’t leave the main points out because this particular plot point made her like the story more.
Nancy: Ask more questions about what might be more marketable for them in the future.
What about measures of success? After sending your manuscript did you receive positive/encouraging feedback?
Anna: Sometimes you get feedback, sometimes you never hear back. Feedback in most cases is a broad statement about your MS not fitting their list. It will depend on the publisher/agent.
Bron: I sold two books from two different pitches at two different conferences. It absolutely can be done! I wouldn’t expect feedback though. Some never even bother replying or rejecting. It’s just the business and it’s not likely to change or get better than that.
Donna: It’s difficult to tell because after 14 weeks I still haven’t heard back, and she requested I send a full, not a partial. I guess with Covid-19, Christmas and New Year it’s understandable. But the wait is excruciating. However, I did receive positive feedback from my critique groups and other professionals after polishing the manuscript before sending it to the UK. Either way, the whole process is useful. And I won’t give up.
Nancy: I’ve only made a few pitches and actually sent the manuscript – I’ve had some good feedback, particularly from romance focused publishers!
How did you overcome nerves?
Anna: Summarise your story into three lines and have an elevator pitch handy. Deep breathing works wonders to settle the nerves. Even with limited pitch time, take a few seconds to greet and establish a rapport with the person you’re pitching to. Don’t rush straight into your pitch.
Bron: Deep breaths and no coffee/caffeine beforehand! But seriously, you do you. Mostly those nerves come from fear, but fear of what? Rejection? Being caught out because you’re pitching a book you know isn’t finished or complete? Know your story inside and out and there will be no curveballs!
Nancy: Be prepared to ask questions – if they don’t want your manuscript – don’t ask ‘why not?’ Ask them what they are looking for. What you have currently may not be for them, but what you write next might just be what they’re after!
Should you bring a business card or not – did any pitch taker ever ask for one?
Anna: Take a business card just in case. I have been asked for one in the past. At one pitch I asked the editor if she needed/wanted a business card and she did take it.
Bron: I do have one to give out. I don’t think it hurts as long as the information is pertinent and up to date. Name, email, phone number and socials handles, website, etc. It’s all about discoverability and they may google you to see where you are.
Donna: Rescue Remedy usually works for me, but I didn’t take any. Ha, ha, probably why I was so nervous.
Nancy: Yes, bring a business card but don’t offer it unless asked – it’s fairly likely they won’t want it if they haven’t asked.
Any other tips or funny stories you’re willing to share with those new to pitching?
Anna: I can’t stress enough how important it is to know your story and be able to summarise it for the opening gambit. The editor will ask relevant questions about the details. Try not to take written notes that go for a page or more. Leave time for questions and always thank the editor/agent for their time. Even if they don’t ask for this manuscript, they might just take another from you at another pitch.
Prepare for the unexpected. I pitched to a publisher who told me outright she couldn’t sell my story and asked what else I had. After an impromptu pitch of another manuscript (barely started), her comment – “I don’t care if it takes you six months just send me a story I can’t say no to.”
Make them laugh! My professional background is IT, which thrives on acronyms. The (then) unwieldy title of my MS was shortened to SOSG (read sausage). Mentioned this and the editor laughed loud enough for everyone in the pitching area to look over. Humour is a great ice-breaker and nerve-settler. And yes, she did ask for the MS.
Bron: Be your most professional because publishers want career authors not one-shot wonders. They will likely ask what you’re working on next (after the book you pitch) so have something ready. No rambling. Just pitch the hook and then let them ask questions.
Maggie: Don’t take a copy of your manuscript to appointment. Don’t take gifts. Don’t follow agents to the loo. Yes, I have seen that. They sometimes ask about your media presence.
Sue and Sharyn’s additional preparation tips
Don’t leave this to the last minute. Consider these questions as you’re writing, pondering, lying on the couch daydreaming.
Think about what makes your story different to others in the genre/market. (We bet you have some interesting characters or an amazing setting or a cheeky plot twist).
Who will your story appeal to? Picture your reader – give them a name. Tell them about your story.
Don’t memorize great wads of text – it’s going to make you super nervous – believe us, Sue’s been that person and she couldn’t enjoy the rest of the conference because her whole focus was on going over and over that text for fear she’d forget it.
Practice your pitch on others and get their feedback – would they want to read that book? Ask them to ask you questions, and get used to explaining details succinctly, after all, who knows your characters, setting and plot better than you?
Know your genre. Think about your writing strengths. If you can’t express an answer to ‘what books are similar to yours?’ or ‘where does your book fit in the market?’, think about your future readers and imagine the authors they’d like. This is difficult to do at first but broaden your thoughts – it’s not about finding a book that has everything in common with yours, but it might be the themes you write about or the tone of your writing. For example, your story might have a light, quirky tone that appeals to readers of Janet Evanovich’s Plum series. Read widely and take note of what appeals to you in the books you read. Is it the fast pace? The lush detail of the setting? The banter between characters?
Expect to be asked about other projects you’re working on. Even if you have only hashed out an outline for a future novel, be able to describe the story in a high concept sentence or two – who are the main characters, what are their goals and what is the problem or conflict.
Finally, congratulate yourself for writing a story and putting yourself out there. If you don’t get a manuscript request – they’ll likely explain why – i.e. it’s not what they’re looking for – ask what is. As Anna said, you might be working on something else that they’re interested in. Maybe you didn’t intrigue them enough with your pitch. That’s why getting feedback from others beforehand is so worthwhile. If you don’t know who to ask, reach out to other members of the RWA community and you’re bound to have someone offer to read/listen to your pitch.
Past, Present and Future
For this anniversary conference, with Past, Present and Future in mind, we read through old editions of HT. Did you know Hearts Talk is available anytime from https://romanceaustralia.com/ website – when logged in as a member? Here’s a sample of great articles to boost your confidence and get you pitch ready:
- In HT March 2020 (pp7-8) Michelle Diener wrote “Secrets of a Successful Pitch.” Full of great advice. We particularly liked her tip to “…look at the back page blurb of books that are similar to yours, or books whose blurb really jumped out at you. Study how they are put together, what you like, what you don’t like, and start to put something unique together for your story.” Read the full article which is chock full of practical tips on formulating your pitch.
- In the wonderful new edition of Best of Hearts Talk Craft (p.1-5) is a fab article titled, “How To Nail Your Premise With A 25-Word Pitch” by Amanda Ashby from Hearts Talk January 2016. It starts with – “Have you ever been at a party and made the (often fatal) mistake of saying, “I’m writing a book”? Then someone asks what your book’s about and suddenly this stream of consciousness comes pouring out of your mouth like a hideous tidal wave that can’t be stopped.” The first example is hilarious. Don’t miss this one.
- If you’re feeling scared, have a read of Madeline Ash’s article about her bumpy road to publication in HT 2016 (p.16) It’s not about pitching, but it’s about overcoming rejection with determination.
We’ll be posting further information on the blog in the coming weeks. We encourage you to look at the agents and publishers, not just to see what they are accepting, but also to see if you think they are a good fit for you. As many of our interviewees have said “you be you”, and that means you need to have someone who will support you in your career.
That’s all for now. Check back for a post about Business Appointments.