Chasya used this week’s Questions Corner to respond to a good question; namely, the mistakes that authors make while pitching. My afternoon was a busy one, and somehow I missed my moment to chime in, but I’m adding my two cents now. I’d argue that pitching—the ability to use your three or seven minute “speed date” to sell an agent on an idea— is less important than the material you send or hand over. In other words, it’s possible to flub a pitch session entirely, but if you’ve managed to communicate the core idea, and that idea strikes me as an interesting/viable one, then I’m almost always willing to look at a sample. For me, and likely for most agents, it’s what is on the page that counts. So, if you stuttered or shook or needed to start over, don’t sweat it. Polish your pitch so that you feel comfortable delivering it, but know that the real assessment comes not at a tiny table in the midst of a busy conference, but when I read your work.
That said, my best advice to writers, whether they are preparing for a conference or mailing out queries is to try and think like an agent/editor. Do come up with some contemporary writers whose work is thematically or stylistically related to your own. That your work is unique is a given, but for agents and thereafter publishers to “position” your book, they’ll need to target a particular audience; does your work appeal to readers of Sue Miller and Jane Hamilton, readers of Jonathan Lethem and Dave Eggers, etc. I’m always surprised by the number of pitchers who seem flummoxed by this question. Note: It’s probably best to exclude all canonical writers from the discussion. Not because it may raise an eyebrow or two (being presumptuous is fine if you can back it up) but because it is not especially helpful as a marketing description. Leave comparisons to Joyce or James or Fitzgerald to the dazzled critics.
Nonfiction writers should address one of book publishing’s existential questions: namely, is this material really a book or is it better suited to a magazine/blog piece? Obviously, this is a subjective judgment, and sometimes it’s a question answered in hindsight, when a book fails to sell. It is, however, among the most frequently cited reasons that editors pass on interesting, well-written and even timely material. For most writers, it’s worth the effort to view your work through this lens: what does a book offer than an article length treatment can or does not? Is this a subject that people will pay to read about? Why?
Sometimes it’s tough to look at our own work so dispassionately—after all, this is a project you care mightily about. But doing so can help you reframe, fine-tune, or broaden your approach into something more viable. Something people might not only want to read, but pay to do so.