The Elevator Pitch, Second Floor
→ Always be prepared. You never know when you’re going to come across someone who will ask, “So what’s your book about?” At conferences, there are mealtimes, hallway chatting times, elevator times, and countless other times when someone might ask you The Question. Or, you might not even be at a conference. You could be like my new friend Tara who was sitting next to me at our kids’ volleyball game. Unbeknownst to both of us, at that very moment I had a query from her in my inbox. She didn’t even know I was an agent. We chatted and finally put it together (“OMG! You’re an agent? You’re Rachelle?”) and I asked her The Question. She did a pretty good job with her pitch. Always have yours ready, too!
→ Know your goal. I already mentioned that your elevator pitch should be 30 to 60 seconds, and it needs to end with a question, “call to action” or other appropriate closer. Know your desired outcome, and craft your closing line accordingly.
→ Show your passion. Act like a parent showing off pictures of their newborn or their star little league pitcher. If you’re not excited about your project, nobody else will be.
→ Use your time wisely. Agents and editors are just like you—they’re way too busy and constantly overloaded with information. They have to make quick decisions about what deserves their attention and what doesn’t. Your job is to immediately grab their attention and don’t let it go. Work hard at making your pitch as compelling or intriguing as possible.
→ Don’t get ahead of yourself. The purpose of an elevator pitch is not to close a deal. It’s to interest your audience in continuing to talk. I’ve been in situations where I received an elevator pitch and immediately responded, “Do you have time for a cup of coffee?” That’s what you want.
→ Act natural. I’m not buying anyone’s excuses about the difficulty of trying to “sound natural” when you’ve practiced your pitch to death. The point is to get your pitch down so that you understand the basics of what to convey in a brief amount of time. Learn the difference between telling too much and not enough. Avoid taglines that sound “canned.” Once you’ve gotten the feel for how a verbal pitch works, try writing a few variations of yours. Then when the time comes, you’ll be able to rattle it off naturally because you’re not only comfortable with the format, you’re comfortable with your project. Plus it will be easy to vary your pitch depending on your audience. You may argue that you’ll never be totally at ease with a verbal pitch, but you can become comfortable enough that your conversation flows naturally. I’ve heard enough successful pitches from shy introverted writers that I know it’s possible. (Take to heart one of my favorite quotes from the ‘80s: “Argue for your limitations, and they’re yours.”)
Let’s do some critiques:
Krista Phillips: Well, I write Contemporary Romance, and my novel is about an introverted, shy accountant who meets a single dad in an Internet chat room. After she falls into ‘like’ with him, she senses she’s being followed, and becomes convinced he’s an Internet stalker. Her best friend convinces her to take a road trip to find out his true identity. Of course, this is a romance, so he isn’t really an Internet preditor as she fears, and they end up falling in love, but not before she’s attacked by the REAL stalker.
Me: That’s pretty good, Krista. Nice and conversational. Just enough information, never becomes so detailed as to lose me. Plus, the plot sounds fun and a little suspenseful. If you pitched me this, I’d say, “Hmm, sounds interesting. Do we have a meeting scheduled? Or can I get some pages?”
Julie Weathers: It’s a historical based on true story about a devout preacher’s daughter who marries a hard-drinking, brawling Irish riverboat captain. They go on to build a sprawling cattle empire against a Civil War backdrop.
Me: This isn’t enough to get me interested. It’s not bad, but it’s not really a story either. It’s more of a premise. What is the unique, compelling aspect of this that would make me want to read it? What actually happens as they build the empire? And why should I care? These are the questions you’ll need to answer, succinctly, to create a pitch that accomplishes your goal—a continued conversation with the agent.
Jeannie: Well, my WIP is about a foster care social worker suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She’s trying to get her life back on her career path while coping with her mental disorder, but a severe flashback raises questions about her competency from a handsome attorney who has a client on her caseload. She’s also struggling with understanding why God would have allowed something so traumatic to happen to her in the first place. (Hopefully the agent would be somewhat interested here…and I would go on to explain my qualifications in writing such a book, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and how mental disorders affect 1 in 4 adults but are largely left untouched in Christian fiction.)
Me: Jeannie, this is a nice, conversational style, is a good length, and I like the way you plan to explain your credentials. The problem is the lack of story. It’s very vague, and I can’t easily imagine an exciting tale about a woman “trying to get her life back on her career path…” What does that even mean? And how much drama or action could that possibly entail? You reference a handsome attorney, but only in passing, which is a bummer because he was the most interesting thing in the pitch. I’m wondering why you’ve left out the most potentially dramatic and attention-grabbing details: What traumatic event is she suffering over? What was the nature of the “flashback” she had? I’d recommend you go back to the drawing board and work to convey the story, not just the themes, not the internal struggles of your protagonist, but what would make me want to read the book.
Jen and Kev: My current book is actually “my secret life as a reluctant preacher’s wife” but I couldn’t name it that or the people we pastor might get offended, so I titled it “Custom Made Grace for Hope Starved Hearts.” It’s a humorous devotional with stories from my ditzy life, and encouragement for struggling Christians. I write a column in a newspaper with a readership of 5,000 and I speak at church and civic groups. I also… DING! What did you say your name was?
Me: Jen, your pitch interests me for a number of reasons. It’s conversational and flows nicely. And you also tell me a bit about your platform, which is great. However, your title kind of makes my teeth hurt and I’m wondering if it’s giving me a cavity with its CBA-Christianese-formula sound (although I wouldn’t be surprised if a publisher liked it). However, your non-title, “my secret life as a reluctant preacher’s wife” is killer and would actually sell books. The problem of offending the congregation could be handled… just dedicate the book to them or something. There’s not a big market for devotionals, but if you gave me this pitch, I’d want to talk more about it, possibly discuss refashioning it from a devo to a Christian living book. And I love that you don’t know my name.
Tomorrow’s the last day for elevator pitches. Any further questions, ask them today!
Rachelle is a Christian literary agent, but when you call her Mrs. Gardner, she feels like her mother-in-law. You can use “Ms.” or just Rachelle.