Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, the book or the pitch? Put another way, do you develop the larger idea of a book to test out with your agent/publisher, before writing the book? Or do you write the book and then look for the pitch in it? Or?

Brenda Chapman getting this week started.

Good question.

I'm one of those 'pantsters' who wing the plot on the first go-around. I usually have a crime and motive pinned down, but not much else when I sit down to start a new manuscript. Thus, it would be hard for me to pitch my story to a publisher or agent at the start of a project.

I recently completed a manuscript that I'm hoping will be the first in a series. I sent the draft to my beta readers for their critique and have heard back from three of the four, all with positive feedback that gives me hope. Since all the agent advice warns not to submit a manuscript until it's polished and as ready as you can make it, I've held off on querying. The act of writing that query letter is almost as hard as writing the book (okay, I exaggerate but only by a smidgen) since the need to 'sell' the idea takes thought and precision. 

A Zoom webinar with three agents that I sat in on gave some other 'rules' for the query. They ask that you compare your book to other recent books, say up to five years ago, wanting to know that the author has a handle on what's new and in demand. My problem is that I can compare the latest manuscript to other books and characters but from a while back. The other issue is that I've been reading a lot of domestic thrillers and literary fiction that mine is nothing like.

I do wonder about the need to have one's book similar to recent other works since not all readers like the current thrillers or mysteries. Also, a good story well written should be marketable even if it's not aligning with a current 'fad'. For instance, a few years ago, vampire fiction was huge, but now? I'm not certain that the genre is still on the agent and publisher wish lists, but I'd wager that it has a huge fan base that hasn't gone away. I can see the domestic thriller genre falling out of favour at some point as the market becomes saturated. So, is it wise to require an author to write what is current?

Back to the pitch. The agents also say that if the nugget of a book can't be distilled into a hundred word synopsis, then it needs rewriting. I search for this nugget after I've finished the manuscript, but I'm also cognizant of the need to have a core focus now as I'm writing. Distilling a book to a sentence or two is a difficult exercise. Even the synopsis is to be pared down to a page or a page and a half. 

So, basically, the goal is to come up with the elevator pitch for a book -- what we'd say to sell it to an agent on an elevator ride to the lobby (hopefully from higher than the second floor). We have to sell the book by pitching what makes it marketable ... and this is only to get the agent or publisher to read a few pages to decide if they want to read the entire manuscript. I suppose this mimics readers deciding if they want to read a book or put it back on the shelf.

The more of these books I write, the more I see the value of the pitch and the need to get it right. I just wish writing one wasn't so darn hard!


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Josh Stallings said...

Thanks for your thoughts. You have given me much to chew on.
My first life was in movie marketing, I was trailer editor. My job was, distilling an entire film down to 2 minutes, and the 30 second tv spots. You might think I could apply these same skills to my writing. Can't. One and a half pages to tell my story? Aaaaaa! Elevator pitch... Panic sets in. I think you are very right in explaining the need. Marketing need a clear clean sell. We want readers to read our books. And we will be judged by the back cover, if that passes the sniff test they give 20 pages. If only one of us would come up with the Pitch 2021 app.

Brenda Chapman said...

Josh - I like the sound of that app! Could you imagine plugging your manuscript into it and voila! A perfect pitch arrives. I know I'd pay to use it :-)