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If you want readers to buy your book, you must convince them your book is better than all the other books in your genre that they could buy. You even need to persuade them that your book will be more entertaining than their favorite streaming show. And if you want them to recommend your book, they need to want to read it right away.
A strong pitch will make readers want to buy and read your book ASAP. And if your pitch is clear and easy to repeat, readers will use your wording to recommend your book to their friends.
But many authors are afraid to talk about their books. They don’t know what to say or worry about sounding like a used car salesman. More often, authors ramble about their books, using long paragraphs to describe them rather than short, compelling sentences.
How do you pitch your book? How do you talk about it in a way that makes people want to buy it?
Charles Harris has worked with hundreds of authors and screenwriters to help them perfect their pitches. He is a director of the UK Society of Authors and has used his pitching method to become a best-selling author and an international award-winning writer-director.
Why is crafting a pitch so hard for authors?
Thomas: Many authors find that crafting a pitch is some of the hardest writing they do. Why is writing a paragraph harder than writing an entire book?
Charles: Distilling 70,000 words into a sentence or two is hard. It’s tough, but it’s important.
Pitching: The Great Accelerator
A good pitch accelerates all parts of your career. It accelerates your ability to sell to readers, publishers, agents, and movie or TV companies. But creating a good pitch also helps you develop the idea in the first place.
The better your pitch is at the beginning of your writing process, the better you’ll be able to develop the fundamental idea you are writing about. A strong pitch will also accelerate your ability to work with cover designers, marketing professionals, or PR people. No matter who you talk to, you’ll always be using a pitch.
When should you write a pitch for your book?
Thomas: You’re talking about creating the pitch for the book before writing the book. That requires a mindset shift.
Many authors write their books and then try to create a pitch. But writing the pitch first allows you to get feedback on whether the book is worth writing in the first place. It may also help you tweak your idea and make the book better.
I occasionally offer an online pitch practice in conjunction with a writers conference. Before the conference, writers will practice their pitches on me, and I’ll provide feedback. In almost every instance, at least a few authors realize they need to rewrite their books. Sometimes their protagonist isn’t active enough. Other times, the antagonist doesn’t have a clear motivation. Some books have a major structural problem.
When authors perfect the pitch before they write the book, they find it easier to write a book that delivers on the promise of the pitch.
Charles: I run workshops in pitching for writers, authors, and screenwriters, and I always begin by saying, “Probably 90% of you will leave this workshop with a well-developed pitch and will rewrite your manuscript or screenplay.” In fact, that’s a lie because 100% of the participants will. I’ve never found anyone who doesn’t.
I do it myself for my own books. I can’t write anything if I haven’t got the pitch to start with. I need that reassurance that I’m writing something that’s going somewhere.
Having said that, I’ll rewrite the pitch throughout the writing process as I get to know my book better.
Thomas: That back-and-forth process is very healthy, but it’s not very romantic. It’s more romantic to believe you can descend into your cave and emerge with a pristine artifact that shimmers in the sunlight.
But that’s not how writing works.
If you want other people to buy and read your book, it must be commercially viable. It must connect with what other people want. Writing the pitch forces you to think about the reader much sooner in the process.
Charles: Developing a pitch first is helpful, but not all writers do that.
Pantsers tend to develop their pitches during the second-draft stage. After they’ve got all the mess on the paper, they can determine what kind of story they have.
I’ve done that in the past. One of my most successful screenplays was something I couldn’t work out in a pitch. I ended up banging it all down to see what I had. I needed a pitch to guide the edit, and I found it in that second stage.
Your Pitch is a Conversation
Writing a pitch is difficult, but it’s not as hard as some people think. You don’t have to create a wonderful piece of language or a perfectly polished three-word sentence that encapsulates everything.
A pitch is conversational. Before we get into the details of genre, we have to realize that a pitch is, fundamentally, having a conversation.
Your reader will talk to other readers. They’ll ask one another, “What book were you reading that you thought was so good?” Readers won’t answer with a pearl of wisdom in three words, but they’re not going to spend 90 minutes describing the book either.
Thomas: Think about the way you talk about books with other people. When you love a book, you tell your friends, “You’ve got to read this book! It’s a…” and then you essentially give a pitch for the book.
As an author, you’re trying to create the rest of that sentence so people can use it in a conversation.
When one friend recommends a book to another, they explain why they liked it.
I recently recommended the movie Puss in Boots because it had one of the best villains I’ve seen on screen. That’s how I described it. If I were writing a pitch for the film, I would’ve said, “This villain is worth making a movie about. It’s worth a screenplay.”
Five Steps to Writing a Great Pitch for Your Book
Charles: That’s a great way to pitch. There are many ways to pitch.
When I’m doing a workshop, I teach people to think about the following aspects of their stories when pitching. Publishing professionals and agents will be listening for the following elements.
- A: Appropriate
- B: Budget-able
- C: Cinematic
- D: Different
- E: Employable
A is for Appropriate
The person listening to your pitch will ask, “Is this book appropriate for me?” It’s the question of genre. They want to know whether they’d be interested and what emotions it will create.
They’re asking, “Do I feel like laughing or crying? Do I feel like love or danger?”
Thomas: This first element of the genre, or appropriateness for the readers, also earns you their attention so you can give them the rest of the letters or the rest of the pitch. If the genre fits, they’ll be interested in the rest of your pitch.
For example, if you say, “It’s a romance,” but your reader isn’t in the mood for romance, they stop listening. It’s beneficial for the reader and the author because you can immediately move on to the next book or the next reader who might be interested.
Charles: If you’re pitching professionally to an agent, publisher, or film producer, you’ll have done your research. You’ll know whether they publish rom-coms or not.
But sometimes companies change directions.
I encourage writers to begin a pitch meeting by asking the professional what they’re publishing or producing currently. They may have always done romcoms, but perhaps they want to move into thrillers.
Thomas: When pitching in a professional context, you’re also pitching a working relationship with yourself. If they’re going to work with you, they’ll have to interact with you on an ongoing basis, so a personal connection becomes very valuable.
Pitching a professional is different than pitching a reader in that way. Readers are asking whether yours is a book they want to buy. A publisher or producer is asking if your book is one they want to contract and if you are the kind of person they want to work with.
B is for Budgetable
Charles: Budgetable is a horrible word, but it means the professionals are asking, “Can I make this movie for the budget that I’m likely to be able to raise by selling it?”
Producers are asking:
- How much should I sell this movie?
- Who will come and watch it?
- Will it be in the big cinemas or on an obscure cable channel at 3:00 AM?
The answers to those questions will affect their budget.
Thomas: The same questions apply to books as well.
For example, if you’re a famous person like the Prince of England and want to write a memoir, a publisher can spend any amount of money hiring ghostwriters, editors, and others who can do all the work to create your book.
Since you’re the Prince of England, the publisher knows they’ll make their money back in sales.
However, if you’re an obscure person, you’ll have to convince a publisher that they won’t have to spend more money on your book than they’ll get out of it.
Every book proposal is effectively a business plan. It must make the case to a traditional publisher that the book is worth publishing because it costs money to publish books.
Charles: It certainly applies to readers too.
Readers ask, “Do I want to invest my time in this book?” Some people only want to read short books, while others only want long ones.
Thomas: Readers are thinking, “I’ll never get back the 10 hours I spent reading your book,” so they need to know it’s worth their time.
C is for Cinematic
Charles: A good pitch should create images in the listener’s mind. When a publisher or producer hears your pitch, they should be thinking, “I can imagine that happening.”
It’s basically craft, but “cinematic” sounds more exciting and reminds writers to write the book pitch using words that create images in the listener’s mind.
D is for Different
Charles: Your book must be different from others in your genre, but interestingly it must still be appropriate (A) to the genre. The A we discussed is about how similar your book is to others, but at the same time, it must be somewhat different.
If it’s not different, it won’t stand out.
Thomas: In business school, we’d call that “a tension to manage rather than a problem to solve.”
Your book must be different enough to be worth reading. If it’s exactly like something I’ve already read, I’ll just read that book again.
On the other hand, if it’s so different that it’s not what I’m looking for, I’m not interested in it.
Beginning authors find this tension difficult to manage when they haven’t read enough books in their genre. They might have read the most popular books in their genre, but they haven’t read the B-tier books that voracious readers find.
You don’t have to be an avid fantasy reader to enjoy Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings.
Fantasy authors should be familiar with what’s been published in the past year. What are people buying right now? Develop fluency in your genre by reading lots of books, and you’ll get a sense of how different or appropriate your book is.
Don’t stop with reading romance or merely historical romance. Read all the books published this year in the sub-sub-genre, such as “Edwardian England historical romance.” Compare those with your Edwardian England historical romance novel.
If you haven’t read any of those books, how will you know if your book is appropriate and different? How will you write a pitch for your book that stands out? You have to discover that by reading your specific genre and becoming familiar with reader expectations.
Charles: Good authors read voraciously.
It’s also a matter of sparking the Broca area of the brain that reacts to different and interesting things. Without that element, your pitch will probably fall flat. I highly recommend your episode on Broca.
E is for Employable
Publishing professionals also ask, “Why should I be interested in this writer?”
What makes you the perfect person to write this book?
Thomas: When you’re pitching an agent or an editor, they’ll often ask, “What other ideas do you have?” They’re thinking, “If this book is a hit, we’ll want to publish another book by this author.”
Your employability is often determined by whether you have multiple book ideas related to the one you’re pitching. If your first romance is popular, publishers want to know you can write another romance.
When you discuss your ideas, the publisher may get more excited about your fourth idea. If they believe they could get your fourth idea through pub board in a week, they’ll ask for a proposal on that one.
Editors, agents, publishers, and readers want to know you’re not a one-trick pony.
Do I write a Short Pitch, Long Pitch or Logline?
Charles: We are using the word “pitch” to mean those short, compelling sentences readers use when talking at the water cooler.
Some people talk about pitching in a longer format. In a pitch meeting, you’d go into much more detail, but your single sentence is still at the core of it.
Sometimes people call the short pitch a logline.
I recommend creating a personal logline as well. It will help you with your employability factor.
When you get that horrible question, “What do you do?” you can answer with a short logline.
I use different personal loglines in different circumstances. For example, I might say, “I am an award-winning writer-director, now writing novels.” If I talk to a potential reader, I might say, “I’m a novelist who writes political thrillers, and I’ve got two out at the moment.”
Prepare a few personal loglines that describe yourself.
A Pitch Template
Thomas: Walk us through your default formula for creating a good pitch for a book.
Charles: Well, basically, it goes why, who, what, and maybe how. Sometimes you have to include when and where, but sometimes you don’t.
Your listener wants to know why they should continue listening to your pitch.
“It is a…”
You begin with the words, “It is a…” and then say the genre.
- It’s a romantic comedy.
- It’s a science fiction action movie.
- It’s a historical romance.
In just a few words, you’ve already told the person whether it’s worth them listening. You’ve also set up their expectation. Sometimes I hear people pitch, and after three sentences, or sometimes a whole paragraph, I have no idea whether they’re pitching a comedy or a tragedy.
You want to set up the mood. If you set it up as a comedy, people will be listening for the funny side of it.
“It is a [genre] about…”
After you’ve set up the genre, go straight into the protagonist’s character arc.
Take the movie The Terminator, for example. If you look at the character arc, you’ll see it’s about a woman who initially can’t stand up for herself. She can’t even stand up to a flatmate, but by the end of the story, she’s wearing army fatigues and is about to give birth to the guy who’ll save the human race.
That’s a big character arc.
I would start by saying, “It’s a science fiction action adventure movie about a woman who initially can’t stand up for herself.”
Begin with the Character’s Flaw
You start with the character’s flaw because that also provides a reason for your listener to keep listening.
Emotional engagement usually comes from the character’s flaw. Most of us won’t be pursued by a homicidal robot trying to kill us, but we may have to learn to stand up for ourselves. So that’s where we engage as human beings.
The what is the first turning point of your story.
One writer says that books are simply three disasters and an ending.
The first disaster is your inciting incident that kicks off the story. The second disaster happens at the end of 30 minutes in a movie or 70 pages into a book. It’s the first turning point that pushes readers into the main story and asks the big story question.
In The Terminator, the first turning point is when the protagonist discovers she’s being pursued by this homicidal, indestructible robot that’s trying to kill all the people with her name.
So that’s the next bit of my pitch.
“It is a [genre] about [a flawed character] who [first turning point]…”
“It’s a science fiction action movie about a woman who can’t stand up for herself, who discovers she’s being pursued by a homicidal, indestructible robot that’s trying to kill all the people with her name.”
In the what, you say what the character is trying to do or what they’re trying to escape.
Your what will power most of the movie or story.
When? And Where?
Depending on your pitch, you may want to add when and where, if those elements are particularly special. If it’s historical, you’ll need to say, “In the reign of Charles II” or “During the time of the Declaration of Independence.”
Perhaps you’ll include the setting of Alaska or Hawaii if that’s particularly important to the story.
What about who?
You’ll notice I haven’t used names.
Unless you pitch a true story about somebody important, I wouldn’t use the name because that’s one more thing your listener has to remember. Humans can only remember about seven things at a time, so don’t clog up your listener’s brain with unnecessary information. It’s not important for the person you’re pitching to know that the character’s name is Sarah Connor.
On the other hand, it would be important to name the person you’re writing about if you were telling a true story about Gandhi.
Thomas: That is true for the first book in a series, but it changes for the sequel. People who watched The Terminator have an emotional connection with Sarah Connor. When you pitch the sequel, people will want to know Sara Connor is trapped in an insane asylum.
But if I don’t know who the character is, I don’t care about their name.
Wrapping Up the Pitch
Charles: If you can tie a nice little bow on the end of your pitch, it’s powerful. If you can jump to the end of the character arc and end with an ironic twist, you’ll create even more reason for your listener to want more.
For example, if we jump to the end of Sarah Connor’s character arc, we could end the pitch by saying, “By the end of it, she’s a better killer than the robot himself.”
Your completed pitch would read as follows:
It’s a science fiction action adventure movie about a woman who can’t stand up for herself who’s being pursued by this homicidal, indestructible robot. By the end, she becomes a better killing machine than he is.
The last part gives a nice little ironic sense of the character arc. It’s not always essential, but it’s nice. It becomes particularly important when you’re pitching to a professional.
Pitch Practice: A Sample Pitch from Thomas
Thomas: While you were talking, I followed your guidelines and put together a pitch.
I’m going to give you this pitch, and then I want you to tell me how I can improve it.
Pitch: It’s a romantic comedy about a recently divorced couple who get trapped together on a deserted island where they must learn to work together in order to survive.
Charles: I like that. I can see pictures already, which is good. While there have been movies made about people trapped on a deserted island, I can’t think an identical storyline.
I would want to know more about their flaws.
What do they have to overcome to learn to work together? Is one of them very uptight?
Of course, I’m just brainstorming and understand that’s a bit cliché. But the flaws they have will tell me how fresh your idea is. If you come up with stale flaws, I’ll be put off.
The hardest part is portraying a character’s inner story and flaws.
In some way, the character’s flaws will be your own. A good story requires you to dig into yourself to excavate the ideas and flaws that are meaningful for you. That’s key to making your pitch come to life.
Thomas: Readers are satisfied with a comedy that has an ending where the main character has become a better person. Readers are satisfied with a tragedy when the main character suffers the consequences of not becoming a better person.
Well-executed tragedies have staying power because they resonate powerfully.
A meaningful transformation requires a meaningful flaw. Your characters need to have a real challenge the audience can relate to.
Let’s say your character’s biggest challenge is having too much money and managing their financial portfolio is stressful. That’s a real challenge some people have, but not many people can relate.
If you’re writing a story like Richie Rich that allows readers to escape to the world of the wealthy, you won’t include all the boring nitty-gritty meetings with accountants. You’d write about the fun of having a mansion and a butler.
If you want to write a story people can relate to, you need to understand yourself and your struggles.
If your character is struggling with pride, and you struggle with pride, you can work a lot more nuance into their flaw because you can conduct your own research by examining your own flaws. But you also need to know what your audience can relate to.
Breaking the Rules
Charles: At the same time, you should also realize there are three genres that don’t focus on the character’s flaw: adventure, satire, and a series. In those three instances, you can sometimes get away with undeveloped flaws or flaws that aren’t important.
For example, we don’t really care about James Bond’s flaws. In fact, when they try to bring them in, they rarely work because the story is about the fun.
Indiana Jones fears snakes, but the story isn’t about that.
People sometimes get hung up on trying to make the flaws work, but if they’re writing an adventure story, the main character doesn’t need a character arc. You compensate for the lack of character arc by writing lots of fun scenes in interesting settings.
Thomas: You also give the character lots of external challenges. James Bond faces more external challenges in one scene than a normal person has in a lifetime. Half the characters in Indiana Jones are trying to kill him.
Since there’s so much external conflict, those characters don’t need internal conflict to make the story interesting. Adding an internal conflict would actually distract from the adventure.
Imagine if Indiana Jones had to stop and wrestle with an inner conflict. “Should I shoot the guy with the sword? I don’t know. I shot a swordsman in my past, but he turned out to be a good guy, so I don’t know what to do.”
It doesn’t work at all. Just have him shoot the guy with the sword.
Charles: I teach workshops on breaking the rules. That’s one instance where you can get away with breaking a rule. You can break the character arc rule by invoking the other rule of adding more action.
The whole point of satire is that nobody gets over their flaws. They’re stuck.
In Bonfire of the Vanities, for example, you don’t expect anyone to improve as a person. That would kill the comedy of it. The characters have flaws but no arc.
You can also overlook the character arc in a series, but I’m not talking about a series like Hunger Games, which is one story told in three books.
A series that can break the character flaw rule is more like a police series where every new book starts with the main character finding out he has a new case to deal with.
There’s a mini character arc throughout the book or episode, but in the next book, the character is back where he started with a new case to solve. You may have a character who grows from book to book, but it’s not a massive part of the story.
Rite of Passage or Coming of Age
In a rite-of-passage or coming-of-age story, on the other hand, the character flaw is the whole story.
What the character does is actually the least important part of the story, which often presents a problem for authors who are trying to write a book pitch. It’s hard to determine the what of the story when it’s primarily about the character’s flaw.
Thomas: It’s also important to know what your primary conflict is. There are five classic story conflicts:
- Man vs. Man
- Man vs. Himself
- Man vs. Society
- Man vs. God
- Man vs. Nature
Most books have elements of all those conflicts, but you need to identify your primary conflict because that will help you make the story more interesting.
Charles: I often help authors find their focus when writing a pitch for their books. Most good writers have lots of ideas.
My first novel was a multi-strand story. When I was trying to work out how to pitch it, I started with the sentence, “It’s not a who-done-it. It’s what they did after it.” I thought that was nice, but it didn’t tell you much about the story. On the other hand, I couldn’t tell all the different strands of the story in my pitch either.
Over time, I started reading my reviews and noticed that people were calling it a thriller. I realized it was actually a political thriller. I refined my pitch to focus more on the main character (a journalist) and what he was trying to do (save his job). He comes across the biggest scoop of his career, but to make it work, he has to tell a lie and then a bigger lie. Before he knows it, he’s putting a teenager’s life at risk.
That’s the fundamental pitch for my book, The Breaking of Liam Glass. It focuses on the journalist, the lie he tells, and the danger or jeopardy he creates.
Thomas: Staying true to one genre also makes it easier to create a pitch.
It’s easier to pitch a true adventure than an adventure/comedy/romance. If you’re mixing genres, you have to deal with two different pitch formulations at the same time.
The Princess Bride is a classic example of mixing genres. It didn’t do well in theaters because the marketing team didn’t know how to pitch it.
Is it a children’s story? Is it a romance? Is it an adventure? Is it a fantasy?
It had so many strands they didn’t know what to focus on.
It wasn’t until people started renting the VHS that the movie became popular. It came out right as the VHS revolution came about. There weren’t many movies to rent, so the multi-strand Princess Bride lucked out and became a hit.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write a cross-genre book, but if it’s your first book, writing a pure single-genre book will make writing and pitching easier.
Charles: You’re probably right about pitching your first book as a single genre, particularly if you are going indie and you’ve chosen a popular genre.
But having said that, there is a good argument for having a cross-genre book. The second genre gives it an extra “oomph.”
Romantic comedy is cross-genre by its nature. The Terminator is a science fiction adventure. As long as you’re clear on where it sits on that Venn diagram, I think you could pitch it like that.
What about including character names in your pitch?
Thomas: In every pitch example you’ve given, you’ve never mentioned more than two characters. Authors often make the mistake of including too many characters in their pitches. They’ve created a dozen characters they love, and they want to mention them all in the pitch.
But readers don’t need to know about all those people. Focus on the protagonist and maybe the antagonist.
Charles: And along with that, discard all the setup. Most people spend the first five minutes telling me everything that goes into the beginning of the book. But you don’t need any of that.
Having said that, you’ve just raised a very interesting question.
How do you write a pitch for a a multi-character book?
Thomas: How do you pitch Avengers?
Charles: How do you pitch Ocean’s 11? How do you pitch Crash?
If you have a multi-character story, you’ll need to find what I call the nutshell that encompasses everything. Find the one thing they have in common.
The movie Crash (2004) was set in Los Angeles. It had 12 characters with eight running storylines crisscrossing, but they all had to do with a race in Los Angeles. That’s what you would pitch.
It’s like pitching a series. You pitch the overriding thematic issues, and then you might give one of the strands or episodes as an example that demonstrates the theme.
Thomas: That is a totally different pitch formulation. You’re effectively pitching the theme of the story rather than giving a classic character-based pitch.
Can you give us an example of how to write a theme-based pitch for a book?
Charles: The series House is about a fundamentally brilliant pathologist who cannot relate to people. In every episode, he gets an unimaginably difficult case to treat. He has to work out what the disease is with the help and hindrance of all the people around him who are trying to turn him into more of a human being. Other people just hate him for not being very human. This is how I’d pitch the overall series. Then I would give an example of an episode.
There’s an even better way to pitch House, though. You could say, “It’s Sherlock Holmes in a hospital.”
Thomas: That’s exactly what it is. The real-life person who inspired Sherlock Holmes in the 1800s was actually a physician.
Speaking of Sherlock Holmes in a hospital, your book is called Jaws in Space. In your book, you walk people through this process.
Charles, give us your pitch for a book on pitching books.
Charles: Two screenwriters went into a producer and said, “Jaws in space.” The producer got out his checkbook and said, “Write me that script.”
And “Jaws in Space” became the movie Alien. It has become famous for the three-word pitch.
Pitching is the great accelerator. My book contains anecdotes, stories, and recipes for dealing with different issues. It’s aimed mostly at the movie and TV industry, but nearly everything applies equally to fiction and nonfiction books.
Thomas: If you can learn how to pitch a $50 million film, pitching a $50,000 book becomes easy.
Learning pitch techniques from the film industry gives authors an edge. Jaws in Space will help you learn how to pitch to editors, agents, or regular readers by describing why they would love your story.
Charles: I’ve got a free Jaws in Space Pitch Workbook based on the material in Jaws in Space. You can download it for free if you don’t mind joining my email list, where I do book and film reviews and the odd article on writing and pitching.
Connect with Charles Harris at his website.
New March 2023 Patrons:
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Thank you for having me. I hope this is of use to people.
This was an extremely helpful conversation! Thank you Charles Harris. And thank you Thomas for your insights too. I’ve written a number of traditionally published books (Harvest House Publishers). My last book (2023) reached #1 New Release on Amazon. But one of my favorite books entitled, “Real Life Romance” (2016) hasn’t done as well because the publisher and I haven’t really known how to pitch it: Here’s my attempt: It’s a nonfiction, collection of true love stories. (Think Chicken Soup for the Soul meets Romance Novel). Each chapter unpacks how a real life struggle is resolved which helps each couple’s love grow stronger.”
Thank you for your kind words. Well done on your last book.
I like the idea for “Real Life Romance”. and I can also see the problem with the pitch. Mash-ups of titles for pitches can work well, but the key principle is that they have to be both recent and successful. I can testify about that from personal, painful experience!
‘Chicken Soup’ was successful but not that recent. You’d do better to pitch a more recent success and a specific romance novel rather than just referencing the genre.
I feel your title could be stronger and more specific. Joanna Penn tells how changing the title on one of her first non-fiction books had a massive positive effect on sales. The final sentence could also do with more of an emotional punch. I find the word “unpacks” is a bit corporate. I want to know how the book will make me feel. I hope this helps – tell me how it goes.