Success in publishing requires more than just writing a great book. It requires people.
- People to talk about your book
- People to buy your book
- People to publish your book
- People to give you feedback about your book
- People to recommend your book
People. People. People.
Some authors struggle in their careers because they are isolated. They sit alone in a room typing away, hoping the internet will magically find them people to read their book.
But the internet won’t do that. The internet will bombard your potential readers with a million distractions to keep them from reading or even hearing about your book.
How do you connect with people who can help make your book a success?
My grandparents’ generation called this “winning friends and influencing people.” My generation calls it “networking.”
One key tool of networking is your pitch. Your pitch is a short summary of what your book is about and why it would be interesting to read.
So, how do you win friends and influence people?
How can your pitch help you network?
I asked Lindsey Hughes, a pitch master. She helps writers craft compelling pitches that allow writers to connect with people who can help them succeed. She is a former Hollywood development executive, who began her career reading scripts for Robert Zemeckis and Kathryn Bigelow, worked under Michael Eisner at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and developed projects for John H. Williams, producer of the billion dollar Shrek franchise.
How would you define networking?
Thomas: Networking is such a corporate buzzword. How would you define networking?
Lindsey: Networking is simply “making work friends.” You don’t get anywhere without people helping you, and you can’t find people to help you if you’re not out there talking to people.
I can teach you some tools that will help you feel less nervous about talking to people, regardless of the person or subject.
Thomas: I find it helpful to think of networking in terms of what I can give the other person, not what I can get out of the relationship. If I’m thinking about networking in terms of how it benefits me, the relationship feels weird and manipulative.
Instead, I focus on getting to know the other person. I’m an ideas person, so I love to talk about ideas and discover which ideas interest people. I subtract myself from the conversation, at least initially, or find a way that I can help the other person.
Sometimes, you can help someone simply by making an introduction. One of the best ways to use networking is by connecting one friend who needs something with another friend who has that thing.
Lindsey: We call those people connectors. I am a connector, and I love getting people jobs or introducing them to agents because I like helping people. We can approach networking thinking, “I’m going to work on connecting this person with something they need or want.”
The flip side of networking and connecting is listening.
When you meet someone and introduce yourself, you talk about yourself for a minute, but then you flip it around and start asking them questions.
Thomas: One of the easiest ways to serve someone is to truly listen and be interested in them. It seems so basic, but most people go through an entire day without having anybody really listen to them.
As a society, we are the loneliest we’ve ever been. Statistics show that something like 40% of people don’t have a single close friend. It used to be the circle of friends was getting smaller, but now, for a lot of people. They have no circle. They have zero close friends.
Be someone who listens to others and asks good questions. Then, ask good follow-up questions that demonstrate you’re really listening.
Lindsey: You don’t know what a difference a three-minute conversation might make in someone’s life. Maybe it’s no big deal to you, but being a kind listener is a big deal to others.
This weekend I was in a restaurant with my dad. As he’s gotten older, he’s become chattier. He wants to talk to everyone in the restaurant, and he especially likes talking to the fathers of little blonde girls because they remind him of me when I was little.
We were out having a father-daughter meal, and there was a dad with a blonde little girl. My dad stopped and talked to them. That dad came up to me later and said, “Your dad is so sweet. He just made me feel so much better. My wife passed away in June, and I feel so overwhelmed. He made me feel so much better about being a father.”
That conversation where my dad was just being friendly might have changed that man’s whole trajectory of his life.
Honest conversations build relationships. I love people and find them interesting, so I’m excited to find out what makes them tick. I love hearing about their lives and screenplays because I’m a story geek.
If you approach things that way, you’ll be surprised at the results, and you’ll feel more confident talking to people as well. You’ll enjoy it more, and it won’t feel like a chore.
Thomas: Some people find it scary to talk to strangers in a restaurant. Most of us still have a bit of those insecure middle school feelings that make us afraid that people are judging us. We haven’t fully grown out of that yet.
Lindsey: If you are networking, you’re probably at an event like a writers convention or meetup, and everybody is there to meet people, so it’s far less scary.
I’m not negating anyone’s real fear. I know that overcoming that fear requires practice, but talking with strangers becomes slightly less frightening at an event where everybody is there to meet people, and everyone feels nervous.
People are naturally more friendly in that environment.
What is a cocktail pitch?
Lindsey: I teach people how to make a cocktail pitch. Other people call it an elevator pitch. I think “cocktail pitch” sounds more fun because it’s what you say to someone at a cocktail party when they ask what you do or what you’re working on.
Writers are notorious for answering the question, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer,” and they’re half apologetic or embarrassed when they say it.
I used to work in the entertainment industry in Los Angeles, where you can’t throw a rock without hitting five writers.
I was attending these networking events for writers and creators, and I’d see writers say, “I’m a writer,” and they’d be embarrassed and look down without making eye contact.
Thomas: And here you are, the person who takes the pitches for screenplays, the very person that they’re at the event to talk to!
Lindsey: Yes. I never met a writer who said, “I’m a writer, and I write these kinds of stories.”
I encourage all writers to craft a confident answer that tells the person you’re a novelist and then briefly explains what you write. My favorite example is from a writer named Ines Johnson, and she says, “Hi! I’m Ines, and I write kissing books.”
I love the way she says, “kissing books.” She didn’t say romances.
It doesn’t have to be elaborate, but your answer should tell a bit about
- What you do
- What you write
- Your sass/personality
That short sentence will help me remember you, your personality, and what you write.
The easiest way to figure out your answer is to look for commonalities in all your books. If you’re not published, just look at all your ideas, even the ones you don’t think you’ll have time to write.
Next, look at the connective tissue between your books or ideas that make all of them work together, even if they’re in different genres.
Maybe there’s a theme. Come up with a description about what kind of writer you are based on the theme or common denominator in all your books and ideas.
That is how you introduce yourself. Your brief introduction will take you from conversation killer to conversation starter because people will want to know more about your stories and how you got started.
Thomas: It’s not enough to just say your genre. You want to say what makes your books different from others in that genre. The descriptor “kissing books” is a great example. In the romance genre, there is a continuum from erotica on one end to clean Amish romance on the other, where the couple waves at each other at the end of the book.
Ines Johnson’s description specifies where her books are on the romance continuum, which then helps readers know if she writes what they like to read.
The reader makes that decision. You, as the author, don’t make the decision, but you help them discover whether they’ll like your books.
For example, if you want to get my attention, put the word “dragon” in your pitch, and I’ll say, “Keep talking.”
Your pitch will resonate with different people, but you want to give them a little bit more than just the genre. Be as specific about your genre as possible.
However, if you write a really specific genre, like LitRPG, that may be enough to make people curious.
- “What’s LitRPG?”
- “I love LitRPG!”
- “I hate LitRPG.”
Those are the only three factions people fall in.
Lindsey: The secret to pitching is selling, not telling. You’re trying to sell your story because you want people to read your book. But you don’t need to tell every single detail. That would make their eyes glaze over after a minute or two.
Tell them enough to get them excited about it.
Thomas: If you tell too much, you’ll spoil the book. The purpose of the pitch is to convince someone that they want the book, not to tell them so much about it that they don’t need to buy it.
Lindsey: Right. And that’s a difficult task for writers because they love their stories, and they’ve lived with their characters for years. They want to tell you every detail of the magic system and explain the whole family tree.
Thomas: Stick to telling about the protagonist and maybe the antagonist. If it’s a romance, you get to talk about the two main people in the romance. Keep the number of characters (and their names) in your pitch to a minimum. Don’t mention the quirky friend character in the pitch.
Project Cocktail Pitch
Step 1: Format and Genre
Lindsey: Less is more when you’re pitching. The first step in crafting your cocktail pitch is your format and your genre.
Your format is a novel, but you can still remind people that it’s a cozy mystery or a twisty political thriller. Mentioning the genre before you launch into your story automatically grounds the listener or the reader in your story.
They automatically know where you’re going, and they have expectations. They’ll be able to follow what you say next because they know the tropes.
If they tune out or say, “It’s not for me,” don’t take it personally. Instead, ask, “What do you write?”
Thomas: That’s the right approach. If somebody is bored listening to you, stop talking and ask a question. You don’t want them to see you as a boring person. Stop talking and ask a question about them.
Your goal in a conversation is to serve and bless the other person. If their goal is to serve and bless you, the conversation goes back and forth in a beautiful way.
If you’re both trying to serve yourselves, then it falls apart. All of society falls apart!
In networking, you’re trying to connect to the other person as a human. Maybe that person isn’t a good fit as a reader, but they might still be a great friend. I have friends who don’t think Brandon Sanderson is a good writer and don’t like his books. But we’re still friends.
Lindsey: It’s actually a good idea to have author friends who aren’t in your genre. You can always learn from other kinds of stories. Include a wide variety of people in your author circle.
Thomas: Yes. You want at least one friend who’s nerdier than you and one friend who’s more personable than you.
Step 2: Touchstones
Lindsey: One film and entertainment business trick is to use touchstones. You’ve heard people say, “This movie is X meets Y.” It seems a little cliché, but the technique is still used in Hollywood because it works.
Think about the touchstones for your book, but choose TV and movies for comparison instead of other books. Sadly, people are more familiar with movies and television. We all share a wider collective experience with TV and movies than with books.
Brandon Sanderson is huge in some circles, but many people don’t know who he is. However, everyone’s heard of the Avengers, even if they haven’t seen an Avengers movie.
Choose universal touchstones.
How do I use touchstones in my pitch?
There are three main ways to use touchstones.
X meets Y
One of my favorite examples is “Frozen meets the Avengers.” That makes me think of fairytale superheroes. That’s cool, and I want you to tell me more.
Change the Setting
The other way is to take a touchstone and put it in a different setting.
For example, “Frozen in high school.” Again, I know what you’re describing.
Use Other People’s Audiences
You can describe your book using audiences. For example, “If you liked Frozen and The Princess Bride, you’re going to like my book.”
Frozen is a fairy tale about two sisters, and The Princess Bride is a romantic comedy. I like both of those, so I want to hear more about it.
Step 3: Emotional Hook
The emotional hook is the hardest bit of a cocktail pitch because it seems a bit amorphous, but you must think about it. Emotion sells, and you want to make your character’s struggle relatable to your audience.
There are three ways to make your character’s struggle resonate with your audience. You can establish a metaphor or an archetype or ask a question.
A good example of a question that facilitates resonance is, “Do you remember when you were afraid of the dark as a kid, and you didn’t want to look under your bed?”
Anyone who hears that will answer “yes.” We’ve all experienced those moments when we were young, thinking something scary was in our bedroom. That’s the emotional hook.
Now, notice we’ve already covered a lot of ground, but we haven’t even gotten to the concept of your story yet, and people are already intrigued.
Step 4: The Main Character
You’ve given a lot of information about your story, and we know a bit about your book. Now, we’re finally getting to the nitty-gritty, which is your main character and their emotional drive.
My favorite example of all time is Katniss from The Hunger Games.
“Katniss is an ordinary 16-year-old girl whose selfless sacrifice to save her sister’s life starts a revolution.”
I hear that, and I actually don’t need to hear the rest of the pitch because I’m already curious about at least three things:
- Why did she have to save her sister’s life?
- Did she save her?
- How did the revolution start?
- Did she win?
At that point, people want to know more.
Thomas: The power of curiosity is in the tension between what people know and what they don’t know. Your pitch must be poised at the edge.
If you’re talking about something they already know, they’re not interested. On the other hand, if you’re talking about something so unfamiliar that they have to learn new things to become curious, then they’re not interested.
If I asked, “Do you know who Magneto’s daughter is? It’s actually the Scarlet Witch.” If you said, “Who’s Magneto? Who’s the Scarlet Witch?” then I’d know you weren’t familiar with X-Men or Avengers.
You have to know your audience. No pitch works for everyone. The key is to find the place where you can make somebody curious.
Touchstones, as you mentioned, force you to connect your book with something familiar that people already understand. Touchstones help close the curiosity gap, which leads to “tell me more.”
Lindsey: You may get to stop your pitch there, but there are two more parts you can use if necessary.
Step 5: Story Appetizer
The story appetizer is three or four more sentences about your main character that describe what they’re trying to accomplish and how they do it.
Don’t list every character or overburden your listener with a bunch of details. Give just enough. I would avoid adding other characters in this portion. Focus on Katniss, if you will.
Even though Gale is an interesting character, and there’s a romantic triangle and an evil emperor, you don’t need all that in your pitch. Focus on limiting the details, because the moment you start giving more details, your listener’s eyes will glaze over.
Thomas: Picture your reader or listener as a glass. You’re pouring knowledge about your book into that glass.
If you’re just talking about Katniss, you can fill up the whole glass with information about her, which makes your listener curious to learn more about Katniss.
But if you start pouring a bunch of information about Gale into the glass, you’re using up space for information about Katniss. Just as a glass can only hold a certain amount of water, your reader can only hold a certain amount of information. The more you water down Katniss, the more you water down your pitch.
A good pitch focuses on the most interesting element.
Lindsey: Yes. Focus on the main character and the main emotion.
Step 6: Cliffhanger
The end of your pitch should emphasize the emotional stakes of your story. I like to end with the question, “Can they do it?”
Can Katniss save her sister’s life? Can she win the revolution? It’s a great way to end your cocktail pitch and get to the “tell me more” or the “click and buy.”
Thomas: That question works best if you’ve done a great job demonstrating the stakes. What is the result of failure? Her need to save her sister’s life is emotionally more powerful than “saving the world.” You can’t visualize saving the world, but you can picture a dead sister and the impact that would have on a family.
This is also where you can include the element of “the ticking clock.” Not all genres have a clock, but if you can establish a sense of urgency in the pitch, the question “Can they do it?” becomes more powerful.
Lindsey: Every story can have a sense of urgency. Will the lovers get together? That can be life-changing and, therefore, urgent.
Putting it All Together: An Example
Lindsey: Here’s an example pitch I love:
“This animated movie is Dirty Dozen meets The Big Bang Theory. This is the age-old struggle of the geeks versus the jocks and how it feels to know you can be the hero and always be overlooked.
Our story takes place in the world of holiday icons, where Santa and the Easter Bunny are the cool kids. But when they’re kidnapped, it’s up to the unsung holiday icons, led by Earl the Groundhog from Groundhog Day, to save Christmas.
Will our ragtag group of heroes be able to rescue Santa in time and get him back to the North Pole?”
Thomas: I love the stakes for that target audience. I have small children, and the idea of not having Christmas is perhaps the greatest possible tragedy. That pitch demonstrates some really high stakes and a good sense of urgency.
Lindsey: I like to use this example because it’s got the archetypes of the geeks versus the jocks and the emotion we all know of feeling overlooked. Even people who were the jocks feel like geeks. It’s got all the urgency and hallmarks of relatability and root-ability. I can root for Earl the Groundhog.
Use Your Genre’s Tropes
People love genres for the tropes. You’re not selling out or being uncreative by using tropes. People expect and want the tropes of the genre. Use your creativity to put your spin on the expected tropes.
Thomas: Tropes are like ingredients. When you’re reading a restaurant menu, you see the name of the dish and a few of the key ingredients that give the dish its flavor.
If you try to write a story without tropes, it’s like saying you’ve cooked a dish without ingredients. A story has tropes. Use them on purpose because people are looking for certain tropes.
Just as people use a menu to choose which dish to order, people look for tropes to help them choose which book to buy.
Lindsey: You love your story, and you should be excited to share it. If it’s not someone’s cup of tea, that’s okay, but you might meet someone who will be your first forever fan.
The flip side of that is to be excited to hear other people’s stories and what they’re working on.
How would you advise a writer who’s afraid of ridicule and judgment?
Thomas: How would you advise someone who is shy and afraid of being judged or ridiculed? The echoes of middle school are pounding in their head.
Lindsey: Start with practice.
Practice the personal pitch about what you write, and then practice your cocktail pitch about the book you want to talk about at this event. After you hone both pitches, run them by a friend or two.
Thomas: One of the things that was helpful for me was realizing that nobody cares about me. When you walk into a room and sense that everyone is looking at you, criticizing what you’re wearing, you’re experiencing the spotlight effect. The spotlight effect is the tendency to overestimate how much other people notice about us.
In reality, none of those people are thinking about me at all. They are all thinking about themselves, and they’re wondering what I’m thinking about them. Most people think about themselves most of the time. Once you realize that, you can take comfort in knowing that no one is staring at you.
When you start talking to people and asking them questions, it puts them at ease, and you start to feel more comfortable, too.
Instead of thinking about yourself all the time, consider how you can serve others. If you’re focused on being a blessing, you’ll feel less nervous because it’s no longer about you. It makes things easier psychologically.
Lindsey: I always tell myself and others, “You may be the answer to someone’s prayers.” They may have been praying, “I need a fairytale vampire novel,” and you walk right up to them, and that’s what your story is.
There’s probably someone in that room who has been hoping to meet you, and they just don’t know it.
Thomas: And maybe you’re not the answer, but you know someone who is, and you can connect them. Then, you have the privilege of making an introduction.
Lindsey: Have fun, and don’t take yourself so seriously.
View every interaction as an opportunity to practice and improve and to become more confident and less shy. You’ll meet and serve more people.
Thomas: That mentality relieves so much pressure.
I’ve noticed authors often are really nervous at writers conferences when they’re trying to get an agent or an editor because they feel so much pressure.
I’ve also observed authors who are scheduled to go to a conference, and in the meantime, they sign a contract with a publisher or decide to go indie. When that pressure is relieved, they can enjoy the conference so much more. They can talk to agents as people because they’re not trying to get something out of the relationship. They no longer have the sense that “This conversation will make or break my career.”
The more you relax and enjoy the event, and the less pressure you assign to a single conversation, the easier it’ll be.
I encourage every author to attend a conference to meet other people in the industry. You’ll meet editors, agents, indie book cover designers, website designers, and author friends. The only way to get good at making friends and connections is to practice.
Go to a conference before you need to so that your first conference isn’t the one your book depends on. Don’t wait to attend a conference until your book is ready. Go sooner than that. Get some practice. Build friendships.
Lindsey: People can smell desperation, and it’s the biggest turn-off on the planet. People can also smell inauthenticity. If you’re up in someone’s grill because you’re trying to get something from them, it won’t work.
That’s another reason to just be yourself.
Don’t Wait for Conferences
Lindsey: You don’t have to wait for conferences because there are meetups.
I live in Houston, and I recently attended a meeting of the League of Romance Writers. I was so excited to find them in Houston.
It was a smaller gathering of 20 people, but there were opportunities to connect, serve, and practice. Smaller meetups are a great way to make author friends locally. If there isn’t a local group, start one.
Thomas: The other advantage of a regular group meeting is that you make deeper friendships because you see the same people regularly.
If you want to hone your personal introduction and your book pitch, connect with Lindsey Hughes:
If you want a chance to practice developing your pitch and your networking, check out the 2024 Novel Marketing Conference.
Thursday night before the conference, we’ll host a special patrons-only ice cream social. You don’t have to have a conference ticket to attend the ice cream social. You just have to be a patron. It will be a great opportunity to meet other writers.
Looking for something spooky to read this October?
Kamuela Kaneshiro has spent years collecting ghost stories and folktales from all around the Pacific. Confront the Philippine’s shape-shifting vampire, battle the dreaded Wendigo, and more! You may not want to read this book in the dark. You’ve been warned!
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