Some authors believe that pitching a book is simply about getting an agent or editor interested enough to sell your book to a traditional publisher. But your pitch for the agent is like a tryout. The agent cares about your pitch because readers care.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your book needs a strong sales pitch in order to sell.
Your back cover copy, ad copy, and even your Amazon description will flow from your compelling pitch. If you write a great pitch, you will hear your readers recommending your book to their friends using words from your pitch.
Since a good pitch is imperative to your book’s success, I recommend writing it before you write your book. If you want your book to sell like crazy, write an incredible pitch, and then write a book to deliver on the pitch’s amazing promises. Hollywood does it that way. Each screenplay begins as a pitch. Screenwriters call this “Writing the poster first.”
Writing the pitch first also makes it easier to get feedback on your idea before you invest hundreds of hours writing in the wrong direction.
Once a year, I do a special online session for the Realm Makers conference where I critique pitches for authors who plan to attend the conference. Many of the pitches are excellent, but some fall flat because the authors are making critical mistakes.
What mistakes can doom a book to obscurity and neglect?
Mistake #1: Too Wordy
Your back cover copy must grab a reader’s attention in one paragraph. When you’re pitching your book in person, you have less than 30 seconds to pique your listener’s interest. On Amazon, you have about 70 words and one paragraph break to grab a customer’s attention before Amazon slaps “read more” over the rest of your description.
You must pitch your 70,000-word novel in 70 words, so make sure every word counts.
Readers are unlikely to finish reading a long pitch, and even if they do read it, long pitches tend to be less effective.
How to Fix It
When I review an author’s pitch, I tend to cut about 50% of the words. What seems necessary to the author and what’s necessary to sell the book are often very different.
So how do you identify what is necessary? It comes down to wordsmithing.
Use Active Voice
Active voice uses fewer words than passive voice. “The ball was hit by John” has 30% more words than “John hit the ball.”
Remove All Superlatives
Words like “amazing, brilliant, and ground-breaking” need to be in the endorsements, not in the pitch.
Evaluate Adjectives, Adverbs, and Pronouns
Cutting modifiers will force you to use strong verbs and accurate nouns, which will improve your pitch.
Use Right-Branching Sentences
Use simple, right-branching sentences that begin with the subject and are followed by a verb and the object.
Here is the first part of the pitch from the book Ereshkigal’s Vengeance (Affiliate Link).
Sarah and Ralph are a happy couple in Boston. Sarah tries to get pregnant but doesn’t succeed right away. After a hormone cure and a miscarriage, Sarah turns out to have become infertile. She’s not alone.
Sarah and Ralph are a happy couple trying to get pregnant. After treatment, Sarah becomes infertile. She’s not alone.
By cutting unnecessary words, we have room for another sentence that gives more information about the book. The initial pitch doesn’t have enough information to hook the reader’s attention, so we need the extra sentence we gain by cutting words.
Mistake #2: Too Many Plotlines
Good books have multiple plotlines that interweave in fascinating ways. Skilled authors can weave those plot lines into a beautiful tapestry. But, what works well for the story does not work for the pitch.
The pitch is not the place to summarize or describe the book. The purpose of a pitch is to sell the book to someone who doesn’t know anything about it.
That’s why the pitch must be focused.
How to Fix It
Pick one plot line for your pitch. Even though all your plotlines connect, you don’t need to explain those connections in your pitch. Let your subplot be a pleasant surprise for your reader.
“Prodigious software developer Jake Coltrane lives with an inoperable malignant brain tumor. He’s spent the last several years building a sophisticated spy program to search for the man who’s rumored to have an unconventional cure for the cancer in his head: enigmatic billionaire Jericho Black, a man so powerful and inaccessible that only a risky theft of epic proportions will grab Jericho’s attention. Jake’s successful heist of $400 million does get Jericho’s attention—and the attention of someone else: the Russian mob. Specifically, Alexei Voznesensky, an upper-level hitman known for his dark disposition and cruel tendencies. Unaware of the real danger Jake has put himself in, he checks into a posh hotel to celebrate pulling off the heist of the century with some fine dining and a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s 20.”
This is only the first half of the pitch, and several plotlines have already been introduced, none of which are the most interesting element of this book. The most interesting aspect of the story is that when the protagonist dies, he comes back to life, but he must fight his way through hell to do so.
After taking a mysterious cure for cancer, Jake now has the ability to come back to life. The problem is, he keeps dying. And when he does, he finds himself in the bowels of hell, on the run from demons set on torturing him for eternity. If he wants to survive, Jake must escape the eighteen levels of hell, pacify the mob, and solve the mystery of his cure.
This is still too complex, but it’s an improvement.
Mistake #3: Too Many Details
Details within your novel add spice to your story and help set the scene for the reader, but details in a pitch distract the reader. Remember, your goal is to make someone curious about your story. A pitch is not a plot summary.
Your pitch is where your reader meets you for the first time. Don’t overshare in your first meeting. If he wants the details, he needs to buy a copy of your book.
How to Fix It
Focus on the number-one most interesting thing about your book. The most interesting aspect of your story might be the conflict, protagonist, world, antagonist, or something else.
If you can’t identify the most interesting element, listen to my episode on How to Pitch Your Novel. It even comes with a free worksheet to help you craft multiple short pitches for your book so you can identify the best one.
Let’s go back to that example from the book Ereshkigal’s Vengeance.
“Sarah and Ralph are a happy couple in Boston. Sarah tries to get pregnant but doesn’t succeed right away. After a hormone cure and a miscarriage, Sarah turns out to have become infertile. She’s not alone.”
The fact that Sarah and Ralph live in Boston is an unnecessary detail. Their happiness may also be unnecessary. The sentence “Sarah and Ralph are trying and failing to get pregnant” conveys that entire paragraph in one simple sentence without unnecessary details.
Mistake #4: Too Many Characters
No doubt, you love all the characters in your book as if they are your own children. But you don’t need to mention every one of them in your pitch. In fact, the more characters you feature in your pitch, the more complicated the pitch becomes. Complicated pitches don’t sell books.
How to Fix It
Focus on one character and one challenge he faces. Or focus on the conflict between two characters. It’s almost impossible to craft a good pitch with three named characters. I have seen it done but only with the help of a professional. If you have four named characters in your pitch, your book will be doomed to sell poorly.
Typically, pitches with too many story characters are too lengthy anyway, so cutting one of the characters strengthens and shortens the pitch.
Here is an example from the upcoming book The Pilgrim’s Progress Reloaded, by my brother, David Umstattd.
Christian is a psychopath in power armor. To be fair, he didn’t know that mercilessly gunning down innocent civilians was “bad” but who would? Everyone else is doing it. Now a pesky shoulder robot named Conscience and a holographic AI named Book warn him to flee to somewhere called the Celestial Station before his home gets aggressively nuked. Along the way, Christian joins up with fellow travelers Zealot, Truth, and Love all while being chased by Law, a terrifying bounty hunter who Christian can never seem to escape.
Even as an allegory, all these characters are hard to keep track of. Plus, at 88 words (500 letter characters), it’s too long.
We could wordsmith it down to:
“Christian is a psychopath in power armor. To be fair, he didn’t know that gunning down innocent civilians was “bad” but who would? Everyone else is doing it.
Then a pesky shoulder robot named Conscience warns him to flee to the Celestial Station before his home gets nuked. To escape, he must face irradiated swamps of despond, demonic super mutants, and the dreaded Platitude Platypus.”
The wordsmithed version still isn’t a good pitch, which illustrates an important point. If the pitch is fundamentally flawed, you can’t make it good with wordsmithing.
The most interesting thing about David’s book is that it honors the original novel, and it’s also very funny.
So here is the current pitch:
“Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic story of redemption, allegory, and theological poignance that has profoundly impacted millions of readers over three centuries, and changed the landscape of English literature forever.
It’s also a story with a total lack of robots, space marines, or talking platypuses.
So we fixed that.
Mistake #5: Passive Protagonist
“Protagonist” is a fancy word for the character who makes the decisions that move the plot forward. The old word for “protagonist” was Hero.
These days, the protagonist may be an antihero or even a villain. Passive protagonists are boring. Readers will put up with morally flawed protagonists as long as the protagonist is active. Readers prefer victims who overcome obstacles to heroes who succumb to obstacles.
Passive protagonists have little decision-making ability in the plot. The story just “happens” to them. A story about a princess sitting around waiting to be rescued is boring. A story about an ogre trying to rescue the princess is interesting.
If your story is about an ugly ogre rescuing a princess, focus the pitch on the active ogre rather than on the passive princess.
How to Fix a Passive Protagonist Pitch
A passive protagonist pitch should be a warning sign that your book may actually have a passive protagonist. Fixing the problem in the pitch may not be enough. You may need to rewrite your book to make your protagonist more involved in moving the plot forward.
Put your hero in tough situations, and then have him make tough decisions to get out of trouble. Include or allude to one of those tough decisions in your pitch.
A passive protagonist pitch may not mean you need a rewrite. Some books have active, vibrant protagonists, but the pitch makes them sound passive. When the pitch focuses on the bad things that happen to the protagonist rather than what they must do to overcome those challenges, your protagonist sounds passive.
Write active sentences. Passive voice and passive protagonists usually hang out in the same paragraphs. Writing active sentences forces you to write active characters.
Interesting stories include doers who do deeds that change the world around them.
Neo, a famous hacker, is chased and captured by secret agents who tell him not to associate with the mysterious character Morpheus. Neo is then swept up into a terrorist group bent on destroying everything.
In this pitch, Neo sounds like a passive protagonist, and the story sounds dull.
Neo is a hacker who has a deep feeling that something about the world is not right. He seeks out a mysterious figure known only as Trinity, who knows the answer to the question that haunts Neo’s dreams: “What is the Matrix.” To find the answer, Neo has to stay alive long enough to see how deep the rabbit hole really goes.
The second pitch stays close to the initial inciting moment. While The Matrix has three inciting moments, there is no need to include all three in the pitch. There is no need to introduce Morpheus or explain what the Matrix is.
This leads us to our next mistake:
Mistake #6: Spoiling the Book
Readers typically read books to find out what’s inside the story, so don’t give spoilers in your own marketing material. Let your plot twists surprise your reader. If your plot twist is the only interesting element of your story, you need to rewrite.
How to Fix It
Avoid mentioning specific story beats beyond your inciting incident. Mention tropes if you must, but avoid talking about specific plot points. Spoilers often accompany pitches that are actually plot summaries. Plot summaries are BORING.
Your book needs to hook readers within the first 30 pages. Kindle readers often get the first 30 pages for free, so your story needs to start off with a bang. If you can’t find enough interesting material for your pitch in the first 30 pages, consider a rewrite. Authors often rewrite the openings dozens of times to get the hook functioning just right.
Luke Skywalker receives a message from a princess who has been captured by the evil Darth Vadar. He meets a mysterious Jedi Knight who offers to mentor him and help save the princess. After running into a smuggler who agrees to offer them a ride off-planet, they set off with a pair of droids and a Wookie to save the princess and destroy the Deathstar.
Luke Skywalker is a farm boy on a desert planet who dreams of life in the stars. After receiving a distress signal from a captured princess, he sets off to save her and learn about a mysterious power called the Force.
We don’t have to go past the inciting moment for the pitch to be interesting.
Mistake #7: Too Strange
People want to read books that are similar to the books they already like to read. If your book is too weird or different, readers will pass. If a reader tells you, “This book would be perfect for (this other type of person),” your book may be too strange or different. Your book must resonate with specific people, not stereotypes.
How to Fix It
Read in your genre. Read books on craft to learn about tropes and how to incorporate them into your story. Identify tropes that are popular with your target reader and feature one popular trope in your pitch.
I can hear you asking, “But won’t my book be derivative if I do that?”
Well, that leads us to our next mistake.
Mistake #8: Too Cliché
While people want to read books they already like, those books still need to feel fresh and new.
How to Fix It
Authors who don’t read enough in their genre are the most prone to write a cliché book. Tragically, since they don’t know what’s out there, their books become accidentally derivative.
Attempting to be original by avoiding books in your genre is like driving down the road with your eyes closed in order to avoid hitting other cars. The only way to avoid the other cars is to see the other cars.
When a bat brings orphan Barry Sculptor an invitation for boarding school, he finds out that his parents were magicians and that he is destined to save the world. But first, he must catch a bus at a bus stop that doesn’t seem to exist.
Fixing problems on the “Too Strange” to “Too Cliche” spectrum typically requires a rewrite. It also requires getting to know your target reader better.
Mistake #9: Too Satisfying
Sometimes when I watch a trailer, I think to myself: “I don’t need to watch that movie. The trailer had everything I wanted to see. It told the whole story.”
The same thing happens in books with preachy stories. If I already agree with the message, I don’t need to read the book. If I disagree with the message, I don’t want to read the book.
This kind of pitch can be counterproductive. It actually decreases a reader’s desire to read your book rather than increasing it. People need a reason to read your book.
How to Fix It
If your book has a message, focus on the benefit your reader will get from reading it rather than on the message itself.
In this book, you will learn that eating less fast food & more vegetables will make you healthier.
In this book, you will learn simple dietary changes that you can implement to have more energy, lose weight, and feel 20 years younger.
Mistake #10: Too Many Genres
First-time authors sometimes make the mistake of starting with a cross-genre book. Since the pitch doesn’t clearly indicate what genre it belongs to, an author may try to state it outright.
Writing in two genres is like juggling on a tightrope. To pull it off, you need to first master juggling and then learn to balance on a tightrope. You only combine the two when you’ve mastered both skills.
If you want to write a cross-genre book, you must master one genre at a time. A bestselling cross-genre book is often the culmination of a long career, not the commencement of one.
How to Fix It
Read popular books in your genre. Familiarize yourself with reader expectations so your pitch can match those expectations.
The most popular books in your genre on Amazon have been chosen by readers. Study how those authors have written their books and their book descriptions so you can discover why so many readers have chosen those popular books.
You don’t want to copy the most successful authors, but you do need to fit on the same shelf. The only way to avoid accidentally being derivative is to be well-read in your genre.
The Princess Bride is a swashbuckling children’s book filled with monsters, romance, political intrigue, and torture.
Note: The princess bride flopped in the theaters because the marketing department didn’t know which genre or audience to pitch it to. Was it a romance? An adventure? A children’s movie? Fortunately for the film, it came out during the VHS rental boom, which allowed word-of-mouth marketing to overcome the traditional marketing failures, Thanks to the organic marketing, it became a classic.
Wesley returns home to find his beloved Buttercup engaged to the evil Prince Humperdink. To save her, he must wrestle giants, match wits with geniuses, and fence sword masters. Can he rescue Buttercup before it is too late?
It’s not a great pitch, but at least it sticks to one genre.
Final Tip: Believe in Your Book
Don’t dilute your pitch with weasel words. Insecurity is unattractive. If you don’t believe in your book, no one else will. A lack of confidence with the pitch may mean your book is not ready for publication. Keep working on your craft until you have a book you believe is truly entertaining, educational, or a much-needed escape.
The more you believe in your book, the more confident you’ll feel selling it. If you don’t believe in your book, keep working on it until you do.
Persuasion is one of the most important things we do as authors. Persuasion is not only part of the selling process for fiction; it is also at the heart of good nonfiction writing.
Yet, persuasion is hard to do well, and it’s easy to botch. In this video course, I break down the science of how to help your readers truly change their minds for good. This is one of my most popular and enduring courses.
This course is ideal for:
- Bloggers who want to make a difference in the world.
- Nonfiction Writers who want to change minds.
- Authors who want to persuade readers to buy their book.
Becoming a massively successful self-published author can be challenging. Even just one missing link in an otherwise perfect plan can kill your results. In Why Authors Fail, award-winning author Derek Doepker reveals the 17 biggest mistakes authors make that sabotage their success, along with practical steps to fix each mistake.
If you want to be like Derek and become a Patron, you can become a Novel Marketing Patron here.
If you can’t afford to become a patron, but still want to help the show, you can! Just share this episode with one writer you think would find it helpful.
Our six-month-old Jack is trying to crawl. He no longer uses the face plant method to flop forward. He has figured out that he needs to get his arms and legs into a rhythm.
There is only one problem.
He is now crawling backward. Every once in a while, we have to rescue him after he’s become stuck under the furniture.
In your career, sometimes progress means moving backward. While reading this blog post, you may have realized your book needs another draft before it’s ready. That may feel like backward movement, but it is still moving you closer to success.
Jack is closer to crawling with his current technique than he was with his old method of flopping forward on his face. Crawling involves a specific rhythm with arms and legs.
Celebrate your progress and get back to work. You can do this, you just need to put in the work.