Why your pitch matters – and the market for your novel
The first thing to say is that you must know the market. It means reading a lot of contemporary fiction in your area. If you don’t do that, you won’t know the market, which means you may misunderstand what literary agents are looking to take on, which in turn means your book won’t sell.
And why should it? You’re creating a product for a market and you haven’t even conducted the basic research.
Look in bookstores, not online, and look especially for recent successful debuts in your genre area. Those are your best guide to the books that agents and publishers are getting excited by today.
The way your book will be sold to retailers will be via a one-page entry in your publisher’s catalogue. And that’s it. The retailer won’t (in general) read the book before they determine their order, so all your care on plot, prose, character and the rest are irrelevant to the sale.
Your novel must sell itself on the idea, the concept.
Everything else matters too, of course, but without a strong hook you’ll never get published in the first place.
Example elevator pitches
What matters therefore, is the elevator pitch, or the twenty seconds your publisher will have to pitch your book. Here are examples of pitches that could really work:
Twilight: a teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.
The Da Vinci Code: a mystery thriller where the protagonist has to unlock codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail.
Wolf Hall: a historical epic revolving around Thomas Cromwell, the most important man in the court of King Henry VIII.
It’s obvious all these books have great premises.
It’s less obvious, but equally true that the vast success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall depended on finding a brilliant hook. If she had written the same book about a king, court or period less huge in popular imagination, the book mightn’t have sold on anything like the same scale – the proof, perhaps, being that none of her previous ones did.
Here, then, are (invented) examples of how not to write an elevator pitch.
Eco-fantasy for 6-7s: three children go to a fantasy world where they must save the planet and learn about the importance of recycling and the dangers posed by electro-magnetic radiation.
Non-literary literary fiction: a slightly mediocre book about two somewhat boring people in whose lives nothing seems to happen.
We get books like these, as do literary agents. Anything lacking a grabbing, easily communicated pitch is already at a disadvantage.
(Oh, and if you want more help on anything in this post, then do check out our How To Write course that has a crazy-good 1 hour video on these exact topics. The course itself is quite pricey, so we generally recommend taking out a cheap monthly membership which gives you access to EVERYTHING we offer in terms of video courses, masterclasses, etc – but at an easily affordable, cancel-any-time price. Find out loads more here.In the meantime, keep reading, because we’ve got loads more advice coming up.)
Is your elevator pitch strong enough?
An elevator pitch doesn’t need to summarise the book, or act as a blurb, or anything like that. It needs to say what is most exciting about the novel in the shortest possible space.
You’re looking to deliver a hook and (explicitly or implicitly) a reason to read, so take that Twilight elevator pitch again as an example:
Twilight: A teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.
Here you’re delivering the hook, implying the reason to read, as well.
Every great elevator pitch will convey that hook clearly and (close to the surface in subtext) will tell the reader what the imaginative payoff will be.
These rules, by the way, are universal.
I don’t care what you’re writing. If you don’t deliver a strong hook and imply a brilliant payoff, then your book won’t sell.
Writing your own elevator pitch: the exercise
The only way to know: write a pitch for your own book.
Here are the rules:
Write a maximum of 40 or 50 words. Most pitches won’t need more than 20. And some pitches could be less. “A boy is summoned to a school for wizards.” That’s nine words long (not nine and three quarters, alas – and I don’t know about you, but I think that book could sell.
Pick the hook of your book. The hook, the angle, the premise, the single most exciting aspect.
Aside from that, leave everything else out. (Look at that nine-word pitch again. Does it tell you anything about the plot? No. About Harry? No. About Hermione? No. About his parents? No. About Voldemort? No.)
Once you’ve done that, be brutally honest with yourself.
Does your pitch sound limp or strong? Experiment with different ways of couching it. See if you can add a little edge, something new, something vibrant. Even if you need to change the book to fit that pitch, you need to do it.
Good writing matters, but saleability is essential.
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