Writing is scary – but of all the scary things about it, perhaps the scariest is getting the concept right. The hard fact is: a lousy concept will kill your novel, no matter how good your actual writing is.
And how can you isolate the concept? The thing which makes the difference between success or failure? The answer is via your elevator pitch – a very short summary of what makes your book so special.
We’ll get to some examples in just a second, but let’s start by defining terms . . . and understanding just why your elevator pitch is such a massive deal.
How to write a great book pitch:
Keep it to 20 words or less
Make it memorable – An astronaut seeking to survive. A woman who fakes her own murder. An ordinary boy – an orphan! – going to an extraordinary school.
The result should make the listener say, “tell me more!”
What is an elevator pitch for a novel?
And why does it matter so damn much?
An elevator pitch is the term given to any sales pitch that could, in theory, be delivered in the space of a short elevator ride.
The idea is that you might find yourself in the elevator with Someone Important who can’t, for those twenty or thirty seconds, escape or deflect your attentions – so you can use that time to deliver a sales pitch so utterly compelling that that Person of Importance is drawn in and wants to hear more.
To be clear: this is a fantasy scenario.
You are never likely to be called upon to pitch your book in this way. It’s just not how any normal submission process happens.
(Or, for that matter, how any normal elevator ride happens. I’ve twice been in an elevator with the CEO of a major publisher. On both occasions, we chatted about the weather, or the shiny new canteen, or whatever people normally talk about in elevators.)
But that notional elevator pitch still matters, because it’s a neat conceptual way to understand:
the very heart of your book’s Unique Selling Point – which in turn determines,
how an agent could pitch your book to a publisher
how an acquiring editor could pitch that book internally
how a sales team could pitch that book to retail buyers
how a publicist could pitch that book to reviewers
how the book blurb could pitch that book to readers (online or physically)
And no book succeeds unless it’s pitchable in that way. In fact, you can define an elevator pitch like this:
An elevator pitch for a novel is a very short summary of what makes the book
If your elevator pitch doesn’t tick those boxes, your book is unlikely to sell. An agent will think “can I pitch this to editors?” and think, No, probably not. An acquiring editor will think, “can I pitch this book in house?” and think, No, probably not. And so on down the chain.
How short is very short? Well, there are no set rules, but I’d suggest that fewer than 20 words is ideal. Fewer than 50 words is essential.
Brevity is key, not because that theoretical elevator ride is short, but because you need to isolate what is special about your book. That means discarding nearly everything about the book – for example, the settings, the plot twists, the great characters, the genius denouement, and so on.
Sure, you need to get to those things in time. If the Very Important Person in the elevator gets out on the same floor as you and says, “Sounds great, tell me more”, then all those other things are going to matter too. A great elevator pitch is essential, yes, but it’s never enough on its own.
But still. The elevator pitch is very short. And it matters.
Example elevator pitches
How successful novels get that way . . .
Here are some examples of elevator pitches. These are our versions of the pitch in each case – our attempt to isolate what makes these books special. So here goes:
Twilight A teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire. [15 words]
The Da Vinci Code A professor of symbology unlocks codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail. [19 words]
Gone Girl A wife (Amy) goes missing, and her husband is suspected of murder. But the sweet diary-writing Amy of the first half of the book is revealed to be a very different woman in the second half . . . [36 words]
The Martian Astronaut, stranded on Mars, has to figure out how to survive. [11 words]
Brokeback Mountain A love story between two male cowboys [7 words]
Harry Potter series Orphan boy goes to school for wizards [7 words]
Alex Rider series Young James Bond [3 words]
I hope it’s obvious that these books all have great premises. We’ll look at exactly what makes these ideas so great in a second . . . but first let’s have some (made up) examples of elevator pitches for books that could never sell.
So here are some really bad elevator pitches:
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.
Paranormal romance (2018) A teen romance between an ordinary girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.
We get books like these, as do literary agents. Anything lacking a grabbing, easily communicated pitch is already at a disadvantage . . . or to put that more bluntly: will simply never sell.
And notice that the paranormal romance pitch in the list just above is exactly the same as the pitch we put together for Stephenie Meyer’s hyper-successful Twilight. What makes this second pitch so terrible, and the first one so great?
It’s timing of course. Agents need something that will make editors sit up and say, “Hey, tell me more.” When Twilight first came out, that pitch was electric. Now? It’s so tired, it needs to sleep.
Need more help?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 – and at an easily affordable, cancel-any-time price. Find out loads more here
How to write your elevator pitch
OK. So you know why an elevator pitch matters so much – because it’s THE key sales element in the chains that runs from:
You ⇒ Agent ⇒ Acquiring editor ⇒ Publisher
Publisher’s sales team ⇒ Retail buyer ⇒ Reader Publisher’s publicity & marketing team ⇒ Reviewers ⇒ Reader
You know what you want to achieve: a pitch that is Short, Unique, Striking, Fresh, and Compelling.
So how do you actually achieve that?
The most important thing to understand is that you throw out almost everything in your novel. Take that Harry Potter elevator pitch: “Orphan boy goes to school for wizards.”
That doesn’t say:
Anything about Voldemort
Anything about Harry’s parents
Anything about his muggle uncle & aunt
Anything about Hermione & Ron
Anything about his summons to the school
Anything about the specific storylines once Harry is at Hogwarts
And that’s not just OK. It’s good. That’s the whole point of the exercise. You are not seeking to explain your book in the elevator pitch. The only answer you are seeking to elicit is, “Hey, that sounds interesting. Tell me more.”
When you get the “tell me more” type response from anyone (the agent, the acquiring editor, etc), you know you’re golden. That’s the point at which you can start to explain the broader context and story of your book, confident in the knowledge that you already have a good hold on your listener’s attention and interest.
Great pitches combine a tiny bit of WHAT the book is (eg: in Twilight‘s case, that’s a teen romance), with a sense of WHY the book will be great to read (eg: “ooh, a girl and a werewolf: that sounds dark and sexy . . . and scary . . . and sexy . . .”)
So the way to write your elevator pitch is to ignore everything about your book . . . except the aspect that will most make your reader say, “tell me more.”
There’s no one approach you have to take. So the Harry Potter elevator pitch worked with a setting (that school for wizards.
The Gone Girl one relied on its twist. (Real Amy is different from diary-Amy!)
The Martian one relied on a setup / premise. (Astronaut stranded on Mars: how does he survive?)
And so on.
Remove everything from your book description except the part that most interests the reader.
And keep your pitch intensely short. Under 20 words is good. Under 10 words is excellent. Anything over 50 words? That’s not an elevator pitch; that’s a snoozefest.
Is your elevator pitch any damn good?
And what you should do if it’s not.
So write your elevator pitch. And that means:
Actually do it!
Or, in fact, it means:
Actually do it right now this minute, or I’m going to get a mite tetchy.
Reading a blog post about elevator pitches is a genius idea if it impels action: if you actually start to write and examine your own elevator pitch.
Reading the same blog post if you don’t actually DO anything as a result doesn’t count as research. It’s procrastination.
OK, so you have written / are currently sketching your elevator pitch.
So is it any good? Do you have a saleable novel in front of you? Or an unsaleable clunker?
Well, once you have a draft of your elevator pitch, you simply need to ask yourself, is it:
Very short (<20 words, for preference)?
Unique – does it feel original? Does it feel distinct from all the other books out there at the moment?
Striking – is there an edge? Do you feel a glimmer of steel somewhere? (An astonaut seeking to survive. A wife who fakes her own murder. An ordinary boy – an orphan! – going to an extraordinary school.)
Fresh – does your idea feel timely? Does it feel like part of the next iteration of what’s happening in your genre / fiction in general?
Compelling – does it make any listener say, “Hey, that’s great, tell me more.”?
If your pitch checks those boxes then, my friend, you have a winner. Sure, you still have a lot of work to do in actually writing the novel that lives up to the pitch – but yo’re on the right track.
And if not – if you have an uneasy sense that you haven’t yet nailed this issue – then you have to nail it. Don’t con yourself into doing more work on that awkward Chapter 27. Or finessing the character of Bazhran the Bad any further.
You have to write a novel whose pitch gets a reader to that crucial, “Tell me more” point.
Oh, and if you aren’t sure whether your pitch has nailed it or not, then – trust me – your pitch hasn’t nailed it.
And of course members of our club get absolutely tons of help, all wrapped up free within your (cancel-any-time) membership. We’ve got an awesome How To Write course, plus masses of material on getting published, plus filmed interviews with agents and publishers, plus so much more as well. Do pop over to the Club welcome page and learn more. We’re here for writers – and we’d love you to join us!
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)