Pitch Perfect (Or how to interest readers in two minutes or less)

By Sherry in Northern Virginia who’s hoping it warms back up!

This is how I feel when I hear I have to pitch.
This is how I feel when I hear I have to pitch.

Just the word “pitch” strikes terror into my heart. Most of the articles I found on the topic were about pitching to an agent or editor but I’m writing about pitching to readers after your book is written. Creating the perfect pitch is hard. I had two opportunities to pitch at Bouchercon last week, once during speed dating — where two authors go from table to table and each has three minutes to talk about their books — and also at the new authors breakfast where we each had one minute. Both events are timed and both are designed to get readers interested in your writing.

Alice Loweecey and Barbara Early having fun at Malice Go Round.
Alice Loweecey and Barbara Early having fun at Malice Go Round.

Last year at Malice-Go-Round (the Malice Domestic version of speed dating) I listened to about forty authors pitching their books but I only remember two — Barbara Early aka Beverly Allen and Alice Loweecey. They had a routine and were very funny (and again I still remember it!).

So when Barb Goffman and I partnered up for speed dating at Bouchercon I suggested we come up with a joint intro. It went something like this (Barb’s part is in italics):

Hi, I’m Sherry Harris. And I’m Barb Goffman. We’re the long and the short of it. Because I write novels and I write short stories.

It got a laugh every time — It didn’t hurt that I’m tall and Barb, well, isn’t. Even the time keeper told us we were good. (So thank you Alice and Barbara for inspiring me!) I’ve come up with a few tips about pitching your book.

Don’t read — I’ve seen three different types of readers. First up — the nervous Nelly or Ned. I  get it, trust me, I was terrified but reading off a card in a wooden voice isn’t inspiring. What’s the worse thing that can happen — you blank in the middle. If you do, laugh it off and blame it on the early morning hour, the lack of caffeine, or your late night. If using notes helps calm the nerves, use them, but only rely on them in an emergency.

Next is the person who reads their back cover copy — I borrowed a line from the back cover copy — it’s well written, it worked in my pitch, but don’t take your book up and just read. That means you’re looking down, not connecting with your audience.

Last there were the blurb readers. Saying: Bestselling author Joe Blow said: This is a tightly written, action packed, thriller that is a must read and kept me up all night to the very last page — doesn’t really help because that blurb could be on the back of any thriller. It doesn’t tell me why I should read your book.

Don’t talk about your website or how if you buy one book, you’ll get another for free — why should I go to your website if you haven’t piqued my interest?

Don’t tell me what you think your book is about in general terms — it’s a charming, twisted tale of love and death, with a bit of humor. Be specific: who is your protagonist, what is his or her dilemma, what makes your story unique. I started mine like this: Sarah Winston’s happy life as an air force wife crash lands when her husband sleeps with a younger woman. Sarah’s self prescribe therapy is going to lots of yard sales (that’s the line I borrowed from the cover copy).

Wow, that was a lot of things I don’t think should be done in a pitch, so here are some things I think should be done.

Try to be conversational. Think of it as telling a good friend about your book. Practice with someone.

Be enthusiasticand put some pep in your pitch. Because if you tell me about your thriller, suspense or mystery but your voice is blasé or too cool for school, I’m not buying it — your pitch or your book

Look people in the eye and look around the room at different people, it helps engage them, and seeing a friendly face out in the audience helps calm your nerves.

IMG_5806Julie Hennrikus and I practiced on each other and Julie timed our pitches. Hers was only about 30 seconds but she said everything she needed to. I thought she should make it longer but Julie said short was better. And she was right! Being short is so much better than being cut off by the bell or buzzer. But if that does happen in the middle, smile, say thanks, and quit talking instead of continuing on.

Julie Hennrikus pointed out that the men at Bouchercon were much better than women about saying: Buy my book. Say it!

The thing I realized, once I stopped running around thinking and saying, I’m terrible at this, is: I’m really not terrible at the pitch and it doesn’t have to be perfect. And conference organizers — would someone please come up with a new authors cocktail party instead of the new authors breakfast?

Readers: Do you have tips for a good pitch?

46 Thoughts

  1. This was a very interesting post. Thank you for sharing.
    As a reader I might want to know why I should read your book instead of someone else’s of the same genre. What’s special about it, or what makes it sing, so to speak. Maybe tell me why it’s so special to you—why you were inspired to write it. How am I guaranteed to feel while/after reading it (is it soul stirring, comforting, thrilling)? I think knowing those things would pique my interest for reading your book. Am I on the right track? Not sure if this would be acceptable or not for pitching a story. ( :

    1. I love the “why you were inspired to write it”! That is an excellent suggestion and right on point! If only we’d talked before my pitch!

    1. It was fun, Ramona and made me a tiny bit more relaxed than just having to plunge into the pitch. I’m grateful that I had Alice and Barbara to inspire me.

  2. You’re bang on: funny is something that people remember.

    I always think, don’t worry, because you know your book better than anyone else–just talk about it. (If you don’t know what your book is about by the time it’s in print, you’ve got a problem.) You care about it–show others why they should too.

    1. I like that, Sheila — you care about it — show others why they should too. That seems easier to focus on than the details — I’m always afraid I’ll forget one.

      1. It does! I’m doing a library event with four other authors tomorrow night. Fortunately some of them love to talk so I’ll get “broken in” gradually!

  3. I saw the Sherry and Barb show – you guys were awesome. I agree with Sheila – just talk about your book (and if you don’t know it by pub time, you’re in trouble).

    Joyce, don’t worry. I’m sure you’re way better than you think you are. =)

  4. Thanks for the call-out. I attended speed-dating the year before I was eligible to participate, and sat in a hot room for what seemed like three days while authors droned on about their books, trying to get as much information across as possible. I could hear few of the pitches and remembered none. So Alice and I brainstormed a different approach. I’m glad it’s catching on!

    To add to the advice: stand up and project. And just have fun with it and entertain. Let your personality out and allow readers to get a feel for who you are.

    This process has changed my view of query letters, btw. Now, when I share with young writers how to write a query letter, it’s less about length and format (not that you ignore this), but more about communicating who the author is and what the story is about in a readable and interesting way. Because being an agent must be a lot like sitting in a hot room hearing writers drone on about their books…for your whole career.

    1. That is excellent advice, Barbara! And very interesting to relate it to query letters too! You and Alice could teach a class on the subject — I’d go because I know it would be funny.

  5. Great post, Sherry! 🙂

    I missed the pitches at Bouchercon because of traffic – arghhh!!! But, the one at Malice was fun and was the source of new (to me) authors and their books. The pitches that made the best impressions were the ones where the authors chatted proudly about the protagonist and what differentiated that person from the rest of the protags out there.

    I also learned that there is a cozy series for each and every dog breed out there, meaning that I know nothing about those protagonists and lots about the dogs. Sorry, I love dogs, but that’s not really helpful if trying to hook me to read the books unless I own that breed myself. A sense of humor helps, as well as a passion about the book. Don’t forget, we as an audience have lots from which to choose, so we love to hear about somebody new, smart, and good at solving an interesting crime.

    1. That is an excellent point, Patti! Focus on the protagonist and not the theme of the book — I’ll keep that in mind next time I talk about my books.

  6. If the protagonist solves the crimes because of what she does (the tag sale theme) or uses the dog/cat to somehow solve the mystery, then that’s good to hear – that’s an important part of the storyline. But, if the author only chats about the dog and not the story, that’s where the disconnect happens. 🙂

  7. Wow. Congratulations on pulling this off. It’s so interesting to hear from readers what will hook them.

    While the guys might be better at saying, “Buy my book,” my one caveat would be that the message in these types of forums should be “Read my book.” (I feel a blog post coming on.)

    1. It is interesting to hear from readers! Women would said read my book. I think Julie said I hope you enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed writing it. But there is a subtle difference there. Can’t wait for your post on the subject!

  8. Yes, be interesting and engaging. I get the nerves. (Trust me, I do), but if you are up there reading, reading anything at all, during the pitch, I will probably tune you out.

  9. Great post, Sherry, and good advice. I hope to be able to put it into practice someday.

  10. Thanks for the great advice, Sherry — I’m filing this in my promotions reference folder!
    Like most writers, I suppose, I feel more comfortable with a written pitch than an oral presentation. This is something I’ll definitely have to work on!

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful, Vickie! I’m always trying to get someone to do my book for me. I feel like I could pitch anyone’s book but find it more hard to promote mine!

  11. Bookmarking this!! Thanks for the article; I know someday I’ll have to do it, and it’s great to hear from someone who’s been there!

  12. Thank you so much, you’ve posted very helpful information. Like you, when I hear the word “pitch,” I go blank. Next time, I’ll try to make it light and fun.

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