Like it or not, pitching your book is one of the most important things you’ll do as an author.
If you’re trying to find a literary agent, you’ll need to write a query letter. If you’re self-publishing, you’ll need to write good jacket copy (or at least know what good jacket copy looks like). When you’re telling acquaintances what your book is about, you’ll need to avoid making them fall asleep.
You get the idea.
Start thinking about your pitch early and spend time honing it through time. In this post, I’ll cover:
- Starting with your basic one-sentence pitch
- How to expand it into a brief description
- Tips for pitching in person
The one sentence pitch
The one sentence pitch is at the heart of all of your other pitches. It’s the essence of your book, the line you’ll dash off when you just want to briefly tell people about your book but still make it sound awesome.
Now let’s get this out of the way: Yes, it’s painful to distill the entire, wondrous sprawling expanse of your novel into one sentence. A one sentence pitch is by no means easy to write.
You need to do it anyway.
There are three basic elements in a good one sentence pitch for a novel and memoirs:
- The opening conflict that sets the protagonist on their journey
- The obstacle
- The quest
The quest can be a physical or interior journey, but it’s what happens to the character(s) between the moment when the plot begins and ends. The opening conflict is the first step in that quest. It’s how the journey begins. The obstacle is what stands in the way of that journey.
The resulting very basic pitch is: When OPENING CONFLICT happens to CHARACTER(s), they have OVERCOME CONFLICT to COMPLETE QUEST. There are lots different ways of structuring these basic elements, but they should be there.
For instance, for my novel Jacob Wonderbar, my one sentence pitch is:
- Three kids trade a corndog (FLAVOR) for a spaceship, blast off into space (OPENING CONFLICT), accidentally break the universe (OBSTACLE), and have to find their way back home (QUEST)
If I were writing a one sentence pitch for Eat Pray Love, it would be:
- “A recently divorced woman (OPENING CONFLICT) travels to Italy (QUEST) for pleasure, India for spirituality, and Bali for balance (INNER OBSTACLES), but she finds love instead. (FLAVOR)”
Even if you’re writing nonfiction, this structure isn’t a bad one to emulate. But rather than a character’s journey, you want to get at the nubby essence of your book.
One of the absolute best one-sentence pitches for nonfiction, in my opinion, is the actual title of He’s Just Not That Into You, which conveys the essence of the book in a very flavorful way.
For further reading:
One Paragraph and Two Paragraph Pitches
With one paragraph and two paragraph pitches, you have a bit more latitude to add more detail to help illustrate more about your plot and the world of your novel (or, in the case of nonfiction, the scope of your project).
As you’re doing this, a good place to start is with the middle section of my patent pending (not really) Query Letter Template:
- [protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].
This will give you a basic description that you can then expand upon. But in one paragraph and two paragraph pitches, it’s helpful if all of these elements are present.
As you’re fleshing out your pitch, I find that it’s far more successful to try as much as possible to stick to what literally happens in your book. Stay away from themes or the lessons your characters learn, which can sound trite and generic, and instead show us what happens in your novel with key details that bring your setting and characters to life.
For further reading:
- Query Letter Template
- The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch (includes more examples)
- Summarizing through specificity
- How to write good jacket copy
Tips for pitching in person
While you should absolutely know your one sentence, one paragraph, and two paragraph pitches, pitching in person is a bit of a different beast. What works on the page doesn’t always work out loud.
Here are some tips for pitching your book to live humans:
- Be conversational. There’s nothing worse than hearing a pitch that sounds like it was rehearsed in front of a mirror five thousand times. Don’t worry about being precise, worry about being engaging.
- Don’t worry about your ideas being stolen. I personally am not particularly shy about talking about books I’m working on or brainstorming, and am not worried about people stealing my ideas. Execution is far more important than ideas. Instead, think of these conversations as an opportunity to see which elements of your pitch are landing with your audience and which might need some work.
- Tailor the length of your pitch to the situation. An opportunity to pitch your novel is not an invitation to give a lengthy sermon. Be flexible with your verbal pitches and wrap things up when the pitch-ee’s eyes begin to glaze over.
- Don’t be shy. If you seem excited about your book, the person who’s hearing about it will absorb that enthusiasm. Don’t apologize for being a writer, don’t downplay your book. Just be confident and engaging.
- If you’re pitching a literary agent or editor, consider using the time to ask them questions. If you’re pitching an agent and an editor at a conference, there’s only so much they’re really going to be able to tell you after hearing your pitch. They haven’t read your writing and have no idea if it’s any good. So rather than taking up all of your allotted time telling them about a book they’re going to need to read separately, considering utilizing your remaining time to get answers to questions you may have or learn about the business.
Any veterans out there with tips for good pitches? Anything I didn’t cover? Let me know in the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Eine interessante Geschichte by Karl Heyden
Gabriella L. Garlock says
Thanks, and especially for the links.
I’ve been learning the hard way (endless rewrites) that getting into themes and character arcs and allegory in the pitch is awkward–finally concluding exactly what you warned us about.
Yes, it’s dawning on me that without a stellar and effective pitch, in terms of publishing, I basically have nothing!
But writing it for the first time helped me focus the story in ways I hadn’t thought possible.
Time will tell…
JOHN T. SHEA says
Irresponsible literary agent writes novel encouraging CHILDREN to drive SPACESHIPS without any training or license and break the Universe!
JOHN T. SHEA says
But seriously, Nathan, thanks for this! I find asking myself simple questions can be useful. Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Whether?
Bryan Fagan says
One of the things I’ve learned is to write an entire page of the story. From there hand it to some writer friends and ask if they could help to write a pitch.
The problem with writing our own pitch is that it’s our story. It is so deep in our minds that we have a hard time figuring out what’s junk and what isn’t.
By giving a one page synopsis to another writer the chances of having a really good pitch in our hands are pretty high. It’s not their story therefore they can cut it down a lot easier.
It you are part of a writer’s group this is a perfect place to start.
Cool idea, yes, really cool! Thank you.
Cool idea, yes, really cool! Thank you.
Hey Nathan, really liked this article. Thank you for sharing.