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There is a misnomer that pitching is just about getting an agent or editor interested in your traditionally published book. The pitch for the agent is just a tryout. The reason agents care about a book’s pitch is because readers care. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, your book needs a strong sales pitch in order to sell.
Your book’s pitch is the spring from which the river of back cover copy, ad copy, and even your Amazon description will flow. If you do a really good job, you will hear your pitch in the mouths of readers recommending your book to their friends.
Since a good pitch is so important to the success of a book, I recommend writing it before you write the 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. This is how Hollywood movies are made. Each screenplay starts out as a pitch. Screenwriters call this “Writing the poster first.”
Writing the pitch first also makes it a lot 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 of authors who are planning to go to the conference. Many of the pitches are excellent, but some fall flat. And they tend to fall flat because the authors are making one of 10 critical mistakes.
So, what are the mistakes that can doom a book to obscurity and neglect?
Find out in this episode of Novel Marketing, the longest-running book marketing podcast in the world. I am Thomas Umstattd, Jr. CEO of Author Media and this is a show for writers who want to build their platform, sell more books, and make a difference with writing worth talking about.
This episode is a sequel to an earlier episode How to Pitch Your Novel. While this episode will focus on fiction, I will have a few points for nonfiction.
So let’s get to the mistakes starting with:
Mistake #1: Too Wordy
You only get one paragraph on the back cover of your book to hook someone’s attention. When talking to someone in person, you have maybe 30 seconds to get them interested. On Amazon, you have about 400 characters and one paragraph break before Amazon slaps a “read more” over the rest of your description.
400 characters may sound like a lot but it’s only about 70 words. That’s four or five sentences. You need to pitch your 70,000-word novel in just 70 words. So be sure to make every word count.
Not only are readers less likely to finish reading a long pitch, but even if they do read it, longer pitches tend to be less effective.
Amazon is actually doing you a favor by only showing readers the first 400 characters.
How to Fix It
When I go through someone’s pitch, I tend to cut about 50% of the words. I don’t typically need to remove much content. What seems necessary to the author, and what is necessary to sell the book are often very different.
So how do you identify what is necessary? It often comes down to simple word-smithing. Active voice uses fewer words than passive voice. “The ball was hit by John” has 50% more words than “John hit the ball.”
After you’ve fixed the passive voice, remove all superlatives. Words like “amazing, brilliant, and ground-breaking” need to be in the endorsements, not in the pitch.
Next, look at the adjectives, adverbs, and pronouns. Cutting these modifiers has the added benefit of forcing you to use stronger verbs and more accurate nouns which will make for a better pitch. You want to use simple, right-branching sentences: Subject, verb, 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 so many unnecessary words, we have an entire sentence’s worth of room for more information about the book. This is important because there is not enough information in the initial pitch to hook the reader’s attention.
Mistake #2 :Too Many Plotlines
Good books have multiple plotlines that interweave in fascinating ways. Skilled authors can weave multiple plot lines into a beautiful tapestry. But, what works well for the story does not work for the pitch.
The purpose of a pitch is not to summarize the book, or even to describe the book. The purpose of a pitch is to sell the book to someone who doesn’t know anything about the book.
This means the pitch needs focus.
How to Fix It
Pick one plot line for your pitch. Yes, I know all your plotlines are connected. That’s fine. You don’t need to explain all those connections in your pitch. Let your other plotlines be a pleasant surprise for your reader.
Here is the first half of the pitch from the book Cold Train Through Hell.
“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 the first half of the pitch, and we already have two or three plotlines, none of which are the most interesting element of this book. When the protagonist dies, he comes back to life, but first, 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 is at least better.
Mistake #3 Too Many Details
Details add spice to your story and help set the scene for the reader. Details in a pitch, however, distract. Remember, your goal is not to tell your story. Your goal is to make someone curious about your story. A pitch is not a plot summary.
The pitch is the first time the reader is meeting you. Don’t show him your underwear in this 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. This might be the conflict, protagonist, world, antagonist, or something else.
If you are having a hard time identifying your most interesting element, I have an entire episode to help you. It even comes with a free worksheet to help you craft multiple short pitches for your book so you can identify the best one. The episode is titled How to Pitch Your Novel.
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. “Sarah and Ralph are trying and failing to get pregnant.” Conveys that entire paragraph in one simple sentence without the 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 usually 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 ends up shortening and strengthening the pitch overall.
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, we are over 500 characters with that pitch.
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.”
This has been word-smithed, but it’s still not a good pitch. This illustrates an important point. If the pitch is fundamentally flawed, you can’t wordsmith it into being good. So what is the most interesting thing about the book? The fact that it honors the original novel while also being 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.
There is a podcast version of this book you can listen to here.
Mistake #5: Passive Protagonist
“Protagonist” is a fancy word for the character in your book 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 is a yellow flag 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.
You need to 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. This situation often happens when the pitch focuses on the bad things happening to the protagonist, rather than what they need to do to overcome those challenges.
Write active sentences. Passive voice and passive protagonists often hang out in the same paragraphs. Writing active sentences can force you to write more 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 is a person things happen to. It also makes the story sound 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.
Notice how this second pitch stays close to the initial inciting moment. While the matrix has three inciting moments, there is no need to put all three into the pitch. There is no need to introduce Morpheus and certainly no need to explain what the Matrix is.
This leads us to our next mistake:
Mistake #6: Spoiling the Book
This shouldn’t need to be said, but readers typically read books to find out what is in them. So don’t spoil your book in your own marketing material. Let the twists be surprises. If the only thing interesting about the story is the twist, it needs a rewrite.
How to Fix It
Avoid mentioning specific story beats much past your inciting incident. You can talk vaguely about tropes later on in the book if you must, but avoid talking about specific plot points. Spoilers often accompany pitches that are actually plot summaries. Plot summaries are BORING.
The first 30 pages of your book need to hook readers so they can’t put the book down. Remember, 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, that is a bad sign. It is not uncommon for authors to 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.
Notice how we don’t have to go past the inciting moment for the pitch.
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 on it. One warning sign of your book being too strange or different is if a reader tells you: “Oh, this book would be perfect for (this other type of person).” In order to sell, your book needs to resonate with specific people, not stereotypes of “the other.”
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 of them 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
The most common cause of cliché in books is authors who don’t read enough in their genre. They think they’ll avoid being derivative by not reading books similar to their own. But tragically, 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 the other cars. The only way to avoid the other cars is to first see the other cars.
Also, make sure you are not just stealing another book plot.
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: “Well I don’t need to watch that movie. The trailer had everything I wanted to see. It told the whole story.”
In books, this often happens with preachy stories. Either I already agree with the message and don’t need to read the book, or I disagree with the message and 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 increase it. People need a reason to read your book.
How to Fix It
If you have a book with a message, focus on the benefit of what your book teaches 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
I see this mistake most often with first-time authors. The pitch itself doesn’t match the genre norms of any specific genre. It’s not uncommon for authors to state the genre, but then for the pitch itself to wander between genres. Writing in two genres is like juggling on a tightrope. To pull it off, you need to first learn how to juggle, then how to keep your balance on a tightrope, then how to juggle on a tightrope.
In publishing, if you want to write a cross-genre book, you need to first earn the right by mastering 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 in your genre, especially the books popular with readers. Get to know the genre expectations of your readers so your pitch can match those expectations. Also, read the Amazon pages for the most popular books in your genres. The readers of this genre are picking these authors, so study what they are doing so you can determine why readers are choosing them.
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 specifically because the marketing department didn’t know which genre to pitch it in or which 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 to overcome the marketing failures, making it 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?
Ok, it’s not a great pitch, but it does a better job at sticking to one genre at least.
Final Tip: Believe in Your Book
Don’t dilute your pitch with weasely words. Insecurity is unattractive. If you don’t believe in your book, no one else will. A lack of confidence with the pitch, may be a sign that your book is not ready for publication. Keep working on your craft until you have a book you believe in. You need to believe that it is truly entertaining, educational, or a much-needed escape.
The more you believe in your book, the better you will be able to sell it. If you don’t believe in your book, keep working on it until you do.
The Art of Persuasion
If you want more help with crafting a pitch for your book, I have a course for you. It is called The Art of Persuasion.
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.
- Non-Fiction Writers who want to change minds.
- Authors who want to persuade readers to buy their book.
Derek Doepker author of Why Authors Fail
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.
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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 from getting stuck under the furniture.
In your career, sometimes progress means moving backward. While reading this blog post, you may have realized that your book needs another draft before it’s ready. That may feel like moving backward, 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 really does involve a specific rhythm with arms and legs.
The key is to celebrate your progress and get back to work. You can do this, you just need to put in the work first.
The post Write Bestselling Pitches by Avoiding These 10 Copywriting Mistakes appeared first on Author Media.