This is the eleventh post in Joe Biel’s Business of Publishing series. Each article attempts to spread information about best practices within the the publishing industry and clarify common confusions.
Microcosm Publishing focuses on empowering readers to create the world that they want to see around them. We are celebrating our 20th anniversary on Feb 12 and every day new authors come to us with their delicately crafted, very personal work that they’ve spent hundreds of hours honing to perfection. Despite all this work, they’ve often completely neglected to figure out how to talk about their book, let alone how to pitch it.
But in the modern publishing landscape, the question of who gets published is less about how polished the manuscript is and more about the fact that publishers, just like readers, need a way to quickly understand what your book is about, who it is for, and most important, what benefits it offers. The book can be a masterwork, but if you can’t compellingly describe it in a single sentence, nobody will ever know.
Every book needs very clear development and language. The first question you need to be able to answer, in a one sentence pitch and at greater length in the book itself, is “what is this book about?” Next you need to investigate that the book you have in mind hasn’t already been written. Then you need to make sure you’ll be able to write it.”
If your book is best suited to major publishing houses, you’ll need to pitch an agency until one agrees to work with you. Then the agent begins the next process, of pitching to publishers. The process of pitching to indie houses is our focus here. The third and fourth options do not have any barrier to entry (except money), but if you want to reach readers who are not your friends and family, properly developing and pitching your book remains just as vital.
Follow directions. It’s the first step to winning.
No matter who you’re pitching, the most important part of the process is: Read and follow all submission directions exactly. You will likely ruin your chances of success if you assume that you are an exception to the guidelines, if you do not follow them correctly, or if you do not put sufficient time into the process. I toss over half of our submissions because they have not followed our submission guidelines and the result is incomprehensible. Some people appear to be “blanket-submitting” their manuscript everywhere without regard to fit, which simply wastes everyone’s time. Others believe that if we just read their work we would be swooning so hard that we would be asking them where we could sign on. I cannot stress enough the vitality of reading the guidelines.
It’s also vital to research the publisher. Read their mission statement if they have one. Look at the other books they have coming out, and what they’ve done in the last few years. What kind of books do they like? What are their bestsellers? If a publisher has not made any children’s books, there is likely a good reason for that. Even if they made an exception for yours, it likely would not be in your best interest.
WRITING THE PITCH
Make the first sentence of your pitch a clear and uncluttered explanation of what benefit the book offers to readers.
For example, you might write, “NONOWRIMO: Your Daily Guide To Not Publishing a Creative Work provides helpful day-planning and activities that a potential author could pursue instead of writing.”
This is the most important part of your pitch, so it should be the most visible. The publisher needs to immediately understand what the book is about before they will be willing to look further. Often, opening a conversation with someone about their pitch results in defensiveness and not understanding why a publisher needs certain questions answered. Again, the plausibility of a project is not related to the merit of the work as much as the merits in the concept of the work.
The second most important part of your pitch is one or two sentences explaining how your book stands out from similar titles. Focus on what is unique about your book that other in-print books do not offer. This requires research on what is in print rather than just speculating from memory or conjecture. Visit some bookstores. Check Google and Amazon, and look at the Amazon rankings to get a general idea of which books have done well and which have flopped. Publishers will do this as well, but your preliminary search will help direct your pitching in the right direction.
When the publisher’s guidelines indicate that it’s the correct time, submit the materials requested. If a specific format is not specified, include the basic outline of your complete work and a sample chapter or two. Most places will also want a list of comparable titles: books from the last five years (preferably fewer) from comparably sized presses of similar length, cover price, and marketing budgets. This helps everyone to better understand how you think about your book and the company it keeps.
It’s helpful for agents and publishers and readers to understand what you bring to the table besides your writing: your platform and endorsements. Did you create a successful social media page or blog that speaks to the same people that your book does? Are there professional or popular people who are willing to speak excitedly about the book or write an endorsement? Is your best friend or aunt a well-connected journalist who is excited to go to bat for your book? Is your local TV station news host a social acquaintance? Have you written other books or done other projects that gained fans or praise? Share that briefly in your pitch.
Even if you’ve never written a book before and don’t have a strong network already in place, you can include supporting evidence about the potential readership of your book. Most of the pitches that I receive contain a blanket claim along the lines of “books about ice cream are very popular right now.” This is not helpful, but if you include a metric, like “Dentists have found that eating more ice cream reduces risk of cavities.” That level of information opens up new ways for the book to be sold and is helpful (even more so if it’s true!).
Almost every pitch I receive is too long, which causes me to skim for the relevant points. Then I respond if it fits or delete it if it does not (or if I can’t tell what it is about). So make it short and to the point. When you’ve finished crafting the most relevant information about your book, cut the word count on your pitch in half at least once, if not four times.
Above all, really think about who the book is for and what their concerns are, what publications they read, and how they feel about the issues discussed. Your book is for individual people rather than an amorphous “mainstream.” Be respectful to your audience—a prospective publisher, agent, or individual readers alike—and acknowledge what they know. Make them feel welcome. That’s how you succeed.
Joe Biel is a self-made publisher and filmmaker who draws origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock. He is the founder/manager of Microcosm Publishing and co-founder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He tours with his films on the Dinner and Bikes program and has been featured in the Time Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Utne Reader, Portland Mercury, Oregonian, Broken Pencil, Readymade, Punk Planet, Profane Existence, and Maximum Rocknroll. The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy described Biel as “not trained in pedagogy. Biel’s seventh book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s is being released for Microcosm’s 20th anniversary on March 15.