When I used to go to conventions and pitch agents and editors, it didn’t take me very long to realize that you can make any book sound good and any book sound bad–even if it’s the same book. When pitching your book, not only do you have to make it sound appealing in and of itself but you have to present it in such a way that the person you’re pitching to can be receptive.
One of the worst pitch experiences I ever had was when I was speaking to an editor from some well-know publishing house. My book had several subplots and I had played with the reader a bit by starting out with no one knowing who the “real” bad guys were in the book, then the reader discovering it (which now creates suspense and tension because you know something the characters don’t), to the protagonist discovering who it is WITHOUT the bad guys being aware, and finally the real villains figure out they’ve been discovered.
By itself this has nothing to do with the plot of the story, which became my first novel, Turnabout. But these developments did have a lot to do with how the characters reacted to each other. When the bad guys finally figure out they’ve been exposed, they’re left with what they feel is their only option to still get away with their original goals: they take it the protagonist on a personal level. Now, not only does the main character need to protect his own, he also would like to find a way to stop the bad guys once and for all, especially since the two solutions are intertwined.
The problem with pitching this is that when I told this editor that at some point the hero get something back, she interrupted me and said flatly, “Then the book should end right there.” What? No it shouldn’t. That’s only the next step in ratcheting up the desperation of the real criminals, which directly leads to the situation that builds the climax….
But it didn’t matter. I’d lost her. She knew it, I knew it, and we spent the next minute or two feeling awkward as I thanked her for her time and excused myself from the appointment. Early.
It’s galling to know that someone can reject your work without having read a word of it. I’m not trying to dodge the “they just can’t understand the brilliance of my work” argument, the point is I never even got that far. Her ideas of story structure were so rigid that however I described the book took her to a place where it had only one place to go. Was she right? Absolutely not (and you can feel free to read the book and decide for yourself)–at least not about the book. Perhaps she was correct based on my telling of the book.
In any case, from that point on, I decided to stop pitching books in person. I don’t think I ever did again. Anyone with have a talent for storytelling can make Little Red Riding Hood sound like The Greatest Story Ever, filled with Drama, Danger and incredibly absorbing characters. Or you can make it sound sad and silly and not suited for anyone with any sense.
What matters is the reading, and it’s much easier to get someone to sit down at a table with you at a conference than it is to get someone to invest the time in actually reading pages of your work. Dozens of books are out there that can help you with query letters and other strategies to get yourself noticed, but I wanted to point out one more.
Every writer’s path to discover is different. I’ve known writers who never miss a major convention, cozying up to every writer and blogger they can find at the bar. There are writers who like to give away free copies of their e-books, have deep sales discounts, and more. Like Cory Doctorow said when talking about piracy, your real problem is obscurity. How do you get noticed?
Since my pitching days, I’ve decided that only one question matters to me for people who have read my book: would you read another one by the same author? Hopefully the answer is yes, but if you’re a new writer, there may not be another book out there. Yet.
My “strategy,” if you will, was to talk the publisher into publishing two books under one set of covers the first time out. My book Turnabout is paired with Shallow Secrets, another standalone crime novel. Now, when my third book comes out later this year, hopefully readers will have discovered two of my books instead of just one, and if I’m lucky at all, I’ll have made twice the impression and have greater name recognition than I would have otherwise. If nothing else, that first “double” book is a nice bargain….
Rick Ollerman made his first dollar from writing when a crossword magazine printed a question he’d sent. Later he went on to hold world records for various large skydives, appear in photo spreads in LIFE magazine and The National Enquirer, can be seen on an inspirational poster during the opening credits of a popular TV show, and has been interviewed on CNN. He also had a full-screen shot as an extra in the film Purple Rain. His writing has appeared in technical and sporting magazines and he has edited and proofread many books, and written introductions for a dozen more. Notably in 2014 he sold a short story and an essay to Noir Riot and his first two books, Turnabout and Shallow Secrets, were published by Stark House Press in September.