There’s a succinct little phrase that’s spilled over into publishing, I suspect from the movie industry – the elevator pitch – and I rather like it. If you found yourself in an elevator with Steven Spielberg in the Four Seasons Hotel in LA and this was your one opportunity to pitch your movie idea to him, how would you do it? You have maybe twelve floors before those doors are going to open and the chances of your ever getting an audience with him again are about nil. Three minutes tops, and he has his eyes fixed on the changing numbers above the door (he’s heard about the elevator pitch too), so what’s going to grab his attention? Certainly not ‘People keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great movie …’ He’ll have pressed the button for the next floor in a heartbeat and you won’t see him for carpet mites.
To attract the attention and interest of a publisher or agent, these days you could do worse than buff up an elevator pitch to go with your fuller synopsis, covering letter and first three chapters. Publishers hear the ‘people keep telling me my life’s been so interesting it would make a great book’ speech fairly regularly and I can promise you it doesn’t make their hearts race a little faster.
Whether you plan to approach an agent in the hope of being taken on as a client and finding your way to a publisher this way, or whether you are going direct to a publisher, the pitch and presentation for these two routes will be roughly the same.
By now you will have done your research thoroughly, and you will have targeted an agency or publishing house which looks like they take on authors who are writing your kind of book. You will have checked their requirements and complied with these. You will have polished up your first three chapters until they’re shining like diamonds, and have your synopsis succinct and not over long. The synopsis will be headed by your elevator pitch, five intriguing lines that will make an agent take notice and read on.
For your synopsis, longer than three or four pages is probably too long, but one paragraph may be under cooking it. It’s OK to reveal the plot in the synopsis – it’s not the same as the back cover blurb – but not in intense detail.
The writer Douglas Kennedy once told me that when he’s working on a new novel, he keeps a piece of paper stuck above his desk with the word KISS on it: Keep it simple, stupid. It’s good advice for your synopsis … not that I’d dream of calling you stupid.
Don’t forget to include a brief biographical piece in your covering material. This needn’t list your hobbies or record the fact that you won an English prize in 1978. It’s your glittering prose now, in 2013, in your debut novel that needs to captivate. If you’re writing non-fiction, however, particularly in an area of specialisation or competition, do list your credentials. For example, if your book is about post-traumatic stress disorder in conflict areas of Africa, it would be important to know how come you’re qualified to write about this. The publisher should immediately understand why your view and your book in this field might be a valuable contribution.
Do write a covering letter or email, but don’t include your full synopsis or your biographical piece in it. Try not to waffle. Also try to resist claiming that your book is way better than Wilbur Smith or any of the rubbish that’s out there on the shelves or that you absolutely know this is going to be a bestseller. Steer clear of suggesting who might play your main character in the movie (this is especially a no go area if you’re in the elevator with Spielberg). Some of the ‘rubbish’ that’s out there on the shelves has probably been agented or published by the same publisher you’re bragging to and that’s not a good start to a relationship. All this is doing is telling the publisher that at best you are insecure, have delusions, and don’t know very much about publishing or bookselling; at worst that you are arrogant, dismissive and disrespectful of other authors who have worked just as hard, if not harder, than you have to get where they are. And it’s disrespectful of the publishing process, too, which you’re asking to be part of.
Before you write that covering letter, remind yourself of these four fundamental questions you need to know the answers to: Why am I writing? Who is my audience? What are my hopes for my writing? What are my expectations?
Articulate these answers, more particularly the last three, in your covering letter. Do this again if you get a ‘call back’, ie if the publisher or agent asks to see more material, or if you go into the office to meet with the commissioning editor. It’s important that everyone – writer, agent, editor, publisher – understands expectations at the outset of a publishing relationship. A disconnect here can often lead to disappointment later on. Your own expectations will be optimistic, even confident; the publisher’s might appear conservative in your eyes. The closer you can draw the two together will make for a stronger working relationship going forward.