Tips for Effective “Elevator Pitches”

In the publishing world, an “elevator pitch” is the one-sentence (or at least under one minute) pitch an author offers an agent or editor in an attempt to prompt interest in the author’s book.

I’ve heard a lot of these over the years, and helped many authors write them (in conference settings and otherwise). While the content of the pitch will vary, depending on the setting and the nature of the author’s work, there are some constants common to effective book pitches. For today, we’re focusing on the short “elevator pitch” designed to open a conversation. Many, though not all, of these tips will apply in any pitch setting, but these are specifically designed for the “short pitch” environment.

1. Effective “elevator pitches” last under one minute. No Exceptions.

Many, many new or inexperienced authors try to cram too much into the elevator pitch. This is the #1 mistake I see. The author believes the agent or editor needs to know everything about the novel, and have a hard time keeping the pitch as short as it really needs to be. Overly long elevator pitches not only lose your listener, but can actually persuade an editor or agent that you’re not ready. When you run on too long, you’re actually persuading the listener that you don’t know how to describe your work effectively.

The most effective pitches can be made in a single breath–without the author gasping like a fish and flopping around on the floor at the end.

2. Effective “elevator pitches” stick to high concept and don’t attempt to tell the entire story.

The purpose of a pitch is to inspire the listener to read your book or manuscript, not to tell the entire story, and NOT to explain backstory. Consider movie trailers, or the jacket copy on published novels–neither needs to tell the entire story to sell you a ticket or a book. In fact, the most attractive pitches are those that entice without revealing more than absolutely necessary. That’s what makes you want to read the book!

3. No backstory dumps. No exceptions.

For purposes of the pitch, your character’s backstory really doesn’t matter. “Backstory” is whatever brought your character to page 1 of the narrative–all those things from his or her past that authors find REALLY INTERESTING because MOTIVATION and FEELINGS and YOU MUST KNOW THIS TO UNDERSTAND WHY THE PUPPY IS LOST AND NEEDS A HOME. Except…the agent or editor really doesn’t need to know it–not at the pitch stage, anyway. All (s)he really needs is “A middle grade novel about a three-legged chihuahua raised by a clan of ninja cats, who must employ his ninja skills to stop an evil St. Bernard from killing all the chihuahuas in the world.” (If you want to write that, go for it. It’s yours.)

I know you REALLY REALLY want to tell the agent all about the poor chihuahua’s abandonment, and how his uncle’s cousin is actually a St. Bernard, and how…but don’t. Backstory turns a winning pitch into a loser faster than a St. Bernard can swallow an unattended hamburger.

4. Memorize the pitch. Don’t read it.

Many, many authors want to write the pitch down, either because it’s “too long” or “too complicated” to memorize or because they’re afraid of forgetting due to nerves. Don’t do this. Your pitch is your novel–the story you’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours writing and revising. You can memorize one sentence–and if you can’t, the pitch is too long. Edit, shorten, and tighten it until you can commit it to memory. Editors and agents understand nervousness, but they also need to know you understand and believe in your work, and that you can talk about it in public. Don’t prove otherwise in the initial contact.

5. Practice talking about your book with other people, and listen to their feedback on your pitch. 

Pitching a book is far more nerve-wracking if you’ve never talked about your book before. Go to a writers’ group, or talk with family, friends, and other writers. Practice the pitch so you’re comfortable with it, and ask other writers for feedback on it, too. Be willing to listen to feedback–if you’ve got too much backstory, or if the pitch is too long, be willing to fix it.

6. Relax.

Many authors find face-to-face meetings with editors and agents as scary as facing Cerberian hell-hounds, but really, industry pros are people (people who love books, like you do)–and generally, quite nice people too. Don’t look at the pitch as the “one and only chance” for success. View it as an opportunity to interest someone in your book–someone who might actually want to read it.

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to improve your elevator pitch, but it’s a start!

And now, here’s the post-#Publishing Law palate cleansing seahorse…little Magellan, sharing breakfast with Elvis the scooter blenny:

16D27 publaw seahorse

I hope you’ll join me next week, as we examine how to craft an effective elevator pitch!

4 thoughts on “Tips for Effective “Elevator Pitches”

  • April 27, 2016 at 2:14 pm

    This was so helpful, Susan! Getting ready for my first face-to-face pitch at an editor/agent luncheon in a couple of weeks. Not tripping over my tongue when talking about my book my biggest concern.

    • June 4, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Thank you Suzanne! I’m glad it was helpful and good luck with your pitch! Try to think of it as a conversation, rather than a “do or die” moment – and that will help a lot.

  • April 27, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Thank you for making this simple, comprehensible, practical. I’m looking forward to more.

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