When I dropped in on the Backspace Writers Conference last Thursday afternoon, I was expecting that I’d just meet some writers during the mixer and then sit in on a workshop where M.J. Rose and Douglas Clegg would give other writers advice on how to create marketing strategies for their books. But when I showed up at the hotel conference room, Rose and Clegg were both absent, and “Book Promotion 101” director Bella Stander was preparing to lead members of the audience through refining their pitches by herself. I volunteered to help out, and just like that we were off and running (with Carolyn Burns Bass snapping photos from her front row seat).
(Full disclosure: I attended the Book Promotion 101 seminar before my first book was published, and have returned several times since to speak about how authors can develop a successful online presence.)
One of Stander’s first approaches to developing a concise oral pitch was to raise three fundamental questions any author needs to answer about their book: So what? Who cares? And what’s in it for me? But as we began to listen to the authors describing the plots, and then talked them through figuring out what the core stories tucked away in those outlines, I started coming up with a different tack. “Look at the prologue to Romeo and Juliet,” I said. “It lays out everything that’s going to happen for the rest of the evening: Two households, both alike in dignity…. That’s how your pitch needs to work: You deliver it, and somebody says, ‘I want to read that story.” A little later, I riffed on how the opening credits to old TV shows fulfill much the same function: Kirk’s opening statement on Star Trek, or the theme song to Gilligan’s Island. They tell you what the show’s about, but they don’t give away so much of the story that you feel you’ve already heard it all.
Stander was great at encouraging the authors to whittle away excess descriptive details and concentrate on what was at stake in their stories; at one point, we jerry-rigged a three-sentence model: Introduce the protagonist, explain the trouble they’re in, and then explain the underlying problem that trouble points to. It’s reductive, I know, but it still gets the job done—just like another approach we spun off: What is the question this story is trying to answer?
That one proved very popular with many of the authors, enabling them to view their stories in a new light. (What do you do when your wife says she wants to move out for the summer and start her own business? What do you do when you have to get back together with your ex-best friend to save the world? What happens when the girl who can fix anybody’s problems can’t help her brother?) And, as the conversation drew to a close, I even managed to tie it in to my insight about television shows by recalling the opening to The Odd Couple: “Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?”
All of this matters, Stander and I told the audience, because people are going to be asking you about your book over and over again, from prospective agents to prospective editors to journalists, booksellers, and prospective readers. Even if you get a publisher who throws some promotional weight behind the book, you still need to be able to talk about it concisely and clearly, in a way that engages people’s attention and gets them excited about what might happen next. I thought I knew something about that when I walked up to the front of the room, but I actually felt like I understood the problem better when the panel was over. Thankfully, based on the feedback, so did most of the audience.