Day Three of the 2018 San Francisco Writers Conference. It was 9:20 AM. I had gotten up at 6 AM, spent a solid hour riding BART from Pleasanton to Powell Street Station, and—for the third day in a row—had huffed and puffed my way up to the top of Nob Hill on foot. Now I was in Room 212 of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins, sitting across a tiny table from Carlisle Webber, a literary agent with Fuse Literary, the agency that’s single-handedly revolutionizing the way books come to market and the way author careers are born. (Seriously, check ’em out.) I’d paid $50 for 15 minutes with Ms. Webber. I could pitch her my book, or pick her brain about the publishing industry, or just gab about the weather. Anything. For fifteen precious minutes, I could interrogate her—attempt to plumb the mysteries of the author-agent relationship and the almost mythical Journey to Publication.
Now, Ms. Webber doesn’t handle science fiction. If I’d had my druthers, I wouldn’t have been speaking to her at all. I’d wanted to sign up with other agents who actually did handle science fiction: Laurie McLean, for example, or Mary C. Moore. Unfortunately, their slots got gobbled up. There was a refreshingly large number of sci-fi writers at this conference.
But I wanted to talk to an agent so badly that I forked over $50 and signed up to speak with an agent I knew wouldn’t have the slightest interest in my book. Instead, I decided to use those precious 15 minutes to pick Ms. Webber’s brain. When the volunteer proctor rang her little brass bell and the sacred 900 seconds began, I asked Ms. Webber straight up:
“What are the ingredients of a perfect pitch?”
I asked this for a couple of reasons. There’d been some classes and pitch workshops on Thursday and Friday that had left me and a lot of other junior writers at this conference a wee bit confused. Laurie McLean, for example, had instructed us on Thursday that the perfect pitch is composed of three ingredients:
1. The hook, which is a snappy sort of teaser, that intoxicating first sentence which immediately snares an agent’s interest. And when I say “snappy” and “intoxicating,” I mean street theater, man. Laurie herself said that pitching an agent is like performance art. You should infuse your pitch with your authorial voice and really win the agent over with your passion and confidence, more like an orator or an actor than a shy, retiring writer. If you’re not sure how to do this, Laurie said, a good way is to start out with your novel’s “comps”: comparable titles in your genre. (“My book is sort of like The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin mixed with Seveneves by Neal Stephenson…”)
2. The book, which is a brief summary of the novel’s content. Think the back cover copy on a paperback novel you’ve plucked off the shelf at Barnes & Noble: a single paragraph of punchy prose that neatly summarizes the plot and delivers on the promise of the hook. Laurie advised us to look at movie trailers for inspiration. This part of the pitch should be short, memorable, and passionate.
3. The cook, which is a brief summary of the author’s career: previous publications, writing awards, writing contests won, short story publication history, anything relevant. This is the shortest part of the pitch.
But immediately after Laurie taught us this, other literary agents in the open-mic pitch workshop gave us a different story. Various people stood at the mic and delivered their pitches, and the agents informed them that they wanted to see comps, genre, word count, and a brief 45-second summary, and nothing else. No hook, no cook.
So that’s why I asked Carlisle Webber what she’d like to see in a pitch. And she told me the
OF A PERFECT BOOK PITCH:
That’s it. That’s all you need. Four ingredients, delivered in a minute or less, in a rehearsed and confident manner.
I had no earthly idea what the definition of a good pitch was before I walked into Room 212 of the InterContinental Mark Hopkins that Saturday morning. Afterward, thanks to Ms. Webber’s sage advice, I was armed with knowledge. I went straight back down to the lobby after our 15-minute session was over (thanking Ms. Webber profusely for all the knowledge bombs she dropped on me) and reworked my page-long pitch into this:
“Hello! My name’s Andrew Timothy Post. I’ve written a piece of adult speculative fiction 92,500 words long called New Model Earth. It’s a cross between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Two best buddies, Martin and Walter, hate their jobs. One day, they get their fondest wish: the world ends. They discover that they have been reincarnated from two of history’s most legendary warriors, and they are now wandering an apocalyptic wasteland of jumbled-up time and space. Their only problem is the telepathic madman who wants to destroy this new world and everyone in it.”
Not bad, eh? Thanks, Ms. Webber.
She gave me tons of other great advice, too. If you’re an unpublished author, don’t write manuscripts that are longer than 100,000 words. Maybe you can push it to 105K, or 120K at the absolute max. But in general, publishers don’t want to pay big bucks to print a 100,000-word book by an unknown author. Too risky.
Another piece of advice Carlisle Webber gave me was to pick comps that are less than five years old. That was a major fail on my part. I’ve read plenty of classic sci-fi novels, but I’m absolutely clueless when it comes to modern sci-fi. (Mainly because I’m a snob, and I believe no living writer today could ever measure up to the Asimovs, Heinleins, and Clarkes of yesteryear.) Mary C. Moore, a literary agent with Kimberley Cameron and Associates of Tiburon, took me to task for this during our speed-dating session on Sunday. She told me I need to read more current works of sci-fi so I have more up-to-date comps.
Finally, Ms. Webber advised, be careful of your titles. They should be words everybody knows. The example Ms. Webber used was Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s not called Journey into Mordor. Nobody knows what Mordor is if they haven’t read the book. Instead, it’s called Lord of the Rings. That immediately gets people curious. What the heck’s up with these rings? Why do they need a lord?
I guess I should abandon my working title of Quantum Suicide…
I’ll be sharing more tips and tricks that I learned at the 2018 San Francisco Writers Conference in the coming weeks. Now, however, it’s time for bed. Thanks for stopping by, and as always, get the heck off the Internet and get writing!