How I lost my fear of elevators and learned to pitch

As writers, we are constantly being told, “Develop a great elevator pitch.” 

For those of you who are new to the biz, an elevator pitch is a brief, concise presentation of your novel’s central story. At its best, an elevator pitch is a clever and effective nugget that summarizes your entire manuscript. Think of it as a brilliant tag line for a movie. Here are some noteworthy tag lines you may have heard over the past 30 years: 

“Eight legs, two fangs, and an attitude.” (Arachnaphobia)

“She brought a small town to its feet and a corporation to its knees.” (Erin Brockovich)

“The last man on Earth is not alone.” (I Am Legend)

“Escape or die frying.” (Chicken Run)

Ideally, one’s elevator pitch should be brilliant enough to compel any editor or agent to scream, “You, author! Send me your pages!” Or better yet: “Sign this six-figure contract!”

Back in 2006, when I was a newish writer (I’d published four books under a pseudonym, but nothing on my own), I attended my first Sleuthfest. I was filled with trepidation–make that terror–about my elevator pitch.  I didn’t even want to go into the elevators, because I was afraid I’d run into an agent and blow my chance to pitch.

During the actual conference, I hung back. I watched as writers hounded an increasingly embattled group of agents and editors. Some even pursued their targets into the bathrooms to deliver a pitch. Over the course of the weekend, the expressions of the publishing professionals became glazed and semi-fearful, so accosted were they by the phalanxes of pitching newbies.

Here’s what I learned about elevator pitches: Don’t deliver one in an actual elevator (you run the risk of being injured in an elevator malfunction), and never pitch to a publishing professional unless they specifically ask for it.  Learn to read body cues; back off if you sense that your listener is merely being polite about your pitch, as opposed to genuinely enthusiastic.

At Sleuthfest, I was so afraid of pitching, I decided to limit my attempt to the “Agent Fest.” This is where you sign up for 15-minutes of face time with an honest-to-God agent. This is the time to make your pitch.

But I was still nervous. At the last minute, I cancelled my appointment with my assigned agents, and gave my time to another writer (who seemed incredulous that I’d handed away such an opportunity).

I did keep my appointment with a NY editor, however. Here’s why: the editor had actually read 30 pages of my work before our meeting. The agent’s reaction would depend solely on my verbal skills. The editor would base her reaction on the actual writing. In the end, I trusted my manuscript more than my mouth.

It all worked out. The editor liked my story enough to request the rest of the manuscript. I went home and hurriedly wrote query letters that contained my pitch. I honestly can’t remember what my pitch ended up being for the first Fat City Mystery, although it was something like, “Nancy Drew grows up, gains weight and develops a potty mouth.” It must have worked, because within a half dozen queries, I had an agent, followed soon by a contract with a major publishing house.

Over time, I’ve become much more comfortable with pitching. It was helpful to attend meetings of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, because both groups help you refine your speaking skills. Over the past few years I’ve been on panels and delivered presentations in person, so the whole speaking thing comes a tad easier these days.

But at my next conference, I may still avoid the elevators. I don’t want to press my luck.

What about you? Have you had success with your elevator pitch? Does the idea of delivering one make you nervous? Any tips you can share?


13 thoughts on “How I lost my fear of elevators and learned to pitch

  1. I’ve given talks on how to pitch and even have a handout, but I still get nervous when it comes down to delivering one myself. If I already know the agent or editor, it’s easier. But I’m better at writing the book than the tag line or cover copy. We writers need more classes in advertising skills.

  2. Good points, Kathryn. Pitching is hard. No doubt about it. But the thing we all need to remember is that the agent or editor really wants to find a good book to represent or buy. They love books and the hunt for the next hit, or they wouldn’t subject themselves to the situations you describe at conferences or the mountains of queries the received each day. They are not the enemy. Finding new talent is critical for staying in business.

    Pitching tip: practice, practice and practice.

  3. I’ve only pitched a few times but even after I’ve done it a 100 times I will no doubt still be nervous.

    I do find, however, that the more passionate I am about the story, the easier it is to pitch.

  4. I’m with you, Nancy–still easier to write than speak. But at least I don’t get sick anymore right before a presentation, like I used to! Jordan, I still don’t like pitching. I’ll take writing back cover, any day. They’re not the enemy, Joe? If I’d only known, lol! BK, you’re right that passion is the key. It’s much easier to sell someone an idea–anything, in fact–that way.

  5. i am anxious about pitching!
    will be trying it in june. ive been putting off preparing, but i feel if i am ready and know what to expect i will be more confident.

    and those are awesome movie lines!

  6. I find pitching to be frustrating more than nerve-wracking. At every conference I’ve pitched my work at agents and editors alike have said “Wow, sounds good!” then not signed me up/bought it.

    It feels like when I was in high school and all the hot girls in my theater team all acted like they were attracted to me, flirted with me, confided in me and even trusted me to give them massages back stage between acts, or be around them as they changed their costumes. But in the end they always seemed to feel like I was their nice brother and other guys got to take them out on dates.

    Even my way more beautiful than I expected to be married to wife admitted years later that she felt that way about me at first. Had her English language skills been better at the time she would’ve probably been able to ask advice about some other guy.

    I think I’m feeling pessimistic as I gear up to start a round of pitches all over again with my next story. Someone please slap me with a smile stick so I can get back to positivity.

  7. Off topic, sort of

    What’s the difference between a pitch and the back cover copy? One sells your book to an agent/editor and the other to the reader? Can you use the same copy for both? Also, how does one approach the pitch/back cover copy for the second and subsequent books in a series? For example, do I start with a callback to the first book by saying, “In his second outing, River Madden blah, blah blah…” Or do I do the second book with no callback to the first and let other indicators do that work (like a tag line on the cover “River Madden Book Two”)? I would love to see a post on this subject from one of you in the future. And thanks for taking the time to write your blog. As a new indie author, I learn something interesting every week.

    Kathy aka K S Ferguson

    Tag line for my contemporary fantasy novel: Light bulbs talk to River Madden; God doesn’t.

  8. Like you, at my first conference I avoided pitching in elevators or out and about – the agents looked so harassed and glazed by the onslaught of all the other newbie writers they didn’t need me as well! I sat at a table at lunch next to the woman who would become my first agent. About three other authors pitched to her across the soup bowls but I waited until we had chatted a bit and then, and only when she asked, did I give her my synopsis. She read it, liked it, asked for the first 50 pages, liked that, asked for the whole manuscript and then became my agent. Nowadays I feel like I still need the elevator pitch so I can give anyone who asks a short pithy summary of the book(or books) I have written. You never know who you might meet in an elevator or otherwise so it helps to be prepared!

  9. Anon 5:32, my idea of a tag line versus back cover: the tag line is the first punch you throw when selling the book’s “Big Idea”, and the back copy is the follow through. The tag line would be the beginning of the pitch, and the follow-through (more details) would be similar to the back copy. When I sent query letters to agents, I started with the tag line, then added a paragraph, which later became a version of the back copy. Other writers may have different ideas, however!

  10. Oh, and Kathy, I like your tag line–makes me want to hear more! Clare, you’re so right about the need to be prepared. One’s pitch should be able to roll off the tongue at any moment–even when a casual stranger asks, “What is your book about?”

  11. I’m late chiming in here, Kathryn, but I have to say I’m still awful at pitching. Just can’t do it very well.

    Everyone knows their limits, and pitching poorly is mine. Unless, of course a group of friends brainstorm with me to produce one.

    So, you ask, how did I land my editor and agent? Networking. Chatting at lunches, dinners, in bars. I found getting to know editors, agents and other authors gave me the time I needed to eventually get to the point of my work–by discussion! LOL!!

    Luckily, it worked. But, it probably took longer than it would have if I developed a good pitch! So, I recommend learning to pitch.

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