Keys to Pitching: Why Publishers are Like Talk Show Hosts

Random House and Oprah Winfrey have more in common than you might think. Hopeful authors see both as the route to fame and fortune, and besiege them with proposals. And both publishers and the media reject—or even ignore—most of the pitches they get.

This isn’t just because proposals outnumber available TV segments (or publishing slots), either. Many would-be authors or talk show guests are “subject matter experts” but not media experts. In spite of having good book or show ideas, they deny editors and producers the chance to hit home runs for them by pitching wide of the plate.

Here are some tips to help you avoid striking out.

Do Your Homework
Unless you want to be classed with telemarketers who try to sell replacement windows to people who don’t own their homes, you need to find out as much as you can about the agent, editor, reporter, or producer you’re planning to approach. If the agent doesn’t handle science fiction, sending your Star Wars-meets-Harry Potter novel can only end it rejection. If the publisher doesn’t accept unagented submissions, an unsolicited manuscript will land directly in the recycling bin. If your story isn’t the kind of thing Oprah Winfrey’s audience likes, your chances of getting on the show are nil.

Before you approach anyone in the media, make sure you listen to or watch the show or read the reporter’s columns. That way you’ll know which topics are appropriate. The same holds true for publishing houses and literary agents. Don’t just send blanket submissions to everyone whose address you can find. Read other books produced by the house; find out which authors the agent represents. Otherwise the people whose good will you depend on for success will see you as an amateur—or worse, an annoyance.

Follow the Directions
Submission guidelines exist for a reason. Ignore them at your peril. If the publisher wants three sample chapters and you only send one, you’re undermining your chances for success, particularly if it’s a first book and you’re not an international celebrity. If the agent asks for unbound manuscripts and you send yours with a spiral binding, you’re just making the agent’s job harder. (That manuscript has to get photocopied so it can go to multiple publishers.) TV producers who insist on videos want to make sure that you’ll come across well on television.

Find out what format the publisher or producer wants, and send your pitch in that form. This is easier if you’ve done your homework to start with, rather than assembled a fancy print press kit only to discover later that Jay Leno wants an e-mail cover letter and a VHS tape, or that ever since the anthrax scare Oprah only accepts queries through her website.

Because they get so many submissions every day, most of the people you’re pitching to don’t have time to read anything that’s in the wrong format. They need to disqualify inappropriate material as quickly as possible. Send the wrong thing and your package will land in the recycling bin less than six seconds after it hits the editor’s desk.

Become Mediagenic
If you’re already an international celebrity, you’ve got this one down. Otherwise, consider some media coaching. Even experienced platform speakers sometimes need practice with their interview skills. Publishers view marketing as the author’s real job (writing is secondary), so they look more favorably at proposals from those who already have media experience and connections. You don’t have to rush out and get plastic surgery or replace your entire wardrobe, but you do need to learn to speak in sound bites.

Show Them What You Can Do for Them
Talk-show hosts are not in business to boost your career. They’re after top ratings, and they get those by providing exciting, interesting, and helpful stories to their viewers and listeners. Focus your pitch on what you can provide the audience and how you can make the show’s host look good. Does your story respond to a crisis or deal with a perennial problem like weight loss or divorce? Can you show the audience how to achieve business or personal success in the five or six minutes you’ll get on the air? Can you answer burning questions?

These are all things your book will need to do for its readership, so when you prepare your book proposal, you’ll want to hit many of the same points. What demonstrable need does your book fill? Why will people want to buy the book? It’s really the same question as why people will want to watch a TV show with you as a guest.

Know Your Stuff
Be prepared to answer a wide range of questions about your topic. The more expert you appear, the more likely the media is to come back to you for future stories. And think how much better it will look to publishers if you can say that you’re a frequent guest on radio and television shows. You don’t have to know about everything, but you have to know your subject well and to know what to do if someone asks you a question you can’t answer.

Don’t stop learning when the first book is finished, either. Publishers like series authors, because they’ll make more money on the spin-offs and sequels than they do on the first book.

The Big Difference
The only important difference between pitching publishers (or agents) and pitching to the media is that the media doesn’t want to hear about your book. When you pitch to the media, you’re pitching a story, and your book or other products and services are just part of your credentials. When you’re pitching to a publisher, your book is the star.

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