So props to the six brave writers who dared public exposure at the 2019 Power of Narrative conference. Each had two minutes — and not a second more — to pitch their passion project to a panel of expert agents and editors:
- Joy Tutela of the David Black Literary Agency
- Helene Atwan, director of Beacon Press
- Stuart Krichevsky, president of the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency
- Raina Kelley, managing editor of ESPN’s “The Undefeated”
The writers then fielded questions, challenges and some gentle but clear criticism. All this in front of some 30 other journalists who sat in on the workshop.
Think “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent,” “So You Think You Can Dance” or any of the many television shows that put a spotlight on amateurs dreaming of making it big. Think about whether you have the grit to stand in that spotlight. But mostly, think about the book or magazine piece you long to write, and how you are going to gain support (and pay) for your project. You may know, deep in your deepest writer’s soul, that your idea is special. People lean forward with fascination when you regale them with your tale. Friends have told you again and again that you should write a book.
And often, all that certitude and enthusiasm runs slam into the brick wall of the pitch.One of the most popular features on Storyboard is “The Pitch.” It includes interviews with editors on what they look for in a successful pitch, and annotations of actual pitches, showing the back-and-forth between writers and editors. (To find examples on Nieman Storyboard, search under the Annotation Tuesdays! Category, which you can find in the left-hand menu. Or search under the name of contributor Katia Savchuk, who first pitched the idea of “The Pitch.”) Many of the magazine editors that Savchuk has interviewed said they have pitch guidelines on their publication sites, or will send them to any serious journalist who asks.
A variety of other journalism organizations carry tips on pitching on their sites. One of the richest resources comes from our friends at The Open Notebook, a site about high-end science, environmental and health journalism. In the few short years it’s been in existence, Open Notebook editors have compiled a database of almost 200 pitches. Even if you write about far different subjects, you can glean wisdom from that trove.
And, of course, literary agents almost always include information online about how to query or pitch a book.
Yet the art of pitching remains something of a mystery — or at least a necessary step in story craft that befuddles many writers.That was no exception at the Power of Narrative pitch panel. The story pitches covered the gamut: One writer told of his Forrest Gump life, in which he had wrestled with komodo dragons, toured with a rock band, and landed in the Baseball Hall of Fame. A woman wanted to write about a former drug dealer who became an expert falconer, and now works with rescue birds to help rescue young people from the streets. A woman whose grandfather was killed in World War II traced the little-known history of the massive effort to find soldiers buried on foreign soil and bring them home.
All captivating stories. All with challenges when it came to convincing an agent or editor of their viability. The feedback from the editors and agents offer tips for any writer who wants to sell their story. While each of the panel experts worked in a slightly different world, their advice carried common themes. We’ve captured a few of the universal highlights:
Don’t pitch a story that’s trying to do too much.
- Successful pitches, whether longform magazine pieces or books, need to narrow in on one essential thing that holds the narrative together.
- What story will you follow as a central spine? Who are readers going to follow?
- Consider the point of view. Whose story are you telling, and in whose voice?
- Find books or articles from a similar genre that have sold well. Know the market.
- Zero in on a potential target audience.
- Find five to 10 books from the past five to 10 years that you think your targeted audience is already reading.
- How does your story stand out?
- Who else has covered a similar subject, and how? How would you do it differently?
Make your story stand out in your first pitch letter.
- Base your story on a unique character or event, but tie it to the larger story it represents.
- Seek stories we think we know but really don’t.
Consider various markets or genres. Know where your story fits.
- Publishers of young adult books are on the lookout for nonfiction. Is there a successful trade book idea that you can adapt for a YA audience? Make sure you choose a voice or point of view that speaks to that audience.
- Unless you’re a known name celebrity, memoirs need to have a narrow, relatable focus. Wbat will make people want to read your story?
Keep your written pitch short and focused.
- Highlight things that show what’s special or scream to get someone’s attention.
- Work on your one-line elevator pitch.
- Do enough reporting to make your pitch specific to the agent or editor you’re pitching. Demonstrate that you know why you are pitching them. Don’t write it as a generic letter to the entire industry.
- When sending an email pitch, or request to look at a pitch, pay attention to your subject line. Make a personal connection to the agent or editor (“I met you at …”) if it’s legitimate. Perhaps include your working story title or quick pitch line.