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Pitch Perfect

Last week I mentioned my upcoming workshop at Writers Victoria on 5 March. As part of this I was sent some questions relating to pitching and my responses, below, are also posted on the WritersVic website. If interested, sign up now as there are only a couple of spots left.

• Why do you think there’s so much confusion between synopses and pitches?

It’s possible the term ‘pitching’ has bled into book publishing from newspaper and magazine writing, advertising, and film and TV, but in many ways it’s inaccurate. In essence pitching describes an engaging idea or concept for something; it’s succinct and simple, which are not your go-to adjectives for (most) books.

At writers’ festivals and writers’ centres around the country pitching panels have become increasingly popular opportunities for aspiring writers to access trade publishers. For perhaps as long as five minutes the ‘lucky’ participants – sweaty of palm, weak of knee and dry of throat – try to interest the panel by talking about the hook, the story and themes of their manuscript, and, of course, about their own writing props and profile. A verbal pitch such as this differs from a written submission, and is very different from a synopsis.

For written submissions for works of fiction, a synopsis, cover letter (the closest thing to a pitch) and sample chapters should always be included, mindful that the entire manuscript is ready to be sent if the publisher requests it. For non-fiction submissions what’s needed is a proposal, which includes a paragraph summary for each chapter, along with a cover letter and a couple of chapters (if they’ve been written). Unlike fiction, a partial manuscript, or even just a detailed outline (if it’s a known and skilled writer) might be all that’s necessary to snare a deal.

• How can an author know when to persist in pitching a manuscript and when to give up?

There will always be apocryphal stories of writers who, repeatedly spurned by publishers, go on to be discovered and championed by one visionary, thence to be embraced by the world. It happens, I guess, but it doesn’t happen much. Publishers read a great deal and it’s their business to be passionate about finding new voices and new stories. Sure, sometimes they get it wrong but most times they know what they’re doing. If your rejection slips have now reached double figures, chances are not you’re not going to find a home for your manuscript – at least for now. Put it away and start on something else.

• What’s the biggest no-no when pitching?

There are two pet peeves I have about submissions, each as maddening as the other.

1) Not doing your homework. Go into bookshops and see where your manuscript would sit on the shelves and decide which three publishers would be the best fit. Does your work compete with or complement existing titles that they publish? How does your manuscript distinguish itself?

2) Making empty claims about the importance of your work. It’s not your job to say how great your manuscript is (unless it contains major discoveries – in which case you’ll have a major news profile to capitalise on); publishers rightly think assessing the work is their job.