Elevator Pitches: How to Talk About Your Book
One of these days, you’re going to have to talk about your book. It’s true! No matter if you’re submitting it to an editor or agent, trapped in an elevator with another writer, or just chatting with someone’s book-junkie grandma over cocktails--unless you never talk to anyone about it ever, it will come up. So, it’s in your best interest to figure out how to talk about your book. Briefly, because you can always talk about it more later, once they’ve expressed interest.
This is means coming up with the dreaded elevator pitch—the fastball version of your book so short and compelling you can sell someone on it between floors. Now, the elevator pitch has a lot of mystique built up around it. Most authors hate it—I mean, seriously? If you could capture the whole essence of your book in a mere paragraph of prose, why would you have written a whole book? Your story is complicated! It has layers! It is inexpressible in a measly paragraph. (Hence: book.) But you are a writer. You can do this. All you have to do is write one paragraph that gives readers a quick but strong impression of your book.
The best part is? Just the process of figuring out that elevator pitch will make it way easier to talk about in the future, with or without your script. So, to those ends, here are a few tips for creating an elevator pitch of your own.
One popular method for creating an elevator pitch uses the framework “my book is X meets Y,” where X and Y are popular books or movies—sometimes with an additional qualifying factor, like “in space.” Now, some people loathe this method, since when done poorly, it tells you exactly nothing about the book (though it can be downright hysterical). But it has to be said: when done well, it is an awesome shortcut to describing your book.
A good X meets Y uses two complex essences (the feel of a book or movie) to evoke a third with a fair amount of accuracy. This essentially means it’s a glorified metaphor. Of course, like all comparisons, the trick is hitting it right on the head without veering into the ridiculous. You have to have a firm understanding of how the majority of people would perceive both the X and the Y of your comparison—as well as your book—in order to come up with an apt and universally understandable comparison.
Start by brainstorming a list of movies and books that remind you of aspects of your book. You may even want to practice on other people’s books, just to get the hang of it. Then, try randomly matching the media products on your list, and thinking about what kind of book they would be. Once you find two that together, seem to click perfectly to evoke your book, you know you’ve got it. If not—I’d avoid this style of elevator pitch altogether and go for the sound bite summary instead, as described below.
Pro Tip: Don’t just take it out on the market as soon as you snap two movies together: reader test it. Ask someone what a “Highlander meets Black Swan” book would be like. That way, if they think it means step-dancing ballerinas—of whom there can be only one—you have a chance to laugh, cry, and go back and find something that hits a little closer to your intentions before it becomes important.
The Sound Bite Summary
The Masked Moo, the only cow with the udders to fight crime in Cow City, is mystified when he runs across a string of cows who fall asleep in a pasture only to wake up stumbling around on chicken feet instead of hooves. Until one day, it happens to him! Teaming up with the Red Rooster, his counterpart from the Chicken coast (who also happens to be wearing his hooves), they work together to take down Sinister Cluck and the Dehoofinator, and get everyone back on their feet.
The sound bite summary is just what it sounds like: a very short summary that would make a good sound bite. It is composed of one sentence of premise, one or two sentences of complicating factors, and, if you’re talking to an editor or agent, one sentence about the resolution (you may want to skip that part if talking to a reader!). And it is under 100 words. Terrible, I know! Again, with the condensing of a 100,000-word book in to measly 100 words. But it can be done: after all, the editor will do it for you when they write the summary that goes on the back of your book.
When writing your sound bite summary, you’ll want to avoid both excessive detail and overly generic phrasing. “Evil is rising, and only the hero, whose beloved/kingdom/pet octopus is threatened, can save the world, which, btw, hangs in the balance,” for instance, describes an awful lot of books. But you also want to skip any details—no matter how eventually important to the plot—that do not help to evoke the overall essence of your book. For example, for the awesome TV show Grimm, the detective being a descendent of the Brothers Grimm—an ancient line of monster hunters and the only ones who can see monsters beneath their human veneers—is a distinguishing factor, and important for the feel. On the other hand, mentioning that he isn’t like other Grimms in that he’s friends with some of the monsters, and that they aren’t really monsters but wessen, and that wessen have their own hierarchy, in which Grimms are entangled, while certainly relevant, is not as useful for this stage.
Pro Tip: Of course, when discussing your book in person, I’d generally just start with the premise, and see if they bite. If they express interest—huzzah! You can move on. If they don’t, you’ve done your story justice in a polite yet memorable fashion, and you can move on to other, more mutually agreeable conversation topics.
Use the Right Tags
It's a YA paranormal western novel with steampunk elements.
We already have a lot of shorthand for discussing books—so use them! Tell us if your book is young adult or middle grade; dark fantasy or hard sci-fi; short story or novel. These are time-tested and well understood symbols, and can be used to communicate a lot of information quickly. Of course, many people are writing pieces that bend genres—and in this, there are two easy options. First, think about the variation you’ve seen within genre—because genre actually has a lot of give to it. For example, a fantasy with a few western thematic elements is often just called a “fantasy” these days. So if you can, stuff it in one slot. But if the western elements are really distinctive—above typical fantastical fare—then just say so: it’s a fantasy with western elements.
Pro Tip: Keep it simple. If your use of tags confuses the reader, you’re doing it wrong.
Get a Friend to Do It
What is my book even about? I just don't know anymore!
Seriously? Sometimes? The easiest way to get a good pitch is to hand it to a trusted friend and see what they say it’s about. I mean think about it: you’ve been in the trenches of your book for so long, you hardly know what it’s about any more! You’re too close. Like how picking out gifts for someone close to us is somehow always infinitely harder than picking out a gift for someone about whom we know two things: they like bears and tea (shiny new bear tea cup, here we come!). So give it to a friend who doesn’t know your book—and then ask them to read it and tell you what it’s about. You may just be surprised at the eloquence of the answer.
Pro Tip: Of course, don’t take everything other people say about your book to heart—no one knows your book better than you do. The hope is that they can help give you some insight—not direct your vision.
10 Dos and Don’ts for Describing Your Book to a Pro
- Do Be Personable, Polite, and Professional: Be someone they want to talk to. It makes it much more likely that they will talk to you. (See: Six Deadly Don’ts (and Dos) for Dealing with Editors.)
- Don’t Write a Book to Describe Your Book: An elevator pitch is never a sixteen page, no margins, 8-point type summary of your book. Trust me.
- Do Let Your Work Speak for Itself: When in doubt, say less, and let your work speak for itself--it’s so much more convincing then telling them what to think.
- Don’t Tell Them Your Story Sucks: Even if it does. Either you’re not going to let them read it, in which case it doesn’t matter, or they will judge it for themselves—no need to prejudge it for them.
- Do Read the Directions: Anything said here? Trumped by the directions. If you are submitting, and the editor hates “X meets Y” elevator pitches, do not poke the editor by giving her one, even if you worked really hard on it.
- Don’t Tell Them Why It’s Important: It’s great to be passionate about your topic, but the importance of your subject matters not a whit if the execution isn’t there.
- Do Tell Them Your Credentials: Been published before? Won any awards, or been on any lists—bestseller or otherwise? Great! Totally relevant. Please do tell.
- Don’t Tell Them Your (Illustrated) Life Story: Crushing someone beneath the saucy and scintillating details of your career, family, age, pets, and hobbies (complete with glamor shots) is not really the best way to keep them focused on your story.
- Do Reference Similar Work: It’s helpful to know what kind of thing you were aiming for. It gives a good frame of reference for both reading and editing.
- Don’t Tell Them It’s the Next Harry Potter: You’re not the next Harry Potter; you’re the first you. Let them be the judge of what that means to them. After all—their definitions don’t define you; just their relationship to you.