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« Lesson 20: The Blue Oyster Cult of Pitching (Stage Fright) | Main | Lesson 18: Three Ways to Shoot Yourself in the Foot When Pitching to an Agent or Editor »

Lesson 19: Are You Selling Freezers or Refrigerators? (finding your genre before you pitch)

**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.”  Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.**

Pitch U Expert, Rhonda Morrow, is back with us, using her background in marketing (everything from the March of Dimes to Showtime/Viacom).

She's a multi-published author who applies her advertising mojo to query letters as the one, the only... Query Fairy.


It’s a very, very, very bad day.

Imagine for a moment you’re having an especially bad day.

Your car is already in the shop getting fixed, when your refrigerator stops running.  You have no one to take you to find a new one.  Oh, and you just got groceries yesterday and have a ton of expensive food you don’t want to go bad.

What to do?  You quickly call the number of a nearby appliance store. The salesman tells you he has only one refrigerator left(!), but he can have it delivered immediately.


When the delivery men come, you open the door and see it’s not a refrigerator at all….

It’s a freezer.

Your milk and mayo and lettuce don’t need a freezer.  They need a refrigerator.

What do appliances have to do with writing?

Well, imagine that the agent or editor is the customer who is looking for a refrigerator, and you’re the person selling it. Except replace the word “refrigerator” with “story.”

After spending time judging contests and writing letters for others at my query-writing service, I’ve now become concerned that many writers are sending agents and editors freezers when they’ve promised them refrigerators.

The problem starts when we writers just want to type up whatever is in our minds, our hearts, or that dream we once had, then give it to someone who’ll say, “This is awesome! You’re awesome! I must have this manuscript!”

However, once you start pitching and querying, your story isn’t just a story, it’s a product, much like an appliance, and if you don’t know what you have available for sale, you could end up looking pretty silly and wasting everyone’s time.

Bait and Switch

If you’ve promised an agent a fresh concept in the form of a futuristic inspirational, for example, she may already have some editors in mind that she thinks will love your cool new plot. But when she gets it, it turns out to be a futuristic paranormal, a genre she doesn’t normally represent.

You’ve sent her a freezer when she needed a refrigerator.

So, it’s important to take the time to pin down your genre as closely as possible. I’ve seen women’s fiction mistakenly billed as “romance,” paranormal referred to as “inspirational,” and historical fiction mislabeled as “erotic romance.”

When you mislabel your product, the agents and editors get excited about the story and genre they think you’re sending them. It’s important not to set up false expectations.

Agents and Editors Specialize

Why does it matter as long your story is a good one?

Because, agents aren’t omnipresent or omniscient—they don’t have connections with every editor in the world, nor do they know exactly what every editor is looking for.  They often specialize in certain genres that they like and have editor contacts who tell them what they need.

And most editors don’t have the ability to buy absolutely any genre they want. They often have a certain number of slots to fill and particular genres they buy.

Keep in mind that the various genre terms aren’t mutually exclusive, and you sometimes have a combo or hybrid. But you need to do enough research to ensure that you’re actually pitching what you have.

Every story is different, but there are some general guidelines that apply in each genre.

For instance, one hot scene in a novel does not make it “erotica.” If you tell an agent or editor that you’re sending an erotic romance, she’ll expect the erotic scenes to be frequent and prominent in the novel while still propelling the romantic plot forward.

Or perhaps you’re writing something with a mystical or religious bent. Last time I checked, “inspirational” was being used to mean mostly Christian inspirational stories, often sold in Christian bookstores. Before dubbing your novel “inspirational,” you need to make sure you know what that means to publishers at that particular point in time. (Genres can morph and change.) Does “inspirational” mean Christian-only? Can people see angels and demons or are the paranormal happenings limited to the miracle of a change of heart or someone waking up from a coma? What type of language is allowed?

And if you’re calling your manuscript a suspense, romantic suspense, or paranormal suspense, it needs to be, well…suspenseful. If it’s not, maybe it’s simply a paranormal, a romance or a mystery novel.

So how do you figure all this out?

1) Go to Barnes and Noble (or get on Amazon) and look for your genre. Do the covers seem appropriate for the type of story you’ve written?

2) If so, pick up some of those books and read them. If you’re short on money, remember that many on-line booksellers have free reads. Some publishers, like Ellora’s Cave, do too. If you have an e-reader, you can download samples of lots of books to get a wider view of the genre. And many bookstores let you sit around and read their books all day.

(The reason I’m not mentioning the library here is that you’ll want to get the latest view of what’s happening. If you research online, check publication dates.)

3) Use your writing buddies. If you’re reading this article and you are not part of any writing group, in my opinion, you’re not ready to pitch to agents or submit your materials.

Writing and submitting with the help of other writers, rather than alone, is the difference between being raised by humans and being raised in the jungle by apes. Sure, Tarzan is hot, but can he tell a prologue from a preposition? Or a con artist from a reputable agent?

There are writer’s groups all over the world as well as on-line for all genres. Once you find a group, have several members who write what you write—or what you think you write—read your manuscript. Then ask them how they’d categorize it.

What if my story is a hybrid?

If you’ve done your research and you realize you have some sort of hybrid, don’t despair. While I don’t think “inspirotica” (inspirational erotica) will make a big splash any time soon, it’s possible that you’ve done something that’s been done successfully before, or you’ve managed to write the unimaginable hybrid very well.

I still remember how impressed I was with author Nina Bangs a few years ago. Although I’m not a big paranormal reader, I couldn’t resist buying a book that was described to me as a “futuristic historical Scottish paranormal.” The book was called Master of Ecstasy, and she really pulled it off. (Hat’s off to you, Nina.)

But I wouldn’t purposely try to go so far outside the box on your first try. Nina had a track record before she sprung Master of Ecstasy on her editors.

For now, it would just be nice to know whether you’re selling a paranormal suspense or a sci-fi thriller.

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Reader Comments (4)

Pitch University Comments - Read Before Posting a Comment

Use your real name. Agents, Editors, and Experts will be using their real names. Show up with yours. If your profile isn't your name, please sign your name in your comment.

Comments need to be...

Free of Snark, Finger Pointing, and Personal Attack

This is a professional environment. Be professional. No one is fooled by the phrase, "I'm just being honest."

Agents and Editors will be viewing your comments. If you can't be kind toward your own fellow-writers, the thought is you'd make a pretty miserable client.

Don't be* that* writer.

January 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterDiane

I love this analogy. I've known some writers who actually confuse refrigerators with stoves and even coffee tables.

January 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSaytchyn

I love this analogy. I think about half the writers I know can't really sum up exactly which genre sub-category they REALLY fall into.

And it's not because they aren't smart. It's because they're creative! Their stories bring in many elements.

Writers have their own ideas... a LOT of their own ideas. We include them in our story... and then it's a mental-tangle when it comes time to use just one or two words to "slot" your book.

January 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

My family is not going to like this- another reason for me to sit in B&N all day with a latte.

January 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSiobhan

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