**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.**
Give a big Pitch University welcome to Rhonda Morrow, whose background in marketing ranges from the March of Dimes to Showtime (Viacom).
She's multi-published author who applies her advertising mojo to query letters as the one, the only... Query Fairy.
Lost on an Island Called "Pitching Your Book"
Have you ever participated in the exercise in which you decide what 10 items you’d want with you if stranded on a deserted island?
It’s pretty silly considering that if you knew you were going to get stranded, you’d likely avoid Oceanic Flight 815 or that 3-hour tour.
The reality would probably be closer to the movie Castaway where Tom Hanks was stranded with a bunch of random packages that happened to survive the cargo plane crash.
As fiction writers, we are creating everything from scratch, so you’d think our manuscript marketing experience would be more like the first scenario, with the hand-picked items.
However, I think when it comes time for most of us to try to sell that story, we feel lost at sea.
We’ve been happily writing what we were inspired to write while living in our own separate “writer universe” when…BAM! We’re thrust onto some lonely confusing island where we aren’t even sure we have the tools to survive.
When you start thinking about pitching your story, there are two basic things you need to do first:
1) Make a list of the tools you have at your disposal.
2) Get a feel for anyone who’s on the island with you—the people who could potentially help you…or eat you, if things go badly.
Making the Best Use of Your Tools:
When I worked for Viacom (Showtime/The Movie Channel), my primary job was to go to cable companies and deliver fun, exciting “trainings” aimed at getting their customer service reps to offer us—the second banana—equally with HBO when customers called.
However, I was also supposed to create promotions for original Showtime events and programming.
One day, a memo came from New York, asking me to do a special promotion at the biggest cable company in my area for an original movie called The Birds II.
As usual, they sent me some special giveaways, but this time the stash amounted to some t-shirts and a few hideous stuffed crows with The Birds II stitched poorly onto the wings—the worst quality giveaways I’d ever received. Of course, I still had my general Showtime prizes and a small budget to use.
But how could I create a memorable promotion with so little to work with? I picked up one of the ugly crows. “These birds are so hideous, they should be shot,” I said. “Wait! That’s it!”
I showed up at the cable company with some movie fliers, my Showtime giveaways, some Nerf rifles, and signs that said, “Showtime shoots The Birds.”
However, when I got there, I learned there was a major cable outage and the CSR’s would not be allowed off the phone for more than five minutes, staggered in groups.
I searched around for one last tool, and found it—a double decker mail cart. I put the prizes underneath—t-shirts, umbrellas, beach towels—taped the signs to the sides and balanced some birds on top.
Then I pushed the cart to each aisle and began asking CSR’s if they wanted to “shoot the bird.” After waiting a beat while they looked at me as though they weren’t sure they’d heard right, I’d motion toward my cart. Then they’d fall over laughing and enthusiastically grab the Nerf gun.
The method I used to create promotions is the same pre-thinking I do when writing a query for myself or others, or when looking for the “hook” that might catch an agent or editor’s ear.
So, ask yourself, "What do you have at your disposal?"
A brand new plot, like in the first Terminator movie? (These are pretty hard to come by.)
A twist on an old plot as in Terminator II where Arnold comes back as the good cyborg? (I’ll never forget the look on Linda Hamilton’s face when she first lays eyes on him in the institution.)
Maybe you are using a plot that’s been done over and over—like most authors—but your voice is what makes it fresh and original.
Remember Bridget Jones’ Diary? The plot was “Girl gets with wrong guy. She doesn’t realize the other guy is right for her, despite some sexual tension, but eventually he proves himself the better man.” It’s been done. But it hadn’t been done with the particular humor and voice of Helen Fielding which permeated both the book and the movie.
Is there a timely connection you can make between pop culture and your book? For instance, does your heroine find herself stranded, a fish out of water, with a bunch of Snookie types at the Jersey Shore? (The connection doesn’t have to be that direct.)
Once you’ve determined what’s special about your book—what “tools” you have on your island—it will be easier to know what to emphasize in a pitch or query.
Learn about the other people on your island.
One time, the in-house trainer at that same cable company threw me for quite a loop. I usually made an extra visit when she did “new hire” trainings so I could introduce them to Showtime and The Movie Channel (brainwashing them as soon as possible).
One day, I’d taken the trainer to lunch and was dropping her off back at work. Just before she got out of my car she said, “By the way, I have some new hires coming soon. They may be a bit of a challenge for you.”
After five years at that job, I couldn’t imagine what new challenge could be in store. “What is it?” I asked.
“They’re visually impaired,” she replied.
My mind took a moment to absorb what she was saying. “Do you mean blind?” I asked incredulously. I’d seen what CSRs did and couldn’t imagine how anyone could do it blind.
“Yes,” she replied. “But you’re creative. I’m sure you’ll think of something.” Then she jumped out of my car and waved goodbye.
On the way home, I mentally sorted through my training materials. I had colorful, quarterly brochures, small monthly “what’s coming on” cheat notes to hang by the computers, some boxing fliers, and an awesome quarterly video, full of fun, quick movie clips set to exciting music with virtually no words spoken. All visual. None of this would be of any help.
So, I started researching. I remembered old PSA’s for The Lighthouse for the Blind and called to get some information, including whether or not blind people typically “watched” movies. I turned on Showtime, and just as I thought, the on-air movie trailers had narrators “blurbing” the movie and clips with more sound.
On training day, I showed up armed with our brochures printed in Braille, the knowledge that blind people did “watch” movies and would be aware of the same movie/movie star references as everyone else, and an awesome audio promo of upcoming movies on a tape I’d edited together myself. The trainees sent me some really touching thank-you notes a few days later.
Now, what would have happened if I’d gone into this appointment without any information about my audience? Yet, writers often send queries or pitch to agents without knowing anything about them.
Once you start going to agent or editor appointments, you’re not alone on your island anymore. You are meeting the people who could help you or eat you—okay, most won’t actually eat you. But, wouldn’t it be helpful if you prepared for the meeting by reading the agent or editor’s website and blog, and Googling her name for articles? Wouldn’t it be great to go in knowing some of her preferences and pet peeves, and maybe even a dash of semi-personal information?
If you were an agent or editor, would you want to feel like every Tom, Dick and Mary was just coming in and throwing pitches at you randomly? Or would you like someone to come in and say, “I wanted to talk to you because I know you love Sci-Fi and Vikings, and I’m hoping this might be right up your ally…”
Which kind of person would peak your interest? The one who’d thought ahead, researched, and assembled her tools in advance or the one who’d simply shown up?
Rhonda Morrow spent many years in marketing, public relations, and publicity. Although published in fiction under a pseudonym, she can also been found at www.thequeryfairy.com, her on-line query-writing service.