The Gentle Art of Pitching

No-one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. Professionalism is no virtue; a professional is simply one who gets paid for doing what an amateur does for love. But in a money economy, the fact of being paid means your work is going to be circulated, is going to be read; it's the means to communication, which is the artist's goal.
Samuel Johnson
Life of Johnson
by James Boswell
Ursula K Le Guin
The Wind's Twelve Quarters
from the Introduction to 'April In Paris'

It doesn’t matter if you take Johnson’s hard-nosed approach or prefer Le Guin’s pragmatic acceptance of reality, your understanding should be the same: no-one cares how deeply or sincerely you want to write.

Sincerity is like honesty. A valuable commodity in its own right but no guarantee a person can write. I’ve known more than a few miserable bastards who could (and do) write like angels.

People in the business of buying words care about said words, not how hard they were to put down or how much you want to keep doing so.

Wordsmithing is a trade and a profession. It’s a lot of other things as well. For me, for example, it’s the only viable alternative to skid row (I’m a lousy employee). Others dignify the craft and their obsession with it using labels like ‘calling’ or ‘art’ and they aren’t necessarily wrong. But getting paid for putting the right words in the right order is a trade and a profession before it is anything else.

Which makes a writer a salesperson. Every day you head into the marketplace, pitching your craft skills and the pithy words resulting from said skills. And, just like every other salesperson, you will mostly be pitching to complete strangers.

Selling your precious creations to strangers is almost the entire writing game. You make a pitch to a person in a position to give you money for your words. They accept the pitch and ask to see the work. If they want it, they give you money and you get a credit. (Byline; name in print; and published are other terms for the same thing: the visible sign someone's paid you money for words.) If they don’t want it they say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and you find someone else in the market for words and make the pitch to them.

After you’ve made a few sales you may find yourself in the happy position of having these buyers calling you offering money before you’ve got words to sell. Or, you’ll be in the happy position where you’ll pitch and they’ll buy your words on the basis of the pitch alone. I’m in both these happy positions as a writer of non-fiction and journalism. Consequently, in these markets I don’t touch a keyboard until someone has already agreed to purchase the words.

In other markets (eg screenwriting) I’m in much the same position as any other beginner. So I find people in a position to give me money for my words and make my pitch. Repeat as necessary.

A writer is a salesperson, first and foremost. If you don’t like the idea of selling words, find another way of making a living.

If the idea of selling words doesn’t put you off, you’ll need to master at least one other art besides writing: the art of pitching. And pitching is selling. Nothing more and nothing less. Or, to quote screenwriter Max Adams:

All pitches are Sales, with a capital S.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

So how long is a writer’s sales call? How long do you have to pitch? Depending on circumstance, between 30 seconds and 5 minutes.

At the 30-second end is a cold-call pitch to an editor at a newspaper or magazine or an assistant at a film or TV production company. You’ve got maybe thirty seconds to convince them that 1) you aren’t a complete idiot, and 2) your story is worth taking a closer look at.

At the luxury 5-minute end of things, you’ve probably been invited to pitch, and you’re pitching something pretty substantial, like a column idea, a major feature article (upwards of 3,000 words) or even an entire book or film.

Pitching isn’t easy, and each market has its own rules, quirks and expectations. But the single most important thing to have in your pitch is a hook. A reason for the buyer to want to hear more. And you’ve got to get that hook out there in half-a-minute, perhaps less.

Having a hook is perhaps most important if you want to sell fiction. The business of selling fiction, whether it be books, short-stories, films or TV-series, is fraught with failure and there appears to be no rhyme or reason to these failures. As screenwriter William Goldman once famously observed, in the world of buying and selling made-up stories, ‘no-one knows anything.’

Max Adams has a formula for making the hook of a fiction clear. It revolves around three words: ‘must’ and ‘or else.’ What must the person with the most to lose do or else what dire thing will happen. For example:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 6 ‘Pitching a Spec Script’

That’s a story I want to read, or see, or listen to. The ‘or else’ is pretty damned major (the Nazis take over the world) and the ‘must’ (find the Ark of the Covenant) isn’t chopped liver either.

Note how nothing is held back. This pitch isn’t a tease. It tells the whole story in 40 words but leaves you wanting to know more. It's the sort of pitch that can turn a thirty-second phone call into a five-minute conversation and, perhaps, an invitation to submit the material or come in and talk some more.

Buyers of non-fiction and journalism want hooks just as much as producers and fiction editors do. But they look at material differently. An acquisitions editor for a fiction imprint or the commissioning producer at a film or TV production company might make less than one purchase a month. An editor at a newspaper or magazine likely makes dozens of purchases every week.

Buyers of non-fiction need more material and they need it more often. The hooks that grab their attention are as much about filling their publications with words as they are about making sure those words are compelling and interesting.

During the early-1990s I wrote a weekly computer column. The hook was easy. Lots of ordinary people are suddenly buying computers they can't use: this column will fill in the blanks, week-by-week. Readers will keep coming and advertisers will follow forthwith.

That pitch -- almost literally: that’s about as long as my pitch was -- got me a weekly column which paid the bills (and more) for two years. (I quit over editorial and advertising interference, by the way: I had to scramble to make up the lost income but I never regretted keeping my integrity intact.)

Another pitch -- this time to Australian MacUser -- consisted of: 'you don't have a book review column, want me to write one?' Two years worth of regular cheques and several thousand dollars worth of books thanks to that sentence.

In each of the above cases I was offering a solution to a problem the publication didn’t necessarily have. Computer columns and book review columns are common enough but not every newspaper or magazine needs them. That said, each pitch was directed at the daily problem magazine and newspaper editors face: what copy do I put between the ads that will keep readers coming back each issue.

The primary risk I was taking when pitching the columns above was that they were columns. Pitching a column (or any regular feature) means you’re selling not just a story, but a never-ending series of stories. Editors are, rightly, cautious of such pitches, especially from writers they don’t know.

More common, and much easier to pitch, are one-off stories that promise topicality or controversy.

Consequent to being burgled in December 1999 I sold an opinion piece (op-ed) to The Age, using the experience to build an argument for decriminalising narcotics. A controversial subject then (and now) judging from some of the hate mail forwarded to me in the following weeks.

My initial pitch: I’ve just been burgled, the police think it was drug addicts. I've got 900 words on the experience that argue this burglary (and others like it) is exactly why narcotics should be de-criminalised.

Back in 1990, just after the long-planned but mostly non-existent Adelaide Football Club was hurriedly pushed into gear to pre-empt Port Adelaide's efforts to join the then VFL, I sold a what-if piece in which I mapped the history of professional gridiron leagues in the United States onto an imaginary future for Australian football. The future of football was in the news at the time and my article was timely and topical.

My initial pitch: What if football was to split into two professional leagues here in Australia just as gridiron did in the US in the 1960s? I can do 1500 words on what that might mean, and it doesn't paint the VFL/AFL as the winners. (This latter likely helped, by the way, since I was pitching to The Advertiser, a parochial South Australian morning daily then and now.)

In 1991 the editors of Mean Streets, a then-new magazine (now long-defunct), accepted a pitch from my writing partner and I. Mean Streets was a specialist magazine covering crime fiction and they bought our article on two detectives from the comics, a medium generally ignored by readers of crime fiction.

Our initial pitch: we can introduce your readers to two entertaining fictional detectives they've likely never heard of.

Notice, despite the difference in form, medium and purpose, the article pitches are not unlike Max Adams’s imaginary pitch for Raiders of the Lost Ark. The pitches don’t tease. They tell the whole story in a sentence or two, making the case for why the editor should want to hear more by being 1) germane to the publication's purpose and 2) topical, timely and/or controversial.

No matter who you’re pitching to, or what you’re pitching, you are presenting yourself and your material as the solution to a problem they have. They need to buy words to stay in business. You have words to sell.

With that said, don’t forget the other side of this shiny opportunity. Editors and producers have too much to read. And they have too much to read all the time.

It's only human for such folk to look for ways of reducing their workload. And one of the best ways of doing that is to dismiss you and your work out-of-hand. So don’t come across badly. Sound professional and together and don’t be a time-waster.

Match your material to your market. There was little point trying to sell my what-if piece regarding Australian football to The Age (a Melbourne paper: its readers likely wouldn’t like the slant I took) or The Sydney Morning Herald (at the time football was seen as a Victorian game by most Sydney-siders). And ‘A Mouse with Spirit’ is of no interest to a gardening magazine. It's even too specialised for a general literary journal.

Match your material to the moment. My Australian football piece wouldn’t be sellable in its current form today. And my op-ed depended on immediacy for much of its initial impact.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, don’t pitch anything but the story. To quote Adams again:

The purpose of pitches is to sell, and what you’re selling is either you, the writer, and the [story] you’ve written; or you, the writer, and the story you want [someone] to buy and hire you to write. So both pitches are about selling you, the writer; however, even though in both instances you are selling you, you are not the subject of the pitch. The story is the subject of the pitch. Always.

Max Adams
The Screenwriter's Survival Guide or Guerrilla Meeting Tactics and Other Acts of War
from Chapter 5 ‘What a Pitch Is, and Isn’t’

Never forget this. When making your pitch tell the story you want to sell, not your life-story. A buyer will probably ask about your experience and credits, but they won’t ask about them until after you’ve piqued their interest.

And this is good news for beginning freelancers. It means not having any credits isn’t a deal-breaker. Get them interested in your tale and you’re a long way closer to your first sale.

Of course interest isn’t a sale, and anyone looking at work from a new writer is going to be more cautious than they are with material from old hands. But that just means you have to write the story well, and you were going to do that anyway.

As for specifics, in the magazine and newspaper worlds an editor is unlikely to offer a formal commission (ie an agreement to pay for an article not-yet-written) to a new writer. Instead they'll ask you to write the story in advance or ‘on spec,’ the standard shorthand for ‘on the speculation someone will buy it.’ (Actually, in mid-2003 publishing is in the advertising doldrums. Even a lot of old hands are writing material on spec.)

In film and fiction, it’s even worse. You’ll need to write the screenplay or book before you even make the pitch. Why? If your pitch sells the story well enough someone wants to read it, that someone will expect the finished tale on their desk in the next day or so.

To sum up:

  • Sincerity, desire and ambition count for almost nothing.
  • Good stories, well told and delivered by the deadline count for everything.
  • You have about half-a-minute to convince a buyer you aren't a complete idiot.
  • Understand why the story is interesting to other people and concentrate on that when making your pitch.
  • Work out what problem it solves for the buyer and make that part of the pitch.
  • Remember, remember, remember: you are not the story.

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