The elevator pitch for novels

Writing is a scary old business but of all the scary things about it, perhaps the scariest is getting the concept right.

I mean, you will spend hours, days, years writing the book itself. Getting the characters right. Tweaking your prose. Labouring with the plot. But what if the whole book is just an unsaleable idea? How do you know before you start?

We’re going to tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. We’re going to show you example elevator pitches – some of which are just one line pitches (and they’re still great.) If you think of things in movie terms, then think of these as loglines for your novel.

This is a key exercise and cam make a massive difference to the saleability of your book. So sit tight – and we’ll jump straight in.

The market for your novel: why your pitch matters

The first thing to say is that you MUST know the market. That means reading a lot of contemporary fiction in your area. If you don’t do that, you won’t know the market, which means you will almost certainly misunderstand what literary agents are looking to take on, which in turn means that your book won’t sell. And why should it? You are creating a product for a market and you haven’t even conducted the basic research.

Look in bookstores, not online – and look especially for recent successful debuts in your genre area. Those are your best guide to the books that agents and publishers are getting excited by today.

But you’ve done all that, of course. But remember this:

The way your book will be sold to retailers will be via a one-page entry in your publisher’s catalogue. A one page “Advance Information” sheet will be available too. And that’s it. The retailer won’t (in general) read the book before they determine their order, so all your loving and crucial work on plot, prose, character and all the rest of it is effectively irrelevant to this particular sale.

The takeaway message here: your novel has to sell itself on the idea, the concept. Everything else matters too, of course, but without a strong hook you’ll never get published in the first place.

Example elevator pitches

What matters therefore, is the “Elevator Pitch”: the twenty seconds that your publisher’s sales guy will have to pitch your book. Here are examples of pitches that could really work:

Twilight: A teen romance between an ordinary American girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.

The Da Vinci Code: a mystery thriller where the protagonist has to unlock codes buried in ancient works of art as he hunts for the Holy Grail.

Wolf Hall: A historical epic revolving around Thomas Cromwell, the most important man in the court of King Henry VIII.

It’s pretty obvious that Dan Brown’s book had a killer premise – and that it was that which effectively sold the book. (It certainly wasn’t his prose style!)

It’s less obvious, but equally true that the vast success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall – a literary novel – also depended on finding a brilliant hook. If Mantel had written effectively the same book about a king / court / period that was less huge in the popular imagination, the book wouldn’t have sold on anything like the same scale. You want proof of that? Easy:

None of her previous ones did.

So if you want examples of pitches that really don’t work,here are some really hideous ones. These examples are invented, of course. Books with bad pitches never get published, so we’ve got nothing real to show you!

Eco-fantasy for 6-7s: three children go to a fantasy world where they have to save the planet and learn about the importance of recycling and the dangers posed by electro-magnetic radiation.

Chick-lit for self-harmers: Katy is a feisty fashion-loving thirty-year-old who fancies the sexy photographer who freelances for her fashion mag. But Katy is a secret self-harmer whose troubles stem from a difficult childhood.

Non-literary literary fiction: a slightly mediocre book about two somewhat boring people in whose lives nothing much seems to happen.

We honestly get books like these. We really do. So do literary agents. And they’ll never work. If you don’t have an instant, grabbing, easily communicated pitch you could be making a similar kind of mistake.

Is your elevator pitch strong enough?

An elevator pitch doesn’t need to summarise the book, or act as a back cover blurb, or anything like that.

It just needs to say what is most exciting about the novel in the shortest possible space. You are looking to deliver a hook and (explicitly or implicitly) a reason to read. So take that Twilight elevator pitch again as an example:

Twilight: A teen romance between an ordinary American girl and a boy who is actually a vampire.

Effectively you are delivering the hook, “It’s about this ordinary girl and a guy who is really a vampire”, plus you’re implying the reason to read as well: “And it’s soooo sexy!”

Every good elevator pitch will convey that hook very clearly and explicitly and – very close to the surface in the subtext – will tell the reader what the likely payoff will be.

These rules, by the way, are universal. I don’t care what you’re writing. If you don’t deliver a strong hook and imply a brilliant payoff, then you’re book won’t sell. And it shouldn’t: you haven’t done your job.

Writing your own elevator pitch: the exercise

The only way to know: write a pitch for your own book. Here are the rules:

  • Maximum of 40 or 50 words. Really, most pitches won’t need more than 20. (And some pitches would be a whole lot less. (“Orphan boy is summoned to school for wizards.” That’s eight words long, and I don’t know about you, but I think that book could sell.)
  • Pick out the hook of your book. The hook, the angle, the premise – the single most exciting aspect.
  • Aside from that hook, you should leave everything else out. Take a look at that eight-word Harry Potter pitch again. Does it tell you anything about the plot?  No. About Harry? No. About Hermione? No. About his parents? No. About Voldemort? No . .

Once you’ve done that, be brutally honest with yourself.

Does your pitch sound limp or strong? Experiment with different ways of couching it. See if you can add a little edge, something new, something vibrant. Even if you need to change the book to fit that pitch, you need to do it.

Good writing matters. But saleability is essential . . .

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