Tuesday, 31 May 2011

The Pitch - John Dougherty

Everyone loves a story that’s easy to pitch. Agents love it because in the briefest of phone calls they can persuade editors to read it. Editors love it because in a few words they can convince the sales team to get behind it. Sales people love it because in just ten seconds they can tell booksellers why they should stock it. And booksellers love it because, frankly, they don’t have time to read everything on the market and they have customers to serve.

So everyone loves it.

Everyone, that is, except for the author who’s written a story that’s not so easy to pitch.

The basic pitch comes in three flavours. There’s the X Meets Y Pitch:
“It’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer meets Wuthering Heights”
“It’s vampires meet pirates”
“It’s Star Trek meets dinosaurs”
“It’s the Famous Five meets Ancient Rome”

There’s the Unique Selling Point Pitch:
“It’s a whodunnit starring a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome”
“It’s about a detective who’s a skeleton”
“It’s set in a magical land where the animals talk”
“It’s like a Bond movie with a teenage hero”

And there’s the Nothing To Do With The Story At All Pitch:
“It’s by Madonna”

Now, please note that these entirely fictional pitches for very real books don’t tell you anything about the quality of the writing, or the characterisation, or the plotting, or… well, about anything, really, except how you can sell it to people without much effort. In fact - as in some of the cases above - they don’t even need to be terribly accurate.

But what about the stories that don’t lend themselves to pitching? Who would pay any attention to the following:
“It’s about an old man trying to poison a dog”
“It’s about a boy trying to feed his sister”
“It’s about an exceptionally clever child with stupid parents”
“It’s about a naughty boy”

In all of these cases - and they’re very real and successful books too - it’s the quality of the writing, the voice, and the characters, that lift them way, way above the ordinary. Describing them like this does them no favours, and in some cases makes them indistinguishable from a host of others.

I understand the reasons for the pitch. But I hope we never get to the point where it’s the only thing that matters.

And now, Awfully Big Readers, let’s play a game! Firstly, from the fictional pitches above, can you identify the books? And secondly, how would you pitch your own favourites?

Obviously, if we weren’t playing this game I’d have illustrated today’s post with pictures of the books I’ve used as examples. But we are, and I can’t, so here are some pictures of my own books instead. Shameless, aren't I?

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com


karen said...

An old man trying to poison his dog? I have no idea what this book is, but I WANT to know! Someone tell me, please.

Mark said...

It's 'You're a Bad Man, Mr Gum'

I've just read 'Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionaire' and I laughed so hard my eyes exploded.

Mark said...

'A man and his son walk a long way trying not to get eaten.'

adele said...

That last one is THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy!

Big City Bumpkin said...

I guess the thing about pitching a book is that it's about making it stick out in someone's mind so that they remember it and get behind it - even if you have to leave out large parts of the plot to do so!

Charlie Butler said...

I think I've got likely candidates (in some cases more than one) for all except the Buffy/Wuthering crossover and the boy trying to feed his sister (which I initially read as 'boy trying to feel his sister' - and worried that marketing wouldn't go for it). I'll be very interested to know the secret identities there!

I've just read a book with an Asperger's teen detective, and it's not by Mark Haddon! But it's not really a whodunnit either...

Nicola Morgan said...

Great post, John. I am in a rush but just to say I plan to mention it/ABBA at an event I'm doing in Foyles on Thursday night, as this post really chimes with part of what I'm saying.

Gillian Philip said...

Buffy meets Wuthering Heights is Twilight, isn't it? (In theory!) One I plug at school talks is 'Hansel and Gretel for the Xbox generation'. And how about 'Black Beauty with blood and guts'?

Charlie Butler said...

Not a children's book, but I recently found myself describing Donna Tartt's The Secret History as The Great Gatsby meets Euripedes - which I think is probably about right.

Gillian Philip said...

Hey, you weren't supposed to tell us what it was!

John Dougherty said...

Yes, Gillian - in theory that's exactly what it is (I did say that pitches don't need to be terribly accurate!).

As to the other one you couldn't get, Charlie - is that fact that I might expect someone called Charlie to get this one too much of a clue?

And, Gillian - "Black Beauty with blood and guts': surely that would be, er, Black Beauty?

"Hansel and Gretel for the XBox generation" - no idea, but I'm intrigued!

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm thinking Black Beauty with blood and guts = I Am The Great Horse, but I think Katherine Roberts describes that as 'Black Beauty meets Gladiator'. Although Gladiator = Rome, and Alexander the Great = Macedon and Greece (and yes, I'll shut up now. Right now.)

Gillian Philip said...

Spot on, Kath! Though I love 'Black Beauty meets Gladiator'. And 'H&G for Generation Xbox' is wor own Savita's 'The Long Weekend' :-)

John Dougherty said...

Kath, I think as far as The Pitch is concerned, Rome, Macedon & Greece are all The Classics and therefore interchangeable.

John Dougherty said...

Just in case Charlie's been up all night wracking his brains: the little boy trying to feed his sister is I Will Not Ever Never Eat A Tomato by Lauren Child.

Charlie Butler said...

Aha! I was so on the wrong track with Grave of the Fireflies...


Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

Tempted to ask, if I give you my synopsis, can you pitch my novel for me! (Joke.)

Rachael said...

The exceptionally clever child with stupid parents is "Matilda" by Roald Dahl, right?

John Dougherty said...

It is, Rachael!