Friday, March 16, 2012

The Art of Pitchcraft--Katharine Sands (SFWC)

The very first class I took at the SFWC, which wasn't even part of the conference at all (it was on Thursday evening, and cost extra) was a session with Katharine Sands, a literary agent with Sarah Jane Freymann Agents, on pitchcraft.

Those of you who've been to writers' conferences know that the pitch, that all-important Pitch, is the culmination of the conference, the base reason why we're all there. At the SFWC, the speed-dating with agents was scheduled for Sunday morning, and, being the greenest of all novices, I thought, "Me can definitely use some instruction. Fork over the cash, Guilie."

And I did.

It was a magnificent session--don't take my word for it, though. Below is a summary of what I learned.

There was a small disappointment. I don't think it was Katharine Sands' fault, but the session advertised "You'll work on your pitch for Sunday!" I expected a hands-on, let's-hear-it-and-destroy-it-together approach.

Many people would balk at the prospect of reading a pitch (or anything) to a roomful of people and an agent as qualified as Katharine. I won't say it's something I looked forward to gleefully, but--how else can we learn?

I steeled myself, tried to get the pitch as good as I could, and walked into the crowded room ready to roll and fall flat on my face. It didn't matter--all those people, especially Katharine, would be there to pick me up and help me dust off, and then I wouldn't have to fall flat on my face on Sunday, at the real-life thing. This was just practice.

Alas, I was saved from disgrace, arguably. No practice pitches. For anyone. Dammit.

I wasn't the only one disappointed. Ever noticed how writers like to bitch and moan? Still, whatever little success I did have on Sunday (six agents were interested), I do attribute to Katharine's session.

Here is a copy of my notes. I hope you'll find a few nuggets of her brilliance in these scribbles--college was a long time ago, and my note-taking hasn't improved since.

  • On vanquishing the writer's fear of the pitch: "You [writers] are one big Walmart to us [agents]." Agents want to like our stuff. They want to fall in love with it.
  • The agent listens for how they'd sell what you're giving them. The author needs to provide the agent with enough ammunition so that the agent feels confident they can sell this. The writer carries the burden of proof: we need to make the case for our work. In this world where content is everywhere, what makes YOU and your work stand out?
  • Agents are looking to make a diagnosis and prognosis. Is this book good enough? Can I sell it? Will it sell well once it's published? Agents look for the author's readership. Everyone has one; the agent will be listening to see whether yours is a big one.
  • Quote from Maxwell Perkins: "Why does the world need this book?"
  • These processes serve the writer. Hone your pitch to fit these requirements. Agents zero in on concrete aspects.

  • What is a pitch? "The passport that you carry with you everywhere." It's what you tell about your work to someone that needs to understand you quickly. Yes, speed is key.
  • Pitching is your way of sharing, putting the word out there, in order to find your market. Substitute the thought of "sell" with "share". You're here to share your work, not sell it. It's mind-bogglingly important that you learn to convey it.
  • Focus on nuggets / elements / sparks => HOOKS. "Be a happy hooker." (Seriously. She said that.) You're spoon-feeding others, especially agents. They're blind, have no idea where you're going. Bring something to life for them.
  • What is a hook? Answers the questions "I want to tell you this story because..." or "The world needs his book because..."
  • Three specific things to convey:
    • Place (His Highness--my appelation, not Katharine's--Donald Maas calls it setting)
    • Person (Donald would say protag)
    • Pivot (Mr. Mass calls it problem)
      • Pivot vs. Problem: the pivot is a dynamic moment, it's when something happens and the story is opened, when everything changes. The inciting event, so to speak. A story starts out in the ordinary world and transports the reader into an extraordinary world. Agents will focus on that. The problem is what's at stake.
  • Give the listener a takeaway. What will the listener remember after an hour / a day / a month? What do you want someone to take away from your work? => What is different for the reader by the time they finish the book?
  • A pitch needs to contain the set-up and the payoff. It's the establishing shot. It's the movie trailer of your book. => SET-UP: the promise of a great ride. => PAYOFF: was the ride good enough?
  • Common rookie mistake: lots of backstory in the pitch.
  • Learn to tread the tightrope between art and the marketplace. Pitching is about craft--you're not just making emotional decisions, but craft decisions. Create your case. Show your legs, your voice. Convey the reason to read you.
  • The Demons of Pitchcraft: hubris and humility. Don't be haughty, don't knock yourself down either.
  • Provoke & Evoke: focus on content, become a contentpreneur. As in all our writing, here it's also mandatory to SHOW, don't TELL. Evoke: can you make someone laugh / cry?
  • Make your pitch special, fresh and unique. What are you offering that is new and fresh?

  • Marketing is all around us. Anything that makes you say "yes": clothing, shampoo, partners, etc., had something that drew you in. Your pitch must do the same. Think: "why would I buy this book?" For memoirs, think: "If I'd read this book before my own experience, would I have found it helpful? Would I have found solace?"
  • The interior/exterior journey (very important for memoirs)
  • Avoid generalizations, choose a thumbnail view.
  • Style is NOT a factor for your pitch. The agent is all about the hook, not your pretty words. 
  • Get to the heart of the story.
  • Agents are looking for alchemy--a reaction. 
  • The author needs to give the agent a reason to say yes, and that reason is the hook
  • A good story has zeitgeist. Its theme speaks to many, to a whole audience.
  • Capture a moment; it shows off your skill.
  • Mention the title a few times, bring it to life.
  • Your pitch MUST represent you.
  • The Oscar Wilde approach: take an eavesdropping attitude. If that other conversation you're eavesdropping on suddenly ends, would you want to hear more?
  • Speed dating: it's like a good gossip session.

There you have it, folks. I'm sure I missed quite a few pearls of Katharine's wisdom, and most of the ones I caught are so garbled in note-taking shorthand that you can give yourself a big pat on the back if you made any out. There's also some great stuff at the Freymann Agency website on "The Perfect Pitch," if you'd like to check it out.

Happy pitching!

NOTE (Nov. 16, 2012): Due to a comment left today by someone signing as Katharine Sands (and how beyond flattered would I be if Ms. Sands had actually taken the time to visit this blog!), I wanted to add a clarification here. These notes above are my notes, my interpretation of Katharine's excellent advice, interpretation that certainly falls short in many ways of her zesty presentation and her knowledge. None of these words purport to be Katharine's, verbatim or otherwise. If there's been a misunderstanding in this regard, please accept my apologies. Katharine has not sanctioned any of the above as being even a close approximation of her advice and/or presentation.


  1. Fantastic advice! I've been giving my pitch a lot of thought with all the Pitch Madness going around in the blogosphere. Thanks for the info!

    1. Hi Emily! Glad you found it useful... yeah, pitches aren't fun, but they're necessary :) Hope this helps to make yours even better!

  2. Who knew there could be so much to say about a little teeny pitch? This is almost theological in its scope. The Great Agent God must have inspired you.

    1. Haha--agreed, Helen :) It wasn't the Great Agent God, but Katharine Sands (unless--OMG, is *she* the Great Agent God???). I just took notes :D Thanks for the visit!

  3. Wow, this post is helpful, and I'm so glad you decided to share what you learned with us. Pitching is one of those things I think I have down, until a friend asks me what my book is about, and then I blabber and stutter. Some of that may be caused by self-consciousness that I wouldn't feel with an agent with whom I have no personal connection, but I bet these tips will be useful anyway. Seriously, can't thank you enough.

    1. Glad you liked it, Kristin! Haha--a couple of days ago at a party someone asked me what my novel was about, and--I blabbered and stuttered until they politely changed the subject. God, how embarrassing. The thing is, that wouldn't happen if they asked you what the book you're *reading* was about, so why is it so hard to sum up what our own work is about? Maybe we should practice "pitching" our favorite books first, see how our pitches compare with the "original" blurbs or something. Maybe that'll take the freak-out tension away :)

  4. Thanks for the info, Guilie. I'm so glad you got so much out of the conference and enjoyed your time in SF. One might think pitches would come naturally to an Italian talker like me. But, we tend to like the long roundabout versions of stories.

    1. Haha--Mexicans are like that, too. Maybe it's the Latin roots :D

  5. Awesome! Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience/information :)

  6. Thank you for your kind words, and for sharing my pitching advice. Please note: the conference has a pitch practice 'contest' and I thought people would want to practice pitching there...I will ensure there is more time for pitch practice, sorry. And please note: let me ask you to correct your reference to Don Maass, which looks like I spoke of him as His Highness, which I did not. I often refer to his books, and hold him in high regard for his gift in inspiring writers. Please take this His Highness thing out, or make it clear that I am not calling him this publically! I deeply respect him, his agency, and his family, and ask that you respect this need to keep our cyberspace selves in accord with our corporeal one. Best, Katharine Sands


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