Saturday, 18 March 2017

Week Thirty-Nine: Pitching Novels at the London Book Fair

So this week was the London Book Fair at Olympia, Kensington. I went along, as I usually do these days, met my agent, talked to my editors, went to several parties, chatted with fellow authors and a few publishers I may work with in future. And now my feet are throbbing and I'm laid up in bed with post-Fair flu.

But it was all worth it. Honest.

London Book Fair 2017

At the LBF, you will find thousands of publishers, editors, agents, and yes, even authors, from all over the world, and all under one roof for three days of buzz and excitement about books. Plus associated book-trade businesses and bodies, including bigger names like the Society of Authors, the Bookseller, etc. Then there's the Ivy Club, which hosts a special pop-up for the fair, with individual booths boasting luxurious leather sofas and armchairs, where all the top London agents do their deals. (Including my own agent, of course, dahling!)

All the fun of the fair, in other words, in one massive exhibition hall with free books and handouts on almost every corner!

Never traditionally an author-friendly event, the LBF has become increasingly more open to authors in recent years. There is the large Author HQ hub, for starters, an entire corner of the fair devoted to all things author. Amazon's KDP self-publishing company seems to sponsor much of this activity, and their team will happily talk to anyone who strolls up and asks about self or indie publishing. At Author HQ, you can hear writers talking to a large audience about their self-publishing successes, or even editors and agents disclosing what they're currently looking for ('A great story with strong characters,' is invariably the unhelpful answer). There's another area at the fair dedicated to children's publishing too, with talks that go on all day, also featuring writers and editors etc.

As an unpublished author, or if you're looking for representation, you can pitch to individual agents - possibly editors too - in the Author Hub if you book up a pitch slot well in advance. There's more about this on the London Book Fair website.

There are frequent launches and even publisher parties that sometimes allow you to drift in univited, especially if it's a smaller indie publisher. See what's on at the LBF website or look out for 'party here 6pm' notices. You can also hook up with fellow authors for a chat about trends and, ahem, any new gossip. Some of them may even stand you a coffee ... Thanks, Alison!

I often meet up with fabulous author Alison Morton at LBF for a good old book natter. This year we shared a table and a chat with John Jackson too, who's just landed a contract with Crooked Cat Books. Thanks to Anita Chapman for the pic!

If you're already published, and/or represented, the fair is a great place to meet your editor(s) and agent, and discuss the year before and the year ahead. You should ask them for a meeting slot a couple of months before the fair - which is an early spring event, usually April, though it was in March this year, which everyone agreed gave it a very different, slightly under-prepared feel.

Everything I am about to say is my individual opinion, based on my own experience, which is fairly considerable but limited to certain areas of publishing. It's not gospel. Caveat lector.

Prepare well for this meeting. You may only get ten minutes, or up to half an hour if you're lucky, to pitch possibly several projects in a convincing manner. Wednesday is a good day for an appointment. Tuesday, everyone is getting settled in. Thursday, everyone is tired, especially by the afternoon, and may already be thinking about heading home, rather than listening to your pitch.

Don't over-dress for the occasion. You're not going for a modelling job or to seduce (not physically, anyway). But do wear something clean and smart-casual.

Writers can get away with a scruffy look as 'creatives' but generally only if they're men. Sexist, I know, but you could reduce your chances of a sale if you turn up looking like a bag lady. I rarely wear make-up but always slap some on for the LBF. I also dye my hair to remove a few grey hairs - only a few though, honest. I'm still practically a teenager. This year I wore black leggings and a black top on the first day - pretty low-key - but coupled it with a new suede jacket and a glitzy necklace. To meet my agent and editors at the Ivy Club, I wore black boots and a bright, slightly kookie, knee-length skirt with again, a plain black top.

Slightly crazed, but not actively terrifying. One hopes.

Dressing like you belong in an industry is the first step to getting into it. So while it may feel a bit superficial, do consider your look and what it says about you. And never drench yourself in perfume or body spray beforehand. It can make people uncomfortable and they'll soon want you to go away!

For the pitch itself, much will depend on your relationship with the person you're pitching to, and also your track record. Old hands in a longterm relationship with an agent/editor may be able to get away with very little by way of a pitch ('It's a Christmas romcom,' was one of my briefest pitches this year, which got a nod) while if you're newer to the business, or transitioning from one genre/publisher to another, you will almost certainly need to go into greater detail.

In some cases, the discussion may even become thorny and require delicate navigation to avoid looking like a total noob. Be prepared to answer difficult (often unanswerable, in my opinion) questions like, 'Who do you see as the readership for that book?' or 'What's its USP?' (Unique Selling Point).

This is my latest book: a domestic noir psychological thriller, in a nutshell. (Not literally in a nutshell. That would be weird.) 

Avoid answering, 'Blimey, I dunno,' to the first (even though it's probably an honest response) as you need to at least pretend to have considered such a question. 'Young professionals' would be better, or even something tighter like 'college-educated women between 18 and 60.' For the USP, if you're at a total loss, you could always try something equally buzzwordy, like 'Oh, it's a high concept premise.' Naturally, this won't wash well if it's, for instance, a gentle romantic novel where nothing unexpected happens.

So think about USP and readerships and longterm strategies and market placement (where your book might fit alongside other similar books) and also author branding. But don't get fixated on them. The story is still everything.

Author branding is where the publisher puts you in a box, composed neatly of whatever novels you normally write, and heaven help you if you decide you want to make a hole in that box later, escape and write something different. Branding will suit some writers better than others. But publishers do love branding their authors - ouch! - and if you can approach a hungry-for-series editor with a new series/brand idea that fits the current market, especially if it has a high concept USP, you're almost certain to get a yes.

For an example of a brilliantly constructed author brand, look at Alison Morton's 6-book Roma Nova series, starting with INCEPTIO.

Almost certain. Not a guarantee. Because there are no guarantees anymore. Not even with so-called 'safe' books that seem to fit the market perfectly.

In these troubled economic times, with the book trade shifting constantly under our feet, book people have become nervous types who want to hang onto their jobs. If your great new idea makes a loss, they're the first ones to suffer. So they're always looking for sure ground, for safe choices, for reasons to say no. Not reasons to say yes. Go into every pitch meeting with that caveat in mind.

Prepare, but don't look over-prepared. Don't clutch a synopsis sheet in your sweaty fist - or worse, a laminated sheet or something in a protective plastic wallet - and stare down at it while stammering out the printed words. Be relaxed, be natural, take a breath. Smile.

In film and television, pitching is a thirty-second art at entry level: fast, slick and honed. Bang, bang, bang ... and out. Things are gradually moving in that direction in fiction land too, but we're not there yet, thank goodness. Old habits die hard. Novelists pitching to agents and editors may not bother with much small talk anymore, under sheer pressure of time, but 'Hello, how are you?' for instance, is still incorporated into most pitching strategies.

For your actual pitch, first know the market as well as any author possibly can. As above, 'It's a Christmas romcom,' pins an idea down to a niche genre and even a seasonal market. Perfect. Details come only after you've laid that groundwork in the listener's head. If you've done good research, you might even suggest a publisher. 'It's a dwarves and sorcerers epic; Tor might be interested.'

If it's literary fiction, look confident and pitch that as a genre. 'It's commercial lit fic' won't necessarily turn them off (even if it's not likely to be commercial, pretend that it is and hope they accept that at face value; honesty is not always the best policy when pitching!). Some big lit fic books can make massive sales these days, especially if they are issue-based. Everyone loves a big issue they can get weepy over. (Not me personally. But then, I'm 'ard as nails.) All the same, your chances of a yes to lit fic will improve if you can throw some recent bestselling buzz-names in there: 'It's on similar ground to Jessie Burton/Joanna Cannon/Emma Healey' should make their ears prick up. Note the recent bit. Everything has to be new, new, new in publishing. Don't tell them it's like a Catherine Cookson novel, or they'll already be looking over your shoulder at the next person in the queue.

Be as specific as possible. 'It's a Christmas animal fiction feel-good novel for adults ...'

Once you have their attention with some firm market placement, pitch the story itself, starting with character. Character is vital to a pitch. Total lack of a plot will get you a no almost every time, of course. But if your character sounds intriguing, an interested agent/editor may try to help you improve the plot rather than give a flat no to a character description that's hooked them.

Beware of too much detail though. Details will bog you down and you'll lose sight of that USP.

'It's about this mother who ...' (Try to be emotive with your nouns: 'mother' or 'wife' will work better than 'It's about this woman.' I know, I know, what can I say?) Work in two or three key characters, quick as possible, and then tell the listener why they should care about them. Jobs can be useful shortcuts to building a character if all else fails. 'It's about this mother/wife/zoo keeper's assistant who's dying of [incurable disease/condition] and she wants someone to [look after her elephants etc.] when she's gone.'

Pressure is always a good way to make a pitch sound saleable. Unity of time, as Aristotle knew, gives even a mediocre plot that extra edge. 'There's this astronaut stranded on Jupiter and he only has fifteen hours to save all of mankind.' Make sure you turn the screw hard though. 'Unfortunately, he has to sacrifice his wife and baby son in order to save the world.' Who could resist that?

Which brings me to my next caveat.

Make sure you're pitching the right story to the right person. The editor who wants the Christmas romcom is unlikely to want the Jupiter astronaut story. An easy-going agent might take both, but most agents will be looking to steer you down a branded path if possible. One or two related genres only. Be aware of that when going in with five different book pitches all in different genres. You could look like a no-hoper without realising it.

'If this Western pitch doesn't work out, maybe they'll like my idea for a sci fi 7-book series set inside a black hole. Or my paranormal trilogy set in Basingstoke.'

Especially when approaching an agent for the first time, try to look like you work in one discrete area by only preparing pitches that fit that genre. Romance OR historicals OR crime, or subsets of these. Not all of them. At least for now. You can bamboozle them with something different once you've hooked them. Alternatively, if an agent says at the end, 'Is there anything else you'd like to write/you're working on?' that could be a signal they like you as a person/writer, but not the genre or ideas you've been pitching. Then you could say, 'Actually, yes, I'm also interested in giant alien bug attacks.'

Despite all these games and ploys, the best book pitches are natural and fit organically into the flow of the discussion. They should come across as more a conversation than a pitch, an easy give-and-take. Tell the story of the book, if you like, but keep it short and animated. If they interrupt a pitch to ask questions, so much the better. Don't answer briefly, with impatience, and then go doggedly back to your pitch. Let the pitch develop into an organic conversation. If their eyes glaze over at any point, move on quickly to your next idea.

And make sure you have a second idea. And a third, and even a fourth, if necessary. You may only need - or have time - to pitch one. So make it your best idea, the one you've prepared most for. But don't be surprised if they prefer the final, slightly desperate pitch you pull out of thin air at the last second, maybe something you thought up on the way to the meeting or that fell out of your mouth unexpectedly when you started talking.

The Borough Book Bash, held every month, is a London pub-based event open to anyone interested in publishing. Great place to network after LBF with up-and-coming editors and book folk, and also to get new Twitter followers, ahem!

Book people like pitching authors to be prepared and in control of their material. But they love raw. They love passion and edge and sheer buzz. They're always looking for that new thing, that big thing, that shimmering book just out of sight ...

So make sure you keep at least one back-up, half-formed, slightly crazy idea in your noddle. Not on paper, never on paper. And whizz that idea out if you think it's gone badly, and the agent is politely opening their mouth to say, 'Well, it was lovely to meet you ...'

If things go well, you may not need that crazy back-up idea. But it's there, just in case.
Most importantly, if pitching to someone you may work with over a number of years, make sure you can get on with that person. Hard to judge in a ten minute meeting, I know. But trust your gut. They'll be trusting their guts on the other side of the table. So if they say no, they may be doing both of you a favour. You need to find the person who clicks with you and your writing, so you can both make it a longterm working relationship, not a one or two-book deal.

Get an email address and hand over a card if you like, but the important thing is to make a real connection. That other stuff can come later.

Good luck!

Oh, and bring water and snacks. There are places to eat and drink at the book fair, but they're often very busy, and are also very expensive. And if you're female, watch out for those long queues for the loo, especially around lunchtime. Take something to read while you wait!


  1. Fab post, Jane, and it was lovely to see you at the London Book Fair! I have a pic of you and Alison-I'll send it over in case you'd like to use it :)

  2. Oh yes, please, Anita! Lovely to see you too. Hope your meetings went well. Jx

  3. Excellent post, Jane. Thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to pass on so much useful information, and so many helpful suggestions.

  4. Excellent post and solid advice. Thank you also for the mention (Must send you an up to date photo - I look like and East End hit-woman!).It was a great pleasure to meet up with you, Jane. I always learn something when I do!

  5. Thanks, Alison. Though I thought you WERE an East End hit woman. My illusions are now destroyed ...

    Thanks so much, Liz, I hope these are useful. Of course I can only say what I know about the business personally, and others may have had experiences that contradict what I say. So big pinch of salt, as always!

  6. To clarify, I have now removed the hit woman photo and replaced it with a lovely photo of me and Alison about to make a raid on the coffee stand.

  7. Brilliant post, Jane, and very useful.

  8. Thanks, friends! I'm sure it's just common sense. But it may be useful for newer writers, I expect, or if you haven't pitched to someone new for a few years.


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Many thanks, Jane Holland