Does an Author Really Need a Website?: The Book Doctors Interview Annik LaFarge on How To Be a More Effective Author Online
We are asked all the time, “Do I really need an author website?” We are big believers in author websites, but we decided to take this question to the person we consider the expert on the subject: Annik LaFarge. Annik is the author of The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or You Work With Pros. She also happens to have spent twenty-five years as an executive in the book publishing business, working at Random House, Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Bloomsbury USA. She began her career as a publicist, and went on to become an associate publisher, marketing director, senior editor, and publishing director. And she was involved in the early efforts to create e-books and develop strategies for digital publishing. In the late 1990s, at the height of the dot com boom, Annik took a year away from publishing to join entrepreneur and journalist Steven Brill in the development and launch of Contentville.com, where she published an original series of e-books and oversaw the website’s bookstore. In 2008 she left publishing to start her own company, Title TK Projects, which specializes in website project management, editorial work, and consulting on digital strategy. Author websites she has project-managed include MitchAlbom.com, FrenchWomenDontGetFat.com, MireilleGuiliano.com and TaraParkerPope.com. Clearly, Annik knows what the heck she’s talking about. So we asked her to share with us the benefits of author websites. She was also kind enough to share with us her 10 ½ tips for being a more effective author online.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: In this age of social media, why is a website still important? Is it possible to just get away with a blog/Facebook page/Twitter presence?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Even in this age of social media, having a website is really, really important. A recent study by the Codex Group showed that that websites are one of the key ways people find out about books. Surprisingly, in terms of new book discovery, Facebook and Twitter are much less influential than author websites. Some of the reasons for this have to do with SEO (search engine optimization) and keywords. When you type in an author’s name, his/her website is first thing that comes up. To be the first result that pops up in a Google search is reason enough to have a website. This visibility gives you the opportunity to control your message and to craft the experience that you want that person who is interested in your work—that person who has taken the time to Google you—to see.
Your website also gives you the opportunity to capture people’s email addresses and to build a newsletter list. Your mailing list is extremely important, even if you’re a literary fiction writer. People who give you their names and email addresses are telling you that they’re interested in you and your work and want to know more about you; they want to be kept up to date. Even just a 100-person list matters because you can use it as a mini-focus group, testing book covers and plot ideas, and you can easily alert your fans about new releases. And over time that list will grow and grow.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: What are the top mistakes authors make when designing their websites?
ANNIK LAFARGE: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is building a website and not using it. People get excited, build the engine and then let it just sit there. You need to have a plan for your website—a monthly and yearly plan: what sort of content will you launch with? What will you add as time goes by? How frequently will you post new material? Enough to blog? If so, what will the voice of your blog be? What will be the first 10 things you write about? I tell authors to plan for their website the way they do for a new book: write an outline, like a book proposal, that includes not only the “big think” – the overall substance and point of view of the website – but also a list of all the different pages and what they’ll contain. Think of it as a business plan for your site. Or to put it in more literary terms, it’s like mapping out a long piece of nonfiction – for both the hardcover and the paperback edition.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: A lot of struggling writers are concerned about the costs of setting up a website. I know you write about doing it yourself, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, what’s the minimum a person can spend and still have something that looks professional?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Anybody should be able to get a fine looking blog/website using WordPress, Sandvox (only available for Mac) or Squarespace; these are content management systems that allow you to customize a site off an easy-to-use template for nothing (in the case of WordPress, which is purely open source) or less than a hundred bucks. If you’re working with WordPress pick a theme you like at themeforest.net—my favorite of the theme sites but there are zillions on the web. And if you’re intimidated by technology then hire a designer who can create a nice banner and who knows how to do the basic programming (so you don’t have to hire a separate programmer). This can be done for as little as $500 and most designers these days are very comfortable in WordPress particularly. BUT, there is a very strong argument to be made for building a website yourself. Writers care enormously about how they present their ideas and their presence on the page, and having control over their own “content” is extremely important. Understanding how your website or blog works – how to post new material, set up new sections, add photos and videos, link up with Facebook and other social media venues – means that you can always make changes and additions whenever you like; you’ll never be dependent on a webmaster or an overworked publicist again. For many authors a website is their beating heart in the public space. Creating one can feel daunting – anything more technical than Microsoft Word intimidates many writers – but it’s enormously empowering and creative, and the technology has evoloved to the point where honestly anyone can do it.
You can map out the structure for your website – e.g. create your own “wireframe,” which is to a website what a blueprint is to an architectural project – at a cool new site called GoMockingbird which is very easy to use and inexpensive. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of manuscript paper. But sketching out a site – putting your plan on paper – is a great way to work through your ideas about who you want to be on the web, and it can save you lots of time and frustration later on.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You are now a self-published writer. What platform did you use? What was the costliest part of the process? What was your favorite part of the process.
ANNIK LAFARGE: I went the more complex route by setting up my book at many different retailers. I used Amazon’s CreateSpace for the POD (print-on-demand) paperback version of my book and am very happy with them; they have great customer service and excellent help documentation. Early on I decided I wanted my book to look like a real book – even the ebook version – so I paid a designer to do a proper interior and a cover. I thought I could do the Kindle conversion myself but I made a real hash of it, so I sent the manuscript to ebookconversion.com and let them create the ePub edition. Then I set up accounts at Apple’s iBookstore (using iTunes Connect), Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! (for the Nook), and Google Editions, and I simply uploaded the file at each place, created all the metadata (description, bio, etc.), and I was in business. For awhile I even sold a PDF of the book myself, on TheAuthorOnline.com, using an online tool called e-junkie, which allows you to sell digital products very easily and inexpensively. I could have gone to Lightning Source, which is a great company, and they would have streamlined the whole process for me, but I wanted to learn about each and every step along the way myself, and I make more money this way on every sale. It was time-consuming, but generally fairly easy to do. The most complicated part was dealing with Bowker who you have to go through to acquire an ISBN (the unique identifier for your book that retailers use to display and sell your book). But I’ve trained myself to go into what my partner Ann calls “the Sufi state” and become deeply patient before I visit any e-commerce site I want to partner with. I’ve found that eventually I can slog through and figure out just about everything I need to do, and there’s a particular satisfaction in that. Call it author empowerment.
What I love about ebooks and POD is how nimble they allow an author to be. You can update the content any time you like, and also change the price at will. You don’t get locked into decisions. And if you set up your own website, as I did with TheAuthorOnline.com, you get the benefit of the huge amount of traffic data that Google Analytics provides – for free. So you can learn a great deal about who your readers are.
My advice: start slow, be smart, have fun, and just get on with it.
Annik’s 10 1/2 Tips for Being a More Effective Author Online
No. 1: Think Like An Author
One of the things that authors (unlike other mere mortals) do is organize their thoughts and ideas. You don’t just sit down and write a book from page 1 to 300; you do a lot of thinking, researching, and planning. Tip #1 is to approach your web project in the same spirit. Put on your author hat and make notes and an outline. Start with several general questions that will help inform the overall organization of your website or blog:
– Who am I as an author? If you were writing the opening graf of a newspaper profile of yourself, what would you consider the ideal description of your work? Where would you place the greatest emphasis? Where the least?
– And then: What do my readers want? What sort of questions do they ask you when you make public appearances? What do they say when they write letters or emails to you?
– And: What do I want my readers to know about me that they may not currently know? This is your chance to write the Ur Q&A. Consider it a work-in-progress: post it, then keep adding to it as time goes by and your writing and career develop.
No. 2: Make a Content Plan, Part 1: Static Elements
Make a list of static elements that you want to include on your website: content that doesn’t get constantly updated or newly created like entries in a blog. First focus on things that you already have or would be easy to create: sample chapter(s); biography; reviews; Q&A; etc. Then start another list: stuff you’d love to add in the future (The Author Online contains an exhaustive list of features that readers say they like on author websites). Then go back and prioritize your master list and arrange the items into broad categories that could serve as the navigation on your site: Books (do you subdivide Fiction & Non-Fiction?), Bio, Journalism, About, etc. These are the categories that make sense to you, based on the work you did in Tip No. 1.
No. 3: Make a Content Plan, Part 2: New Elements
Consider where your new content will come from. Do you want to blog? (Do you have time to blog? Will you run out of steam after 3 months?) Will you write occasional articles/essays to post on your site? Will you share early chapters with your fans? Invite them to vote on jacket art from your publisher? Will you constantly post new links to bloggers, videos, new studies/research in your field, etc.?
No. 4: Be Smart Today and Plan to Grow in the Future
Websites evolve. The best thing you can do is be smart and focused at the beginning, and assume that you’ll grow your online presence with time and valuable feedback from fans, traffic data, and other sources. So if you’re just starting out be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to your site; be ambitious but also realistic about your plan for adding new content. Focus on quality of content not quantity, and always circle back to the questions you asked yourself in No. 1: what do your readers want? What do you want them to know about you? Then think about what’s the best way to deliver that on your site and map out a plan for the coming months. And be sure to keep a handy list of “Future Features” and ideas for new content. Tip 4a: Set up a Dropbox account and keep your list in the cloud so you can always access and update it. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot, and you can install Dropbox on any mobile device. (See here for more about how Dropbox works. While you’re there, check out Evernote, another great app that helps you keep track of stuff you find online.)
No. 5: Build a Mailing List
Even if you don’t intend to send out an email newsletter create a sign-up form and place it conspicuously on every page of your website or blog. Do this on Day 1. You may not see a reason to have an e-letter today, but in a year or so you may. People come to your website because they like your work or they’re interested in your subject; give them a simple way to stay in touch. An author’s email list has tremendous value, and it will grow over time. Start now.
No. 6: Use an ESP
Use a professional email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact. Some of these services are free until your list reaches a certain size (like MailChimp) and there are many benefits: they provide simple templates for creating professional-looking emails; easy opt-out links for your subscribers; and vast riches of analytic data about who opened your emails, what they clicked on, how many times they forwarded it, where they live, etc. From that data you will learn to do things better and more effectively in the future.
No. 7: Be Creative About Your Newsletter Signup
You don’t go on the radio and simply say “buy my book, it’s a great read.” You say: “buy my book because I describe all the best tools and strategies for killing a zombie and tell you how to prepare yourself in both an urban and a rural setting.” So in your newsletter signup offer some specifics about what your emails will deliver. For a very good example of a smart newsletter sign-up see the form that SocialMediaExaminer.com uses. They promise a value-add (a free video tutorial on using Twitter), and the text has a real voice. Another example of a creative newsletter signup is the blog CrazySexyLife.com. The first signup box I saw there (in 2009) had three separate options: daily, weekly and monthly, so the reader could choose how much of author Kris Carr’s stuff she really wanted. Recently Carr updated her newsletter signup and it’s still great, but very different and now she also offers a free piece of content for folks who sign up. You’ll find screenshots of all these examples at TheAuthorOnline.com/newsletter
No. 8: Use Google Analytics
Set up your Google Analytics account on Day 1 and get addicted. As you gain traffic you will find this a terrific editorial tool because you’ll know what your readers are looking for, what they actually spend time reading, where they come from (country, state, city), and much more valuable data. Nothing will teach you more about how you’re doing online than Google Analytics, and it’s free. Don’t forget: launch it on Day 1.
No. 9: Visit Your Own Site Regularly
Go to your website at least once every few weeks and test your links (they have an uncanny way of breaking for no apparent reason). While you’re there, chances are that something will strike you: “gee, I could do this better,” or “that featured article is feeling a bit long in the tooth, it’s time to replace it with something else.” Be objective, be critical, be creative. Test new things and check the results in Google Analytics. Then lather, rinse, repeat.
No. 10: Have Fun, Be Empowered
Websites are stressful – everybody knows that. But remember all those times you had a great idea for your publicist and it just never got off the ground? Well, guess what: with your own website you can do a whole lot on your own. And once you start understanding how to use it well, and you get in the groove (and you build up your mailing list, social networking fan base, RSS subscribers….) you’ll be able to reach your readers directly whenever, however, you want. And you can invite them to provide their feedback, both publicly (through blog comments, message boards, and of course in social networking environments) or you can keep things quiet and just enable people to email you via the site. You can start small and grow. Most of all, can you can do it yourself. Visit TheAuthorOnline.com for a rich (and constantly updated) list of resources, sample author and book-specific websites, online tools, articles, links, and more. Please email me and tell me what you think I can do better, or simply alert me to your web project. I’m interested, and many others are too. Most of all, have fun.
Good luck with your project!
After a month of sleep deprivation, self-medication, and caffeine saturation, you wrote your 50,000-word novel. Now what? Do yourself a favor, before you rush to send that novel out, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and come up with a strategic plan for getting your book successfully published. Because one of us is a writer, and the other is a literary agent, we thought we’d shed some light on this planning stage from both perspectives. Then we’ll give you 10 simple things you can do to increase your chances of success before you send your manuscript out into the cold cruel world.
DAVID, THE WRITER:
Before I shacked up with a literary agent, I had absolutely no idea of the sheer insurmountable massiveness of the Matterhorn Mountain of manuscripts that every agent faces every day. No matter how fast they reject manuscripts, they just keep coming. I always thought that agents would be excited to get my manuscript, would cherish the prospect of being able to get rich from it. But now that I’ve been living with an agent for over a decade, I realize what a fool I truly was. The great agents can barely service the clients they have. Even the bad agents have too many clients. If an agent is already established, they’re not hungry. If the agent is young and ravenous, they may not have the contacts necessary to lure the elusive golden ticket of a publishing contract.
Before I lived with an agent, I used to finish a piece of writing and send it everywhere. The problem, I now realize, was that I kept sending out a faulty product. One that hadn’t been road tested. That wasn’t finished. It’s as if I invited a guest over to my house for some delicious cake, and I only baked it for 40 minutes instead of an hour. All the ingredients would be there, but my guest would be forced to eat something all sloppy, gloppy, drippy and nasty. I’d say for every hundred manuscripts that arrive at our door every week, a good 85% of them are half-baked.
Now that I myself counsel so many writers trying to get published, I realize that many of them think, as I did, that an agent or publisher will help fix their manuscript. With the ever-shrinking publishing business in such turmoil, agents and editors must be absolutely passionate about a book. Or believe in their heart that it will make lots and lots and lots of money. Hopefully both. But because they have so many books to choose from, it only makes sense that they would be most attracted to the cakes that are beautifully baked and frosted. The ones that need no fixing.
ARIELLE, THE AGENT:
While it’s never overtly stated, agents and editors are trained to say “No”. You’re trained to look for reasons to turn a project down. To think of every objection anyone might possibly have. Uncover every reason a book might fail. In fact, because I have so little time as an agent, if a manuscript is just good or if it’s at all sloppy or if the writer doesn’t appear professional, the manuscript will go right in the trash.
But when a writer has done her research and perfected her craft, agents get excited. They can sniff a professional often in the very first paragraph of a query letter. And when they do, the thrill of the potential sale ping pongs through their bodies.
I love helping writers. I love working with writers. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, often for very little reward. One of my great frustrations as an agent is that some of the very best books I’ve ever worked on never got published. It breaks my heart! That’s why agents are so very picky. And that’s why you have to anticipate every reason why an agent might say “no” before they can.
Now that you’ve heard both perspectives, here’s our top 10 list of things to do before sending your manuscript out. These tips are writer and agent friendly!
1) READERS & CRITIQUERS. Like a fine bottle of newly opened wine, let your manuscript breathe. While it’s breathing, get people to read it. You absolutely cannot be objective about your own work. Almost everyone thinks that their baby is the cutest, smartest, and most talented. For this reason, don’t depend on your family and/or people who love you as your readers. Look to your NaNoWriMo cohorts. Writer’s groups and workshops. Readers and writers on any of the gazillion websites where they congregate, like Goodreads, RedRoom, and Open Salon. Offer to read other writers’ work in exchange for them reading yours. Yes, of course, take all comments with several grains of salt. But if everyone says your ending sucks, there’s a very good chance that it does.
2) MOUNTING A PLATFORM. Nowadays, publishers don’t just want you to have a following, they expect it. How many eyeballs can you bring to the table? Relentlessly connect with your audience. For example, Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, a novel about Alzheimer’s she originally self-published, hooked up with a major Alzheimer’s website. After much dedicated hard work, Lisa became a keynote speaker at a big annual Alzheimer’s convention. This led to the New York Times bestseller list, which led to a seven-figure two-book deal.
3) IDENTIFYING COMPETITION. Know your marketplace. Frequent your local bookstore. Live in the section where your book will land. Read everything. Befriend booksellers and pick their brains for comparable titles. Assemble a deep and elaborate comp list (this is industry lingo for comparative titles). When you go to an editor or agent, and they ask you about a book similar to yours, you better know that book, and know how yours is different. You also want to compare your book to others that have been successful in the marketplace.
4) FINDING BUYERS. Pinpoint books similar but not exactly like yours. Scour the acknowledgments. See if the agent and/or editor is named. Research these people. Find out everything you can about them. What other books do they represent or edit? Where did they go to high school, college, grad school? Are they horse people, cat people, Jane Austen people? All this will help you find the right buyer for your book when you go to sell it.
5) A PITCH-PERFECT PITCH. 1 minute or less. 1 page. 150 words. That’s all you get for a pitch. Read tons of flap copy of other books in your section of the bookstore. Use your comp titles to develop a 5-second elevator pitch, which will usually either end or begin your pitch. For example, we call our book the What to Expect When You are Expecting…of publishing. In other words, our book, like What To Expect promises to be a one stop shopping guide for everything you’ll need to know about the subject. It may seem cheesy and/or ridiculous, but this shorthand “sales handle” gives agents and editors a quick and easy way to understand and describe exactly what your book is. A pitch is like a poem. Every syllable counts.
6) MASTERFUL QUERY. 1 page. 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph establishes your connection with whomever you’re trying to hook with your book. The second is your pitch, condensed to one paragraph. The third is your bio, again shrink-wrapped so that it’s one short paragraph. This letter needs to establish who you are. If you’re writing a humor book, this letter better be funny. If you’re writing romance, there better be some sizzle. If you’re writing suspense, there better be a great cliffhanger somewhere in sight. Read your query out loud before you send it. Again, get others to read it. Sadly, this one page has a lot to do with your chances of getting successfully published.
7) GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. A great editor can make your book so much better. Our editor improved our book approximately 15,000 times. She kept challenging us to be more precise, to surgically remove unnecessary words, to say things with more clarity and concision. She could, in the words of editor/agent/author Betsy Lerner, see the forest for the trees. If you have the dinero, investing in your book early on in the process may save you time and money in the long run. If you don’t have a lot of spare change, you can ask a local bookseller to just read—not edit—your manuscript for a fee.
Originally posted at The Office of Letters and Light
The Book Doctors, aka David Henry Sterry, and ex-agent/current wife Arielle Eckstut, authors of the Workman book The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, will making a house call in Long Island, and they want YOU to PITCH your BOOK at their Pitchapalooza. Book Revue, Huntington, December 2, 7 PM. It’s like American Idol for books, only without the Simon. Writers get one minute to pitch their book ideas to a once-in-a-lifetime All-Star cast of publishing experts. It’s like American Idol for books, without the Simon. We are lucky enough to have James Levine, the founder of the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, one of Manhattan’s most successful book agents. As well as Long Island’s own Mauro DePreta, Vice President of It Books (HarperCollins Publishers), publishers of the #1 New York Times bestseller Sh*t My Dad Says. An industry veteran of nearly two decades, he has had the good fortune of publishing bestsellers like Not Without Hope, the incredible survival story by Nick Schuyler and New York Times journalist Jere Longman, and Marly & Me by John Grogan. Arielle has been a literary agent for 18 years, and I am the best-selling author of 13 books, the last of which appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. We’ve helped dozens and dozens of talented amateurs become professionally published authors. We’ve appeared on NPR many times, and taught at publishing Stanford University. Here’s a link to our awesome Editor Goddess Savanna’s blog about our Pitchapalooza at Barnes & Noble 86th St., with publishing titans Larry Kirschbaum and Bob Simon. Here’s a link to an article about the Art of the Pitch and our Pitchapalooza on Publishers Perspective.
Every writer who buys a book will get a free consultation from the Book Doctors, $100 value.
Get a free consultation with the Book Doctors, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Whether it’s figuring out a great title, how to pitch your book, get an agent, market and promote, or self-publish, we can help you get successfully published. Just send proof of purchase of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Offer good til midnight Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010.
David Henry Sterry & Arielle Eckstut, aka The Book Doctors are the authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published. Between them they have published 20 books, been a literary agent for 18 years, been on NPR countless times, contributed chronically to the Huffington Post, and appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
To purchase book: http://thebookdoctors.com/buy-the-book
Pitchapalooza Barnes & Noble Big Apple: The Goddess Next Door, Two Female Presidents, & a 1/2 Swedish 1/2 African Gigolo (With Pitching Tips)
10 years ago, before 9/11, the Kindle, Facebook and Twitter, Arielle, my ex-agent and current wife, and I both had books coming out. One about my childhood hero, Leroy “Satchel” Paige. The other was about her childhood hero, Jane Austen. Our publishers, Random House and Simon & Schuster, seemed disturbingly uninterested in helping us sell our books. So we called up our local bookstores and proposed doing events. They said if we could bring Leroy Satchel Page or Jane Austen down to the bookstore, they’d love to do an event with us, otherwise they were completely uninterested in us or our books.
Then one night we were at a party in San Francisco, and word got out that there was a literary agent in the house. Like moths to the flame writers flew furiously, pitching their books to Arielle. This was the lightbulb moment. Why not create an event that would explain how to take something you’re passion about, develop a book out of it, get it published and deliver it into the hands, heads and hearts of readers all over the world? Thus was born the Putting Your Passion Into Print event. I personally set up a 20 city West Coast tour. We were flabbergasted by how many Citizen Authors flooded out of the woodwork. Grannies, Goths, surfer dudes, soccer moms, PhD.s and homeless ex-vets. They all had two things in common: 1) They wanted to getsuccessfully published. 2) The wanted to pitch their books to an industry professional who could help them makes their dreams come true.
Thus was born Pitchapalooza—an American Idol for books where writers would get one minute to pitch their books to a panel of book professionals. The panel then critiques their idea while an audience of aspiring writers and those who love them soak the whole thing in. The panel evaluates everything from character to plot, presentation to marketing, title to comp books, befriending booksellers to finding an agent.
Pitchapaloozas prove Einstein’s theory of relativity over and over. Sometimes a minute goes by in a second. Sometimes it takes six months. But wherever we went, there were so many great stories out there, so many passionate writers who just don’t know how to navigate the stormy waters of the publishing ocean. And we’re proud to report that many Pitchapalooza participants have gone from being talented amateurs to professional authors with published books.
Which brings us to Thursday night, November 11, at the Barnes & Noble on E. 86nd St., in the throbbing center of the publishing mecca, NY, NY. It was the launch for The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published and our biggest Pitchapalooza yet. We had Larry Kirshbaum, a 40 year veteran of the publishing business, former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, now the head of his own literary agency, LJK Literary Management. And Bob Miller, newly minted Group Publisher of Workman Publishing. Since our book is published by Workman, it was a make or break time. We knew that if we put on a great event, it would go a long way to generating enthusiasm from the top down. And if it sucked, and nobody showed up, it could sink our book, which is just a brand new baby. We sent out hundreds and hundreds of e-mails to writing groups, publishing people, friends, relatives, friends of relatives, and relatives of friends. We invited all of our Facebook “friends” and Twitter tweeters. Luckily, we are blessed with a rarity in the book business: a publisher who actually supports their books. They hooked us up with Gotham Writer’s Workshop, who sent out an e-mail promoting our event to 70,000 writers. And Workman and Barnes & Noble took an ad out in the Village Voice.
So as we showered, shaved, and dressed in our Sunday best, we were tingling with excitement and sick with nerves. Imagine our surprise and delight when we showed up at 6:15, and there was already a gaggle of nervous writers with dreams in their hearts and stars in their eyes, waiting to pitch. By 7:00 Citizen Authors of all hue, with hair blond, green and even blue, packed the room, 130 strong, Standing Room Only. As we took our places at the podium with the other judges, you could smell the fear. It was a stifling hothouse of wide-eyed hungry hope and raw vulnerable terror, electricity crackling and buzzing through the room. It was one of the most charged atmospheres I’ve ever been in, and I worked at Chippendale’s Strip Club in the mid-80s, when it was the hottest show in New York City.
And then it began. An old white guy pitched a book about black wisdom. A lawyer lady pitched a thriller involving a lawyer lady. A life coach who called herself The Goddess Next Door pitched a book for women Entrepreuners. An Italian immigrant septuagenarian pitched a book about how he learned English when he came to America as a youth, the first words he learned were: zank you, asshole and son of a bitch. A Norwegian oncologist pitched a book about how fragile life is. Two different people pitched novels about the first female president. A Puerto Rican man pitched a thriller with a mambo beat. A half Swedish half African immigrant pitched a memoir about being homeless and ending up in the sex business: “Coming to America meets American Gigolo.” A tall stately young woman pitched a book about helping women get athletic scholarships to college. A woman who spent time in jail pitched a prison memoir. A security guard pitched a memoir about becoming his own lawyer and winning a lawsuit against NYU. A woman driven by the desire to help sick children pitched a kid’s book about Pointy the umbrella. A man in a hat pitched a book of poetry about how awesome women are. But the winner, Verne Hoyt, gave a pitch which sent shivers through the judges and the crowd. It was a stunning story, simply and exquisitely told.
The event was America at its best. A simmering melting pot of grit, humor, pathos, wild imagination, mad passion, and stories about triumphing in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Sadly, only 23 people got to pitch, so over 100 writers were victims of pitchus interruptus. So the second the event was over, they rushed the stage, clamoring to be heard, ravenous to tell their stories. It was the closest we’ll ever get to being a Beatle: getting swallowed up by a crowd obsessed with grabbing a piece of us. It was terrifying, overwhelming and incredibly cool all the same time.
I honestly believe there were a dozen pitches which, if properly executed, would make powerful, important, and deeply entertaining books. A number of writers were approached by agents and publishers who were in the audience. And it was a true education to see what ignited the crowd and what made it glaze over. For us, it could not have gone better. The head of Barnes & Noble events was there, and he was incredibly gracious. He told us he thought this was a reality show waiting to happen. Which is just what we’ve been saying for years.
Every once in a while you get a vision, an inspiration, an idea that seems so powerful and valuable and right that it won’t leave you alone. Inevitably everyone tells you why it won’t work. But sometimes, the vision is so powerful that you push on through, determined to prove the playa haters wrong. You work, you buff, polished, and refine. Then somehow, suddenly, it all comes together, and your vision becomes a beautiful reality. Exactly like you saw it in your head. Wouldn’t it be great if life was always like that?
6 tips from the Book Doctors on how to perfect your pitch:
1) A pitch is like a poem. Every word counts.
2) It’s always better to present specific images than make general, generic statements.
3) Don’t tell us it’s funny, make us laugh. Don’t tell us it’s scary, scare us. Don’t tell us it’s lyrical, wow us with your poetry. It’s like those people who wear T-shirts that say SEXY. Please, let us be the judge of that.
4) Don’t oversell. Claiming to have written the next Eat Pray Love or Harry Potter only makes a writer look like a deluded amateur.
5) Never say that your book is like no book ever written. That book will never be published. Publishers want books that are familiar but unique.
6) Develop an elevator pitch . An elevator pitch is a Hollywoodese short hand way of describing your book, where X meets Y. For example, Jaws in Outer Space=Alien. Ann Rice meets Gossip Girl=The Twilight Series. The elevator pitch for our book is the What To Expect When Your Expecting of publishing. Yes, we borrow from a title in an entirely different section of the bookstore, but you know exactly what you’re going to get from this elevator pitch.
Book Doctors thank Huff Po!
Nth Word, a great resource for writers!
Bradley Charboneau is THE MAN when it comes to authors & websites. Check it out!