29 September 2010

Pitches Low and Outside

In the ten years I’ve been helping to organize writers’ conferences, I’ve seen a trend toward “pitch” sessions in which writers give editors and agents brief oral descriptions of their projects, as screenwriters have long done for Hollywood producers. And I don’t like it.

I understand the forces behind this trend. Hollywood is, after all, where the biggest storytelling money is (as long as we combine movies and television so they outearn videogames). A pitch session requires less time, particularly prep time by the professional, than a critique of a written manuscript sample. And in the case of SCBWI, that organization is based in Los Angeles, and its co-founder Lin Oliver works in television and film as well as books, so pitches are more familiar to her.

The problems with pitches are that:

  • They’re not how most book editors and agents evaluate manuscripts.
  • They don’t play to most writers’ best skills.
  • An agent or publisher buys into a manuscript, not an idea that they hire lots of other people to develop.
Editors and agents know that it’s valuable to be able to boil down a book’s appeal into a short pitch, for sales calls, marketing, and jacket copy. But they also know that the execution of the core idea matters.

At one writers’ conference I had to facilitate a pitch session with Michael Stearn, then editing books at one of the H publishers before alighting at the Upstart Crow Literary Agency. And his response to nearly every idea had to be about the same: “Okay, I can see that idea working, but I’d have to see the writing.” He was game, and the attendees were eager, but the session seemed like a waste of time instead of an efficient use of it.

Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown agency just explained at Kidlit.com why she doesn’t like pitches, either:
In most cases, I will request a writing sample — 10 pages and a query, our standard submission request on the ABLit website — after a pitch. Because I need to see the writing. Sometimes, I know that a project is just not for me. . . . But in most cases, I will give the writer what they’re hoping to get: the request for more. That’s the first reason I dislike pitches: most writers are just focused on the request and don’t know that they’ll likely get one.

The second reason I dislike pitches? The bundle of nerves on the other side of the table. Writers freak out, thinking that their two minute pitch will make or break their career, or they act like robots who have memorized a query and are now regurgitating it. A lot of writers read from actual cue cards, their hands shaking, their eyes glued to the page and never rising to meet mine. They’re so focused on the pitch that they’ll get completely frazzled if I ask a question or interrupt them for clarification. It’s a very one-sided conversation.
People go into book publishing—as writers, editors, and agents—because we like the written word. We hone our skills in communicating that way. We take on the long labor of creating books because we like long stories. Asking us to abandon the written word in favor of an oral pitch is just asking for trouble.

(Cover above for No Cream Puffs, by Karen Day, a tween novel about a baseball pitcher that’s easy to pitch but hard to encapsulate.)

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