Abaddon Books

Abaddon Open Subs: the elevator pitch

2 years ago

It’s Open Submissions Month, and I have no doubt many of you are frantically typing as we speak. And here is the seventh and last editorial blog for you submitter-types. Let’s talk elevator pitches!

I’ve delivered a talk to the first-years on Buckinghamshire New University’s “Writing for Publication” course the past two years, giving a breakdown on the whole industry and the process from commissioning to retail sales. in this talk I spend nearly a half my allotted time on the elevator pitch. Yeah, it’s that big a deal.

Why “elevator”? Supposedly coined by Ilene Rosenzweig and Michael Caruso of Vanity Fair, it refers to a chance meeting with an editor (see also: producer, director, executive) in a lift, where the forced seclusion of a thirty-second trip gives you an unrivalled opportunity to press your idea on them… if you can get the gist of it across in time. This does happen! I’ve heard pitches over cigarette breaks and while waiting to pay for a pint, and no doubt will again.

More generally, it’s the skill of condensing and presenting your story persuasively and quickly, to cut away the flesh, find the hard core of the story and pare it down to its simplest, most compelling form. It’s an invaluable marketing skill and a hard-won discipline, and it tells us a lot about you and your story – because you can’t do this unless you really know what it’s about, and if you don’t know what the story’s about, it’s likely that’ll be reflected in the finished work.

But how do you do it?

#1. CUT IT ALL AWAY

For starters, be brutal. Your story is something rich and wonderful, full of nuance, detail and complexity, and right now we don’t need most of it. Find the most basic thread of the story and focus on that. At its heart, Cass Khaw’s Rupert Wong, Cannibal Chef is a murder mystery; Pat Kelleher’s No Man’s World trilogy is a survival story. This doesn’t tell you everything, but it gives your pitch a framework.

Neil Gaiman was once challenged to summarise the whole story arc of his The Sandman, a sprawling metanarrative with scores of characters, running for thousands of pages of comics over seven years, in 25 words. He did it in fifteen: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” You don’t have to be quite that savage (we’ve given you a hundred words!), but this is where you start.

#2. DON’T BE COY

Okay, rehearse this phrase. It’s not a blurb. It’s a very similar discipline, but there are some key differences, and the first one is, we want the spoiler.

Think about it: a blurb’s job isn’t to tell you what the story’s about, but how it begins. It gives you the setup, maybe condenses the first couple chapters, but it doesn’t tell you how it unfolds, because the reader wants to enjoy the surprise. But when we editors are reading your pitch, we want to know what makes it a good story, and the ending should be part of that – or if it isn’t, then that’s a pretty distressing sign for your book.

#3. SELL IT TO US

Or “Don’t Be Coy, Part Two.” Basically, your pitch should tell us two things: what your story’s about (in its most reduced form, as above), and how it’s different from every other story just like it. Remember back to the Subversion blog? This is what I’m talking about. If your story inverts a trope, spell that out in the pitch. If the protagonist is original, diverse or just frickin’ cool, tell us exactly how. It’s how your story stands out that’s going to convince us, and it’s in your elevator pitch that you have the best opportunity to explain how it stands out.

And there you go. Seven little blogs, seven little snippets of advice and wisdom, seven points of view that others will no doubt tear apart, because we publishing types love to argue. I hope I’ve helped a little.

Now, what are you still doing here? Go, write! You’ve got a submission to send in!