Things Nobody Told Me About Selling A Novel (Part 2): The Importance Of The Elevator Pitch

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

“You gotta work on your elevator pitch,” Michael Underwood told me in my first marketing meeting, shortly after I’d sold Flex to Angry Robot.  And then, at the next con I attended, I saw why that mattered.
I’d been on a panel with an author who’d done the thing that all struggling authors do: propped her book up in front of her, cover facing the audience, to remind them oh, I have a book. (I’ll be doing that come September.  Copiously.)  And afterwards, as we were packing up our bags and walking away, she struck gold: an audience member walked up and asked, “So what’s your book about?”
The author sort of flopped her hand on the cover, pointing to the furred person on the front.  “Well, it’s about his attempts to be normal.”
And you could see the audience member freeze in place a bit, waiting for an explanation of what his problems were (aside from being magnificently furry), and why this furry dude wanted to be normal.  But no such explanation was coming.  And so the audience member shrugged and drifted away with the rest of the crowd.
I had not read the book, but that description instilled in me zero desire to read it.  Which is a shame!  It could be a great book!  After all, the author in question was charming and funny on the panel – so insightful that a complete stranger walked up to her afterwards, curious to see what sort of fiction this personality wrote.
There had been an opportunity to make a fan there, and it dissipated like cologne spritzed into a high wind.
Now, as an author, I hate the hard sell.  (Even if I’m on a panel about writing short fiction, I fricking hate bringing up my own stories as examples because I do not want to be That Guy who only talks about His Magnificent Stories.)  But I do realize that even if you’re going the low-PR route, eventually someone will find out you’re an author, and they’ll ask, “So what do you write?”
Having an interesting, one-sentence pitch ready for these moments – and as I’ve already discovered, there’ll be more of ’em than you think – is a good thing to spend some time honing.
You want it short enough that you won’t take up minutes of conversation, but intriguing enough that someone might be lured into asking follow-up questions.  My problem is that “short” thing: I’m awful, awful, awful at condensing my novels down into synopses.  To me, everything is important – hey, that delivery guy on page 224 brought in a very important pizza! – and so when asked to summarize my book, it goes something like this:
“Well, uh, it takes place in a world where magic is created by obsession, you know, if you love something enough it wears a hole in the universe and weird shit happens.  Like, if you’re a crazy enough Crazy Cat Lady, you become a felimancer, and you can do Crazy Cat Lady-related magic.  But by then, you’re pretty nuts, so the magic you want to do is only related to getting and protecting more cats, so really magicians are kind of fucked.  And then there’s a dude in the middle of it, his name is Paul, and he’s been working in insurance for so long that he’s become a bureaucromancer, just nuts about paperwork – dude can, you know, create a lease for a fantastic apartment out of thin air, or maybe backdate an arrest warrant to have a squadron of cops showing up on your door.  But a terrorist ‘mancer burns his daughter so badly that he needs the funds to surgically reconstruct her face.  Except, oh, yeah, whenever you do magic, there’s a backlash that has a good chance of killing you, so he’s terrified he’ll fuck her up even worse by using this new magic, and so he has to team up with this kinky Nintendo-obsessed videogamemancer to brew magical drugs….”
Maybe you liked that summary.  But read it out loud.  Imagine you’ve got a table of four mostly-strangers looking at you when you say this.
Imagine trying to hold their attention through that whole rambling spiel, and you haven’t even said the name of the damn book yet.
No, for politeness’ sake, you owe it to your buddies to construct a quick pitch so you can tell them what it’s about in about twenty seconds, then let them decide if they want to ask follow-up questions.
And for this, you must not be afraid to compare yourself to other authors.  As my friend Steve noted, it seems a little squicky, but it actually does the hard work in people’s minds – they know Author X, they know whether they like Author X, and they have a decent idea of what Author X does.  And for this to work, you need a popular author, because “I write like Nir Yaniv” will score you hipster points among a small (and smart) crowd but will merely baffle most people.
So if you’re a person who writes light, humorous fiction, telling people “It’s kind of like Terry Pratchett” informs them right away whether they’re gonna be into you.  You don’t have to compare yourself, but it’s not the obscenity it seems.
(Unless Terry’s at the table with you.  Then you might wanna reconsider.  That could get embarrassing.)
For me, Michael Underwood helped me narrow it down to something close to this:
“It’s called Flex, and it’s basically Breaking Bad meets magic – a bureaucromancer has to brew magical drugs to save his burned daughter.  Some people say it’s a lot like Jim Butcher.”
There.  I just timed that on my iPhone, and I can say that in nine seconds.  Anyone can endure me talking about that for nine seconds.  And if they want to ask more, then I can blather.
(Of course, that assumes I’m not at a table with a high-powered author who I’m intimidated to be around, which happens a lot, in which case I’ll just mumble and go, “Itsabook.”  But I’m working on that.  I really am.)
(Also note that Michael Underwood has his own new hotness, described as “In a city built among the bones of a fallen giant, a small group of heroes looks to reclaim their home from the five criminal tyrants who control it,” which is available for pre-order right now.)


  1. NorseBear
    May 15, 2014

    Cool book concept. Is it purposefully inspired by the RPG Unknown Armies and how magic works there, or did that just turn out to be the case by magical happenstance? It’s great material for fiction in any case, UA started as a series of texts on John Tynes’ website before it was ever a game.

    • TheFerrett
      May 15, 2014

      It’s not purposefully inspired per se, but the core idea of it came to me in a Mage game, and I’m a huge HUUUUUGE fan of Unknown Armies and doubtlessly snarfed quite a few of the concepts down.
      I’ll be thanking the creators of those games in my afterword, if I get an afterword.
      …I should ask if I can have an afterword.

      • NorseBear
        May 15, 2014

        I’m certain Tynes and Stolze would enjoy being thanked in an afterword. Authors deserve afterwords, make sure to ask for one. 🙂
        The way you explained the different ideas of magic in that “not-so-elevator-friendly-pitch” sums up Adept magic in UA remarkably well. My desire to read Flex just grew even stronger.

        • TheFerrett
          May 15, 2014

          Yeah, I owe you for that one. I actually emailed Tynes to see if he’d blurb the book for me. Because, I mean, to a very real extent he’s the Daddy.

          • NorseBear
            May 15, 2014

            Wahey, now I feel useful!
            It’d be crazy cool to have John Tynes (or Greg Stolze) blurb the book. Crossing my fingers for you.

  2. J. Kathleen Cheney
    May 15, 2014

    Thanks for posting this…it reminds me that I need to prep mine before Con season starts!!!!

  3. Beth Cato
    May 15, 2014

    This is an excellent point, Ferret. I struggled to summarize my novel yesterday for middle schoolers and realized it was something I should have thought about beforehand.

    • TheFerrett
      May 15, 2014

      I think we all discover it when you’re walking right into it, to be honest. The trick is to realize you messed it up, and I don’t think I would have without Michael to clarify it for me.

  4. Eleanor
    May 16, 2014

    This post was, for me, an interesting demonstration of what gets lost in an elevator pitch. Your sentence-long blurb makes me go “meh”–I’m more or less indifferent to Jim Butler and avoid Breaking Bad. But the flaily version, where you get into just a tiny bit of the world-building… OMGWOW do I ever want to read that book. It was quite startling, actually, how very much more exciting version long was than version short. I wonder which is a better predictor of how people will actually feel about the book? However it turns out thank you for posting this, because now I get to be excited to read a new book!


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