With books, as with just about any product, the marketing and sales pundits of the world will talk ‘til they’re blue in the collective face about the importance of the pitch. It needs to be pithy, engaging, to-the-point, and exhibit 17 other qualities to be effective. Most folks know of this concept as the “elevator pitch.” The idea is that you should be able to talk about a book and all of its selling points in the time it takes an elevator to travel from the ground floor to the top floor of your average skyscraper.
The elevator pitch is extremely important from a marketing and sales perspective. I would never try to say that it wasn’t. You may not always have a significant amount of time with some bookseller or reviewer you feel needs to hear about a book, so being able to talk about it in a succinct, efficient manner has great value.
But what if you’re a publisher looking to acquire a book and the only thing you can think is that there’s no elevator in the world tall enough to provide the time needed to pitch this thing properly. It’s a good book, a great book, a book that has struck some chord deep within you—something that doesn’t often happen (and you read a lot of books)—but your sales and marketing folks are telling you it’s too hard to describe, it doesn’t fit nicely within a certain box, what are you going to put on the cover copy? etc., etc. Do you bail, even if they’re right?
I would say absolutely not. This is a valid issue, to be sure. It’s a challenge. But don’t let it be a deal-breaker. Think about some of the great authors and books out there. Even recent ones. I guarantee there are a fair number of them to which the elevator pitch rule can’t be applied, at least not in such a way that really does the book justice. Murakami, anyone? Bolaño? How about David Foster Wallace? Hard to talk about their books appropriately in just two minutes, right? Or think about movies. Are you really going to describe a David Lynch film in the time it takes to get to the top of the Chrysler Building? You might get a few key point across, but there’s no way you can fit it all in. Clearly this doesn’t mean any of these projects weren’t worth taking on.
While I was at HarperCollins, I received on submission one of the best books I’ve ever read. But I wasn’t able to buy it. Why? Basically, because it was a hard one to describe. Because it wasn’t elevator pitchable. It would be a difficult one for sales and marketing. I could tell you that it’s a literary book and that it involves time travel and murder and romance and that the author is a star in the making, but that would just be scratching the surface. To really give this book the spiel it deserves, I would need a plane ride, not a measly elevator trip. Well, maybe if the elevator got stuck for 15 minutes.
But that doesn’t mean this book wasn’t a great book, a book worthy of publishing. It would have just meant a little more work on our end. We would have had to come up with some unique ways to get the word out there on this book, ways that didn’t rely on a brief pitch. We would have had to get creative. We would have had to think of some crazy way to get people to actually read the damn thing. Because that’s where the greatness of this book lay—in the read, not in the pitch. But these days, sadly, it seems that if you don’t have the pitch (the perfect, two-minute pitch), you can’t get the read. Probably my biggest disappointment from my time at Harper was not being able to buy this book.
Having a snappy, gripping, efficient pitch is extremely important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If you’re considering acquiring a book and it’s hard to describe but you still love it—I’m talking here about really, truly loving it, like you haven’t loved many books—find a way to make it work. Maybe the perfect pitch will come to you later. Maybe it won’t but you’ll think of another way to communicate the book’s greatness. It all comes down to passion and how much you’re willing to put into the book. But you better not buy it and then hope it sells itself. Not gonna happen. You’re going to have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty. And if at the end of the day you’ve busted your butt and the thing still just didn’t sell, well at least you’ll feel good about yourself. Because you gave your all, you put yourself out there, for what you believed to be a great (if not easily described) book. And isn’t that what it’s all about?
I almost said earlier that not being able to buy that book at Harper was one of my biggest regrets, but that wouldn’t be true. I fought tooth-and-nail for that book, and I lost. It sucked. But when that book comes out (it already got bought elsewhere) and people see it for the great book it is, I’ll puff up my chest with pride and remember it as that time travel, love story, murder mystery—oh, let’s just call it a masterpiece and leave it at that—that I almost had. And if you have 15 free minutes, or maybe a couple of hours, I’ll gladly sit down with you and really tell you what it’s all about.