“If you can’t describe a book in one or two pithy sentences that would make you or my mother want to read it, then of course you can’t sell it.”
— Michael Korda, editor-in-chief, Simon & Schuster, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, June 26, 1984
We’ve talked about pitching fiction. Well, nonfiction is pitched in a similar way — in 3–4 sentences — especially narrative nonfiction. (What is narrative nonfiction? It’s nonfiction with lots of storytelling and a narrator . . . hence the term. It brings the subject to the personal level; you look over the shoulder of the narrator who discovers or experiences the subject, often in real-time, with some flashbacks, etc., like a travelogue.)
Here are examples of nonfiction pitches from a favorite source: Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC). Note how each paragraph sells the book in 3 or 4 sentences. It doesn’t matter if you’re the president of the United States, you only get a couple of lines to pitch your book. Note the common structure: a set-up, some interesting details or examples in the middle, and a wrap-up line that expands the idea to something lovable and appealing . . . that everyone (and his mother) would be likely interested in.
GIVING, by Bill Clinton (Knopf)
[from BOMC summary:] Sharing his own experiences and those of others, Bill Clinton reveals to us the extraordinary efforts being made by individuals and organizations to solve problems and save lives both “down the street and around the world.” From Bill and Melinda Gates to a six-year-old California girl who organized a community clean-up program, Clinton introduces us to both well-known and unknown heroes, including:
• Oseola McCarty, who after 75 years of eking out a living by washing and ironing, gave $150,000 to endow a scholarship fund for African American students.
• Heifer International, which donated 12 goats to a Ugandan village. Within a year, Beatrice Biira’s mother earned enough money selling goats milk to pay her school fees and eventually send all her children to school.
Demonstrating that gifts of time, skills and ideas are as important and effective as contributions of money, Giving is an inspiring call to action, and a reminder that we each can easily do our part to make the world a better place.
Okay, Clinton’s book got a bit more space . . . with detailed examples in a bulleted list in the middle. But really it’s basically 3 sentences.
TELL ME WHERE IT HURTS, by Dr. Nick Trout (Broadway Books)
[Dr. Trout is a staff surgeon at the Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.]
[from BOMC summary:] Trout’s day begins with 2:47 a.m. emergency surgery on a German Shepherd, who is her elderly owner’s sole companion. The operation, a success, kicks off a 24-hour marathon that will test his skills, and his sense of humor—much needed when attempting to treat a man-hating Chihuahua! But it also calls upon his empathy. In his wry, companionable voice, Trout lets us know that while methods have changed since country vet James Herriot’s day, the humanity and compassion remain the same.
First sentence: sets the scene. Second: an interesting detail. Third: a wrap, with the big concepts, the connection to a popular author (James Herriot), etc..
LISTENING IS AN ACT OF LOVE, by David Isay (Penguin)
[from BOMC summary:] Beginning with the idea that everyone has an important story to tell, StoryCorps has grown to become the largest oral history project in the nation. Renowned radio producer David Isay has put together an extraordinary collection of tales—told by the people who lived them to the people they love—in what is nothing less than a celebration of humanity. From the retired country doctor’s hilarious recollections of making rounds with his physician father, to the Korean immigrant, explaining to her daughter with touching candor how she learned to express emotion, Listening is an Act of Love reminds us of the powerful truth that we, the American people, are our history, and through our experiences, we make this country great.
All said and done in 3–4 sentences. Tell it and sell it . . . quickly. If it can’t be done, your project might be too complex. But more likely, you just haven’t stepped back far enough to be able to see the big ideas, the forest that surrounds all of your many, many trees of words, paragraphs, chapters.
And if you can’t sum it up, how will an agent or editor or publisher sum it up to the customers they need to hook quickly? If the great core concepts in the very marketable books above can be summarized in a few sentences, so can your project!
So, pitching your project in a nutshell: show ’em the shell, crack it open with a sharp blow, and tell them why they’ll like the taste of what’s inside.