How to survive assessments and pitches

I’ve had a few assessments and pitches over the years, both in person and skype, so I wrote this guide to help others consider some of the hurdles I failed to plan for, or that I simply wasn’t aware of.

Assessment – you submit your story prior to meeting the editor so they can assess it and prepare feedback. Can sometimes lead to being asked to submit the full story for consideration.

Pitch – an appointment (usually 3-5 minutes) where you describe your story in a few short sentences to dazzle/inspire/intrigue an editor. If your pitch goes well they may ask you to send them the full story.

 Always check the guidelines, FAQs, or information before booking. Some assessments are also considered pitches and you must be prepared to spruik your story.

To sit in front of an editor with your heart and work in their hands is a daunting idea. But many would say it is a necessary step towards finding publication. This is for two reasons. The unfiltered and immediate feedback you receive, specifically about your story, can help you to refine your work towards a publishable standard. And second, if your work is ready for the world to see, this is the opportunity to find the right editor to champion your story.

Research the publisher

Make a checklist of the publishers available and look at their current list. If you’ve written a story about a grandma sailing around the world with her pet pig, and a publisher has just released a similar story, consider crossing that publisher off the list. Or, if you’ve written an educational, non-fiction book, you can cross off any publishers that only list commercial fiction. If you find a publisher who is closed for submissions but they’re available for an assessment, this could be your only opportunity to get your work in front of them without the use of an agent.

Google the editor’s name

You might be lucky to find a newsletter article or a blog post sharing a Q & A with an editor. Learning about their background, likes and dislikes can help you tailor your pitch, or select the right piece of work, to present to them. Or you may discover they’re not looking for the type of work you create and perhaps you may need to approach a different publisher.

Know your story, know yourself

Most publishers expect an author to be knowledgeable about both their story and the industry, so as an aspiring author you need to hone this skill. Here are some examples of questions a publisher may ask:

Can you sum up your story in twenty-five words? Or, what’s your elevator pitch?

What other titles on the shelves are like yours? What makes yours different?

What is your message for readers?

Who do you think will want to read this and why?

What are your achievements, or what are you doing to learn about writing?

What are your plans for the future?

Pitching like a pro

You don’t have much time in a pitch to sell your story, so have a go at writing a short pitch and practice it. Pitch it to your friends and family until it rolls off the tongue. Sometimes using a formula can help. For example:

My…picture book/middle grade/young adult…story is about a…protagonist name and one or two adjectives…, who needs/wants…what is their dilemma/struggle. They…decide to/end up/get involved in…which results in…self-discovery/saving the world/getting the girl.

Here’s an example using the formula:

My middle grade story is about a shy 12-year-old, Jed, who struggles to fit in because of his wheelchair. He writes a humorous and evocative play showing the absurdity of the human condition. It’s not just the play itself that reveals to his community that everyone is disabled in some way, but the interaction they have with Jed during writing and practice of the play that humbles and enlightens those around him.

If you’re limited by word count, let’s try condensing it.

Jed, a 12-year-old boy, is determined to make his community see beyond his wheelchair by writing and producing an evocative play.

Keep in mind the tone of your story. If it’s humorous, try to include a funny line in your pitch. If it’s a mystery, elaborate on the questions a reader will be thinking-describe the hooks.

Be realistic

Your partner, your mum, your neighbour, your teaching friend, your kids or your local librarian may have loved your work and praised your talent. But that love may not translate to the feedback you receive from the industry professional doing your assessment. Opinions are subjective and publishers are all different; be emotionally prepared to handle feedback like the professional that you are. Editors wouldn’t have jobs if not for writers, so it is in their best interest to help your story reach its full potential. Take their feedback in your stride and not as a personal attack.

Oh, dear

Every now and then I hear about an assessment where an editor has been disrespectful or overly critical. If you feel this has happened to you, don’t jump on social media to vent. Have a chat with a volunteer or event manager. On the other hand, an editor may just be having a very bad day from no sleep or personal issues; they’re human too. In that case, the most important thing is that you receive what you have paid for – an assessment of your work that provides feedback so you can go home with suggestions or tips to work on your story.

Understand the lingo

MS = manuscript

PB = picture book

CB = chapter book

MG = middle grade

YA = young adult

Acquisitions = after an editor says they love your work they may have to promote your work to the acquisitions team of the publisher. This may consist of someone from marketing, art direction, and a commissioning editor. Smaller publishers may not have a designated acquisitions team and the decision may rest solely with the editor.

Blurb = the catchy brief on the back of the book which hooks the reader into buying  (please note, that in some countries this can mean the synopsis – I know, very confusing).

Elevator pitch = one or two sentences that sum up your story in a catchy way.

Genre = childrens, romance, fantasy, science fiction, crime, dystopian, etc

Masterclass = an intensive learning workshop, usually for the more advanced writer/illustrator (or someone who’s extremely determined to learn as much as possible!).

Pagination = this is where you’ve broken your story down to text by page. For example, if you’re an illustrator who has written a story, you should paginate your story to show that you understand how to break text up across the book format.

#pitmad (Pitch Wars) = pitching your story over twitter. Run during a set period of time with rules and conditions. Editors or agents will search on the specified hashtag to find the tweeted pitches and will select the ones they want to receive submissions from.

Slush pile = when you submit your work to the email address or online form on the publisher’s website, your story ends up in a list of submissions called the slush pile.

Synopsis = a condensed version of your story outlining the plot and your main characters. Yes, include the ending!  Some editors request a one-page synopsis, others may want a 300-word synopsis, so be aware that this can vary.

Tag line = a few words before or after the book’s title that captures the essence of the story. Sometimes used on the front of an author/illustrator website to sum up the style of their work. Can also be called a strapline.

Prepare to be baffled

If you’ve booked an assessment where you’ve had to send your story to the editor ahead of the appointed time, you have to remember that they’ve already read your story. So, when an editor asks, ‘What is your story about?’ they already know that it’s about a dog who moonlights as a superhero. What they’re really saying is, ‘Tell me about the theme or message of your story that will connect with readers.’ So, if your story is about breaking stereotypes or dealing with death, tell the editor how your story achieves this. On the other hand, if you’re pitching a story, and an editor asks this question, they want you to answer thoroughly; give them the literal answer by telling them about your superhero dog, and also explain your themes and story motivation.

Where to line up

The CYA Conference in Brisbane and KidLitVic in Melbourne offer assessments and pitches throughout the duration of their events. In NSW, the Kid’s and YA Festival offers pitching opportunities. For a full list of writing conferences in Australia, check out Jason Nahrung’s website here https://jasonnahrung.com/2018-australian-literary-festival-calendar/  (thanks Jason!). The Australian Society of Authors also offers pitch sessions, and for upcoming events, check out the Creative Kids Tales websites. https://www.creativekidstales.com.au/whats-new/upcoming-events

Serendipity and her ugly sister Persistence

If you’ve ever read about an author’s journey then you’ll know that none are the same. Some were published the first time they submitted. For others, it took 42 rejections and ten years. Getting published is serendipitous. You need to pitch, or submit for assessment, the right story at the right time to the right publisher. This is why writers encourage each other to not give up. Persistence and passion are just as important as writing a brilliant story. One publisher may see no merit in your story, but for another it may be just what they’re looking for. So accept any feedback as a guideline and stay true to your heart.

Finally

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, or for advice.

Get there early. Wear something professional or that reflects your personality.

If your assessment wasn’t what you hoped for and you’re feeling upset, talk to an event volunteer – they’re there to support you.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you fumble your pitch – anxiety and nerves are expected.

Editors are individuals, so each assessment or pitch will take its own course.

Good luck!

I’d love to hear about your assessment and pitch experiences. Do you have any advice for other writers or illustrators? What events have you pitched at?

photo credit pixabay

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