Ray Bradbury, who died the other week, bashed out Fahrenheit 451 in nine days at his local library on a coin-in-the-slot typewriter. He described a future where books are banned and burnt. It was a great idea, written in the fifties when censorship was a big issue. The title, which refers to the temperature a book needs to reach to catch fire, caught the imagination too. The book was given a place on school reading lists for decades afterwards.
A commissioning editor has half a minute to grab the attention of their sales and marketing, editorial, PR, design, and foreign rights colleagues when they pitch one of their authors’ books. And they will give that same pitch over and over again in the run up to publication, with only a sentence or two to deliver the concept. It is not so very different from screenwriter and studio boss or ad-man and client.
Sometimes they just know the book will strike gold. But, as any publisher knows, if they find themselves stumbling over a pitch, the book shouldn’t be taken on, even if they themselves like it. Because, by the time they’ve seen the umpteenth person’s eyes glaze over at their pitch, they know the book is probably a lost cause long before the actual publication date.
So try out your sentence, or question, such as:
How does a rookie lawyer, fresh out of Harvard, get the better of the dangerous and dirty legal firm who employ him, whose clients include members of the Mob? [The Firm]
And work on a short dummy cover blurb. Then try out your pitch on a few people. If you detect any glazed eyes it might be worth thinking again, or restructuring, before you embark on thousands of hours of toil!
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy