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The Writer's Promise: How to Craft a Book's Pitch

I was in the ad biz back in the post-Mad Men days and rather than quaffing martinis and playing office politics, we spent a lot of time focusing on the “promise” of a product: it’s emotional payoff rather than its efficacy. Sure, Spongy paper towels absorb liquids just as fast as its competitors at half the cost, but how does that make the housekeeper feel? It’s the difference between mere description and going beyond it to add an emotional dimension...

I was in the ad biz back in the post-Mad Men days and rather than quaffing martinis and playing office politics, we spent a lot of time focusing on the “promise” of a product: it’s emotional payoff rather than its efficacy. Sure, Spongy paper towels absorb liquids just as fast as its competitors at half the cost, but how does that make the housekeeper feel? It’s the difference between mere description and going beyond it to add an emotional dimension.

(Do you need multiple literary agents if you write different genres?)

Tony Vanderwarker
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Column by Tony Vanderwarker. Raised in New England, he went to film
school at NYU and made documentaries and a full length feature film which
didn’t sell so he decided to try shorter films and went into advertising. Fifteen
years later, he had his own ad agency in Chicago where he did “Be Like Mike”
for Gatorade. When his partners bought him out, Tony finally had a chance to
write full time. It only took him fifteen more years to finally get a book published.
His new book about working with John Grisham is WRITING WITH THE MASTER:
How One of the World's Bestselling Authors Fixed My Book and Changed My Life (Feb. 2014).

Now that I’m selling books rather than paper towels, I was struck with something I read recently. Wish I could remember where but the idea was: Writers need to get across to the reader the promise of what reading their book will deliver on.

Here’s an example of an Amazon book description of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: “Darkly comic, startlingly poignant, and utterly original—this is Kate Atkinson at her absolute best.” Not bad, nothing wrong with it, but not much different than the copy one might write for Spongy paper towels; “Amazing absorption, blazingly fast and like no other paper towel—Spongy sets a new level of performance for paper towels.”

Contrast that with a write-up of And The Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseni, again from Amazon. Right off the bat, the description makes an intriguing promise: “An unforgettable novel about finding a lost piece of yourself in someone else.”

Wow! Now there’s an opportunity a reader doesn’t often get, a promise of meaningful emotional learning, a novel that potentially can fill in a gap in your psyche, make you a fuller person. I’m buying that book.

Another example: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud: “…the riveting confession of a woman awakened, transformed, and betrayed by passion and desire for a world beyond her own.” That’s the lead-in but later in the review you find: “…this story of obsession and artistic fulfillment explores the thrill—and the devastating cost—of giving in to one’s passions.” Much closer, almost hitting a chord but still off the mark. I’d try to be more direct with something like: “Have you ever thought about taking a leap of faith and damning the consequences? The Woman Upstairs brings to life the often horrifying results.”

(11 Frequently Asked Questions About Book Royalties, Advances and Money.)

I’ve written a memoir about the experience of writing a novel under the guidance of John Grisham. It’ll be published by Skyhorse in Feb. 2014. My editor sent catalog copy to me that began, “John Grisham is getting tired of hearing about his friend’s travails as an aspiring novelist. So, to Tony Vanderwarker’s astonishment, the bestselling author offers to tutor him in the art of fiction.“

Again, nothing wrong, but it’s describing instead of bringing to life. So I revised the catalog copy to begin: “Tony Vanderwarker had seven unpublished novels wasting away on his hard drive until John Grisham took him under his wing and taught Tony the secrets of thriller writing.” You see the difference, same communication, but the second reaches out to the target of aspiring writers with phrases like, “seven unpublished novels,” “wasting away on his hard drive,” and “secrets of thriller writing.” What author with dreams of a career writing thrillers wouldn’t be attracted?

Let me close with a challenge; here’s an Amazon book description of Accidentally On Purpose by L. D. Davis: : “Emmy thinks her boss Kyle Sterling of Sterling Corporations is a dick. So, she sleeps with him. Emmy tries to put the mistake behind her, but then finds herself snowed in with Kyle. As the snow builds, so does the heat in the house between the two.”

For your own edification, try rewriting the above to add an emotional dimension. And don’t neglect to do the same with your own work.

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