I once sat for a pitch during which an author arranged her self-pubbed book, a standing tri-fold marketing plan, related merch, and a sheet of sales points and irrelevant stats on the table in front of me. At minute nine of the ten-minute appointment, I interrupted her recitation: “You have a book, you have a tote bag, so what do you need me to do?” She said she wanted an investor who could help her market the book. I asked how many she’d sold on her own. She’d sold zero in ten months. Splat.
A well-defined pitch does not a successful product make.
I don’t only watch the Great British Bake Off. I also watch Shark Tank. It delights me to watch entrepreneurs, passionate about their ideas, hoping to find a partner to take their product to the next level. Every time a new person steps onto that rug and launches into their pitch, I think about queries. (Of course, I’m the Shark in this scenario.)
Writers and queriers are generally very good at telling agents and editors what they have. Pitches are practiced and honed and sound pretty good. But without having a polished product and understanding the larger market, and where your product (book) fits into it, the pitch doesn’t do me much good. (Did you guys see the ST where the guy pitched the surgical Bluetooth implant? Great pitch, ridiculous product.)
Queries are for you to tell me what you’ve got, yes. It’s most easily digestible if I know you know there is a market for what you’re selling me. Your book is a product. If there are too many others like it, there’s little shelf space for another. If there is absolutely nothing like it, there might not be a market for it at all.
The people who get deals on Shark Tank are the ones who’ve done their due diligence. They’re not weekend inventors holding up a prototype made of toothpicks and peas. They don’t speak in hypotheticals. They’re not hobbyists. They know their market. They know their customer. They’ve made dozens of prototypes and tested and redesigned. (Is this analogy holding up?) And after all of that, they head in looking for investors.
This is why you owe it to yourself to do your research. If you’re writing picture books, read every new picture book on the shelves each week. If you want to sell me a YA novel (and I hope you do), it’s important that your frame of reference is wider than Hunger Games and The Fault in Our Stars. Much, much wider. I may not be as awesome as Barbara Corcoran (yet), but my hair is almost as good, and I expect as much from my partners as she does. (For the record, I don’t understand the appeal of Pipcorn.)