The Fine Art of the Stealth Book Pitch
At an International Festival of Authors party this week, a young writer approached one of us with the line “Aren’t you the sister of Mrs. Grimshaw, my grade six teacher?” A bit confused, we stopped and explained that no, we didn’t know any Grimshaws. It turned out he was an aspiring writer with a memoir to pitch. Our guess is that he tried that line on several partygoers that night until he found an agent or an editor who might hear him out and hopefully agree to read the manuscript. Entrepreneurial, yes. But do such stealth approaches work?
In this case the writer had a sparkle in his eye. He knew how facetious his line was. But he was charming enough and we were in a happy enough mood to hear him out for a few minutes and even to give him a business card. His idea was risky though.
Tricking someone into talking doesn’t do much to build trust. It also flags the writer as an amateur.
The IFOA is a busy time for those of us working in Canadian publishing. Everyone’s schedules are jam packed from morning to late night with meetings, dinners, receptions, and parties. They are there to solidify relationships and celebrate their authors. They are also there to scout new talent, but they would expect to hear about that talent through industry contacts, over the natural course of conversations with writers, or through attending readings and interviews. In the middle of such a busy time, most agents and publishers would feel accosted by someone who attended the event specifically to pitch to them – and who chose them randomly.
That complete randomness was the biggest issue with his approach. Successful book pitches are highly targeted. You research exactly which editor or agent acquires in your subject area (for example, look for their names in the acknowledgments of comparable books to yours), you craft a careful query, and target that specific person. You could waste a lot of energy randomly asking editors and agents about books they don’t even acquire. And depending on their personalities, their reactions could range from a polite dismissal to a more hostile rejection. Fortunately, we could appreciate this writer’s gutsiness.
So the key to the stealth approach is targeting the right person, both in terms of subject and personality. And be direct about why you want to speak with them.
That’s what Fraser Nixon did with the founder of Douglas & McIntyre. He learned where Scott McIntyre lunched every day, and after months of mustering courage, showed up there to ask whether McIntyre would look at his novel. “Mr. McIntyre, I presume?” he asked, and proceeded to pitch the story. McIntyre responded, “Well, I’ll give it to my people, but you got through the door.”
A couple of years later, Fraser Nixon’s The Man Who Killed was published and shortlisted for Amazon’s First Novel Award.
Nixon’s stealth pitch succeeded because he deliberately targeted a publisher who was a good fit for his novel, and he approached Scott McIntyre with complete honesty about what he wanted. No tricks.
The stealth book pitch should be used sparingly, but if you attempt it, be focused and professional in your approach.