How An Agent Figures Out Her Pitch to Publishers

From www.storygrid.com…some things never change…

It’s 1996.

Tina Bennett is a junior literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, an Aston-Martin level New York literary agency. She’s finished her after-work beer with her colleague Eric Simonoff and heads home energized.

She now has a step-by-step mission.

Per Simonoff’s generous counsel, here is what she’ll need to do to best represent Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point book project.

  1. Target a short list of editors from the brand name publishing companies with the best reputations for publishing high-end Big Idea nonfiction. The publishers of books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster); Futureshock (Random House); Megatrends (Warner); Influence (William Morrow/HarperCollins); The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday) etc.  She’ll use the agency’s Editor/Publisher directory to come up with the names and houses. She’s already run her list by Simonoff and he thinks it’s a good start.
  1. Hone a verbal pitch, one that she would use to describe the project to those editors over the phone…the pitch that will induce them to ask to be included in the submission.
  1. Get some face time with the heads of her agency, Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit, to run the pitch by them and then ask their advice about her plan.

The next day is a Friday, a good time to pop her head into J&N’s Park Avenue office doorways with a “do you have a minute” expression on her face. Bennett knows that any of that week’s submissions have already been messengered to their respective editorial prospects. For all intents and purposes, the work week has ended.

Fridays are paperwork and “blue sky” thinking days at literary agencies, the come down from the Monday through Thursday call logging for new projects and follow-up check ins for the previous week’s. Friday is the day to exhale and regroup. Take off the tie and wear the jeans.

This was the era of hard copy, when submissions were literally printed on paper and stuffed into agency boxes with pitch letters atop. Every agency had its own distinctive box. And Janklow & Nesbit’s were the perfect shade of Strathmore Ivory, elegant with an emanating air of detached excellence…as if one was privileged to have been chosen to cast one’s eye upon the brilliance that lay within. Whether you were capable of understanding and appreciating said brilliance of little matter. Someone would and they’d make it a bestseller. With or without you, the die had been cast.

At publishing houses, the boxes would arrive Friday afternoons. Just before the return of lunching editors soon to pull together their weekend reading. To have a foot’s worth of fresh manuscript chum from second tier chop shop agencies awaiting your push through the glass door after yet another sup at Cafe Un Deux Trois was one thing.

A J&N box with you name elegantly scribed upon it was something else entirely.

It meant you were a player.

Many editors would let those high end boxes sit on the receptionist’s desk all afternoon in the hopes that their publisher would walk by and see that they were getting in the good stuff. Better for the boss to discover your gravitas with their own eyes than to have to clumsily and loudly drop references to how “I’ve got a first novel in from Janklow” to no one in particular as you walked by the publisher’s private and ocupado facilities.

My first publisher was one of those with zero patience for small talk so the bathroom strategy was unfortunately one’s only option. She was not one for the schmooze. But without fail, she’d step into my elevator car at a quarter to five on a Tuesday with me holding a baseball mitt, wearing shorts and sunglasses. With no reading tote anywhere near my person.

“What do you know?” she’d ask.

I never really knew how to answer that question. Was it her way of saying, “what’s up?” “How you doing?” “Good day?” Or was she literally asking me what I knew?

I’d blurt out “Not much.” To which she’d shrug and lament, “we all have our problems.”

Seriously. Those are the sum total of words we exchanged for three years.

Ugh. Still get panicky thinking about it.

Let’s get back to Tina Bennett the night before she’s going to ask her bosses about her list of editors to send The Tipping Point proposal.

After readying a four-cup coffee drip to keep her sharp after the Hefeweizen with Simonoff, Bennett picks up the phone and calls Malcolm Gladwell to nail down the pitch.

Is there anything he left out of his New Yorker piece…what he thinks might make for a bigger treatment of the tipping point idea?

Before Gladwell can respond, she gives him the reason why his answer is so important.

What she is going to have to do is shoot down the Pavlovian “magazine article does not a book make” editor argument right from the start.

So why exactly is “the tipping point” a bigger idea than just a way to look at the controversial broken windows criminology theory and of how people get the flu?

Like what are its first principles?

What is the single simple thing about the tipping point that would appeal to the largest possible audience?

On the other end of the phone, Gladwell is practically having an out of body experience.

I mean he’s had this idea marinating in a sardine can in the back pantry of his mind for over ten years. By 1996, he’s seeing the tipping point pattern in everything. From what made the new Japanese restaurant down the block from his apartment successful to how Paul Revere was able to spread “The British Are Coming” message to start the American Revolution.

Gladwell charts his vision.

The first principle of the tipping point is that it is explains why and how ideas and products and movements and behaviors spread. Anyone interested in figuring out how things become incredibly popular, adopted almost magically/unconsciously by millions and millions of people will want to read a book length version of the tipping point.

He’s animated now, realizing that what he just said may actually be true. It took Bennett to get him to voice it, now that he has, he’s on a roll.

The tipping point explains not just the practicalities of engineering mass consent about an idea–all that Noam Chomsky stuff. But how to actually transform the adoption of an idea into a behavioral response. To know how to tip something is to know how to get someone to not just “think” something, but to actually “do” something.

Knowing about the tipping point, studying it, and putting the principles behind it into action can transform lives.

It’s lightning in a bottle.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but anyone baffled by how people like Jim Jones or David Koresh or Adolph Hitler for that matter were capable of getting legions of people to follow their every dictum will get something life changing out of a book length treatment of the tipping point.

Bennett interrupts to say that going down that very dark hole into the techniques of fascist brainwashing isn’t something many people would want to read about in their spare leisure time.

Gladwell agrees. Let’s go to the opposite pole then. To the positive.

The key thing to get someone excited about the big idea of this book, especially an editor at a publishing house, is probably in how the tipping point relates to commerce.

Like how do you create a marketing program for a product capable of mass adoption? From zero to millions sold?

This will be a global goal of the book…to tell readers how they can use the timeless principles of the tipping point to create positive change. From unknown to wildly popular. Be it a pair of brown suede shoes or even a mind-numbingly repetitive television show on basic cable.

So Gladwell tells Bennett that he will write more about good stuff than bad stuff. He’ll write about how products go from invisible to being de rigueur. How infections are contained. How crime is reduced. How educational television works.

So theoretically, someone who buys the book will feel like they’ll be able to practically put in place the things necessary to create an irresistible product or movement.

Bennett, now taking copious notes, asks, “So, how do you?”

Gladwell then tells her that he’s been thinking about that. He thinks you need three things in order to get something to tip. You need the right kind of information that is appealing enough or “sticky” to inspire others to share. You need the right kind of people to spread the information. And you need the right timing or context for the message and messengers to operate in.

Bennett needs to wrap it up. Okay. Now there’s a general three-part structure to the book. The message, the messengers, and the environment in which they incubate are what give rise to tipping points. Beginning, middle and end. We’ll frame the book with a killer prologue and epilogue and we’ve got a global structure that any book editor will embrace.  This goes far beyond the magazine piece. Is that it?

Pretty much, Gladwell confirms.

Great, I’ll boil this down and talk to Mort and Lynn tomorrow says Bennett. Anything else?

Oh, yeah, says Gladwell, there’s this…

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THE WAR OF ART

Read this one first.
It identifies the enemy—what I call Resistance with a capital “R,” i.e. fear, self-doubt, procrastination, perfectionism, all the forms of self-sabotage—that stop us from doing our work and realizing our dreams.
Start here.
Everything else proceeds from this.

The-War-of-Art

DO THE WORK

Steve shows you the predictable Resistance points that every writer hits in a work-in-progress and then shows you how to deal with each one of these sticking points. This book shows you how to keep going with your work.

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THE AUTHENTIC SWING

A short book about the writing of a first novel: for Steve, The Legend of Bagger Vance. Having failed with three earlier attempts at novels, here's how Steve finally succeeded.

The-Authentic-Swing

NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SH*T

Steve shares his "lessons learned" from the trenches of the five different writing careers—advertising, screenwriting, fiction, nonfiction, and self-help. This is tradecraft. An MFA in Writing in 197 pages.

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TURNING PRO

Amateurs have amateur habits. Pros have pro habits. When we turn pro, we give up the comfortable life but we find our power. Steve answers the question, "How do we overcome Resistance?"

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4 Comments

  1. Jerry Ellis on May 25, 2018 at 6:23 am

    Thought-provoking.

  2. BarbaraNH on May 25, 2018 at 7:34 am

    Thanks! Clean, clear, in-the-moment telling. Beautiful. Now, all I need is a great nonfiction book idea…

  3. Julie Murphy on May 25, 2018 at 2:01 pm

    Talk about a cliffhanger with Gladwell’s “oh yeah, there’s this”. Very intriguing! Thanks, Shawn.

  4. Madalena Penny on June 30, 2018 at 7:23 pm

    ‘Outliers’ was also another good project from Gladwell. It talks about the 10,000 hours of practice in a chosen field that made you completely at ease and proficient at your chosen subject. Since I could hold a pen, I would write. Writing become my escape. I was under no illusion that I was built to write. The world expressed itself to me in emotions wrapped in the gift of words.

    But what I learned, was not that writing to be seen or published was the goal, this happened naturally when you carried on with your passion. It was a natural development that would or would not happen. The point was – is that you follow your bliss. If you make it to the best-seller list, than good. But if you don’t , you still write, you still express, because that is what you want to do.

    Your expression in writing can not be forced – it is an expression of you. If you try to force your writing in a style that is not unique to you, and is not of your voice, it’s obvious to a publisher. Publishing has gotten much harder these days, due to Amazon, Self Publishing and internet platforms. Even if you have written the best novel or book in the world, if the publishers cannot find a valuable audience it can promote it to, it’s not getting published. Money is tight in publishing, so even if you do write a great book, be prepared for publishers wanting a fan-base to go with it, a platform you can communicate and sell your book to them. Ensure you read up on press releases, and other ways to promote your book. Get yourself ready to do public readings, radio programes to promote yourself. Publishers will want to see this FIRST, before they’ve even glimpsed at your synopses.

    Aye, it’s tough, and sometimes thankless and painful. Readers can be fickle people and tend not to care about the authors, just their books.

    Well that’s my ‘pennyworth’ for the day. But don’t be discouraged. True writing isn’t about money or accolade – it’s about you, and what you have to say.

    By: A happy writer who’s written all her life, and has no regrets (and very little royalties).

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