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How Much to Sell Yourself?

Some writers are notoriously shy — or at least timid — when it comes time to plug themselves in queries, at conferences, etc. I’ve heard lots of published authors say that they’re writers, not salespeople. They rely on their agents to vouch for their work and pitch it to editors, so they can focus on their craft and building their readership. Contracts, pitching, negotiation…that’s the domain of agents.

Well, what happens until you get an agent, or if you choose to go without one? You advocate for yourself. From your query to your networking at conferences to meeting librarians and booksellers and telling them about your book, you’ll have to sell your book at least a few times in your career (ideally, you’ll have the opportunity to sell it to lots and lots of readers). So how much plugging is too much? Where’s the line between confident and bombastic?

Whether you pitch in person or in writing, here is the dividing line and where it lies for me:

Bombastic: This is an amazing story of wonderful proportions, full of thrilling adventure and poignant emotion, lovable characters and a breathtaking plot…
Confident: My thriller pits my main character against his biggest enemy in a high-voltage climax, with a surprising twist ending.
The Difference: Don’t be lavish in your self-praise and, for goodness’ sake, cut down on the adjectives. Everyone knows you love your story…that’s why you wrote it. Nobody wants to hear you praise your own work. It means nothing coming from your mouth, so I’d avoid all the fluff.

Bombastic: My uncle, who is a (unpublished) writer, thinks this is the best book ever written. My children love this story and ask that I read it to them every night. My professor, who has a PhD (in, ahem, civil engineering), said I was an exceptional writing talent.
Confident: Award-winning sci-fi writer, Writer McWriterpants, says of my book, “A rare debut full of heart and fantasy thrills. A great new voice on the scene!”
The Difference: Praise doesn’t count as much when it comes from a relative or friend of yours, unless maybe your brother is Stephen King. I’d much rather hear what an unbiased third party has to say about the book, and ideally have it be someone who knows what they’re talking about (ie: a writer, not an engineering professor). If you can’t get any casual blurbs like this (and that’s totally fine), don’t include something just for the sake of including it.

Bombastic: This will sell like hotcakes and there are endless opportunities to leverage my idea. It lends itself easily to greeting cards, music videos, apps, video games, theme parks, movies, t-shirts and other merchandise, and, of course, sequels!
Confident: The ending of this manuscript gives my story sequel opportunities and, as a trained screenwriter with a cinematic writing style, I can see potential for the screen as well.
The Difference: We all want our work to go from book to screen to the toy store to the clothing rack. If you have experience and possible connections to another industry that can be a great cross-promotional avenue for your book idea, you can hint at it. Maybe bring up some marketing or subrights ideas if you talk to agents or editors on the phone after they express interest. But keep the pie out of the sky and don’t rattle off all your merchandising dreams in the query.

Bombastic: My self-published/previously published book was a bestseller.
Confident: I sold 200 copies of my self-published book in its first year and it is regularly reordered by two independent bookstores in my community. My previously published book enjoyed three printings in one year from a small press.
The Difference: Words like “expert,” “bestseller,” “hit,” and others are a bit like adjectives. They sounds like fluff. If a book sells five copies at a local indie bookstore, sure, it can end up on their bestseller list, especially if your book has a regional tie-in to the region or if you recently did an event at the store. But that’s quite a different level of bestseller than what Stephenie Meyer gets to write on her resume. Use words like this sparingly, and be really specific as to what they mean in your case.

What are the takeaways here? Be specific. Instead of blowing your pitch full of hot air with adjectives or buzzwords like “bestseller,” be straight and direct with the reader. You want to project a healthy amount of confidence, but make sure everything you’re saying is grounded in fact and doesn’t go flying off into Hyperbole Land. All that stuff isn’t what I’m reading for when I read queries. In fact, I skim over most of it.

Caveat: I often tell people to look at the copy on the back of book jackets when they’re crafting their queries. That’s about the length and tone that you’re aiming for when you write the meat of your pitch. However, book jackets can get away with adjectives and buzz and blurbs and all that hype because they’re actually trying to make someone go to the cash register and buy the book.

When I look at queries, I care more about the story you’re pitching to me than how you’re pitching (check out my evergreen article on How to Write a Simple, Compelling Query), but I would greatly prefer a writer who falls on the confident side of the fence rather than the bombastic. If you’re having the opposite issue, and you tend to undersell yourself when you present projects, look at the confident examples again and see if you can’t take more of a stand for you and your writing when you pitch. Either way, remember: we want to be sold. We just don’t want the sweaty-handshake-used-car-salesman hardball sell. Nor do we want the looking-at-your-feet-and-mumbling sell. We want the simple, compelling, concise, and thoughtful pitch that comes from your confidence in your work!

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  1. Ishta’s avatar

    Thanks for this! I think I’ve got the confident pitch on paper, but I tend more towards the staring-at-my-feet-and-mumbling pitch in person. Or the “I’ll talk to you about anything but my work” non-pitch pitch. I hate selling myself to someone who is looking me in the eye. I guess I’ll have to work on that between now and the end of the month! It’s encouraging to remember that agents want to be “sold”.

  2. Margo Kelly’s avatar

    I really enjoyed the process of pitching to agents at my first conference. All of the agents I spoke with were so kind and interested in what I had to say. It was much nicer than the query letter process. The only trick was: I had to remember to breathe.

  3. Robin’s avatar

    Oh, how I wish Steven King were my brother/ or relative :)

    Thanks for the great examples.

  4. Anita’s avatar

    Basically, be humble, yet confident. Entertaining, yet informational post.

  5. MaryZ’s avatar

    I’ve seen SCBWI peers with confidence have that little extra oomph that led them to sign with agents. Need to work on my oomph.

  6. Nicholas Rose’s avatar

    Very helpful post. The business side of being a writer is a challenging one, but it’s definitely worth practicing. I’ll have to run some 10-second descriptions of some of my books by my friends before the next convention.

  7. Melissa’s avatar

    Thanks for the post, Mary. Do you have any advice for the looking-at-feet-and-mumbling types? For those of use who compulsively undersell ourselves?

  8. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Ugh, my very first query (before I joined the SCBWI or even knew anyone else who wrote kidlit) included the words, “My local librarian really enjoyed my story, as did my young relatives.” Seriously! Gotta laugh about my cluelessness, though, otherwise I’d have to resort to weeping instead.

  9. Alison Stevens’s avatar

    What a great post! I’m working on my query letter now, so this is really timely. Thanks Mary!

  10. Leigh DeLozier’s avatar

    Sometimes it can be hard to know where to draw the line between bombastic and confident, so this is a good look at things. I’m fine on paper and don’t have problems meeting with editors or agents just to pick their brains. Official pitching in person is another story, though … gulp! Need to work on that since I’m getting closer to the official pitch stage. Thanks for the tips!

  11. J. P. Cabit’s avatar

    VERY, very, very nice!!! :)

    I’d say that confidence would be self-promotion minus pride. This will come in handy for touching up my query letter. Getting tweeted. :D

  12. Marybk’s avatar

    So, we wait to send the home-made book trailer until the agent requests further materials, or is it OK to include a link in the query letter?

    Kidding.

    Simple and compelling I can do…but the act of summing up my MS in a query letter is an act of confidence in itself. I don’t know that I’m able to *sell* myself. Another item to add to my goals for 2011.

  13. Corinne’s avatar

    Please tell me that the bombastic comments are totally imaginary and not taken from real life because there are not actual people saying this, right? :/

  14. Nutschell Windsor’s avatar

    Hi Mary!
    I’ve been reading your posts regularly (ever since you mentioned it at the Big Sur Workshop last March), but I’ve been shy about leaving comments. One of my new year’s resolutions was to take a more active part in the blogging world.
    This is great advice, especially since I’ve decided that this year would be my “query” year. I’ve never sent out a query before and I need all the information I can get my hands on.
    Thanks for posting this. It was definitely helpful!
    warm regards,
    Nutschell

  15. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    I love your Writer McWriterpants, so funny and great post.

  16. Dale Harcombe’s avatar

    Timely post. Sounds like what I need as I work on promoting my new novel Streets on a Map. Thanks Mary

  17. Livia Blackburne’s avatar

    Nice examples. Quesiton though — would selling 200 self pubbed books come across as confident and impressive? Or just that you have no conception of publishing numbers? It seems you’d want to at least be in the thousands to mention it.

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