The 4 Elements of a Knock-Out Conference Pitch (And Book Deal News for THE HAPPY TRAVELER by Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.)

how to pitch an agent at a writer's conference

But first, the stories worth reading this week:

Killer Takeaways From a Bestselling Book Launch (Chad Cannon on This is the must-read article of the week! Chad Cannon gives us a behind-the-curtain look at how Michael Hyatt recently launched his newest bestseller, Living Forward. “Our marketing team built out a launch plan over a year ago and spent countless hours refining and executing it in anticipation of release day. Lots of strategy and hours of rich, dynamic discussion. And I’m proud—and humbled—to say that we dove into release day with more than 18,500 preorders.” That is a very, very nice number.

James Patterson Has a Big Plan for Small Books (Alexandra Alter for The New York Times): I get giddy seeing this sort of publishing innovation happening. James Patterson wants to make books more mainstream so that they’ll appeal to the 27% of Americans who read zero books last year. As he says, “’You can race through these — they’re like reading movies….It gives people some alternative ways to read.’” If you ask me, getting more people to read is always a good thing, no matter what they’re reading.

Hot: A Theory of Propulsion (Seth Godin): “The cliché was that the author used to live for the solitary moments of considered thought and solo writing. ‘Leave me alone and let me write.’ The publisher paid the bills with the backlist, the old books that sold and sold. Today, without propulsion, most people aren’t making the time or the focus to pursue inert wisdom. Without motion, the words get moldy.”

And Some Select Author Press: Congratulations to Francine Jay and Amanda Sullivan on the great feature in Publisher’s Weekly of new House & Home books releasing this spring. And another round of congrats to Francine on her New York Times review and for being selected by Amazon as one of the Big Spring Books of 2016. Francine’s beautiful book launches on April 26th, but you can already preorder your copy today!

The 4 Elements of a Knock-Out Pitch (And Book Deal News for THE HAPPY TRAVELER by Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D.)

I love book deal announcement days. There’s no hiding that (in fact, you can see more announcements here). I think it’s just because I’m a hopeless gusher—I love, love, love bragging on the smart people I get to work with. And I love using the word “love” too much. I can’t help it.

So today I’m excited to introduce you to Dr. Jaime Kurtz, who will be writing The Happy Traveler: Travel Better, Smarter, and More Happily, No Matter How Near or Far You Roam for Oxford University Press. Here’s the official deal report from Publisher’s Marketplace:

Jaime Kurtz book deal The Happy Traveler

Jaime is what I would scientifically classify as a “smartypants” but what her more sophisticated colleagues would call “highly credentialed and knowledgeable.” Jaime is an Associate Professor of Psychology at James Madison University, where she focuses her research and courses on the science of happiness and savoring. She’s also an avid traveler and has been to 29 countries, and that is exactly how her passion for research and travel collided into The Happy Traveler.

Jaime will give us the full story behind her book deal below, but we have last August’s Writer’s Digest Conference to thank for us meeting. I remember hearing her pitch and immediately going over to a Stonesong colleague and saying, “I just heard about this great book!” I was instantly raving about it, and as soon as I heard myself already advocating for her and her book, I knew I had to work with her.

So what was it about her pitch that won me over so quickly? She had hit upon the 4 elements that every knock-out pitch must have:

1. Strong market research.

Jaime knew exactly where her book fit within the larger market, and she was very smart in pointing out a big hole in the marketplace: practical, research-driven advice on how to travel well. The travel shelf is notoriously tricky, because it’s dominated by either guidebooks or travel memoirs, but Jaime knew that, and she was well-prepared to explain why that would be an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.

2. Clear takeaways and platform highlights.

If you’re writing nonfiction and someone asks you about your book, you should always be ready to tell them 3 interesting, unique things they’ll learn from it, and at least 3 platform elements that explain why you should be the person to write that book. This is the very core of what a proposal answers in a more detailed way: 1. Why this book?, and 2. Why you? If you’re writing fiction, you should be able to summarize your plot and themes in 1-2 bullet points, and also provide a relevant competitive book comparison (for instance, my book is Twilight meets Pride and Prejudice).

  • Action Item: Draft your 3 takeaway/plot summary bullet points, as well as your 3 platform highlights beforehand. Keep them close to you (either in your memory, or jotted down in a note) and periodically refine them. For instance, if you get an opportunity to write a new column or launch a new website, bump out one of your other platform highlights. Or if you find a more unique angle for positioning your book, revise away!

3. A good sense of the agent’s taste.

Jaime was very right in targeting me, because her book is exactly the type of project I love to take on. She went into the pitch already knowing I was one of the few agents at the conference who specialized in nonfiction, and she was right to intuit that I also love to travel (or maybe that was just lucky!). As agents, we can take on so few of the pitches and proposals we see that we usually choose projects based on our personal connection to the topic. So you may have the most dashing pitch in the world, but unless you’re talking to the right agent, it will be all for naught.

  • Action Item: When preparing for a conference, research the agents you’re scheduled to meet with as much as humanly (not stalkerly) possible. These days, there is so much more information about agents out there. Find their blogs, interviews, social media feeds, and anything that will help you get to know their taste. And if you’re in doubt whether someone might be a good fit, go ahead and try them. You might be surprised.

4. A conversational flow, rather than a formal, one-sided approach.

Believe it or not, this is the most important tip of all! Too many of the pitches I hear sound like a recitation rather than a conversation, and that can stifle the dialogue that would help me get to know you. I know many authors feel more comfortable memorizing their pitch letter, but we all know that the way we write is often very different from the way we speak. When you’re speaking text that was originally written, it sounds stilted and stiff. And it also means agents feel the need to keep quiet until the author gets through their memorized monologue, rather than allowing for natural pauses where we can ask questions and get to know you.

  • Action Item: Structure your pitch as an outline, but don’t memorize entire sentences or paragraphs. Practice telling a close friend or spouse about your book and your platform in 60 seconds, and when it comes time to sit across the table from an agent, remember that same sense of ease and excitement you had when you were talking to someone who was your equal. A great agent/author relationship is about two equals working together toward a common goal, so go ahead and start from that place of parity.

So, to take my own challenge, here are 3 key takeaways from The Happy Traveler–these are the things I’m most excited to learn from the book. (And yes, I cheated. There are four. Please forgive…)

In The Happy Traveler, Jaime will apply the latest research to teach us how to:

  • understand common errors in decision-making and self-understanding that can cause us to make choices that undermine our enjoyment of a trip.
  • learn the right way to unplug from technology and the stresses of work life to be more fully immersed in each moment.
  • learn the communication tools necessary to manage interpersonal conflict with travel partners (as well as how to spot and avoid problem travelers).
  • reframe what travel can be to reap the benefits of “staycationing” and more joyfully explore the world of our own neighborhood, city, or state.

So if you’ve ever had a bad trip, a vacation that wasn’t quite blissful, or made an expensive planning mistake, this is the book for you. And me. And just about every other person I know.

Now I will shush up with my gushing and let Jaime tell us how her book deal came about:

Tell us a little bit about your journey from idea to book deal.

As an academic psychologist, much of my writing up to this point has been research reports for academic audiences. Even though my research is on topics as relatable as happiness and savoring, the writing is necessarily very technical and unapproachable. I’d write things like, “A factor analysis using a Varimax rotation method revealed five unique factors with Eigenvalues greater than 1.”  People outside of my small field would never read this work.

A few years ago I started teaching happiness seminars to health-care professionals, and had to learn to translate technical research reports into something more digestible and actionable. I realized that I had a knack for this kind of thing, and that I love doing it! After one of these talks, it hit me how jazzed up I got any time I was able to work in an example about travel. It suddenly hit me that there was no general how-to book on how to do travel well, and that as a psychologist who studies happiness and decision-making (who also loves travel!), I had a ton to say about it. I started blogging for Psychology Today to build a platform while also practicing writing for a general audience. I bought a book on how to write a nonfiction book proposal, followed it to a tee, met Maria at the Writer’s Digest Conference last August, and it took off very quickly from there! (Note from Maria: Jaime read Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal. It’s a great resource!)

What has most surprised you about the publishing process so far?

Honestly, the thought of the day-to-day process of writing a book in a fairly short amount of time was terrifying to me at first. Before I actually started writing, there were several sleepless nights as my excitement (“someone is publishing my book!”) gave rise to anxiety (“now I have to write it!”). I was expecting I would have to give up my hobbies, for my classes to be terrible, and for my relationships to suffer as I wrote. So, I’ve been very surprised at how truly fun and energizing it is to be working on this. I love getting to spend hours thinking about ideas that I love. It’s taking up a lot of time, but I barely notice because — at least so far — it hasn’t felt like work.

What experiences do you think most helped you prepare for taking on a book?

Writing a dissertation — while a very different kind of writing — definitely taught me how to take on a pretty massive project and to keep my sanity during the process. I learned how to weave writing-time into my daily life and that procrastinating is crazy-making and I cannot do it!

Also, I run marathons and I see a lot of overlap in the long-term dedication it requires. You need to have the big goal in mind — completing 26.2 miles with some dignity — but you also need a day-to-day plan to make sure you’ll get there — logging miles, stretching, nutrition. It’s not always fun or glamorous, but it’s absolutely essential. Sometimes you need to say no to weekend getaways and late nights, and you often have to get up earlier than you might want. Sometimes you head out in the morning feeling grumpy and lethargic, but if you push through that, you’ll usually hit your stride. It’s a perfect analogy for writing a book. A solid plan and daily commitment will get you to the finish line, so to speak. And you get to snack more than usual, too! (Right?)

What advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

Grab on to an idea that you love, one that you can’t stop talking or thinking about. Then get it out there. Say YES to any reasonable opportunity that arises, if it has some potential to connect you with interesting people or build a platform. Thinking back, if I hadn’t said yes to going to the Women in Travel Summit, which I heard about from a friend of a friend, I wouldn’t have met this woman who told me about the Writer’s Digest Conference. If I hadn’t said yes to going to the WDC, I wouldn’t have met Maria, and this book wouldn’t be happening! I’m an introvert and a homebody and often I have to push myself out of my comfort zone, but looking back, I see how vital it was to get myself out there. You really never know where a “yes” will lead.

As we always say in publishing, it only takes one “yes” to get a book deal. But Jaime’s right that it takes many “yeses” beforehand to build a platform, connect with the right people, and stretch your tolerance for going out of your comfort zone.

The Happy Traveler will be publishing in Spring 2017, but in the meantime, you can follow Jaime on Twitter and keep up with her Psychology Today column, called Happy Trails!

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