While I Have You…. (Crafting Your Elevator Pitch)

I once met Toni Morrison in an elevator. This happened during ALA in Washington, DC, in 2010. It was late in the evening. I was exhausted. She was probably exhausted. We were staying in the same hotel, apparently, and we were both on our way back to our rooms. She stepped into the elevator behind me, along with her aides. I turned around and there she was, in all her magnificent glory. And she is a magnificent person to behold. People had told me that she has a presence, but I was unprepared for the intensity of it.

It’s difficult to excuse what happened next. Because I can honestly say I’m good at networking. I’m good at pushing myself to speak up when it feels awkward, and handing out my book cards and business cards and making sure people know who I am. I’d been doing it all day at the conference, and pretty well. As a quiet, sometimes self-conscious person this kind of socializing is difficult, but I challenge myself and I think I perform well overall.

Not in this case. Stepping into my own hotel represented the end of the day, the end of the need to be “on” and networking. I was done. So, to be taken by surprise by one of the great literary figures of modern times, not to mention a beautiful black woman who I admire….well, let’s just say I was taken by surprise.

In the end, all I was able to blurt was “Are you Toni?” She nodded sagely, during which moment I was flooded with shame over having called her by her first name. “Ms. Morrison,” “Dr. Morrison,” even “Toni Morrison” for crying out loud would have been better. (I’m still mortified.) She looked at me expectantly, with tired but generous eyes, her gray locks falling over her shoulder like some sort of epic waterfall. I stared back at her…and utterly stalled.

There are things I always says to new people about my book. I didn’t say them. I had actually (believe it or not) rehearsed conversation points specifically to raise with Toni Morrison if I should run into her at this conference. I lost all track of them. I had postcards galore in my shoulder bag. I fumbled to pull one out. I thrust it at her as the elevator doors opened on her floor. “I’m Kekla Magoon,” I blurted. “I write–it would really mean a lot to me if I could just give you my book card.”

And that was it. She took the card, stepped out of the elevator, and handed it to her aide without really looking at it as she headed down the hall. I’m sure I made no impression at all. If she ever even looked at that card again, I feel lucky.

In the moment, I was crushed. A great opportunity, blown. And all because I stuck my foot in my mouth. Even though it felt like she dismissed me, I didn’t get the sense that she dismisses people automatically. I believe there are things I could have said that would have cut through her tiredness and made her look twice at me as a young author with potential. I can only hope I’ll meet her again someday, because I know I would handle it better.

Every author needs a strong “elevator pitch” when promoting their books. You need to know it cold. Here’s the why and how of it.  

The “elevator pitch” concept is based on the exact scenario I just described:

You get into an elevator and press the button for your floor. The elevator doors close. There’s someone else in there already, and when you look closer, you realize it’s–gasp!–a person with great power and influence in your particular industry. In our case, perhaps an agent, editor, reviewer, publisher or fellow author you admire. Knowing this is your big chance to impress the person by talking about your forthcoming novel (or your work in progress) you strike up a conversation. They seem congenial enough, but the floors are ticking by quickly, and soon the doors will open and the person will step away. You have limited time, and you must explain yourself and your project in a brief but compelling manner so they will remember you. You have less than a minute, which means very few sentences uttered. How do you sell them on the concept of your book?

It is so incredibly important to have your elevator pitch close at hand at all times. True, it won’t always be the likes of Toni Morrison whose attention you need to capture. It might just be people at a cocktail party who politely ask what your book is about, but may or may not really care. Your job as a casual self-promoter is to make sure that they care a little bit more after you answer the question than they did when they asked it. And the more you practice this pitch with regular people, the more likely you’ll be to handle the situation correctly when it really matters most, and you’re at your most nervous and awkward.

Elevator Pitch Basics:

  • Who are you?
  • What is your book about? More specifically, what makes it unique in the marketplace?
  • How should someone find out more about it, or contact you?

When your book is high-concept, it’s easier to come up with a striking elevator pitch. The Rock and the River was the first (and at the time only) novel dealing with the Black Panther Party for young readers. My pitch usually went something like: “I’m Kekla Magoon, author of The Rock and the River. My novel is set in 1968 Chicago, about thirteen-year-old Sam, whose father is a civil rights activist. When his older brother joins the Black Panther Party, Sam must decide which path he’s going to follow himself. Here’s my card.”

When the book is about more common subject matter, it is a bit more of a challenge to find phrases to describe the book that are going to make it seem unique. That is why it is so important to spend time thinking about your elevator pitch before you head out into the world to network. My novel Camo Girl is basically about friendship in middle school, and kids having to make diffucult choices. But, hello, that’s what most middle grade novels are about. I know the book is unique, but how is a prospective reader to know that?

I tried to bring a little humor to the pitch: “Camo Girl is about friendship in middle school–in other words, how to choose a lunch table. Ella and her best friend Z are outcasts in sixth grade and they sit alone at lunch every day. Then a new boy in school, Bailey, befriends Ella and gives her the chance to join a more popular crowd, but to do so she’d have to leave Z behind.

I’m still working on the perfect elevator pitch for my upcoming novel, 37 Things I Love. Saying it’s about “friendship in high school” isn’t going to cut it….but what I’ve gone through in coming up with a pitch for that book is enough to fill a follow-up post. Stay tuned.

Always, always, have book cards, business cards, bookmarks or marketing materials with you when you are out. Whether you’re going to a conference or to the grocery store, you just never know who you’re going to run into. Keep a few business cards in your purse or wallet at the very least. Stick a pack of bookmarks in the glove compartment. Whatever you have to do to keep them close, because anytime you deliver your elevator pitch, you MUST give the person the ability to follow up if they are interested. Let’s face it: that was the only salvation of my encounter with Toni Morrison. She heard me say my name, and I placed information about my book in her hand. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

What’s your elevator pitch? Post it in the comments–it never hurts to get a little extra self-promotion in!

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