Know Your Hook Before You Pitch
Thank you for submitting your proposal to Seal Press. Unfortunately, your project doesn’t have enough of a hook or angle for me to be able to truly define what you’re doing to my Editorial Board and sales team. I appreciate your story, but I’m afraid it’s a bit too vague and sprawling for us to be able to pursue your project for our list.
Senior Editor, Seal Press
This is typical of rejection letters I write in my role as Editor at Seal. In fact, there are more submissions than not that fall into this category of too diffuse, too big, too sprawling, too vague—even too common. All writers, but especially writers of memoir, must must understand that they need to define a unique angle in their pitch, cover letter, and/or manuscript.
I hear and read pitches all the time that that do nothing to give me a unique sales handle, nothing to tell me what’s different about their book, or alternately (flip side of the same coin) what’s similar to other books that are on the market. I’ve talked in previous newsletters about the difference between high concept and low concept books, and it’s not so much that you have to have a high concept, but you do need to help the agent or editor you want to publish with make their job easier.
This vagueness happens so often in memoir because memoirists are trying to tackle the landscape of their lives. Unless you’re famous, your life story is not enough. Typical submissions might look like: (1) a writer’s life story from point A to point B, (2) a writer’s experience as a mother, (3) a writer’s bizarre set of experiences that led them to where they are today. And it’s a conundrum, because there are writers who get published under these scenarios. After all, #1 could be Eat, Pray, Love; #2 could be Operating Instructions; and #3 could be Running with Scissors. But Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Lamott, and Augusten Burroughs were/are writers with well-established platforms. For the average writer trying to catch a break, the hook can make or break the deal.
As a case study, I’ll share the example of a memoir I edited at Seal called Loaded, by Jill Talbot. When Jill first approached me with a book idea, she actually proposed an entirely different book. It was going to be coauthored with a friend and the title was South of 30, which the authors described as “a collaboration, a collection of essays, that creates a conversation as well as our own individual ruminations about life as women in our late thirties.” Not a bad concept, but too big? Yes. And ruminations about life? Definitely too vague. I rejected that proposal, but I was struck by Jill’s writing. So you could say she caught a break. I wanted to develop something with her. She was—is—a beautiful writer, and in a follow-up conversation she mentioned she’d been in rehab. It just so happened that I wanted a book about addiction at the time, and she was open to going down that road. And so we developed a proposal together that worked. The angle was clear: addiction. Addiction to alcohol, addiction to men, addiction to troubled relationships. The result is Loaded, and it’s a fantastic book that’s highly literary while still being high concept.
Not all of you will be lucky enough to develop a proposal for an editor who’s really interested in your book, but some of you might. Listen to people who work with books. Have conversations about hook. Look at the books you love and try to figure out if the hook is immediately apparent. Make sure your pitch is clear. The tighter your concept is, the more likely you are to get positive responses. And remember, this doesn’t mean that your writing has to be simple or that the scope of your book needs to be necessary scaled back. Your hook is not the entirety of the book, and it doesn’t need to be. Think of it like CliffNotes for your would-be agent or editor. We want to work with people who help us help them, and a well-defined hook goes way farther than you might think.
A special thanks to Jill Talbot this month for letting me share her story.
Until next month.