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Greene: Here's The Pitch

05/27/12 7:55AM By Stephanie Greene

(Host) Many writers choose to live in Vermont, but from time to time find it necessary to make their way to the marketplace to 'pitch' their work. Book Expo America is the biggest book event in North America and it will take place in New York City the week of June 5th. Commentator Stephanie Greene is a freelance writer who lives on the family farm in Windham County, and she's been thinking about how writers today prepare for events like this.

(Greene) The book business has changed enormously since my parents' day, when they ran the Book Cellar and the Stephen Greene Press in Brattleboro.

Independent bookstores - and even the behemoth, Borders - have closed at an alarming rate, leaving some large cities across the country without a single bookstore. (Although Brattleboro, population 12,000, boasts four bookstores: two new and two used). Prestigious, large publishing houses have been gobbled up - even as self-publishing enjoys a renaissance. In September, the New York Times' bestseller list contained two self-published e-books.

Thirty years ago, when the portcullis between fledgling authors and bestseller-dom was firmly in place, this would have been unthinkable. At the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, there's even a machine that will print and bind a book in minutes.
Production-wise, it may not produce the Gutenberg Bible, but the result is still impressive. It's like the Wild West out there, with nary a sheriff in sight. Writers are called upon to ‘sell' their work to publishers and demonstrate their marketability in unprecedented ways.

A catchy "pitch" is essential, as is a blog and a Facebook presence.

Can you imagine Henry David Thoreau pitching Walden? Shakespeare would have been more than equal to the task of pitching, since he was accustomed to competing with bear-baiting for audience attention, but what about Emily Dickinson? Would she stand a chance in this market, or would her work forever languish in her desk drawer?

Most writers, it turns out, are rather well prepared for this new world. In journalism class, we're taught that our lead sentence had better be a knockout, or we'll lose our reader to Dear Abby. Standing around in bookstores, some readers subject books to the "first sentence test". If they aren't grabbed, the book goes back on the shelf. Life is short. And editors are not surrounded by firewalls - after all, they're always looking for the next Harry Potter.

In the 70's, a curious publication called The Unborn Book (TUB for short) enjoyed a closed circulation among agents and publishers. Founded in 1977 by Contact Magazine editor and publishing mensch, Bill Ryan, TUB's purpose was to circulate descriptions of unpublished manuscripts "of real merit" in order to streamline the submission process. If a deal was struck between author and agent or publisher, TUB would collect a finder's fee. TUB only lasted four years, but it helped many authors find publication.

Stewart Brooks writes books on medicine and pharmacology. You've heard of the Physician's Desk Reference, that tome on drugs and their interactions, lovingly known in medical circles as "The PDR"? Well, in 1978, Brooks sent a query made up of only three letters to an editor he knew at Little, Brown. The letters were N-D-R. The editor understood. Soon they had a deal for the Nurse's Drug Reference, which sold briskly for years.

Now that may be the shortest pitch on record.

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