Sunday, January 29, 2012

Does the Convention of the "Elevator Pitch" Truly Serve the Book Industry?

In the publishing industry there's something called "the elevator pitch." The idea is that you can sell your story in a few compelling sentences, no more than it would take you to recite on an elevator ride. But aren't their books that defy description, that you can't truly do justice to in a pitch, or one page query? Is a book truly unsalable if you can't sum it up in a sentence?

What would be the elevator pitch for a book like the Catcher in the Rye?

This is from the Cliff's Notes summary:

J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caufield recounts the days following his expulsion from Pencey Prep, a private school. After a fight with his roommate, Stradlater, Holden leaves school two days early to explore New York before returning home, interacting with teachers, prostitutes, nuns, an old girlfriend, and his sister along the way. J.D. Salinger's classic The Catcher in the Rye illustrates a teenager's dramatic struggle against death and growing up.

Here's the Amazon description:

"Anyone who has read J. D. Salinger's New Yorker stories - particularly A Perfect Day for Bananafish, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, The Laughing Man, and For Esme - With Love and Squalor, will not be surprised by the fact that his first novel is full of children. The hero-narrator of The Catcher in the Rye is an ancient child of sixteen, a native New Yorker named Holden Caulfield. Through circumstances that tend to preclude adult, secondhand description, he leaves his prep school in Pennsylvania and goes underground in New York City for three days. The boy himself is at once too simple and too complex for us to make any final comment about him or his story. Perhaps the safest thing we can say about Holden is that he was born in the world not just strongly attracted to beauty but, almost, hopelessly impaled on it. There are many voices in this novel: children's voices, adult voices, underground voices-but Holden's voice is the most eloquent of all. Transcending his own vernacular, yet remaining marvelously faithful to it, he issues a perfectly articulated cry of mixed pain and pleasure. However, like most lovers and clowns and poets of the higher orders, he keeps most of the pain to, and for, himself. The pleasure he gives away, or sets aside, with all his heart. It is there for the reader who can handle it to keep."

I'm sure someone else more skilled could do a better summary of the book, but these are pretty useless. Aside from the author's reputation, neither make the book sound particularly appealing. I doubt either description would sell the book to a publisher or agent as a young adult novel today.

Where Did Elevator Pitches Come From? 

My own theory, is that elevator pitches are a relatively new convention borrowed from the film industry. After films like The Exorcist and Jaws, the blockbuster was born, and films that would have otherwise been allowed months to find an audience, were judged on the basis of ticket sales in the first week. High concept movies that could be easily described in a sentence became the focus. This practice continues to this day. At some point the publishing industry picked up on this practice, and incorporated it into their own marketing practices.

It might be surprising for many people to learn that the incredibly popular picture book, Where The Wild Things Are wasn't an instant success. Not until it was discovered by kids in libraries did it become popular. I doubt a book like Where The Wild Things Are by an unknown author today would fair well with publishers. To be fair, even then, Sendak had established quite a reputation. The difficulty of selling a a book not easily summed up or categorized is nothing new--the number of rejections that now hugely successful books have received is something often touted as an ironic aspect of their success.

Book publishers have to sell books. There's no getting around it--a high concept book, or a book that features a popular subject has a better shot of making immediate sales. This is what keeps publishers in business. I realize there are passionate editors who work hard to get good books in print, and that sometimes this is an uphill battle. But books do get discovered by readers. Libraries are still an excellent tool for books that didn't immediately find an audience, and those books will eventually sell. Since the book publishing industry has been struggling for many years, fewer editors are responsible for more books, and are unable to do the same job they used to. So editors have increasingly relied on high concepts and stories that can be quickly and compellingly summarized. But are we missing out on these truly great books?

The Role of Publishers In The World of E-Books and Print-On-Demand

Is print-on-demand and e-book self publishing going to be the new way that these kinds of books find an audience?  The only problem is, when everyone can publish a book, it becomes even more difficult to find those great books. Publishers do act as a kind of jury process, weeding out amateurish and just plain awful writing to find the good stuff. The role of editor is also still an important one. Many great books are collaborations with insightful and knowledgable editors. Self-publishing cuts out that often very important editorial process. There is a movement of online publishers out there run by editors with experience in the conventional publishing world, but it's still easier for a conventionally published book to get seen than a book by an online publisher. There are a few success stories that involve self-publishing or online publishing, but they're the exception, not the rule.

 I do think there's a role for publishers to play in the digital publishing world. It's going to be interesting to see how the role of publishers evolves. The one thing that digital publishing and print-on-demand publishing offers is low risk. When you can publish a book virtually, or print them individually, there's little initial investment. The main cost becomes promotion. Lately promotion has fallen more upon authors, who are often asked to produce their own video trailers and book their own signings, and are no longer supported by publishers in the same way that they used to be. In a new digital publishing world, promotion may be, once again, the responsibility of publishers, and authors will have more time to do what they do best, write. So with lower initial cost, maybe editors won't have the burden of so many titles, so they can do what they do best: edit. And maybe, just maybe, the importance of the elevator pitch won't be so dominant.

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