Pitching potential clients has been something I’ve had to adjust to over the years. While in the end I can’t say which “plan” worked best, what I can tell you is that there are guidelines I follow every time that help with my success.
While the title of this post suggests that these guidelines are exclusively for book writers, it is important to note these guidelines can work for really any pitch. In addition, I tend to use these guidelines in an initial conversation and when I am either face to face or on a phone, Skype, or Zoom conversation.
Why is it important to have guidelines when pitching to potential clients?
One thing I have found nearly every time that I speak with a client for the first time is they comment that I am very comfortable to talk to. I come off as knowing what I am talking about (Phew!), I have a genuine interest, and I am not trying to push my services like a sales person. I take this all as a massive compliment, but that is not because it is always natural. Admittedly, I enjoy talking about writing and the process (too much sometimes), and that may play a role in my pitch-anxiety. But, it is when I started receiving these types of compliments that I realized the importance of helping potential clients feel comfortable, and that is where my guidelines began to come into play.
Do I mess up initial interviews? You bet I do. That is why I tend to have my guidelines sitting next to me, so that I can quickly glance at them and remind myself why I am on the call and the goal of my call – to help my client feel comfortable. Why is comfort so important? Because that is the reason people hire me. Clients often say that they chose me because I made them feel comfortable. If that isn’t a reason to follow these guidelines, then I don’t know what is.
I think that when a person decides they want to become a writer they realize that having a pitch is important, but may not realize how important the entirety of the initial conversation is. Speaking to a couple writing colleagues in a messenger group over the weekend we got on this conversation because I mentioned that I do have a set of rules. They all laughed at me. Lots of – lol’s and lmao’s floating around. As we talked, they all admitted to the same, as well as admitted that they “winged” their calls early on, as did I. We had to learn through trial and error. While that may have cost us clients, over time we shed our sales personas, which in turn helped us become more genuine with who we are. Remember, your initial discussion is your first real introduction to your client, and for many projects, clients could care less how many degrees you have or even how many books you’ve written. They want to know you are competent, able to complete the project, genuine, and easy to get along with.
These guidelines are particularly helpful for new writers trying to bring in clients, but frankly, there are a lot of experienced writers who have an awful bedside manner, so you guys might want to pay attention too.
Rules for pitching potential clients
Everyone wants to be important. For writers, and this is especially so for ghostwriters or collaborative writers being important matters. For most, if not all of our careers, we are in the background, often unknown. So, it is okay to mention the books you’ve worked on and the clients you’ve had, it is also important to not play the name game and spout out every celebrity you’ve spilled a drink on.
Additionally, one thing I wish I’d learned earlier is that most people don’t care what schools you attended, degrees you have, or organizations you belong to. Frankly these things can be on your website, but in an initial interview I’d assume your client has already done some research on you. The fact is that writing a book is more about passion for that type of work than it is your past. A waitress who attends a writing course once a week and writes every day is often a better writer than a tenured professor. While for some clients, they can’t see past experience over degrees, most clients could care less. If the client cares, they will ask. Your job is to find out more about the client, not adulate yourself.
Ask your client about their project first
Surprisingly, this isn’t one of the first questions writers ask. This is usually how I start the call. “Why don’t you tell me a little about your book idea or your life.” What this does is gives your client the ability to take the stage. It is a big step to hire someone to write a book and usually by this point your client has been eager to word-vomit all over someone about it.
Asking your client from the start to talk about their book shows them that you are interested. If the project doesn’t come up in the first couple minutes, you will likely lose the client.
Talk money last
Many writers (and clients) want to talk money first. The writer wants to know what they’ll earn and the client wants to make sure they can afford your cost. The problem with talking money first is that you don’t know the entirety of the project and are ill-equipped to offer an overall cost. For the client, they are in the same boat, you can’t provide anything more than what you know, and it is likely you will overestimate your cost to compensate what you don’t know. This can scare clients away before they know what is in the cost of a book.
Additionally, I find that clients are often willing to pay more for people they trust. So, if you are not in their budget, they may be more amenable to working with you and finding a payment plan that fits both of your needs.
Still… have a plan for money
While you want to know more about a project before you decide on a cost you should have an idea of how you will price the project. Few writers that I know have a specific hourly rate, flat price, or are unwilling to negotiate. While minimums are important, your pricing should allow for a little wiggle room with overall cost. Be prepared to provide at least an hourly or flat rate price with conditions. If you prefer to work per page or hourly make sure you have your formatting and other conditions prepared to discuss. Additionally, you will want to have an idea of the payment plan. How much do you want for a deposit? Do you want small, more frequent payments, or do you want larger milestone payments?
While money shouldn’t be the most important part of the conversation, it is sometimes a make or break. So, if you can provide a good estimate in the initial call you are better off than telling your potential client that you will get back to them in a day or two. Remember, every day you don’t talk to a client is a day they are talking to another writer. Be prepared.
Plan timelines for collaboration
One of the biggest problems I had for almost a decade was that I would offer an optimistic timeline, or worse, allow my client to determine the timeline. This is especially problematic if you can’t hit those deadlines. The fact is, your clients will not know all the time it takes to write their book, how many current projects you have, nor your personal life.
This conversation is common:
Client: How long will it take you to write my book?
Me: Well, 200 pages, 4-6 months is about average for your type of book.
Client: I’d like it done in one month. Can you do that?
Ummm, not really. You are the only one who can really determine how long it will take to complete. What I tell clients is that I can offer three approximate timelines: Fast, Average, and Act of God.
What I mean by these is that a fast timeline (ex. 2-3 months) is if everything goes smoothly and without a hitch. The Average (ex. 4-6 months) is just that. This is the amount of time it normally takes me to complete a collaborative project based on current scheduling, collaboration, rewrites, and typical life activities. The third I call Act of God (ex. 9-12 months) because this timeline tends to be extended due to illness, severe weather, job loss and more. I also include a suspension agreement which states that we can suspend the project at anytime as long as payments are up to date. I will then archive their projects for up to two years as long as the client maintains communication that they are still interested in the project.
One of the worst things you can do as a writer is provide a specific completion date. The reason is that you have little to no control over this if your client isn’t very responsive. So, by providing a range of timelines, you and your client are better equipped to discuss where the project is and understand when it can be completed and any obstacles that may delay the completion.
While most clients I’ve had are agreeable to timeline ranges, I will on occasion have a person with high expectations. The question is, “Why do you need the project due on the date you want it?” The answer is almost exclusively, “that’s just the date I had in my head.” Unless there is a legitimate reason for the deadline, I usually won’t work under conditions I am not comfortable with.
So, what is a legitimate reason?
- The book is for a family member and I’d like it published by their birthday
- A traditional publisher or literary agent has a due date that I can’t get to on my own
- Anniversaries and memorials
- Political campaign
- Requirements by a publicist for a new movie release or public event
Keep process to yourself unless asked
It is kind of funny because this guideline came about from a client I… let’s say, we didn’t jive well. I hate to say that happens, but over time it does. That doesn’t mean you or the client are wrong, it just means that you didn’t jive. In this case we actually got along okay, didn’t fight or anything, but our personalities and ways we handle working relationships were very different.
This client was a motivational speaker and he told me that naturally, everyone he talked to he looked for flaws and tried to “fix” them or offer his unsolicited opinion. He said it was one of his worst traits. One thing I loved about this client is he was very self-aware, and I think that helped him in many ways in his career. I was talking to him once about pitching clients, not for his project, but just conversation. I was used to him telling me everything I did wrong in life, so when I said, I was thinking about adding more into my pitch calls about process he stopped me short, “Whoa! Dude! I don’t give a shit about how you do it. I just want it done. I don’t want to F—- hear about your job, I have a job, and I don’t think anyone cares about that either.” Really, that is exactly what he said, I still have it saved in audio.
While I initially met his comment with an eye roll, later I thought about this – a lot. And, I don’t think he was wrong. While some people want details, a lot of people could care less. So, while I may touch on process, I wait until the client asks. This not only keeps the conversation a little shorter, but also doesn’t bog down your clients’ concerns. Less is better, but don’t shy away from talking process if your clients ask.
Learn to listen
Learning to be a better listener will make you a better writer. You will be asked quite a few questions during your initial discussion, but for the most part you want the client to talk. This is good practice for your later interviews and an indication to your client of whether you are interested in talking to them or learning about their project. This is another area that I had to grow into. I am a natural talker, so years ago my pitch was all about me talking to my clients. I would tone it back when I realized what I was doing, but I definitely needed to focus on not talking so much.
It is okay to talk, but keep your responses brief and to the point. You should be natural with your tone, be genuine in your response, but you don’t need to cite two to three examples every time a new question or topic is brought up.
It is very common for people to think their story isn’t worth telling or that they don’t have a story to tell. It is important that you are encouraging, supportive, and promote that everyone does have a story to tell. This is one area where I think examples of previous clients with similar concerns can play a role.
As a writer you will wear many hats from friend and confidant, to cheerleader and mentor. However, one thing routinely compared to a writer is that writers tend to make great therapists (I am not a trained therapists, take my opinions with discretion – in case you were wondering). Books are long projects and require a great deal of trust. Your clients need to be comfortable speaking with you and part of that comes with encouragement. In fact, if your client begins sharing secrets about their life quickly then you know that you have provided enough encouraging support for your client to be satisfied.
Have a bulleted breakdown of the discussion
I use lists a lot. I have lists in Google, Wunderlist, on paper, etc. While I have a lot of lists, I usually just use a word or small sentence to describe what I want. When I go into an initial discussion for a project I have two lists. The first list is a short, flexible, breakdown of how I’d like the meeting to go. The second is a list of questions I use both for information and to keep the conversation natural.
The meeting breakdown is often like this:
- Ask about project idea
- Discuss clients’ life and experience outside of the book
- Add my experience if specific and relevant (optional)
- Ask about book details (length, perspective, other thoughts)
- Ask about publishing goals
- Have you worked with another writer on this project, what happened?
- What experiences have you had with other writers (good/bad)
- Talk budget and how invoicing works
- Talk timeline
- Final questions
- Ask client if they have questions
- Next meeting or plan start date
Always ask if your potential client had worked with another writer
One thing I’ve learned is that most people who want to write a book have worked with other writers, most have bad experiences with other writers, and you can learn from this.
Just because someone had a bad experience with another writer does not mean the other writer was bad or did anything wrong. It simply means that something occurred which made your client feel uncomfortable. Some of the responses to “why was the experience a bad one,” are:
- The writer had specific work hours and wouldn’t talk to me outside of those hours.
- The writer was hourly, and would charge me for every minute on the project, including phone calls.
- The writer would take days to get back to me on questions.
- The writer would not text.
These are examples of reasons that aren’t really too bad depending on the situation. Often clients will tell me that too. But, there are other reasons such as not completing work, charging for work not completed, swearing, no communication at all, and so on, that you should also be aware of.
What I tell a client when I ask this question is: “I want to know about your prior experiences because I want you to be comfortable. I don’t want to do things that have been uncomfortable for you when working with other writers, and I always think this question is a good way for me to learn and evaluate my own business.” These are all true statements and exactly why I ask the question. And, when you start asking this question, you will see how valuable the answers are.
What this question is not is an opportunity for you to besmirch or denigrate other writers.
Do not besmirch or denigrate other writers
This past year I had a potential client who did two things which were curious to me. The first was that he compared me and another writer as finalists for him. I have 22 years experience with hundreds of book titles, references, and several awards. The other writer had never written a book, did not write for a living, but was a professor of four years. The first question was, “I know experience is more important than a degree because a degree doesn’t tell me anything about their ability to write a book. But, as a professor, I think because they went to school so long maybe they could do it or think academically. Why do you think experience makes you better?” The second question was, “I have a list of writers I’ve talked to, can you tell me which ones are problems or have a bad reputation?”
While both questions are different, my response was the same. “I am not going to provide bad feedback on any writer. I don’t know if my experience is better than someone’s degree. I have degrees, but I am not a doctor. I don’t know the other person and don’t know if they are a good writer or not.” If I do know positive things about another writer I will share that.
I don’t think that being competitive means you need to cut someone else down. I know a lot of other writers and tend to think that we help each other when possible. So, regardless of my thoughts on another writer, I will never talk bad about them. I won’t even try to compare myself to another writer. That is up to the client to do by talking to people who worked with each writer or reviewing credentials.
Talking bad about another writer just to get a job is bad business and will not only isolate you in a tight community, but word will get out and you will quickly become the butt-end of that question for many writers competing against you.
These rules, or guidelines, are helpful in creating a comfortable environment for potential clients and that is key to being awarded projects. If you were to ask me which is most important I would say not to talk bad about other writers. This is something I have a strong conviction for. I don’t think other writers have said anything bad about me, but who knows. People will do a lot for a job. What I do know is that I don’t talk bad about other writers.
As many guidelines are, you need to apply these guidelines as they fit with you. Some may change from project to project or client to client. While many of these guidelines are natural to many, some may be difficult to implement without practice. So, take your time, focus on being positive and helping your clients feel comfortable.
I’d love to hear some of your guidelines when talking to a potential client for the first time. Or, even some of your general guidelines when working on book projects.
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