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“Books for Kids”

Books for Kids! (And Pitching Tips)

Cynthia’s Column July 2010

We are losing a hero this month.  Jerry Isom who has taken our Books For Kids program from around a thousand books a year in the early 1990s to over 28,000 books delivered in 2009 to as many kids who never owned a book of their own.  In Jerry’s years he has collected and distributed over a quarter of a million books.  It is an awesome accomplishment.  I imagine, if it’s true that when we die we can see everything and have access to the Akashic records, Jerry will be able to see how those books rippled out and impacted millions of lives.

There is an impoverished village in Kenya where a one room cinder block “library” is stocked with Books For Kids books hand carried over in individual’s suitcases over the last couple of years.  It is open for one hour each day and every day at six p.m. all two hundred of the children in the village line up holding their precious borrowed book.  They file in, return their book, peruse the shelves and select one book to take out.  Every evening the shelves go from empty to full to empty again in an hour.  On the Willamette Writers website you can see photos of these kids sometimes with as many as nine little heads bent over a single picture book.  A lot of these kids consider this the most important and inspiring thing in their young daily lives.  You did this, Willamette Writers.  And Jerry did this.

Mary-Margaret Maitland is the Willamette Writers board member responsible for getting us grants.  She has played a big part in funding the success of our program.  Thank you, Mary-Margaret!  Rinda Hayes has found the suitcases that have carried books to kids in Africa.  Margaret, a retired librarian, has arranged to carry about 50 books in Spanish to poor children in Ecuador.  If you have a way get books to children anywhere in the world, let us know.

And if you would like to be a hero, I invite you to take up Jerry’s position as head of Books for Kids.  You’d be on the Willamette Writers board which meets at my home in North Wilsonville the last Tuesday night of every month from 7 pm to around 8:30.  (Dinner included.)  And since Jerry has gone so far above and beyond normal human capacity, you would be in charge of a small committee to buy, sort and distribute books to kids.  Call Bill at the office (503)452-1592 or email me at and let’s talk.  There are few things in life that make one feel as good, as giving books to children.

With our conference coming up soon, let’s talk about pitching.  I’m teaching a one day workshop on Saturday July 31 (SEE BOX ON P XXX) from 9 am to 3 pm, geared toward your screenplay or book.  Leona Grieve is teaching a similar one day workshop for novelists on Saturday July 17 (SEE BOX ON P>XXX).

Here is a Top Ten List of tips to help you prepare to pitch and sell your project.

1.  Get clear on your audience.  Who is this project for?  The people who loved The Da Vinci Code?  Malcolm Gladwell fans?  Teens?  There is an audience for your book or movie.  Be clear and able to convey who that is.

2.  Know your genre.  If it’s a novel, you need to know if it’s a mystery, young adult, fantasy, sci fi, horror, thriller, spy, literary novel, etc.  Same goes for screenplays and non-fiction books.  If you’re not sure what genre your piece is, think about where it would be shelved in a book store.  They will only put it on once shelf.  Which one would it be?  If you’re unclear about screenplay genres, come to my pitching workshop on 7/31.

3.  Have your one sentence “elevator pitch” down cold.  You know, the sentence you’d deliver if you found yourself on the same elevator with Steve Spielberg or the agent of your dreams.  “My screenplay is a romantic comedy set in the world of professional mud wrestling.”  “My fantasy novel takes off where Sleeping Beauty ends.”  You need to get your story into one sentence that is easy to remember and understand.  The genre needs to be included, and the idea has to sound fresh and commercial.

4.  Have a great title.  Seriously.  Now is the time to get one.  Nobody wants to buy “Untitled Project.”  If you don’t have a great title, that fits your piece and doesn’t sound like a bunch of other projects, buy a bottle of wine, invite over a few of your smartest friends and no one goes home until you have the perfect fabulous title.  This is what I do, and I highly recommend it.

5.  Have in your hip pocket at least a couple of examples of recent successful projects whose audience/readers your piece would appeal to.  If it’s a screenplay know who your ideal stars would be.  Don’t pitch them, but if someone asks “Who do you see in this?” you better have a great answer ready.

6.  Know who you’re pitching to.  Do your homework.  Look up their credits or clients.  Don’t run the risk of inadvertently stepping on a producer’s toes, or pitching her something she’s already done.

7.  Plan your pitching clothes.  Nothing too sexy or loud.  Nothing stained or torn.  Or too formal.  Ideally the clothes you wear to pitch should be invisible.  They shouldn’t even remember what you wore, just your face and your story.  And your clothes need to be comfortable enough that you are completely unaware of them.

8.  No gifts.  Don’t hand them a bottle of Oregon wine or a box of chocolates from Made in Oregon.  Or any gift.  Really.  They have to remember your story.  No bribes.  It only makes them think your project’s not good enough if you have to sweeten the deal with a gift.

9.  Props.  Should you bring a prop to illustrate your project?  Photographs of your grandparents for your pioneer family memoir?  Maps of star systems for your sci fi epic?  Let me put it this way.  Only bring a prop if it totally sells your project.  I have had props sell a pitch “in the room.”  The  front page of a 1927 newspaper that validated a past life memory of a murder for example.  I have also had a prop totally sink the thing.  (A 140 pound Newfoundland dog in a pitch to a dog phobic Disney exec.)  Let me just say nothing cutesy.  No stuffed animals.  Even if your pitch is about Teddy Bears that come alive.  Only use a prop if it’s a deal maker.  If it totally makes your pitch, okay.  Otherwise let the story speak for itself.

10.  Write the ad line for your piece.  This is a process I make everyone do in my pitching workshop.  You know ad lines:  “If adventure had a name it would be Indiana Jones.”  “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.  Jaws 2.”  If you have a great ad line, you’re halfway home.  They’re trying to figure out how to sell your project to the public.  Help them out.  We’re the writers.

I hope to see many of you at the pitching workshop and all of you at the conference in August.  Before I end this column I want to go back to Jerry Isom and Books for Kids for a moment.  Jerry won the Walt Morey Award, part of the Oregon Book Awards a few years ago.  I made the speech acknowledging his contribution.  I want to once again, reiterate those final words:

Because of Jerry Ison, hundreds of thousands of kids will know books.  Not as something to visit on school field trips to the library.  But as something to treasure curled up in bed at night, discovering what reading can mean.  And the worlds and words that unfold for them.  As a child I was given Peter Pan and Winnie-the-Pooh, Anne Shirley and Jim Hawkins and Jo March.  I don’t remember thanking my aunt or grandmother or parents for these gifts.  At least not sincerely.  But for all Jerry’s kids I want to say, Jerry, for Peter and Pooh, Green Gables and Treasure Island.  For all the Little Women and Little Men, Jerry, thank you.

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