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TOO MUCH IS TOO MUCH (or is it?)
Maximalism, pitching & how many seconds we spend on average reading an email, John West's Lesson and Carols, Maggie Nelson, Tiktok, and a kiss list!
Look, I’ve always known a certain intensity. My house is covered in trinkets, people often my call my personal style “eclectic” but I think I just lean more and more into the elementary art teacher aesthetic, and since I was little I’ve loved the idea of “muchness.” I do regularly haunt the flea market.
It was no surprise when I sent my client John West his press kit (it is purple, very purple—don’t worry, the mail insert version is plainer, but never PLAIN) that he said, “I’ve always loved maximalist design anyway.”
Yes, maximalist—that is what I am. I’m going full speed ahead, burying myself under, or I’m not going. My son does this very cute thing that his grandparents love, when he wants to get somewhere fast, he puts his head down, huffs and puffs, and crawl-flies. It’s a fierce form of his regular crawl, so I believe he’s on my wavelength too. Good for him, little Pisces. Maximalism.
I don’t often admit it, and it takes a long time for me to figure it out … like seventeen pitch iterations, but there are times when too much is too much. And one of those times is right now, in early 2023, when people receiving emails are tired of even the notion that to be a person, one emails. So, that changes the pitching landscape.
To be honest, it’s probably been like that for quite some time—I’d rather you send me one galloping sentence than four paragraphs, short novels are having a moment (though I think we’re heading straight into a tome moment), and more presses are embracing the novella. I screamed when someone forwarded me the email about Coffee House embracing a novella series (though they are always ahead of the curve, aren’t they?) It’s probably our attention spans. It’s probably the way Tiktok and tweets can disperse important information in a spotlight scene without having to read an essay (don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a thread—Rebecca Makkai has me RAPT with those mystery threads), but our focus has two thousand nine hundred and eighty seven avenues it could circuit through at any given time, and if we’re choosing something, it’s not going to be my pitch email that waxes on about the “sparse-driven poetic sensibilities” of John West’s prose. Though doesn’t that whole phrase sound so delicious in your mouth?
The thing about John’s book is that it’s like a Maggie Nelson book. Slim, but profound. You think, “oh, I’ll read this in a day” or “I’ll spend a sweet little afternoon with this pocket-sized, perfect-bound treat” AND THEN you’re sobbing over the color blue, in that Legs Up the Wall (when I googled it this was what they called it) yoga position trying to ground yourself. You’re in the grocery store assigning cereal boxes feelings. When did you learn to weep like this?
With books like these, there’s the whole acclimating to the book itself—the voice, the poetic prose, the conceit (there’s always a conceit), the tight, smart paragraphs, the casual dropping of philosophers, painters, “corneal opacities,” and William Carlos William’s grandmother, the Lia Purpura gong sentences that reverberate through your brain for the rest of the day. (See also Luster, except every sentence is a gong sentence). There’s nothing casual about it, it’s not a picnic read.
And so, it’s a faux short book. It’s a slow thread through a needle. I’m convinced this is part of the reason so many people refuse to pick up poetry collections—they look quick, but they are in fact, intimidatingly meditative. They aren’t, as I’ve said before, an escape, but a dwelling in our own interiors, little Narcissus mirrors. We read poetry, we stare at ourselves and the world too long in a way that AH, feeling and thinking! Like gut worms, they hole their way inside and then GASP live there for days, weeks, years. We’re choosing peaches, see the ruby color of a plastic strawberry container, and suddenly we’re in a Gabrielle Bates poem. (It’s happened to me, and I live to tell).
But I’m so off topic now, let’s get back on track. (Trains are maximalist, all those little wagons and their little luggages). My publicity problem this week (forever?) is that I’m a MAXIMALIST and so, it’s difficult for me to suck my pitches down to their dry chapped pits.
Okay, that’s not fair, short and swift pitches can be striking. But when I work on a book, I have pages of notes, lines, obsessions, references, allusions, themes, tonally similar books, comp titles, maps, ideas, comparisons, feelings, and part of my job is to drill all of that down for each perceived audience to get across the most important thing(s) about the book for them to want to care about it. You see, a pitch is pre-caring. A pitch is an invitation.
When you’re pitching a book, you’re not inviting a reader into a moment, you’re inviting a reader into … well, an interruption to the onslaught of daily life. Yes, books in all forms, are a sort of quiet space with which we can sit in our own brains (+one other brain of the author—maybe this is why anthologies are such a hard sell, multiple brains—I digress). And it’s a lot to ask someone to choose to spend six hours reading and another six on meditating about that reading experience for others to then consume. It’s an ask of our most precious commodity, time. And when you’re pitching “literary” work, it’s not an ask that you can guarantee entertainment. The scholars will disagree.
Thus, my first thought is always, I want to throw the kitchen sink of reasons why this book is worth that time into this person’s inbox so that of course they’ll say yes. This website says that people spent between 10.4 and 13.4 seconds reading a brand email between 2011 and 2021. Here’s another that says 2021 was down to 10 seconds. I have no degree in marketing, but I guess there’s a 12 second rule. At some point, I do hope our reputation on Pine State causes at least an email open, but I don’t think we’re there yet.
So, what the stats are telling me is that email is not for maximalism.
And what have I done? I’ve tested it. I have the lucky, lucky, lucky job of working on Bull City Press chapbooks alongside our Pine State books (which you can request here!). Now, there are some factors in this little test run because Bull City has a STELLAR reputation, so when folks see emails from the our team, they tend to read them. But this last week, I was pitching Katie Jean Shinkle’s fascinating, swallow-you-whole chapbook Thick City (you should pre-order) and I did a short diddy pitch, slapped some blurbs in there, and called it a day. Here’s the diddy:
“Thick City is a collection that resists genre constraints, disrupts gender and queer identity, and discombobulates a reader. This slim volume of stories is a fire spread too quickly in a city with air too thick to breathe. Desire and self-destruction live as one--sentences sutured in body horror--splitting, innards, guts, and the raw intensity of our closest relationships. Shinkle devastatingly understands the way we sometimes must hold our own fists in our mouths to keep from losing an idea of forever.”
And then with the pitches I sent this week for Pine State, I sent some … longer versions (I TRIED TO CHOP THEM) … and some shorties.
You know what I found? I really just like the sound of my own voice describing a book. My first pitch ideas for a book ARE in fact the kitchen sink, but it’s just me trying to sound … interesting. The focus is on what I can write, and not on the book’s brilliance. I want to say this is a hold over from agenting when I was trying to standout to editors for myself and my clients, and not have the same ol’ pitches as everyone else. And let me tell you, I’ve achieved that—we’ve got that down, but most of what I’m saying in those first drafts is a repeat of what I’ve already said, or me leaning on identity descriptors, awards, or blurbs of the writer. Sometimes it’s an experiment of how many epiphanies I can throw in there from my notes while I read the book. The great thing about books though is that they can have a thousand interpretations with a thousand different epiphanies because we are always bringing ourselves to them.
My thought process in those first pitches is that I want to include it all because I’m thinking, what touch point will turn this email from an eh to a yes on the reviewer / media side?
But alas, I always have to start a new blank document, or steal a line or two from that original and overabundant pitch, and go short. Go hook. Drill down to where the water is. It’s so much harder than we think. (I know, I’m sorry! But it’s what must be done!) It’s why query letters and elevator pitches are dirty phrases, and sometimes the most frustrating part of the publishing process. It’s why, if you scroll through Tiktok for ten minutes (is that even possible?), you’ll see that every video you watch all the way through, grips you in the first few seconds. It’s why Folgers is a truly terrible coffee, but I’ll always sing “the best part of waking up!” when I pour my coffee in the morning (not Folgers, never Folgers).
(I desperately want to tell you about one of my friends almost dating the heir to Folgers coffee in college, but that would be a true digression).
The pitch must, in fact, be Sonic the Hedgehog sharp and quick. This isn’t to say I don’t use my long pitches sometimes, or I don’t spend a few weeks pitching them only to realize—oh right, this is an email you could drown in. But my purpose, the essence of the book matched with the essence of the audience (because marketing a book is really a dating game) must be up front, riveting, and absorbing. It’s not about me, it’s not even really about the book, it’s about what readers will connect to about the book. It’s why sometimes you’ll read a piece on the internet and be like, but this isn’t saying anything?—it’s because it hasn’t attempted to speak to an actual human beyond the writer. And if all this fails, you’ll find me three follow-ups in, and saying things like, “REALLY, PLEASE BELIEVE ME, I BEG YOU TO READ.”
Things I’m thinking about trying:
Making Tiktok pitches for our books and linking them in one-line pitch emails. (I can see who clicked!).
Opening with a graphic. But … that feels insta-spammy.
Including a little audio of the author pitching the book in a sentence at the top of the email.
Should I just include John’s data graphs for his year in books. And at the top of my pitch for him, this kiss list. I send this kiss list to everyone I know. Who doesn’t want to read a book by the person who did this? I’d share with you the data on how he wrote his memoir but that essay is *coming soon* and so I can’t include it here, but I’ll share it when it’s ready!
Things you should know about Pine State this week:
Here is our calendar of events, should you ever want to know what’s going on!