Manufacturing the Pitch

It’s 1996.

Tina Bennett is a junior literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit Associates, an Aston-Martin level New York literary agency. She’s finished her after-work beer with her colleague Eric Simonoff and heads home energized.

She now has a step-by-step mission.

Per Simonoff’s generous counsel, here is what she’ll need to do to best represent Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point book project.

  1. Target a short list of editors from the brand name publishing companies with the best reputations for publishing high-end Big Idea nonfiction. The publishers of books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Simon & Schuster); Futureshock (Random House); Megatrends (Warner); Influence (William Morrow/HarperCollins); The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday) etc.  She’ll use the agency’s Editor/Publisher directory to come up with the names and houses. She’s already run her list by Simonoff and he thinks it’s a good start.
  1. Hone a verbal pitch, one that she would use to describe the project to those editors over the phone…the pitch that will induce them to ask to be included in the submission.
  1. Get some face time with the heads of her agency, Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit, to run the pitch by them and then ask their advice about her plan.

The next day is a Friday, a good time to pop her head into J&N’s Park Avenue office doorways with a “do you have a minute” expression on her face. Bennett knows that any of that week’s submissions have already been messengered to their respective editorial prospects. For all intents and purposes, the work week has ended.

Fridays are paperwork and “blue sky” thinking days at literary agencies, the come down from the Monday through Thursday call logging for new projects and follow-up check ins for the previous week’s. Friday is the day to exhale and regroup. Take off the tie and wear the jeans.

This was the era of hard copy, when submissions were literally printed on paper and stuffed into agency boxes with pitch letters atop. Every agency had its own distinctive box. And Janklow & Nesbit’s were the perfect shade of Strathmore Ivory, elegant with an emanating air of detached excellence…as if one was privileged to have been chosen to cast one’s eye upon the brilliance that lay within. Whether you were capable of understanding and appreciating said brilliance of little matter. Someone would and they’d make it a bestseller. With or without you, the die had been cast.

At publishing houses, the boxes would arrive Friday afternoons. Just before the return of lunching editors soon to pull together their weekend reading. To have a foot’s worth of fresh manuscript chum from second tier chop shop agencies awaiting your push through the glass door after yet another sup at Cafe Un Deux Trois was one thing.

A J&N box with you name elegantly scribed upon it was something else entirely.

It meant you were a player.

Many editors would let those high end boxes sit on the receptionist’s desk all afternoon in the hopes that their publisher would walk by and see that they were getting in the good stuff. Better for the boss to discover your gravitas with their own eyes than to have to clumsily and loudly drop references to how “I’ve got a first novel in from Janklow” to no one in particular as you walked by the publisher’s private and ocupado facilities.

My first publisher was one of those with zero patience for small talk so the bathroom strategy was unfortunately one’s only option. She was not one for the schmooze. But without fail, she’d step into my elevator car at a quarter to five on a Tuesday with me holding a baseball mitt, wearing shorts and sunglasses. With no reading tote anywhere near my person.

“What do you know?” she’d ask.

I never really knew how to answer that question. Was it her way of saying, “what’s up?” “How you doing?” “Good day?” Or was she literally asking me what I knew?

I’d blurt out “Not much.” To which she’d shrug and lament, “we all have our problems.”

Seriously. Those are the sum total of words we exchanged for three years.

Ugh. Still get panicky thinking about it.

Let’s get back to Tina Bennett the night before she’s going to ask her bosses about her list of editors to send The Tipping Point proposal.

After readying a four-cup coffee drip to keep her sharp after the Hefeweizen with Simonoff, Bennett picks up the phone and calls Malcolm Gladwell to nail down the pitch.

Is there anything he left out of his New Yorker piece…what he thinks might make for a bigger treatment of the tipping point idea?

Before Gladwell can respond, she gives him the reason why his answer is so important.

What she is going to have to do is shoot down the Pavlovian “magazine article does not a book make” editor argument right from the start.

So why exactly is “the tipping point” a bigger idea than just a way to look at the controversial broken windows criminology theory and of how people get the flu?

Like what are its first principles?

What is the single simple thing about the tipping point that would appeal to the largest possible audience?

On the other end of the phone, Gladwell is practically having an out of body experience.

I mean he’s had this idea marinating in a sardine can in the back pantry of his mind for over ten years. By 1996, he’s seeing the tipping point pattern in everything. From what made the new Japanese restaurant down the block from his apartment successful to how Paul Revere was able to spread “The British Are Coming” message to start the American Revolution.

Gladwell charts his vision.

The first principle of the tipping point is that it is explains why and how ideas and products and movements and behaviors spread. Anyone interested in figuring out how things become incredibly popular, adopted almost magically/unconsciously by millions and millions of people will want to read a book length version of the tipping point.

He’s animated now, realizing that what he just said may actually be true. It took Bennett to get him to voice it, now that he has, he’s on a roll.

The tipping point explains not just the practicalities of engineering mass consent about an idea–all that Noam Chomsky stuff. But how to actually transform the adoption of an idea into a behavioral response. To know how to tip something is to know how to get someone to not just “think” something, but to actually “do” something.

Knowing about the tipping point, studying it, and putting the principles behind it into action can transform lives.

It’s lightning in a bottle.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but anyone baffled by how people like Jim Jones or David Koresh or Adolph Hitler for that matter were capable of getting legions of people to follow their every dictum will get something life changing out of a book length treatment of the tipping point.

Bennett interrupts to say that going down that very dark hole into the techniques of fascist brainwashing isn’t something many people would want to read about in their spare leisure time.

Gladwell agrees. Let’s go to the opposite pole then. To the positive.

The key thing to get someone excited about the big idea of this book, especially an editor at a publishing house, is probably in how the tipping point relates to commerce.

Like how do you create a marketing program for a product capable of mass adoption? From zero to millions sold?

This will be a global goal of the book…to tell readers how they can use the timeless principles of the tipping point to create positive change. From unknown to wildly popular. Be it a pair of brown suede shoes or even a mind-numbingly repetitive television show on basic cable.

So Gladwell tells Bennett that he will write more about good stuff than bad stuff. He’ll write about how products go from invisible to being de rigueur. How infections are contained. How crime is reduced. How educational television works.

So theoretically, someone who buys the book will feel like they’ll be able to practically put in place the things necessary to create an irresistible product or movement.

Bennett, now taking copious notes, asks, “So, how do you?”

Gladwell then tells her that he’s been thinking about that. He thinks you need three things in order to get something to tip. You need the right kind of information that is appealing enough or “sticky” to inspire others to share. You need the right kind of people to spread the information. And you need the right timing or context for the message and messengers to operate in.

Bennett needs to wrap it up. Okay. Now there’s a general three-part structure to the book. The message, the messengers, and the environment in which they incubate are what give rise to tipping points. Beginning, middle and end. We’ll frame the book with a killer prologue and epilogue and we’ve got a global structure that any book editor will embrace.  This goes far beyond the magazine piece.Is that it?

Pretty much, Gladwell confirms.

Great, I’ll boil this down and talk to Mort and Lynn tomorrow says Bennett. Anything else?

Oh, yeah, says Gladwell, there’s this…

17 comments on “Manufacturing the Pitch

  1. LOL…that’s quite a cliffhanger, Shawn!

    And I love this question as well: What is the single simple thing about the tipping point (insert your own WIP) that would appeal to the largest possible audience?

    What a great question!

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Great cliff-hanger indeed!

  3. Alec Graf says:

    Oh, yeah, says Gladwell, there’s this guy … name of Shannon O’Coyne or something like? Keeps calling me? Heard about you and me talking and says he wants to get the lowdown? You know something I don’t?

  4. 7 years in Texas, home of “watcha know?” as a greeting, I never knew how to respond either. And invariably filled the silence with “not much.”

    Until I moved back to California, and realized that the traditional surfer greeting was the response. And it works.

    Next time a Texan greets you with “watcha know?” you reply “hey.”

    That’s it. It works.

    Oh, the “make sure my supervisor knows I’m Big League” thing?

    Any supervisor worth working for knows, whether you drop hints or not.

    Still, I’ll bet you prefer your current boss, eh? (I know I’d rather work for me than even the best boss I’ve ever had.)

    1. How lucky am I? Not only am I learning how to be a better writer and my own editor, I’m learning how Texans greet others and how to answer if greeted by one especially if I’m in California! ; )

      1. I wish I had a recording of the time a DJ in San Diego bet his on-air partner he could call a random number in the Ocean Beach exchange (OB = famous SoCal druggie central) and have a conversation using only the word “dude” for at least 60 seconds before the other party caught on.

        It was almost 4 minutes, he never said anything but “dude” with every possible inflection, and the poor guy he called was either the greatest actor of all time, or never had a clue. Having worked with a few OB folks, I know what I believe.

        I had to pull off the road because I couldn’t see to drive anymore, I was laugh-crying so hard.

        1. I love your stories. Keep em coming, too.

  5. Marisol says:

    I would love to see a novel by you about the publishing industry. I get such a sense of nostalgia and a bygone, gilded era from your posts about the old paper days of publishing.

  6. Patrick Maher says:

    Shawn, you should be a writer.
    Just a heads up – “It’s lightening in a bottle.” I’m sure you mean ‘Lightning’.

    1. When I worked for a small town paper in Texas I actually believed the “growing lighter” spelling (lightening) was just an alternate spelling of the sky lighting up firmly enough that I convinced my editor who’d been in the game some time.

      Though I’ll bet here it’s just a typo.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks Patrick. All fixed.

  7. Vlad Zachary says:

    Dear Shawn,

    Thank you for all the work on the Story-grid and especially for your insights on genre and genre conventions for big idea books. I’ve learned a lot from your experience and I feel eternally grateful for the insights you’ve shared.

    Now I have to confess though – recently I am getting a bit confused. There is the part where we (your audience) are here to learn how to create a professionally done piece of writing. Then you are also teaching us how to sell one. Both are very important, both critical. However, before, during and after The Tipping Point there have been a number of different, commercially successful books. And from what I am learning about the Tipping Point and its six-figure contract – it is more of an exception, rather than the rule. Now – I want to be successful, and make money with my work. But realistically the majority of readers here will never be like Malcolm Gladwell. We could still learn from him and you and be successful to a degree. But folks like us are not in the position Malcolm Gladwell was when Tina Bennett sold the idea. Most of us will never be in that position. So – in the name of keeping your work on this blog relevant to our needs, and with all due respect – how about going back to talking about how a bid idea book is structured, and what we could learn from your expert analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s hit? You were story-gridding it (see – you’ve already changed the world with your concept) and then you hit a wall, if I remember correctly. Is there a way we can help you get back to it?

    I hope you see how this suggestion is well intentioned and impersonal.

    Thank you

    1. Vlad, I appreciate your perspective in this comment. While I’m happy to just come along for the ride, I’m certain Shawn’s goal is to help and teach more than to simply take us all for a ride. Not, of course, that I’m suggesting he doesn’t have a plan or isn’t teaching through these posts.

    2. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Vlad,
      Thanks you for your comment. I take no offense whatsoever and I appreciate your point of view. Here’s the thing though. My point with all of the story about Tina Bennett and the money etc. is that THE TIPPING POINT would not be as great of a book if not for the salesmanship that went into selling it to the major publishers. Gladwell’s piece in the New Yorker was terrific, but it was in no way anywhere near ready for the book treatment. The reason why I’m getting into the details about agenting is that agents are often considered crass schlockmeisters who have no creative ability. I contend that it was a combination of Tina Bennett’s appreciation of the marketplace and her understanding the necessity of having a three part structure in place for Gladwell before she sold it that made the project so appealing to publishers. But more importantly, it helped Gladwell figure out what he had to actually practically do to write the book. Proposals are to “sell” yes. But what’s even better is that after you do a great one, you’ll know exactly what you need to do to actually write the book.

      These posts, of course, have been a long winded way of saying to writers like yourself that you must think about the reader and why in the hell they would want to spend any time with your big idea. By looking at the commercial potential of the big idea and thinking about it in terms of reaching the widest possible audience you will force yourself to create something more universal. A big idea like Gladwell’s could have been a painful read…THE TIPPING POINT has as much to do with the rise of fascism as it does with Hush Puppies. Imagine if Gladwell had decided to lead with FASCISM instead of Hush Puppies? It would have become what I call a “medicine” book. Something that you know you should read, but you just can’t bring yourself to it because it’s so disturbing. Instead, the hush puppy stuff was charming and entertaining and allowed Gladwell to move the reader into the deep water of The Tipping Point without alienating them. That’s a commercial decision that made the book better. I think Tina Bennett had a lot to do with that choice.

      Anyway, I’m about two posts away from finishing up the “sales” part of the evolution of The Tipping Point book. Then I’ll lay out all of the pieces that Gladwell gathered in his research and show you how he assembled them within the context of telling a wonderful Story… Feel free to skip any posts you find irrelevant. I love storygridding graphs, but to ignore the commerce that contributes to the art would be a disservice to all concerned. What Tina Bennett brought to the table (and Gladwell himself says in his acknowledgments this about her…“Tina Bennett, who conceived of this project and saw it through–protecting, guiding, helping and inspiring me every step of the way.) is substantial. To ignore her contribution would be impossible for me.

      So thank you for your indulgence. But to neglect the behind the scenes work that goes into successful big idea nonfiction would not serve you well. You need to think about this stuff even if you don’t have an agent or never find a major publisher. YOU need to consider these commercial points of view to make your work better.
      Hope that helps.

      1. Vlad Zachary says:

        Dear Shawn – thank you very much for the additional and personal response. You are right and thank you for reminding us about the need to think more commercially. I gotta confess I did not see the role of Tina Bennett in the creation of the book until now. Just her role in selling it. Look forward to your next posts.

  8. Marvin Waschke says:

    Where I come from, I won’t say where, the proper answer to “Watcha know?” is “More’n you.”
    Big ideas are all over the sidewalk; it’s hard not to twist your ankle on one. Big ideas that make it are few. I am getting from this that effort put into refining and presenting well pays off. I see everyone working hard on making Tipping Point work. There may be luck, there always is, but without effort, the luck will not help.

  9. Patricia Wilson says:


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