I’m a careful buyer – even if you’re selling cookies

If you want my money, kids, prepare to be peppered with questions, writes Rob Long

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If you have any friends who are involved in charitable causes – maybe they run marathons to raise money for cancer research, or participate in Comic Relief events for war refugees – eventually you’re going to have to buy something.

It’s worse, naturally, if kids are involved. In Los Angeles, children’s groups like sporting teams and the Scouts are always raising money, so it’s a given that at some point a wide-eyed moppet will appear in your office or at your door with a half-memorised pitch and a complicated book of receipts to manage.

As a man old enough to have lots of friends with lots of children, I have bought my share of magazines and holiday wreaths and what seems like a gross ton of cookies. I’m always cheerful about it, though at one point my young nephew expressed frustration with my standard posture in these sales events with kids, which is to adopt the attitude of a very cautious customer demanding to know what, exactly, I’m getting for my money: how many issues of the magazine do I get? How large is the wreath? What’s in those cookies? Is it vanilla or vanilla flavouring? I peppered him with enough questions – hey, if the kid wants money he’s going to have to earn it – that he finally blurted out: “Will you just buy it? Dad says you have to buy it!”

I was just trying to teach him a lesson. I know all about sales pitches, both from the receiving end and the delivering end. Every job, deep down, is a sales job, and I’ve spent a majority of my career sitting in network television offices trying to sell television shows.

I’ll perch myself on the expensive sofa, make meaningful eye-contact, with a list of key points I want to make in front of me as I make my way through the pitch.

My process is always the same: I tell a little story – a personal one, something that connects me to the show I’m trying to sell, and then I tell a little bit about the world of the show, and then I give a brief version of the pilot story, and then I wrap it up.

It’s a pretty successful system – well, not so successful that I no longer have to do it, of course, but my track record is awfully good. So far, I’ve had seven television series on the air. But whoever it is I’m pitching to – no matter who it is or what network they run -- will adopt the same attitude I do when I’m getting pitched by a little kid.

The network or studio executive will lean back and assume the posture of a very cautious customer and demand to know, exactly, what they’re getting – how many characters? Are they family or just friends? Where does it all take place? Is the tone broadly comic or more subtle? Is it topical or does it deal mostly with evergreen issues?

Unfortunately, I can’t blurt out: “Will you just buy it? My agent says you have to buy it!”

Although I’ve been tempted.

The point is, none of us in this business – and probably every other business, too – should be embarrassed to be in sales. We’re all making the rounds in our own way, with our own little salesman’s case of samples and products to demonstrate.

Well, actually, I lied. That isn’t the point. The real point is this: I wrote two books a few years ago. One was called Conversations with My Agent and the other was called Set Up Joke, Set Up Joke. They both told the story – mostly true – of my life in Hollywood. And while both of them were well-reviewed and popular, neither of them, shall we say, caused me any tax trouble.

For the past few years, in fact, they’ve both been out of print. At first I thought that would have a little understated elegance to it – a languid, aristocratic “I don’t want to try too hard” kind of vibe.

It didn’t. The only “vibe” it had was the vibe of failure.

This is Hollywood, so of course there’s a happy ending. As of last week, Bloomsbury have published both of my books together in a single volume. (It’s available on Amazon.)

Publishing them so close together, unfortunately, makes it all too easy to see that the second one is really the first one again with slightly different jokes, but then I’m in the entertainment industry, and the first rule around here is, when you make a sequel, don’t change anything.

So let me take a moment and go through my checklist. Did I open with a personal story? Yes, I did. Did I discuss the general world of publishing? Yep. Did I describe the key story element? You bet. All that’s left is for me to wrap it up, which I will this way:

Will you just buy it? My accountant says you have to.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl