Every year, I watch budding new writers nervously pitch their books to literary agents and acquiring editors at our annual writer’s conference, Pitch, Publish, & Promote. They pace the halls, practicing their query with shaking hands. Pitching to an agent is THE big first step in releasing your writing into the world, and it can be a scary one—to ask someone else to represent some of the most intimate pieces of your insides, distilled from your mind and your heart, and typed in 12-point font. But it’s an important step, and one that can often be confusing for first-timers.
Whether you’re pitching to a literary agent by email or in-person, the whole process can be nerve-wracking! But agents and editors get it. They’ve been in your shoes, and now they’re looking to acquire new talent, so ultimately, they want you to succeed. To help keep your nerves at bay so that you can deliver an excellent pitch for your next groundbreaking book project, here are some key tips:
1) Don’t be a writer
I know, I know, that’s a weird thing to ask of you, but this is the best advice I can give you for when you’re pitching your book to an agent. As a writer, it’s your natural inclination to show off your linguistic chops, but your pitch is not the time to use big words or flowery language. Instead, get right into it and get right to the point. If you’re pitching to an agent in-person, you likely only have ten minutes to convince them that they need your book in their arsenal, so don’t waste time inserting superfluous adverbs. They’ll get to read how beautifully you can weave language when they dig into your manuscript… after you’ve won them over with a killer pitch. If you’re querying by email, do your research and structure your query letter to the traditional format, trimming off the excess, keeping it to one page.
2) Address the agent/editor directly
You want each agent and editor you pitch to know that you’ve done your homework. We know when you send us a general query letter that hasn’t been tweaked but used as mass mailing agent bait. Editors and agents want to know that you’ve researched their agencies, that you understand why your manuscript will fit in with their catalogue, and why you think they are a good fit to represent you. Establishing a positive working relationship with your potential agent is just as important as having a great manuscript to pitch to them!
3) Write a great hook
A hook is a one-line description of your book that compares and/or contrasts it to other commercial successes. For example, when pitching my women’s fiction novel, I touted that it carried the psychological atmosphere of Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne intersected with Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted. A hook lets an agent know where your book might fit in the marketplace, thus if it might fit in their catalog. A great hook will linger in an agent’s mind and make you memorable.
4) Don’t brag
You are a fantastic writer. Amazing. But even if you’re the next J.K. Rowling, agents don’t need to know that. They’ll figure it out all on their own if they accept your query and read your manuscript. Be humble and be patient when you submit a query or pitch to an agent. Don’t brag about how much money your book will make or how famous you might potentially become, because you don’t want to come off as motivated by those things. Believe in yourself, yes. We all believe in you too! And agents are already extending a branch of faith by considering your pitch, so rather than talk about book sales, talk about inspiration. Tell your agent who your idols are and why, where your ideas come from, and why writing excites you. Thinking like this will also help you write a killer hook!
5) Be you
That’s it. Just be you. If you’re pitching through email, use the same tone in your query letter that you write with. If you’re pitching in person, use your natural demeanor. Embrace who you are so that an agent can embrace it too. Authenticity is your best friend when pitching an agent, and I know it’s hard to be totally genuine when you’re nervous. The tendency is to be formal, astute, and polite. Still be polite, but let your guard down so that agents can see your passion through your anxieties. I can’t say it enough that agents are looking for authors they can relate to, authors they can build a great working relationship with, authors who inspire them. Because, after all, agents are readers too.
The best way to implement all of these tips and to temper your nerves is to practice. Practice your pitch on your friends, your spouse, fellow writers, your mom, anyone who will listen, and be open to constructive criticism. If you’re querying by email, query in small chunks. Send out eight to ten queries at a time and wait to see what types of responses you get. If they are all rejections, then you know you need to adjust your query letter and try again! But above all, know that you are an amazing writer with an important message whose voice deserves to be heard (and read), and that we are all rooting for you!