Tips for Pitching Your Novel to an Agent or Editor

With Colorado Gold just around the corner (and other conferences happening around the country throughout the rest of the summer and the autumn), many authors are preparing to pitch a manuscript to a literary agent, an editor, or both. In hopes of reducing stress and helping you land a request for pages, here are some tips for pitching your work to publishing professionals:

1. BE ABLE TO EXPLAIN (AND PITCH) YOUR BOOK IN A SINGLE SENTENCE.

Yes. ONE sentence. No more than a single breath - and that's not negotiable. The longer you talk before the conversation part of the pitch begins (see tip #2...) the less likely the agent or editor is to ask to read your manuscript.

The point of the initial one-sentence "elevator pitch" is to make the listener want to read the book, or at least to ask you for more information. The initial pitch is not the place to explain your protagonist's intricate backstory, six things that happened before the novel opens, or your favorite twisted subplot involving a carp full of angry bees.

Find a way to explain your book in a single sentence. You don't have to tell the entire story--just enough to make the listener curious enough to want to know more. (If you're having trouble condensing or figuring out what to say in that sentence, sign up for a pitch coaching session, ask a friend for help, or read up on elevator pitches in various trustworthy corners of the Internet.)

2. REMEMBER THAT PITCHING IS A CONVERSATION, NOT A MONOLOGUE.

When you sit down with an editor or agent (or ask to pitch them elsewhere at the conference), the opening salvo is a single sentence (or single breath) but after that--if the listener is interested in your work--there's going to be a conversation.

Yes, I know that's terrifying. Yes, you have to do it anyway.

The good news (great news, really) is that agents and editors are human beings, and I have never known one to actually bite an author in public. (Lawyers, like me, are another story. Get your shots before you engage.) Jokes aside: try to remember that agents and editors come to conferences voluntarily in order to find new authors and projects to acquire. They love stories, books, and publishing. . .just like we do. Plan for your pitch to involve a conversation, and try to enjoy it.

3. KNOW YOUR GENRE AND TARGET AUDIENCE.

It's not enough to know your book and be able to pitch it succinctly. You need to follow up by knowing the genre and target audience for your book. (Spoiler alert: "ALL GENRES IN ONE" and "EVERY LIVING HUMAN" are not the right answers.) Every traditionally published book will have to be placed on a specific shelf in a bookstore or library--and you need to know which shelf that is before you pitch to an agent or publishing house.

(Note: author-publishers have a bit more freedom if their plans for the work do not involve library, bookstore, or similar sales. Otherwise, this applies to self-published authors as well, though admittedly not in the agent/editor context.) 

4. RESEARCH THE AGENT (OR EDITOR'S PUBLISHING HOUSE) AHEAD OF TIME.

Agents and editors normally specialize in certain types of books and certain genres. Pitching your dystopian YA romance to an agent who only represents mystery wastes your time (and also the agent's), and offering your erotic graphic novel to a children's publishing house won't end much better.

Most agents and publishing houses have websites. Visit those sites, as well as the agent or editor's Facebook and Twitter feeds (if any) before the conference. Know the person you're pitching and his or her preferences as well as possible, so you know how to pitch your work to best advantage.

5. DON'T RE-PITCH THE SAME PROJECT (UNLESS IT'S TRULY A DIFFERENT BOOK).

This is a difficult one for many authors, especially those for whom it takes more than a year to write a book. However, it's also a serious turn-off to literary agents and editors to hear a pitch for the same project they considered (and, presumably, passed on) once before.

Exceptions to this are:

  • Where the agent or editor asked you to revise and resubmit, and you've finished and polished the project as requested.
  • Where you have revised the project so much, and so thoroughly, that it truly constitutes a different project. (Have someone else evaluate it if you can't be objective.)

Literary agents hear a lot of "repeat pitches" for the same projects, and I've never heard of one changing his or her mind unless the book was truly different. You'll have a much better chance approaching a different agent or editor--or writing a new and even better book! (And you CAN write another, better book. Trust me. I had to do it five times before I found my agent, and although those years were difficult, I learned a lot along the way. If I could do it, you can do it too.)

6. HAVE FUN.

7.  NO, SERIOUSLY. THIS IS ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO BE FUN.

Pitching your work to an agent or editor means .... (wait for it...) YOU FINISHED A MANUSCRIPT! That's awesome, and something to celebrate! Don't let it go entirely to your head, but be proud of your achievement, proud of your book, and happy about the fact that you have a manuscript to pitch.

Authors often feel frightened of pitching because they find industry professionals intimidating to talk with. (Don't. They put peas in their ears just like you do. On second thought, nevermind. And my mother says "don't put peas in your ears.") Sometimes authors worry that agents and editors won't like their manuscripts. Maybe not everyone will...but no one will if you don't try.

If you're still nervous, come find me at Colorado Gold or talk to another author who's been through the pitching process and come out the other side. (There are lots of us, and we're glad to talk with you about our experiences.) Pitching isn't easy, but if you go in with the right attitude, it can be educational and fun.

Pitching veterans...what are YOUR top tips for pitching an agent or editor at a conference?

Susan Spann
Susan Spann is a California publishing attorney and the author of the Shinobi Mysteries, featuring ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo. Her debut novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT (Minotaur Books, 2013), was a Library Journal Mystery Debut of the Month and a finalist for the Silver Falchion Award for Best First Novel. BLADE OF THE SAMURAI (Shinobi Mystery #2), released in 2014, and the third installment, FLASK OF THE DRUNKEN MASTER, released on July 14, 2015. Susan is honored to be the 2015 RMFW Writer of the Year, and when not writing or practicing law, she raises seahorses and rare corals in her marine aquarium.You can find her at her website, on Facebook and on Twitter (@SusanSpann), where she founded and curates the #PubLaw hashtag.

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