How to Pitch to Literary Agents and Get a Book Published
How do you write a pitch letter to get a book published through a literary agent? The most important part of your submission to an agent is not your manuscript or even the synopsis. (The agent typically reads the synopsis after the letter, initially to check if the work slots into a ‘publishable’ category.)
The vital aspect is the covering or pitch letter. Spend more time on this than on anything else. Get it wrong and the agent will not even read your story.
The key elements of a good cover letter are, in roughly this order:
1. Why you chose that agent. Perhaps s/he was recommended to you by a mutual literary friend or already represents authors who write in your genre. This shows you’ve done your homework. Never send out a ‘Dear Sir or Madame’-type letter. Personalise it heavily!
2. What genre or topic area your work falls into – and how it compares with other successful books in this area.
3. Who your work is written for, and some indication of the proven market which will yearn to read it. (A few statistics paraphrased from The Book Trade Directory are useful here.)
4. How precisely your work is new – or at least different, provocative or otherwise a ‘must buy’. If possible, stress its value as a gift. (Few new hardback books today are bought at full retail price, except as gifts for other people.)
5. Your own qualifications for writing this work – such as your previous publications or awards in prestigious literary contests, and/or your unique lifetime experience.
So if you’ve crafted a novel about a dramatic attempt to raise sunken Roman gold from the Aegean sea, point out that you’ve been a maritime salvage consultant or a deep sea diver or a prominent classical historian these past several decades.
If you have a testimonial from a truly awesome authority, insert it. But the secretary of your writing club won’t impress.
Put all that into just one page, around 350 words max. Agents do not happily turn over pages. No, no’s… agents do not want to hear about your pet cat, or your disabled child, or the fifty years of agony you have invested in your opus magnus. Don’t lay a guilt trip on them or get chummy. Keep it professional. And make sure that your spelling, grammar, punctuation and presentation are immaculate. The letter is itself a sample of your literary competence.
Beware of the presentation error I made with my first book in 1982. I submitted the pages to a publisher, unsolicited, in a ring binder. (Miraculously, he published the book.) The modern fad is to present the pages, looseleaf, in just a plastic slip folder or elastic band.
True, this practice is quite mad. (The pages tumble everywhere.) But agents/publishers learned it in the days when typesetters demanded loose pages, and the superstition persists. Humour it.
Keep several submissions in circulation, perhaps six at a time. Do not chase submissions. When you receive a rejection letter, send out another submission. After you have approached every relevant agent without success, rest the manuscript for a year. Then massively revise it. (Its faults should now leap out at you.) And start the process again.
Chances are, the college intern whose task it was to sift the agency slush pile has now moved on, and their replacement might love your work. Cynical? Alas, realistic.
The secret today of catching an agent’s eye is 90% perspiration and 10% persistence. Talent is optional. But if you have it, put it – above all – into your covering letter!