The Best Pitch

Every writer who considers traditional publishing at some point stops to wonder how to pitch their novel to an agent or editor. It’s one of the most commonly asked questions in all writing communities I’ve been a part of, and it is the one workshop you can guarantee will be available at least once at just about every writing conference. I’m going to use this space to collect the most useful advice that was shared at the conference I recently attended. I personally have pitched several times and have spent a lot of time talking to various editors and agents, so feel free to drop any questions below and I’ll answer them as best I can.

A quick note before I get started: Many people think they want to pitch to an editor instead of an agent or question why they might want an agent at all. The short answer is that many larger traditional publishers will require you to have an agent in order to work with them, and even if the publisher doesn’t the agent has a lot of industry knowledge to help you when you are new to the process. So, here’s the tips I collected from Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference 2021 on pitching and querying.

The Do’s

  • Do your research. Every agent and editor from every company says this same thing, so I’m going to wrap all their opinions into this one point. If you don’t know the name of the person you are querying, find out. If you don’t know what types of books that person represents, find out. If they don’t represent your type of book, find a different person (sending to them is just wasting their time and yours). If you don’t know the submission guidelines for the place you’re submitting, find out and then follow them. Do not send a query which does not follow submission guidelines. It will just end up in the trash.
  • Have a one-line pitch prepared. The more clearly you can present the essence of your story, the more effective your pitch or query will be. This can be in a number of different formats. One of the popular ones is the “[Story A] meets [Story B] but with [twist]” format. These work great if they fit. For my upcoming debut novel, that pitch might be “A Game of Thrones meets The Way of Shadows but with hope.” I don’t love that one (for a number of reasons), but I’m told that it fits so I’m stuck with it. Other formats include a sentence of the style “Character + 2-3 word status quo + 5-6 word conflict” and “Short character description + stakes claim + twist.” Getting these right can be difficult (and is a better subject for an entirely different post), but it’s important to have one that captures the essence of your story. Just remember, they are short.
  • Start your query letter with something eye catching. This is not an invitation to start with “Naked women dance on the moon! Got your attention? Now, about my historical romance novel….” The one-line pitch discussed in the previous point is perfect for this if placed near the top of a query letter. This is a reasonably common way to start a query letter, because the one-liner typically gives a character, a goal, a conflict, and often some form of twist. It also grabs the agent’s attention and gives them something to be interested in while reading the query.
  • Be prepared to talk about your book. The worst situation you will ever find yourself in is to have someone ask “Hey, what’s your book about?” and to realize you can’t explain it in less than three paragraphs. What that person wants is “Oh, I’m writing an epic fantasy with heavy political intrigue about a nobleman trying to keep the peace when his homeland thinks he’s a traitor.” They do not want “Okay, so first I have this guy, he’s kind of complicated because he has magic but everyone thinks that magic isn’t real and he can’t just show them because it’s subtle, but then there’s also this girl, and she’s a thief but she really wanted to be an artist…” You’ve already lost your audience, even if they’d love your book.
  • Expect rejections. Even with the best written story and the best written query, you will pitch to some people who aren’t the right fit for your book. If you’ve narrowed your query pool properly, this means one of two things. If you have a few rejections, you just need to keep trying. If you have a lot of rejections, it might be time to switch up your query letter or take another look at your sample pages.
  • Find as many ways to get direct contact with the person you intend to query as possible—without being creepy. It is a truth that face-to-face pitches have a much higher success rate than cold queries (even virtual ones). Primarily this is because the person you are pitching is already out looking for a new project to take on, but ti also helps that you’re sitting right there. So, if you pitch a book poorly, they may well ask for more information that lets you salvage the pitch. I’ve told the story a couple of times on here about when I pitched to an editor at Del Rey and she said “That’s great, everyone loves elves and dragons, but why do I care about yours?” If I’d had a great comeback that explained what was unique about my book, that would have been a request for pages. But not everyone can afford a conference. So find authors who might be able to give you an in. Jonathan Maberry spent a lot of the pandemic holding monthly educational zoom events with Eric Smith, who is a great agent. Other people may have similar options. And cold queries still account for more than 75% of all new clients that agents accept, so don’t give up. But the more personal you can manage (without finding their home address and taking pictures through their windows), the better off you are.
  • Remember that agents and editors are people. This means a few things. One, it means that if you’re excited about something, they might be too. They’re just people! They have interests just like you and I do. If you get a chance, chat with them. Two, it means they have lives beyond their jobs. You occasionally read a book or go out to eat with a friend (or used to), right? They might want to watch a movie instead of responding to your query right then. They’re only people! Give them a break. Three, it means they might just have a bad (or good) day. If you get a full request and then a couple days later a form rejection, maybe the agent took a look at the full and went “Oh, wow, I guess was feeling lenient that day…” Or maybe the agent took a look at the manuscript and said “Crap, I literally just signed another book like this and I can’t have two at once.” Some days we all look at something and hate it even if it’s fine because we’re just having that kind of day. Don’t take it too personally.

The Do Not’s

  • Be unprofessional. Everyone’s definition of professionalism will vary a bit, but here’s some pointers if you’re unsure. It is unprofessional to start your query, in-person pitch, or other contact with “Hey buddy!” or “I know you aren’t going to accept this because agents are always too picky, but…” or “So this is a book that is just amazing. It’s completely groundbreaking in how well it depicts the lives of…” The first is way too casual, the second is insulting, and the third is building yourself up too much. You want to sound like a businessperson with some personality, not like a surfer-stereotype trying to sell a get rich quick scheme or a self-aggrandizing jerk.
  • Send a physical query letter. There’s a little bit of remaining debate on this one, but 90% or more of agencies and publishing houses don’t accept physical queries at all, anymore. A growing number don’t even accept personal e-mails and instead require you to fill out a form. For non-fiction this may be a slightly more controversial topic (I’ve heard some non-fiction agents still prefer physical query letters), but I live by Jonathan Maberry’s opinion on this one: If the publishing house is so behind the times as to use physical query letters, they’re also behind the times on marketing you and your book. You’ll get better representation from someone who knows how to navigate social media and internet marketing. Especially if you’re someone for whom that is difficult.
  • Respond to a form letter. Typically this recommendation comes from horror stories of agents who send a rejection and then get a nasty email back accusing the agent of everything from lying about the quality of the book to being afraid to publish such genius to wanting to steal the idea. People who send those nasty emails are idiots, and I probably can’t help them. For the rest of us, also don’t reply to the form letter, even if just to send a “thank you for considering my book” note. I’ve done this and it’s not a black-list move or anything, but all it does it take my time and clutter the agent’s inbox.
  • Be creepy. I joked about this in my direct contact point above, but seriously, some people need to learn boundaries. An agent is a professional that you are considering hiring. If you know more about their personal life than their neighbor, you are probably being creepy. Anything they post on social media is fair game, anything in a bio or interview is fair game, and anything they say during a work-related video or workshop is fair game. Beyond that, if you overhear it, pretend you didn’t.

Things to Remember

A couple quick points that I want to address because they are often overlooked when talking about querying. You query your book—or pitch in person—because you want to get accepted by a particular agency or publishing house. But too often we act like them accepting us means we have to do what they say.

You don’t.

An agent is a person that you hire to represent your work. The only reason you’re submitting to them as opposed to picking the right service provider out of a directory is because they work exclusively on commission, and as a result they have to be selective about which projects they take on. Similarly, a publishing house is a business to who you are selling your book in return for them giving you a cut of the money they make off it. They can do literally anything with that book once they buy it (within the terms of their contract). There have even been reports (though unconfirmed and long ago now) of times when publishers purchased books that were too similar to an existing franchise they owned simply to prevent it from becoming big.

I have said before and will say again: I have nothing again traditional publishing. It is the right path for many people. But there are only two real differences between traditional publishing and self-publishing: Who gets to make final decisions and who’s footing the bill for releasing the book.

The point of all that, though, is to emphasize this important point: At some point, if you get good at querying, someone will reject your book and say “I really like this concept, but I’m not sure about X. If you ever do a rewrite that changes that, I’d love to take another look.” If that change fits your vision, then change it and resubmit. If it doesn’t, move on. That agent may be an exceptional agent in general, but they aren’t the one you want to hire for that project.

To Wrap All This Up

Pitching a novel is a complex, frustrating, time consuming process, but it’s a puzzle that can be solved with enough research and, yes, luck. I may sound like a terrible source for this information, given that I’ve decided to go self-publishing, but I wasn’t always on that path. I did all this research, I queried hundreds of agents, I talked to dozens of agents, editors, and writers at conferences about this topic. And only after I started getting good at it did I decide this wasn’t the right path for me. I didn’t choose self-publishing because I couldn’t make this work, and neither should you. In fact, I credit much of the quality of my debut novel and confidence I have in my writing to having gone through this process. My best advice, from my personal experience.

Query agents. If at all possible, find a way to directly pitch one. Once you start getting positive responses from that process, then decide if you want to self-publish.


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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