So, you’ve written your book. It’s sitting on your desktop, glittering in all its newness and potential. Your spouse thinks it’s great. Your mom thinks it’s the Next Big Thing. Even you think it’s actually not too shabby. Now you just need to get people to read it. And most of the time, to do that you need a literary agent.
Finding the right person to represent you can be a game changer when it comes to establishing yourself in the literary world. Literary agents are the ones with a fast track to the gatekeepers, who can help you get your book in front of an audience. Let’s look at how to pitch a book idea to an agent the right way, with some examples to help you along the next step of your journey.
What is a literary agent?
A literary agent is the mediator between the author and the publishing world. It’s their job to help get your writing to a publishable standard, to chat up editors and convince them to invest in your work, to secure you the best book deal possible, and to help field any disputes or disagreements.
An agent makes a commission off any money that you earn (usually around 10—20%), so it’s in their best interest to get the publishers excited about paying you well for your work. The more money you make, the higher the agent’s paycheck.
A good literary agent will have connections in the industry and the experience to secure opportunities you wouldn’t be able to on your own. They’ll also be able to help you edit your work to unlock its greatest potential, and to help you develop the next steps of your career as a writer.
How to find the literary agent that’s right for you
Literary agencies aren’t a one-size-fits-all profession. You’ll need to find the one that loves the kind of work you do. Not all literary agents represent all genres, and not all of them are going to be the right match for you and your book. Here are some ways to track down the perfect literary agent.
1. Check agency listings
Have a look at literary agency listings to get an idea of who’s out there. There are many online databases out there that have extensive listings of literary agents, with details on the sort of work they’re interested in representing and a few of the authors that they’re associated with. This is a great way to start narrowing down who might be a good fit for your work.
2. Recon your favorite authors
As a reader and writer, you probably already know some authors whose stories are similar to yours. They may have inspired you along your writing journey. With the magic of a quick Google search, it’s now easier than ever to find out who’s representing your favorite published author. Then you can reach out to them and explain that you think you’d be a good fit for their style in your book pitch letter (we’ll look more at how to pitch your book below).
3. Ask for recommendations
Sometimes the best way to find literary representation is by word of mouth. Ask your writer friends and teachers if they have any recommendations for literary agents that they’ve had good experiences with (and also any to stay away from!). If you personally know an author from the agent’s list, it never hurts to say “I met [my friend] through [writing courses/workshops/events/etc] and he recommended that I reach out to you.”
Take your time with this process; finding the right literary agent is a relationship that will benefit you for the rest of your writing career. Signing with the wrong one too hastily can set your career backwards.
What’s a book pitch, and why do you need one?
A book pitch (sometimes called a book proposal or query letter) is a quick introduction that tells the agent what’s so special about your book and why they would benefit from signing you. A book pitch should be brief, a few hundred words or 60—90 seconds if spoken out loud. You’ll sometimes hear this being called an elevator pitch or an elevator book pitch, because reading it should take about as much time as an elevator ride.
Not only will the pitch introduce the agent to your writer’s voice and style for the first time, it’ll also give them an idea of what to expect from your book. A well written book pitch will get them excited about reading your work and confident that your book will carve out a unique place in the world of contemporary literature.
How to write a book pitch
Composing your book pitch doesn’t have to be intimidating. All you need to do is write a letter that includes these six basic items:
1. Your chosen agent’s first name and the agency that they represent
The most important thing here is that this person knows that you’ve chosen them for a reason. You know who they are, and you believe that the two of you would make a good team. They don’t want to see their email cc’d alongside twenty others all receiving the exact same message.
Your opening is the very first thing they’re going to see, so make sure you include their name (generally just a first name, unless the submission guidelines on their website specifically say otherwise), and double and triple check that you’ve spelled it right (If their name is Jennifer, is Jessica “close enough”? No.). No literary agent on this green earth would be interested in representing a writer who couldn’t even be bothered to treat them like a human being.
2. How you found them
You can say that you found their name in one of the popular online databases, but you’ll sound more authentic if you’re able to identify with some of the authors they’re already representing. For example: “I noticed you represent [my favorite author]. They’ve been a huge influence on my work, and I believe that [my debut novel] would be embraced by a similar audience.”
Top secret insider tip: You don’t really need to find them through your favorite author’s website. You can find them through one of these agency lists, visit their website, and then track down the authors they represent. Just make sure that the author you’re referencing is one you’re familiar with and their work really is similar to yours.
3. Your book’s genre and word count
This information is critically important to any literary agent. Don’t forget to include it somewhere in your query letter! Make sure it matches the genres the agent is actively searching for; for instance, don’t send them your high fantasy novel if they only represent nonfiction books or crime thrillers.
4. A quick-and-dirty tagline that will grab the literary agent’s attention
This is usually done by comparing your work with other known works (in the industry, these are known as “comp titles”). However, it’s also important to note what makes yours different.
Don’t say “my book is the next Hunger Games.” Why? Because there already is a Hunger Games. They don’t need two. Instead, say something like, “Imagine The Hunger Games, except it’s set in the 1930s and Katniss is a beautiful acrobat in a traveling circus.” I don’t know about you, but I’d read the bejeezus out of that.
5. Your book summary
Longer than a tagline, but still brief enough that their minds don’t start drifting to other things. In a few sentences, summarize all the main points that make your story so great—an engaging protagonist, a setting that you’d love to live in, and a heart-pounding conflict. Think about what you might read on the back of your book if you picked it up in a bookshop. This part is usually what’s known as your “elevator pitch.”
6. Some details about you
This might be any courses you’ve taken, prior publications, contests you’ve won, any background that’s particularly relevant to your work—for instance, if your book is a medical drama, you might say that during university you worked part time as a receptionist at a medical clinic, which gave you a close interpersonal view of the inner workings of the profession—and any audience you might already have for your work through social media and other outlets.
This isn’t your life story, but rather a quick picture for the agent to understand why you’re the best person to write this book, and why you’re the right person to enter into a professional relationship with.
Which is not the same as arrogance. However, you want to be clear that you believe you have a good product and that it deserves a place out in the world. If your agent sees that you don’t believe in your work, they’ll wonder why they or any one else should.
That’s all there is to it. Book pitches should be short—you spent a lot of time writing your book so it’s tempting to explain it in great detail, but agents are very busy, and shorter is always better when it comes to an effective pitch.
Most of the time, you’ll be pitching your book idea to an agent. In some cases, however, you may choose to pitch to a publisher directly. We’ll look at both of these and the best way to approach each one.
How to approach an agent with your book pitch
A successful pitch to a literary agent has the two ingredients that we discussed above: An appropriate agent’s contact info, and a finished book pitch.
To pitch an agent, first check their website to make sure they don’t have any special requirements for pitches. Some agents may want additional information, or a different method of communication than plain email. Some may ask for an excerpt of your book, while others just want to see the query letter at first.
It’s a good idea to pitch a few agents at a time—but personalize your query letters to each person. Wait until you hear back from them before sending out your next batch.
Agents are really busy professionals, so it can take them some time to respond. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard back from them for a few days or even weeks.
How to submit your book pitch to a publishing house
Not every book needs to go through an agent. Agents hold the keys to the traditional route of “Big Five” publishers, but there are many smaller, independent publishing houses across the globe that accept submissions directly from writers without an intermediary. If you’re working in genres like poetry and short story collections, you might have an easier time getting your book published with one of these publishing companies. If you’d like to directly pitch a book to a publisher, it’s a little bit different from pitching to an agent.
Independent publishing is a wide landscape, and small presses can have widely varying submission guidelines. This is why it’s so important to carefully and thoroughly read the instructions that they set out on their website.
Some might ask for an entire completed manuscript; some might ask for only the first three chapters. Some publishers might ask for a book pitch before deciding if they want to request the entire book to read, in which case you’ll follow the guidelines for how to pitch a book to an agent above. Some publishers might only accept submissions by email or through an online submissions platform, while others might want hard copies sent by post.
Just like agents, publishers aren’t a one-size-fits-all template. Make sure to read the guidelines and follow them exactly to the letter. It may sound harsh, but an author who can’t follow one set of instructions isn’t going to be someone the publisher wants a relationship with for the long haul.
Book pitch example
Now that you know how to pitch your book and what elements you’ll need to include, here’s a sample book pitch template to give you a head start.
Dear [Agent’s first name],
I am seeking representation for my [word count] [genre] novel, [Title]. I came across your name [however you found them] and I think that my work would be a good fit for you. [Title] is [your quick-and-dirty tagline that will make them want to read more].
[Your protagonist] is a [one-line description of your character] living in [your amazing setting]. But all of that changes when [your plot].
My previous work has appeared in [various magazines, literary journals, contests, etc.] and my unique experiences in [occupation, educational program, cool anecdote] have given me an insight into the lives of [something to do with your story].
Thank you for your time in considering my work. I look forward to hearing from you.
This is a pretty trim book pitch example, and it gives you a solid place to start. Keep it compact, but liven it up with your voice, your spiritual imprint. Show the agent who you are and why your voice is one they want to hear more of.
What to do if you don’t hear back after your pitch
Nailing your book pitch and sending it to an agency or publishing house is a huge step forward. But what happens if you wait and don’t hear back from them? Does that mean that they’ve forgotten about you? Or that your email has been kidnapped by internet gremlins? How do you nudge them respectfully without making it look like you’re desperate and insecure and starved for affection (even if you are)?
Agents, and editors are very busy people who spend their days doing all the things that you’re trying to proposition them to do for you. Plus, they have a heavy slush pile of submissions to wade through in their hunt for the next diamond in the rough. In general, three months is the baseline for following up with a publisher or literary agent. I know, that’s a long time to wait—good thing you’ve been keeping busy on your next writing project. After three months, the first thing you need to do is check their website for guidelines.
Some might say something like, “we aim to respond to all queries within six months,” in which case you’re going to have to hang tight for another three months before reaching out. They also might say something like, “if you have not heard from us within eight weeks, we regret that on this occasion you have been unsuccessful,” in which case you don’t need to follow up because you already know that they’ve decided to pass.
If it’s been at least three months since your submission, and their website lists a response time of three months or less or their response time isn’t listed, you can move ahead to the next step.
How to write a followup query
Once you’re within the “safe zone” for following up on your pitch, you can send them a short, sweet email with all the necessary information. Here’s a good example:
Dear [Agent’s first name],
I am writing to follow up on my email sent on [date] regarding my [genre] novel [Your Brilliant Work]. Could you please provide me with an update on my submission?
I appreciate your time in considering my work.
[Your cool-headed self]
By including the date of your initial email, the agent can track it down quickly, and by providing the genre, you’ll jog their memory if they’ve already had time to look at it. You don’t need to include any more information here; they’ll either go find your original email, or reply asking you to send it again.
Learning how to pitch a book idea is your next step to success
Writing a book pitch is a rite of passage that every writer needs to learn. It can be scary trying to sell your work at first, but knowing how to write a book pitch is ultimately an empowering skill that will take you a long way in your career and make you feel more confident in your writing. Armed with this guide and a little determination, your book will be hitting the shelves in no time.