Pitching an agent? Read these query letter tips…

student-849825_960_720In my work at WordServe, I read a lot of query letters and book proposals (sometimes more than 100 in a week!) that come into our agency. And in my work as a freelance editor, I often help clients develop their proposals and queries before they submit them. After reading hundreds of pitches across every conceivable genre and topic, I’ve come to notice a few significant Do’s and Don’ts that can make or break whether an agent is going to read any further. If you’re newer to the world of publishing and hoping to get your book noticed, perhaps a few of these will be helpful to you the next time you’re putting together your pitch to an agent or editor.

When sending a query to a literary agency…

  1. Don’t claim that your book is going to be a huge bestseller. The fact of the matter is that only a teeny, tiny percentage of books end up at the top of the New York Times bestsellers list—and much of it depends on things outside of an author’s control. If you claim that you’ve written the next Harry Potter, the agent reading your pitch is probably going to assume that you don’t understand the publishing industry very well; have unrealistic expectations; and/or haven’t done your homework. A better way to emphasize your book’s potential is to try something a little less grand that focuses instead on who is realistically going to buy your book: “I’ve written a book about women in the workplace that will resonate with young working mothers across the country.”
  2. Do your homework on the agents and agency you’re submitting to. If you can find out the name of a specific agent at the firm who represents books in your genre, send the proposal to their attention. Mention why you’ve chosen them. Perhaps comment on another author they’ve represented whose work has similarities to your own. If you can’t submit the proposal to a specific agent, send it to the general agency, but make sure you’ve read up on what kinds of books the agency represents. WordServe represents primarily faith-based books; when I get submissions for romance books with risqué content or nonfiction books that argue against our values, I delete without reading any further.
  3. Don’t claim that your book will make a great feature film. Even fewer books end up as movies than end up on the bestseller list (see #1, above) – and agents who see this in your pitch will know your expectations are overblown and be far less likely to work with you.
  4. Do write your pitch in polished prose that reflects your writing style. You’ve got 30 seconds to get an agent’s attention, so represent your writing well. If your book is humorous, inject some levity in your query. If it’s a thriller, create tension with your first line. If it’s literary fiction, elegant sentences that mirror the book’s style are a must. In every circumstance, ensure that there are absolutely no typos; this is your first impression, and it needs to be 100 percent perfect. Seriously: a few typos in a pitch letter is enough to get an immediate rejection.
  5. Do highlight why you are the right person to write this book; but don’t claim that nothing like this has ever been done before. Chances are, it has—and the agent has already seen it. Instead, focus on what sets your project apart, what new angle or new research or new understanding you bring to a topic—and why you’re the best person to tell readers about it. Focusing on your prior experience, personal connection to the topic, research you’ve conducted, or a dedicated audience you’ve built up are all great ways to convince an agent that you’re worth taking a chance on—and that doesn’t require the claim that no one else has ever thought of anything like this. It just requires you to show me why you’re the best person for the job.
  6. Do read the requirements for submission for every agency you send to. Different agencies have different submission requirements, and it’s essential that you provide them with exactly what they want—or your query will likely be deleted without even being read. If an agent doesn’t want attachments, make sure you include everything in the body of the email. Do they want to see five pages of sample material or fifty—or none at all? Do you need to include a full proposal, or just send a query and wait for a response? Following the specific instructions for each agency, while tedious, will result in a much better response rate, as agents will see that you’ve done your research, are taking this process seriously, and have respect for an agent’s time and wishes.
  7. Last, but not least, do show courtesy and respect to the agents you’re submitting to. Thank them for their time (they really are busy), and don’t pester them if you don’t hear back immediately. While it’s appropriate to follow up with an agent if you don’t hear from them within the time frame they list on their website, do not write to them before this window has elapsed. If they say that they aren’t able to respond to every query, accept that you simply may not hear back. With so many queries coming in, agents aren’t always able to give a personal response to each project they see. It’s unfortunate, but a reality of the industry. And finally, if you do receive a rejection, don’t pester an agent to explain themselves or try to argue for reconsideration. Graciously accept the response, and move on. There are many good agents out there, and you want to find one who connects with your work and is excited to partner with you.

Pitching agents is a difficult process—trust me, I get it! But by spending time polishing your query and making sure to send it to just the right places, you’ll increase your chance of finding the perfect person to represent your work. Above all, don’t be discouraged! It takes time, and often lots of rejections, before you find the right agent—but it does happen. For the most part, agents are in this business because we love books as much as you do; and we’re always hoping that the next query letter we open is going to be the perfect one for us.

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How Writing a Proposal Is a Lot Like Teething

We’ve hit the teething stage at our house which means a lot of crying/whining (especially at 2:05 am), drooling, and biting. I still haven’t figured out how Baby Boy manages to fit almost his entire fist into his mouth. I have, however, made a lot of comparisons of teething to the writing process, specifically to proposal writing.

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1. It’s painful. Have you ever seen the show So You Think You Can Dance? Each week certain contestants who are in the bottom after the voting process have to dance for their life. They are allowed to dance in their style, but they must pour their heart and soul into their dance to prove to the judges that they still deserve to be in the competition. Similarly, think of your proposal as writing for your life. It is the first major part of your writing (after the initial query) that an agent sees. It is also what gets sent out to editors. If it is written well enough and an agent doesn’t have to do much editing, that enhances your chances of landing an agent. Therefore, writing a proposal should be painful. Pour your heart and soul into it. Create the best proposal possible. Razzle dazzle your audience–show them you can write.

2. Writing a proposal includes a lot of crying/whining (especially at 2:05 am). Agonize over the proposal. Research how to write a strong proposal. Don’t just find the first one that you like and copy it. View several of your favorites and compare them, looking to see what they all include. Spend time on the proposal. Just like you spent time writing and editing your manuscript, you should also spend time writing and editing your proposal.

3. Sometimes you have to bite (on chocolate) to help you through the pain. Use whatever inspires you to write a strong proposal. Get in the writing zone. Although a proposal isn’t as creative as novel writing, to write a good proposal, you need to be in the creative zone. An agent and an editor can tell a well-written proposal verses one that is written because you have to. So, go for a walk or a run to ‘shake your sillies out’, grab some chocolate and some coffee, and sit down to write. As an example, right now I am writing outside on my balcony viewing a beautiful moon–it has that ‘man in the moon’ look, and tonight it seems as if he is whistling. The neighbors are playing country music (which I love), and I can hear crickets and the wind brushing the leaves of the trees. I am in writing heaven. Now, if a bug flies in my hair, I am going back inside to my living room couch.

What exactly should you include in a proposal? Again, there are several blogs and websites out there that teach what to include in a good proposal, but here are just a few tips to remember.

1. Platform, platform, platform (even if you write novels). Have you hit a dry spell in your novel? Consider writing a short story and pitch it to literary journals (both in print or online). If you’re a non-fiction writer, write and pitch to magazines or journals that print your subject matter. Get your name out there. Any publication is something you can include on your proposal. Connect on social media. See if you can book speaking gigs, even if it is just ten people at a local Bible study. Connect widely, but also connect deeply, especially with influencers.

2. Pretty prose (but not purple). Engage your readers with your writing. What can you do to make your proposal stand out above the others? How can you add your own style and flare? Obviously there are certain sections that need to be pretty straightforward, but there are others that lend themselves for your own personality to shine through. Start with your biography. How can you show agents and editors who you are not just by listing your credentials?

3. Polished. Consider bringing your proposal to your critique group. Have an editor read through for grammar/mechanics errors. Edit, edit, edit. Don’t just edit it once, twice, or even three times. Edit it thirteen times. Or eighteen. And have your critique partners do the same.

Q4U: How can you make your current proposal even stronger? What tips have you heard for how to make a proposal great? Has anyone ever offered you positive comments or constructive feedback on a proposal?