Pitches that Worked
As with its musical and sports counterparts, an author’s perfect pitch is defined by utmost clarity and precision. And it can trigger an agent’s almost visceral response and instant embrace.
Yes, you must research an agent’s areas of interest and track record; otherwise, the perfect pitch can be lost on an inappropriate agent. A project that catches my attention presents with confidence and commitment either a familiar subject approached freshly or a lesser-known subject approached commercially. Offered in person at a writer’s conference, via query letter, or generated by my entry in an agents’ directory, the perfect pitch is a powerful summary of the book. It offers enough particulars to help anchor my understanding of the work, but not so many details to bog down the description.
An author should realize, too, that a perfect pitch might not register for reasons beyond the author’s immediate knowledge or control—anything from personal likes and dislikes to imperfect timing (the agent has just signed up a similar work or has a book in the same category that is performing poorly).
Of course, I hope the perfect pitch is followed by a perfect proposal. I mostly handle adult non-fiction titles, and the majority are sold on the basis of a proposal. The proposal is the single most important element in getting a publisher to buy a book project. It is the base from which I can convince an editor that the work is interesting, worthwhile and likely to make them some money.
A great proposal is a faithful distillation of the full work. It makes clear the project’s parameters (photographs? line drawings? original if not exclusive sources?), and leaves no important questions unanswered. It outlines the book’s contribution to the marketplace and potential audience. For example, a proposal for a self-help book should as best as possible outline the groups affected by the problem or condition addressed in the book, organizations that are linked to the problem, and the numbers of people involved.
I like to know that the author is closely aligned with the subject, either personally or professionally, to make the marriage of author and subject make sense and supportable in the marketplace. Publishers expect authors in most non-fiction categories to have a built-in “platform.” This is the author’s established audience, thanks to prior publications, media connections, professional or university affiliations, lecture circuits allowing for back-of-the-room sales—whatever helps achieve a competitive edge. Publishers big and small will be influenced by this information.
A perfect pitch generally avoids mentioning the authors’ 38 unpublished works. While an author might assume a lengthy resume of unpublished projects suggests prolific talent, it raises more doubt than interest. Why has the author waited so long to find a home for his work? It’s much harder to map a strategy from such a trunkload. And since an agent’s own passion is invariably infused by the author’s, such a constellation of choices confuses the agenda, unless the titles are limited to a planned sequel or series.
Do not spend valuable time—whether pitching on the page or in person--apologizing for taking up the agent’s time. Authors are an agent’s lifeline and most of us depend on a continuing stream of new clients. I like to think we are mutually reliant. We need you, too! Do not create an awful, and possibly irreversible first impression, with a typed cover letter with the agent’s name (misspelled and) filled in by hand. However superficial these blemishes might be, they make saying “no” easy.
Pitches that have not engendered my excitement include cover letters stating that the author is past his prime and has little time left to publish. This is one reliable way to make an agent more anxious than eager. (In my own defense, my oldest author, the distinguished diarist Edward Robb Ellis, published well into his 80s, and my youngest author was 13 at the time of publication, so I hope to not be accused of ageism.)
Pitches that have fallen flat for me include, “I like the authors you represent, so I am making you the guinea pig for my first query for my new book.” Too often a pitch will refer to a “non-fiction novel.” Does the author mean a work of fiction inspired by a real story? All novels are works of fiction and sold under the fiction category. In any case, with a bit of research, this author would have known I don’t solicit fiction—sparing himself the cost of postage and a needless rejection.
Other baffling pitches include: “Don’t read this query letter unless you are willing to look at yet another project about a former mental patient.” Or “I am not actually the author but rather the channeled writings done in a meditative state from 1960 to the present.”
Pitches that worked
Pitches, excerpted from the original queries, that have worked for me and have lead to successful publications include:
As someone who started her own business after working in the corporate world, you must have experienced some of the frustrations many knowledge workers still face. It is your current success as a literary agent that makes me eager to talk with you about representation for my book, Work Naked: Eight Essential Principles for Peak Performamce in the Virtual Workplace....The title grew out of public response to my revealing commentary on telework that Sue Shellenbarger published in her Wall Street Journal Work & Family column. I teach workshops, present at major national conferences, and publish articles on telework and change management in the course of promoting my consulting practice; I will use these same channels to promote my book.
Cynthia Froggatt’s letter showed the research she had done (noting my career change) and made clear her ability to promote her work. And, I just happened to have read Sue Shellenbarger’s column when it first appeared. Cindy’s book was published by Jossey-Bass.
Precious Cargo tells the story of a daring submarine rescue mission in the Pacific during World War II, when forty Americans and top secret Japanese battle plans were snatched off the beaches of Negros in the central Philippines. It is the story of how these refugees—missionary families, sugar men, coconut men, escaped POWs—survived 2 ½ years in the mountains, living in primitive hideouts, always one spare step ahead of the enemy…Though this is my first book, I am an Emmy-award winning freelance television photojournalist. Over a career spanning three decades, I’ve traveled to sixty countries on assignment as diverse as following popes and presidents to covering revolutions in Iran, Nicaragua and the Philippines. Current clients include 60 Minutes, 20/20, the BBC and Discovery Channel.
Steven T. Smith’s dramatic description of his project, coupled with his credits, excited my interest. Steven’s book, retitled The Rescue: A True Story of Courage and Survival in WW II, was published by John Wiley & Sons.
Betty DeRamus’ Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad, under contract with Atria Books (Simon & Schuster) instantly captured my heart with the author’s brief but evocative description circulated through a writer’s conference’s manuscript marketplace:
My book tells true stories about runaway slaves in love. It describes what six couples endured to spend their lives together…Betty DeRamus is a columnist for the Detroit News and a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her essays on black issues have appeared in Thinking Black (Crown), The Darden Dilemma (HarperCollins) and Essence magazine.
This original, commercial approach to a subject of growing interest, coupled with the author’s impeccable credentials, made me believe in this work.
In these times of great mobility and inconstancy in the publishing industry, it is especially important for the new as well as experienced author to be vigilant about the details of the publishing process. May your perfect pitch lead to a successful publication!
Reprinted from Making the Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent’s Eye, edited by Katharine Sands (The Writer Books, 2004)