Six tips for pitching books to agents

Diane Geurts / February 25, 2015

If you’re a writer, writing your book took you many hours of bleary eyes, pacing, cursing and possibly bourbon. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction, memoir or non-fiction. You spent years finishing the dang thing. At least, I did. It took me five years to write my novel from beginning to end. Five years that included parenting my now seven year old daughter, a divorce, a stressful day job, and all those piles of dishes and dirty laundry that needs to be washed, stacked, folded, and put away. Add another three months for final edits and feedback from my trusted readers, and wa-la! Done.

This is where many writers freeze. How do I pitch my book? How do I put this labor of love out there? I’m lucky in that I’ve been doing public relations and marketing for years. Pitching agents is very similar to pitching stories to editors and reporters. I’ve learned a few things along the way that have helped me collect my eighth rejection so far on my novel and not lose hope. While this list is by no means comprehensive – there are many great resources out there that are – these are the things that will help get you going, and hopefully keep you happily pitching.

1. How do I find a publisher? There are many great resources, including the Writer’s Market series, which not only lists out publishers, magazines, and award / grant opportunities, but provides excellent guidance around writing query letters. For a book, however, the best thing to do is find an agent. Poets & Writers has a comprehensive database for agents who represent fiction, non-fiction, children’s pictures books and more. Or my favorite approach: go to the bookstore and browse books similar to yours. Read the Acknowledgements section. Most likely, the author has thanked their agent.

2. How do I get the right tone for my query letter? Writing a query letter is a bit like writing a cover letter for a potential job. You want to sell yourself without telling people you think you’re the next John Updike. Keep it simple, straight-forward, and state the facts. Start by telling the agent why you think they will be interested in your book. Did they represent an author who has a similar voice or topic? Tell them why your non-fiction book is unique and how it adds to the conversation about your topic, or even better, how it changes the conversation. Then summarize your book in one to two short paragraphs. Finally, end with a few sentences about yourself. Are you already published? Are you an expert in fly fishing with bamboo rods, tropical fish or whatever your topic is? Is your day job relevant to what the agent should know? If so, mention it.

3. Read the agent’s requirements carefully. For fiction, some agents only want a query letter. Some also want a first page, or sometimes the first 20 pages. For non-fiction, the requirements sometimes include a list of other books similar to yours that are already on the market. Do your research before submitting.

4. Write a subject line that is easy for the agent to find again. You know your inbox at work and all those emails that are waiting to be read or filed? Agents have more. At the least, title your subject line something like “Book query: Title of your book, by Your Name.”

5. Have a thick skin. Rejections are part of the business. It’s not personal. An agent may be looking for books set in the Victorian period, or is enamored with a topic that’s currently in the headlines. If yours is a romance set in medieval times, they’ll pass. It’s the same in public relations. We pitch stories to the media every day and if they don’t land, you move on to the next reporter or editor or story idea.

6. Keep writing. Write your next book while you are pitching this one. Because really, it’s the love of writing that makes all of this worthwhile. Every word, every turn of phrase that makes you think, “That’s it, that’s exactly the feeling I wanted to get on the page,” is worth a little celebration.