Many readers are aspiring writers themselves, and it feels like nearly everyone I’ve met has mentioned they one day dream of publishing a book. I’ve been lately surprised by how little anyone seems to know about the publishing industry, even those who want to get in on it, and wanted to share some quick suggestions on writing a good query letter. Or more specifically, the pitching aspect of it.
Queries are pitches, both for you and your book. And they need to be good. Agents and publishers get too many to count, and only have so much room.
For agents, taking on an author is a large commitment, and they often can only handle so many. A small-press publisher can only afford to sign a few books a year. It is a tight, tight race, made suffocatingly so because you’ll never quite know what you’re up against.
Sometimes books aren’t taken because of trends in the market, or coming changes- your great book about dragon warfare in egypt might be given up on because a mediocre dragon warfare in rome book is currently in the pipeline. A dragon book you’ve never heard of which had a lot of money put in it may have recently flopped, and publishers are nervous to take on anything similar. Maybe the dragon genre is dying out, or too niche. Maybe they just signed a book about dragons, and you have bad timing.
It’s rough, but that’s how these things work.
A good pitch:
-Is selling your book, not talking about it
-Highlights what matters, leaves what doesn’t
-Immediately to the point
One thing to highlight: A query is the whole ordeal, a query letter, while the pitch is specifically the part about the book. Will cover later on.
Here’s the thing. Publishing is a business. Agents are funny little go-betweens in the business, taking advantage of the breathing room. Both are in it to make money. They will not publish something out of goodwill, or because you seem to really care about it. They will publish what they think will sell, or have lasting appeal, or perhaps simply because it’s the kind of thing that wins awards.
So you need to embrace this, a little bit. You need to make your book sound like something that will sell. Consider your book: what makes it unique? What makes it appealing? X meets Y, my eternal enemy, is a popular format for pitches because of this. Romeo & Juliet meets Die Hard. Shadow and Bone meets Battlestar Galactica. I don’t know, I’m making these up as examples. Publishers eat them up because they sell your book in two tiny, recognizable chunks. I have two manuscripts I’d sum up as ‘Fangirl meets Supernatural‘ and ‘Catcher in the Rye meets Shadowhunters‘. Is that really true? Ish. But it’s close enough.
What matters to you doesn’t always matter to publishers, or even readers. I might really like that my egyptian dragon novel (yes, we’re sticking with that example) features an asexual MC, and want to gush about how important that is. Even a line about this would be too long, and honestly, a direct mention too much for a query.
Why? A line about diversity could work, but romance is the biggest genre of fiction by far, asexuality is a rarely discussed sexuality (they might not know what it means!), and you simply don’t have the space for it. If you’re applying to an lgbt press, you would want to mention it- they would know and care (you probably shouldn’t gush, though). If you’re trying to land in the mainstream, don’t mention it. If it comes up in the manuscript, they will learn about it then. Unless the story is directly about being asexual, it’s not a relevant detail.
It’s important to highlight what matters, and leave what doesn’t, but that can be hard to figure out sometimes. My Egypt Dragon Asexual book: let’s say it has a lot going on. A gay subplot! A lost princess! Magical powers! Ten types of dragon! War! Aliens! A big reveal that it takes place in the future, not the past! What the hell do you highlight when the plot is complex?
Well, you have to leave some things out. Even big things. Even if it feels like a lie. You’re selling the story in a very small place, and bending the truth a bit doesn’t hurt. Using hypotheticals makes this hard, so we’ll jump to something real, and almost as insane sounding-
The Ascension is a manuscript of mine, about a girl who goes on a quest to awaken her country’s patron god with her best friend, and later a thief they meet on the way. But at the mountain, the thief runs off to awaken the god himself (fulfilling his own local quest), and the god actually turns out to be a monster. And everyone dies, but they’ve been immortal since setting out (linked to the sky god’s life force), and then the MC is saved by an alien god of another planet, and chosen to become a god herself. And she starts to lose emotion as she gains strength. And the monster is still running around destroying the world, too. And her BFF/her both have a crush on the thief.
Sounds bonkers, right? There is a LOT going on. Here’s my pitch:
A teenage girl is sent on a quest to awaken her patron god in a deadly local tradition, but in doing so catches the eye of someone grander: The sky god, actually an alien, who wishes to turn her into a god. However, before her powers can properly develop, her two friends accidentally awaken an ancient monster bent on destroying the world, and it’s up to the increasingly inhuman Aster to stop it.
I did just throw that together, so it isn’t perfect, but it’s a good example of what I mean. Technically, the sky god doesn’t notice her because of the quest, and the thief is not one of her best friends, nor do both her friends awaken it, nor is the timeline quite true to canon. But the essence is there, and it frames the story in a cleaner, more appealing narrative than it actually is.
Pitching basics should include the genre (fantasy, but with aliens!), the main character (A teenage girl, her two friends), what they want (traditional quest/be a god), what’s in the way (giant monster/’increasingly inhuman’ implies this will be a future conflict), what are they going to do about it (stop it). A few fun details, too: ‘deadly local tradition’ isn’t very exciting in canon, but does sound like it might be interesting. ‘catches the eye of’ could imply some fun romance, even if it doesn’t. Neither are lies, but they make it sound a lot more intriguing, and step one of landing a contract is getting your contact to read your manuscript.
Most pitches are like this. I usually write full book-blurb style pitches and work down from there, and some (often publishers as opposed to agents) prefer this method. There still should be little excess detail.
Hey, here’s another example- the pitch I used for my book, Angel Radio:
Erika is the last human alive. It’s been weeks since the angels- strange creatures of eyes and wings- arrived and brought with them the death of everyone she ever knew. leaving her to wander her desolate hometown. But the angels have something sinister planned for the world they have emptied, and when a strange radio broadcast sends Erika into the world, she’ll need all the strength she can muster just to survive.
Looking back, I’m fairly embarrassed by my query, but it worked. You ever see mainstream books that are startlingly bad? Yeah. Unless you’re on the inside, you never really know what is going on in the book business (but usually, yeah, it’s about the market, and money).
Oh, and a last point: of course, make sure you avoid any and all errors spelling and grammar wise. These people are hoping you’re a competent writer, and if there’s one mistake, a particularly overloaded agent may have no problem passing on the rest of your query.
That about covers a really rough guide. Pitches should be about a paragraph in length. Check with agency sites/publishers before, but my rough guide to pitches is
1. Hello hi
2. Here’s my book right off the bat
3. More info, like wordcount, listed genre, whatever. expanded deets.
4. About me
5. thank you very much
It should be short, about a page. Don’t list anything about yourself that isn’t relevant, but if you have nothing relevant, still try to say something. Otherwise it just looks like you forgot. If you’ve been writing for a while, that works. If you’re doing a book about science and are a scientist, bring that up, or maybe if it’s about mental illness, mention your own struggles. Don’t spend too long here, or get too personal. Business, unfortunately, is business.
Publishers will generally take more than agents. I’ve had many that directly want a full summary of the book, a longer bio (smaller ones especially enjoy if you have good social media/means to advertise, as they have lesser budgets/reach). These things are specified.
A good conclusion to this? I’d scroll up and read my short list again. Here’s what not to do, I suppose:
-Have too much detail (often loses focus of what the main ‘plot’ pitch is)
-Have not enough (makes it sound bland)
-Too personally involved (‘this book means everything to me’)
-Too self confident (‘fantastic, amazing’ just about any adjective you put on character stuff, world, pitch. Use more open ones. You might call a world ‘vast’ instead of ‘incredible’)
When you have a lot of unseen competitors, you can’t assume anyone will want to put up with you. In theory, being passionate about your work is fantastic! In practice, you may come off as a dolt. And it helps to remember: there will always be more besides you, hoping for the same thing.
So turn in your best work!