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Writing

How to Pitch Your Book to an Agent: Step-by-Step Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 5 min read

Most writers are comfortable spending hours alone with nothing but their ideas and a notebook or computer screen—if that weren’t the case, they wouldn’t be writers. But when it comes to putting those ideas in front of another person, especially an agent who has the power to make their ideas into a real book, many writers freeze up. How do you distill an idea you’ve been thinking about for months or years into two or three sentences? How do you “sell” your story to people who aren’t as absorbed in it as you are?

The pitching process is a daunting but unavoidable part of the writing life. It can also vary dramatically depending on what kind of book you’re writing.

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What Is a Book Pitch?

In short, a book pitch (or book proposal) should capture what your book is about and why people should be interested in reading it. You can pitch an agent in person at a meeting or conference, but a pitch can also be written out in the form of a query letter. In general, though, pitches should be brief: A few hundred words written out, or 60–90 seconds in person.

There’s one other major difference between pitching fiction and nonfiction: How much of the book you need to have written in advance. When it comes to nonfiction, an outline and maybe a sample chapter or two (or an article if you’re expanding on something you’ve already written) will often suffice. When it comes to fiction, though, many literary agents will only want to see a manuscript that’s been edited and revised (sometimes many times) until it’s as close to finished as you can get it.

What to Include in the Pitch

When it comes to pitching, the requirements of a pitch differ greatly depending on whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction:

  • Nonfiction writers should say what their book is about, why it’s timely (i.e., why people will want to read it now), and why they’re the person to write it.
  • Fiction writers (including memoirists) should instead sell the story itself—where it’s set, who the main character is, and the incident on which the story will hinge.

In general, it’s also common to mention other books that your own book is similar to. Many agents will want to know what comparable books are out there, both to get a sense of the book marketing plan and how you are going to differentiate yourself from other authors.

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3 Ways to Approach Your Book Pitch

  1. Frame your nonfiction books around a question that the book will answer. For example, what really happened to a team of polar explorers go missing in the year 1856? Or, what are the common characteristics of successful startup founders? The rest of the pitch will focus on a specific answer to that question and how you as the writer are in a unique position to answer it.
  2. How does your story compare to other recent bestsellers? You’ll sometimes hear people pitch their own stories as a combination of other books, for example, “My story is sort of like The Hunger Games meets The Goldfinch but set in a lunatic asylum in 1860s Britain.” Another way to approach it is to imagine the summary that might appear on the jacket of your book—what would that say to draw in a potential reader?
  3. Some agents look at a pitch more from a publicity standpoint—do you have a well-followed blog or social media account that you are leveraging for a book? Perhaps you book just an extension of your blog. Emphasize much caché you have to lend to the publicity of the project.

The approach that’s right for you is the one that puts your book in the best light.

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How to Pitch Your Book to an Agent

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The Pulitzer Prize winner teaches you everything he's learned across 26 video lessons on dramatic writing.

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So you have your book idea, you’ve written your book proposal, and it’s time to actually get it in front of agents. The most traditional and straightforward way to get a book deal is to send your manuscript or pitch directly to the editors at the major New York publishing houses. Before you consider self-publishing, you might try pitching to a few agents who can help you go the traditional route of getting a book published.

1. Find the Right Kind of Agent for Your Work.

Agents are readers, too. They each have their own interests and tastes. Before you go spamming every agent you can find, do your research. Most agency websites include lists of authors they represent, as well as what bestsellers or critical hits they’ve helped shepherd through the publishing process. Look for books you’ve loved and names you recognize. This will help you hone in on a reasonable number of agents to pitch.

2. Figure out the Best Way to Get Your Pitch in Front of Them.

Some agents accept unsolicited pitches, others don’t. It’s a bad idea to turn off a potential agent by sending them work they’re not going to read. There are dozens of writer’s conferences where agents from many publishers gather specifically to hear pitches from first-time writers. Others host virtual pitch slams. While these experiences can be a whirlwind, they’re also a great opportunity to practice your elevator pitch and get a sense of the general interest in your work.

3. Talk About Your Work and Your Ambitions.

This applies more to query letters and conversations that have moved beyond the initial overview of your project. Agents aren’t just looking to publish your book, they’re looking to represent you as a writer. They’ll want to know if you’ve published before, and where, and whether you’ve gotten any awards or recognitions. They’ll also want to know that you’ve got more than one book in you. What other ideas do you have? What might your second book be about? The goal here is to show that you’re not just serious about this one project, but that you could have a long and fruitful career ahead of you.

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