10 Things to Know Before Pitching a Literary Agent

By: Mary Anna Rodabaugh in Book Writing and Editing
on December 18th, 2018

Securing a literary agent is a milestone for anyone who's writing a book. Agents can be gatekeepers to book writing and publishing success. And, let’s face it, how cool would it be to say the words “I just got a book deal”? A literary agent is an individual who seeks out interesting and potentially profitable books and book proposals. He or she will sign authors to a book deal and sell the book (or book proposal) to a publisher. Typically, the agent will receive about 15 percent of the total royalty profits from the book sales.

Typically, writers email query letters to agents. These letters lay out the premise, genre, and impact of a book, all while nicely asking the agent to request more. The process works, but most agents receive hundreds of query letters each day.

Connecting with Agents During Book Writing

Wouldn’t it be better to tell the agent about your book in person? You could stand out from the competition and really make a memorable impression. The agent could see the passion in your eyes and hear the excitement in your voice as you put your storytelling skills to good use.

Well, you can.

Book writing conferences and workshops around the country have been offering “Pitch Slams.” Attendees can, for an additional fee, purchase timeslots to speak to a literary agent face-to-face. That’s right: you can pitch your work directly to your agent of choice and skip the cold emailing. Some conferences give attendees twenty to thirty minutes to pitch as many agents as they wish. Others require you to schedule an appointment with a specific agent.

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Use Your Storytelling to Land an Agent

Before you put yourself and your creative endeavor in the hot seat, here are ten things you need to know:

  1. Do your book writing and research. For fiction writers, you’re expected to have a complete and edited manuscript available for agents, who can request partial, half, or full pages to review. For nonfiction writers, you must have a complete book proposal with at least three sample chapters included. It is important to note that memoir, though nonfiction, falls into the fiction guidelines of querying and pitching. That means your memoir must be a complete manuscript before you attempt to reach out to a literary agent. One of the biggest mistakes a writer can make is to pitch randomly. Nearly all agents have a profile on their agency’s website. In this profile, they share what they’re looking for, what excites them, and, sometimes, what they’re not looking for. The last thing you want to do is pitch a romantic young adult novel to an agent primarily interested in historical nonfiction.
  2. Have your storytelling agent-ready. You are going to want to have the most beautiful and complete fiction/memoir manuscript ready if your agent requests more after reading your proposal. One great way you can be sure you’re presenting your best work is to undergo a manuscript analysis. RTC offers a unique service where your book is matched with an editor who reads the manuscript in full. You’ll receive a comprehensive analysis on what works and what could use a little more TLC. Having a set of fresh eyes can help your book reach its fullest potential.
  3. Repeat this mantra: I'm the expert on my own book writing. You dreamed up the plot. You wrote the words. You know this thing inside and out. You can write your pitch on index cards, but, when pitching the agent, try to pitch without the visual cues if you can. It proves you know your stuff and allows you to focus on your agent’s facial expressions.
  4. Put as much effort into you as your book writing. When dressing for a writers’ conference or workshop, the guidelines usually hover between casual and business casual. As you select your wardrobe for your “pitch day,” try to choose something professional but also something that might stand out (for the right reasons). For women, perhaps a dress with bright colors. For men, maybe an interesting tie or blazer. The agent will meet many people throughout the day. Wearing something appropriate, but memorable, may help you stand out even more than your spectacular book plot.
  5. Keep your storytelling interesting and short. Your pitch should be between thirty and forty-five seconds. Think of it as an elevator pitch. It should contain the following:
    • The proposed title of your work
    • Your genre and intended audience
    • A word count (if you’re writing fiction) or a proposed word count (if you’re a nonfiction writer)
    • A short summary that grabs their attention with a one-sentence description of the conflict (for fiction) or why the world needs this book (for nonfiction)
  6. It is all about the storytelling hook. The hook is that juicy line that sums up the conflict and leaves the agent wanting more. Here is an example: After discovering she is adopted, sixty-five-year-old Anna goes on a cross-country road trip to collect the missing pieces of her biological family history, only to dig up more secrets than she ever imagined.
  7. Cover the book writing basics: Who? What? Why? When pitching nonfiction, it is very important to cover who your audience is, what they will learn by reading your book, and why your book matters. Why are you the expert to write this book, and what are your plans to promote it?
  8. Use comparisons to make your book writing marketable. Sometimes it is really helpful to compare your voice to existing authors. For example: It is like the awkward charm of Bridget Jones meets the kick-butt motivation of Jen Sincero. You don’t want to say, “I’m the next J. K. Rowling.” But you can compare the voice of your work to existing works to give the agent perspective.
  9. Use white space in your storytelling. At the conclusion of your pitch, pause for a moment. Allow the agent plenty of time to give you feedback on your pitch. Some agents will critique your pitch for you. Others may be captivated by your pitch and request more by handing you their business card. And, yes, some agents may flat out reject you. Simply thank them, take a deep breath, and prepare to pitch anew.
  10. Get down to book writing once you know the details. If the agent requests a partial, half, or full manuscript, or if they request a proposal, be sure to ask how they prefer to receive your materials. Different agents have different preferences. For nonfiction, some agents might want sequential sample chapters. Others may want to see a first, middle, and ending chapter. Confirm these details, shake hands, and thank them for their time. If an agent requests your material, you typically have at least eight weeks to send them your stuff.

Remember: confidence is key. Pitching an agent may seem scary, but it's no scarier than book writing, really, and it can open up huge doors of opportunity. You will learn something new every time you pitch. Lean into the learning, and go confidently into that pitch room. You’ve got this.