I’ve made another video and in this one I talk about querying agents and/or publishers. I include a few pointers on what you need before pitching, whether to try for an agent or publisher first, how to research which agent or publisher might be a good fit for you, and the components of a good query letter.
If you’d rather read the transcript of this video, you’ll find that below, and if you want to see my pitch for The Sisters’ Song, my first novel, you’ll find that under the transcript.
If you have any writing queries or subjects you’d like me to delve into in these videos, please shoot me a line!
Until next time, happy writing 🙂
Good morning. I’m continuing this series on writing tips that I started a few weeks ago and today I’m going to chat about querying agents and publishers.
I’m mainly going to concentrate on the pitch, or cover letter or query letter or whatever you want to call it. I think people call it a pitch if they’re giving it verbally, and a query letter if they’re doing it in writing, but they’re basically the same thing. So I’ll be using the terms query and pitch interchangeably in this video.
So what is a pitch? Well, it’s really you introducing your book and yourself to a potential agent or publisher, and trying to whet their appetite enough for them to ask to read your full manuscript.
But before you approach an agent or publisher, you need to do a few things first.
First, make sure your manuscript is in the best possible shape you can get it in. There’s no point pitching a half-finished, unedited draft because even if your pitch is brilliant, when you hand the manuscript over, the agent or publisher isn’t going to accept it. So make sure you’ve edited it and that you’ve got it as good as you can. Give it to others to read as well, like your writing group, beta readers, or even get it appraised. Listen to feedback, take it on board, redraft it more than once, and make sure that you’ve got it as good as you can.
So when you’ve got your lovely, edited, polished manuscript sitting in front of you, next you have to decide whether to send it directly to a publisher, or get an agent to represent you. And that decision, really, is a personal one. Some writers are happy to negotiate their own publishing contracts. Personally, I can think of nothing worse than talking legalities and royalties and advances and money, and I would much rather someone else do that on my behalf. I pay them for that, of course – they take a percentage of my royalties – but they also get me a better deal, so I figure it’s worth it. Plus, it separates the business and the creative sides of publishing a book and that leaves the relationship between me and my publisher as purely a creative one, and I very much like that.
Something else to bear in mind before you make the decision is if you’ve pitched your book to all the major publishers and they’ve all rejected it, it’s very hard to get an agent after that, as there’s no one left for them to send your book to. But, like I say, it’s different for different people and it’s a personal decision, and you can work it out for yourself.
Either way, at some stage you’re going to have to pitch your book to somebody, either an agent or a publisher, and you go about both in roughly the same way.
So the next question is, how do you decide who to pitch your book to? Well, this is where asking friends like other writers comes in handy. Ask published authors, look at the acknowledgements at the back of an author’s book and see who their agent or publisher is. Find the list of agents on the Australian Literary Agents Association website, look them up on their website.
An increasingly popular way of pitching your book is to through the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) literary speed dating sessions that they hold online every three or four months or so. Look on the list, look them up on their website, see who might be a good fit, check the authors that they’ve already got on their list, check the books they’ve already published, see if yours is similar and and get a feel for that agent or publisher and if they might be a good fit for you.
Now I mentioned the ASA speed dating sessions that they hold that is an increasingly popular way of pitching to agents and publishers. Literary festivals sometimes have similar in-person sessions. You get a list of agents or publishers and book a slot with them.
They’re called speed dating sessions for a reason because you literally get three minutes to pitch your book to them. So you have to have your pitch pretty polished by the time you get to sit down in front of them.
A couple of points to bear in mind:
It’s important to check the genres that an agent or publisher will accept because not all will look at all genres. For example, not every agent will represent children’s picture books or speculative fiction books or self-help books.
Also check when they’re open for submissions because some aren’t open all the time. They have months throughout the year where they close because they get too busy.
And I’ll just mention the ‘slush pile’ and talk about that for a moment. The slush pile is the books that are sent to publishers unsolicited, as in by people who aren’t represented by an agent. Most publishers have a day a month or a day a week where they will accept submissions from anyone, and you don’t have to be represented by an agent. I know Allen and Unwin have the Friday pitch, and every Friday, they’re open for anyone to send a chapter of the book to them. It is a bit harder to get your book noticed in that circumstance, and it takes a bit longer for someone to read it and get back to you, but authors have been picked up from the slush pile and gone on to have wonderful writing careers. So that’s another avenue.
Now let’s talk about the actual pitch or query letter. As I said, they’re similar except one’s verbal and one’s in writing. For me, it helps to think about the aim. Really, you’re introducing yourself and your book to a potential agent or publisher in the hope that they’ll read your full manuscript. So it’s kind of like a job interview – you want to put your best foot forward, you want to make a good impression, you want to whet their appetite, you want to entice them. What you don’t want to do is turn them off, you don’t want to bore them, you don’t want to come across like a idiot, you don’t want to offend them, you don’t want to do anything that will get them off side.
So first of all, when you pitch to them, stick to their guidelines. Whatever they’re saying on their website, read them carefully and follow them. Don’t send a pitch when they’re not accepting one. Don’t send a fantasy novel to someone who doesn’t read fantasy. Check how they like to be contacted. Usually it’s an email these days, but my first agent wanted a phone call. Some don’t want any of the manuscript with the initial submission, some want three chapters or one chapter. Check exactly what they want and send them that. If they want the chapters, check how they want them formatted. It’s usually in some very standard font, like 12-point Times New Roman. Check it all and follow it to the letter.
When you’re preparing your pitch or query letter, my advice is to keep it simple and straightforward and concise. Open by introducing yourself and give your hook upfront, in the first sentence basically. Now what is the hook, you’re asking? Well, that’s the thing that captures their interest. So my hook for my second book, for example, was that I had already been published. Before I was published my book was that my manuscript have been shortlisted for an unpublished manuscript award. So in my email, or if I was on the phone or sitting down in front of someone, I would say, ‘Hi, I’m Louise Allan. My first book, The Sisters’ Song, was published in 2018, by Allen and Unwin, and I’ve just completed my second novel called Stargazing For Girls.’
So upfront, I’ve told them I’m published and they know I’ve written one publishable book so I’ve got an increased chance of writing another one. If your manuscript has won a prize, or been shortlisted for one, mention that in your opening. That’s your hook because they know that someone has read your book and deemed it worthy of a prize or a short-listing or long-listing.
If you’ve won prizes for short stories or essays, or had anything published, mention all of that, too, because straightaway, that tells them that you’re a good writer, and they know they’re dealing with someone with potential.
Once you’ve given them your hook, go on to talk about your book. So if you’re emailing this would be your second paragraph. If you’re sitting and talking with someone, it’s your second sentence. Give them a very brief synopsis, and I mean very brief – a couple of sentences. If you’re speaking you need to have all of this prepared beforehand and memorised. Basically, you want to give them a concise summary of your story. You want to entice them, which I know is easier said than done.
I’ll include a copy of my query letter for The Sisters’ Song on my blog under this video, because that’s a good way of showing what I mean. My two-line synopsis went something like: ‘This is a historical fiction novel about two very different sisters, one who wanted nothing more than to be a mother and the other dreamt of a life on the world operatic stage. Neither sister gets what they want and the rest of the story’s about how they cope with the cards life deals them.’ That’s basically all I said, and that was my second paragraph.
Then you move on to tell them a little bit more about your book like your word count, what genre it is, comparable titles and the audience your book might appeal to. I personally find comparable titles very tricky, because my book is never the same as anybody else’s. I also wonder what that author would think if they knew that me, a tiny little author, was comparing my novel to their great one. Nevertheless, they’ll never find out and agents and publishers always want one so that they know what they’re going to be picking up and if they’re looking for that sort of thing. So don’t be humble. When you’re comparing your book, you’re not saying you’re as good as that author, you’re just saying this is a comparable title.
If it’s a verbal pitch, you need to be prepared to launch into all of this as soon as you sit down. My first agent preferred a phone call, so I rehearsed my spiel in front of the mirror so much I had it memorised. I made the phone call and as soon as she picked up the phone, I started speaking and basically didn’t stop until she interrupted me with a question. I also had answers prepared to potential questions, like my two-sentence synopsis and a couple of comparable titles. As soon as she asked those questions, I had my concise answers all set to go.
My last tip, and this goes without saying, and I’m sure you all know it anyway, is just be polite. Finally, try to be yourself as much as it can, which I know it’s really hard when you’re nervous.
After you’ve delivered your pitch, written your email and pressed Send, or once you’re out of the Zoom Room, pat yourself on the back because (a) you’ve written a book and finished it, and (b) you’ve pitched it to somebody. And they’re both huge accomplishments.
Like I said, I’ll share my cover letter for The Sisters’ Song on my blog underneath this video. You’ll see that it’s very simple and straightforward, because that’s the type of person I am – I’m pretty boring. But it’s not the only way to do it – there are a million ways to do it – and if you’re more of a quirky personality and you want to show some of your character in your pitch, then by all means go ahead and do it.
If we were in a workshop right now, I’d get you to write your pitch and write a couple of comparable titles and write a two sentence synopsis of your book. If you want to do that and send it to me, I can let you know what I think if you’d like.
I have a few ideas that I’m going to make some videos about, but I can also answer your questions as well so please let me know if you have any questions about writing or things that you’d like to know more about.
Until next time, I’ll say goodbye.
QUERY LETTER FOR THE SISTERS’ SONG
(called Ida’s Children at the time)
I am seeking representation for my manuscript, ‘Ida’s Children’, a 94,000 word historical novel set in Tasmania from the 1920s, told in Ida’s unique ninety-year-old voice.
‘Ida’s Children’ was shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle-TAG Hungerford Award, and the judges described it as an ‘at-times heartbreaking narrative’ which is ‘simply written and contains many moments of beauty and sadness’.
It is the story of two sisters: Ida, who yearns for a family of her own, and her sister, Nora, who dreams of a life in music. However, life is cruel and neither sister fulfills her dream. The childless Ida gives all her love to her niece and nephews, the neglected and mistreated children of the troubled Nora.
Ida’s Children would appeal to women who enjoy deeply touching stories that raise ethical issues, and it would provoke hearty discussion at book clubs. Readers who liked ‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin and ‘The Light Between Oceans’ by ML Stedman would especially enjoy it.
I am a mother-of-four and former medical practitioner. In 2014, I was awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship to continue working on ‘Ida’s Children’, and whilst there it was appraised by Carol Major. A number of my short stories, memoir pieces, and medical articles have been published in anthologies and journals. I convene the Booklength Project Group in Perth, and have a growing social media presence, with a website and blog that attracts about 3,000 views per month.
I have attached the first three chapters and a brief synopsis of ‘Ida’s Children’. Please let me know if there is anything more you would like me to send.