The new year is a perfect time to submit your novel to agents, when they’re all feeling fresh and hungry for new talent. But how do you write the perfect pitch letter to a literary agent? Here are my top 15 tips on how to make your submission pitch stand out from the pack:
1. Write to a specific agent and do your research: Start our by thinking carefully about who you’re going to send your work to. Research thoroughly on literary agency websites and generally online, reading interviews with individuals and checking their social media profiles. Pick people who are clearly interested in the kind of book you’re writing and who appear to be eager to find new writers. And then, when you write your query letter, tailor it to the individual – even though this is likely to mean you’ll have to rethink your pitch letter quite a bit for each agent you address it to. Don’t write to Dear Curtis Brown or Dear Sir or The Submissions Department etc – always write to a person.
2. Address the agent by their first name: Only the oldest, most formal of agents are uncomfortable about being addressed by their first names – and really, those are not the people you should be approaching for representation in any case. There’s no need for Mr, Mrs, Ms etc.
3. Keep the pitch-letter short. It should be no more than three brief paragraphs – one which pitches your novel; one which tells the agent a little about you; and one which talks about why you’ve chosen to target this particular agent. It’s up to you which order you do these in – If I was you, I’d probably kick off by pitching the novel, but others would advise differently. People will tell you that the letter should be no more than a page – actually I’d say it should be much shorter than a page. Whenever we run agent-letter workshops with our London-based students, we end up telling at least 80% of the students that their letter is too long …
4. I suggest you kick off your letter by pitching your novel. This is the time to utilize your best one or two-line pitch. You should be giving the central question which drives your novel and hooks in the reader, or stating what’s at the heart of your novel. Ideally, use a slightly different version than whatever you’ve put in your synopsis to avoid repetition. And it’s good to tell us whose story this is too … Aim at two or three sentences (no more than that, really – this has to be brief and to the point) which introduce your story. Don’t try to cover your whole plot – your synopsis will be doing that job. You’re just looking to whet the agent’s appetite. Include the title of your novel (perhaps even as the heading for the letter). You should also give the genre of your novel if you know it. People often mention their word-count, in their pitch letter but there’s no real need for this: You should probably put that on the title page of your material.
5. You might then move on to talk about why you’re addressing this particular agent: Agents like to feel you’re writing to them for a reason. Find out something to say which is specific to them: If you’ve read or heard something they’ve said about writing or the kind of novels they’d like to represent – or perhaps if you’ve met them – you could mention this. If there’s a reason you think you’d fit well on their list, say what it is.
6. You could include mention of one or two comparison novels. This is when you liken your novel to other similar works. It’s a good idea to find books to compare to yours which are current and commercially successful – and ideally which are represented by this particular agent (though this might not be possible – it will depend very much on their client list). But don’t pick novels which are really major works or you’re setting the bar very high for yourself – perhaps unreachably high. If you can’t come up with good comparison novels, it could instead be a good idea to simply mention one or two of the relevant agent’s clients whose work you particularly admire. Don’t worry too much about the issue of ‘comparison novels’ though, if you can’t come up with any. It’s not the most important aspect of the letter. And don’t include lots of them. Two is enough.
7. Tell the agent a little about yourself; what you do, etc. Leave out details which are not strictly relevant or interesting. If you are a doctor writing a medical drama – say that. Mention any creative writing courses you’ve taken which are prestigious and with selective entry. It’s not worth mentioning self-published books unless they’ve sold well (by which I mean well into the thousands). Mention awards and writing competitions you’ve won if they are not too obscure. Remember, this should only be a short paragraph – don’t get bogged down in detail – be selective and only mention points which speak positively of you and clearly work in your favour.
8. Avoid bragging or stating that your novel will be the next huge international bestseller etc. On the other hand, don’t apologise for your novel or for taking up the agent’s time with it – present it confidently. Read over your letter when you’ve finished writing it to make sure that everything you say is positive – don’t say anything negative at all.
9. Don’t tell us that your wife/husband/best friend/children etc love your novel. The agent doesn’t care about any of that.
10. Be focused – don’t pitch more than one novel or memoir in your letter. Talk about just one novel. If the agent calls you in for a meeting, that’s the time to talk about other projects, future work etc.
11. Do put time, thought and care into the letter. Don’t be slapdash, and check your grammar and spelling. You need to be professional in order to be taken seriously by a professional.
12. There’s no need to include ‘polite padding’ in the query letter. For instance, you don’t need “I’m sending you the opening of my novel and synopsis in search of representation” – the agent will know why you’re writing to them, and you can just go straight into the pitch. Similarly, you don’t need to thank them for their time or say you’re looking forward to hearing from them etc – just write the real meat of the letter and then sign off. Make every word count.
13. Don’t ask for a meeting with the agent or state that you’re interested in working editorially on your novel. Just present the novel and then allow the agent to come forward with their idea of what should happen next. They will, in any case, assume you’re happy to come for a meeting or do some rewriting if requested to. Don’t make a point of saying that you’re sending also to others … They’ll assume that anyway.
14. Don’t crack corny jokes. It’s just excruciating. And don’t talk about a ‘fictional novel’ – all novels are fiction.
15. Don’t be obsequious. The agent doesn’t need you to flatter them or suck up to them.
Oh – and did I say keep it short? …
For more advice from Anna on how to write the perfect pitch letter, including videos from the Curtis Brown and C&W agents, and an opportunity to get a review of your submission package from an experienced editor, enrol on our Edit & Pitch Your Novel course online.
Or if you’d like to join an in-depth tutor-led course with direct input from agents and publishers and lots of help with how to pitch your novel to agents, take a look at our longer, selective novel-writing courses in London or online.