Pitching a novel - top tips

Pitching your novel…

There’s more to just writing a book – you must convince a literary agent or publisher that your book is a winner and you are an author they must take on. Here’s our top tips for pitching your novel and finding that deal…Pitching a novel - top tips

Are you ready to pitch?

Do not make the mistake of approaching an agent or publisher before you are ready. Ready means you have at the very least written the first three chapters (some agents and publishers will want you to have written the whole novel to ensure you can stay the distance) have details of what will be included in the rest of your chapters and know how your story will end. Not being ready enough means writing just one chapter and approaching an agent with the germ of an idea that you haven’t really thought through properly. And it goes without saying you will have checked and double checked your grammar and spelling before sending anything to anyone.

Research your agent

Far too many people simply send manuscripts off to agents or publishers without really checking if they are the right people to approach. So don’t waste time sending your fiction novel to an agent who only deals with non fiction or your romantic novel to an agent who specialises in thrillers. It doesn’t hurt either to ring the agent before sending off your pitch. Are they taking on any new writers right now? If they say they are not, and you send it, you could be guaranteeing a rejection. And a word about publishers – some will only look at manuscripts presented to them by a literary agent on their books. It can therefore be beneficial to research individual authors, how they got a deal and who their contact might be – often they will thank their agent in a novel for example.

Stick to the guidelines

Many people in the book industry go to great lengths on their websites to detail how to make your submission. Read it and stick to it exactly, ticking off each requirement before sending off your pitch. The usual submission asked for is a synopsis of your whole novel, detailing the story and its beginning, middle and end. It’s also a good idea to separately detail the main protagonist in your novel, as well as other main characters. Then most agents will want to see the first chapter or three chapters of your book. You need to include a covering letter and a CV and biography about you. Note that many editors want to see your book presented in A4 double line spacing. Some will want it emailed in Word, while others will want a hard copy send in the post. Do exactly as they ask and don’t include anything else in your submission.

What makes your book special?

Editors are looking for something different from other novels on the market but similar. Go into a bookshop – how many novels do you see on a shelf that says ‘unique novels’? All books are categorised and so you must comply and be able to categorise your own novel. Editors like to be able to pigeon hole a book into a thriller, chick-lit, misery memoir for example. But at the same time there is no point in taking on an author who is just like many others and brings nothing new. They are searching for that elusive ‘gap in the market’ and it is that gap you need to identify yourself. Tell them about the gap you have identified and how your book will fill it. So rather than boast how unique you are, and how there has never been a book like it, it can be far better to describe how you are a cross between two authors – My books are ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets City of London’ says this is a thriller as that is but set in the UK. I am a ‘modern day Jane Austen’ will tell an author the type of story you have written but that it is a contemporary novel, rather than a historic one.

What is special about you?

It is simply not enough to send a novel with a vague biography about you. If you worked for years in banking and this is a book set in the City, then that adds credibility to your book. If you’ve been married and divorced three times yourself, then you might be considered an expert on this subject. Don’t do yourself down. If you are a busy mum, say that. If you are single and have never met Mr Right, that can be a great introduction to your alternative Bridget Jones novel you have penned. If an editor can see the person behind the novel is an interesting and marketable individual, they are more likely to consider your book more carefully.

Your covering letter is all-important

A busy editor might only read a covering letter. So it’s important to get this right and strike a balance between writing enough to pique interest while at the same time not rambling on so an editor already thinks you are a bore. Never make big claims. “This will be the best book you have ever read’ is an absolute no, “Everyone who’s read my book thinks it’s great” is another no. Don’t say you are the next big thing or make any other ridiculous claims in this letter (or the whole of your submission.) Stick to the facts – what your book is about, how it fills a gap in the market, how it is a combination of these (named) novels or writers and anything outstanding from your bio (you left school at 15 without a GCSE or conversely you won a scholarship to Oxbridge.)

Your first page is the most important thing you will ever write

The first page of your novel MUST be compelling. It has to have a hook that will want to make an editor read on and begin to feel excited that they might have discovered someone with talent. Never start with a long passage of description, however clever you feel you are at this. Generally an unknown author must launch into the story within the first few paragraphs to get someone to read on. If this page fails, your novel will often be put aside as busy editors will not have time to ‘get into your book’ or reach chapter three when it all gets going (and neither would a reader.) It is worth reading debut novels of authors to see how this is achieved. And do note debut novels often begin slightly differently from later novels – by then an author is established and editors and readers will stick with a book for longer because of his or her previous reputation.

Could you write a second book?

It costs time, money and takes a huge amount of resources to launch a new author. The book industry is a business. Literary agents and publishers are looking for authors they can invest in who will ideally turn out one book after another. Not only that but they preferably want an author turning out books in the same genre. If they launch you as the next Catherine Cookson, they don’t then want to be relaunching you a year later as the next Jackie Collins. This is exactly why some authors write different styles of books under different names – because when readers buy a second novel they want it to be in the same vein as the first. So you are much more likely to gain a deal if you already have another well thought through book idea for your second book or even a third – and also if these will be written in the same style as the first one is.

If your submission fails

The hard truth is however good your submission is, it is most likely to be rejected. This is due to the huge number of manuscripts already languishing in the slush pile and the sheer competition to get any novel published these days. Don’t let it put you off – simply repackage your novel up again and send it out again. That said, always be looking critically at your pitch – and take note of any feedback at all from an editor who rejects you. Take any comments you receive on board and tweak your pitch accordingly.

Finally … Remember every single published author has been through the same process. This is how the writing industry is – it is full of rejection for everyone so do not take it personally when your manuscript is returned. And it only takes one editor to show an interest.

Read more: Writing a novel that will sell.


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Alison Smith-Squire

Alison Smith-Squire is a writer, journalist and media agent selling exclusive real life stories to newspapers, magazines and TV. She owns the sell my story website Featureworld.co.uk, which was set up to help ordinary people sell their stories to the press.

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