Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Pitching your book to an agent or publisher may be the most stressful thing you do in your life. It’s undeniably difficult, whether you’re doing it in person or online, and almost completely divorced from the skill you’re trying to show off.
Sure, writers use words, but there’s a huge difference between writing to entertain and pitching a business decision – especially one in which you’re intensely invested.
Because of this many agents and publishers have to be adept at sifting the business realities from author-speak, wheedling the things they need to know out of people who are frequently talking about something completely different. In the best case scenario they get what they need to know, but no author out there wants to take the chance that they won’t.
That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at 5 crucial things potential agents and publishers want to know. Having these facts ready to go when you pitch your work will give them clear, definitive answers to their most important questions and make you seem professional and easy to work with.
They’re not all easy questions, but with the time to think of clear, concise answers you’ll increase your likelihood of publication.
There are two camps of authors when it comes to genre. The former (the lucky ones) have an incredibly clear idea of which genre their work falls under. If that’s you then congratulations, all you have to do is make sure you’re right, and find a few examples of similar works to give an even clearer idea of what you’ve written.
The second camp is going to have a harder time of things. These are the authors who think genre is an inadequate way to describe their work. For these authors, it can be helpful to think of genre as an introduction to your work, a vague starting point from which the rest will unfold.
If you can’t satisfactorily fit your work into a genre it can be helpful to think of other books with similar approaches, style, or subject matter and see what genre they’re listed under. While it’s just about acceptable to string two genres together – ‘a romantic sci-fi story’ – both of these labels need to be true, rather than being two points between which you feel your story actually falls.
When an agent reads your genre they begin thinking about which publishers handle that type of writing. Likewise, publishers have multiple books planned for release, and may want to schedule publication to avoid undue competition.
Pitching your book with a genre, and some examples of similar works, allows the agent / publisher to start thinking about their own options and abilities. You can expand on a genre choice during later discussion, but the more precise you can be from the outset the more options will occur to them, and the more salable your work begins to seem.
While many specifics can be malleable, subject to the reaction you get from your pitch, you must enter any discussion with a concrete idea of genre. You also must know your intended readership.
#2 Readership / Audience
Which demographics are going to read your work? The relevancy of this question should be immediately obvious: who’s going to buy your book?
Being vague about this information is deadly for your chances of publication. You need to be able to name your readership, and even provide evidence that they’re out there. Again, use works similar to your own to show there’s a market.
The presence of a readership is a more important factor in publication than the quality of your work. If people are going to buy it, then it’s worth publishing. If it’s good but no-one will pay for it, then very, very few publishers will be interested.
Do your research, get creative if you need to, but try to go into any book pitch with hard facts that prove there’s a readership out there for your work. Be confident and know what you’re talking about; like any sales pitch they’re far more likely to believe you if you do.
There’s no definitive wrong answer here; there’s nothing wrong with a short lifespan if you sell a lot of copies during it.
Providing this information is an indication that you appreciate the commercial aspect of your work, and even better that you take it into account while producing. Agents and publishers are interested in author relationships rather than single pieces. They want to know that you plan to keep producing work – and keep generating income – for the foreseeable future.
Try to make a realistic estimate (with reasons) of how long your book will generate income, and what you’re planning to do next. Of course, agents and publishers are in a better position to make these judgements than you, it’s their industry after all, but your own predictions give them somewhere to start and let them know they can discuss this aspect of your work with you directly.
There are two strands to promotion: what you want to receive, and what you’re able to give. All books need some form of promotion to sell, and this is one of the major things that publishers can offer. Finding out what they’re prepared to provide will be essential to getting widely read; even if they’re only going to provide bare-bones promotion, it allows you to prepare your own measures.
Authors need to be incredibly active in promoting their work, especially through social media. If you have assets in this area, such as a large social media following, marketing expertise, or even a budget of your own, then make sure agents and publishers know it.
There are some marketing options that depend on the author being flexible, such as signings, and it will make you more appealing if publishers know you’re open to these opportunities. On top of this, any attention you can bring to your work equates to free marketing.
#5 What you want
Getting published isn’t a favor, it’s a business arrangement that occurs when a publisher thinks they can profit from selling an author’s work. Authors want their work out there, so it’s common for them to enter a pitch with the sole aim of getting published, and hopefully making some money from it, but having a clearer idea of what you want leads to a much greater chance of getting it.
It’s definitely a buyer’s market, publishers aren’t short of potential authors, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have some goals in mind. As mentioned above, marketing is a big decider in a book’s success. Mentioning it lets an agent know what kind of publishers they’d approach, and lets publishers know that this is something you’re aware of and expect.
Things like creative control, marketing budgets, and sales locations are all negotiable, but not if you never bring them up. The difference between having a small marketing budget and none at all could be you asking what kind of budget a publisher intends to provide.
Once you know, rehearse
Your pitch shouldn’t seem rote, but you should certainly have written and rewritten what you want to say. Have a bullet point list of things you want to mention, and don’t cross them off until they’ve been said.
Make clear notes around any examples you’ll be using, and where possible have written figures and their sources to refer to. Agents and publishers are experts, but they’re still people. A confident, well-reasoned argument may well be all it takes to persuade them to consider your work, or to devote more resources to its success.
For more information on agents, check out What literary agents do (and don’t do) for authors, or to get started on a marketing plan try 3 questions to ask when writing your book marketing plan.
Have you had any success pitching your book to an agent or publisher? Or perhaps you’re planning to pitch your book and have a few concerns about the process. Let me know in the comments below.