Getting your submission letter written

excerpt from Write a Bestseller by Jacq Burns

Preparing your pitch

Pitching is the aspect of publishing that attracts the most questions whenever an agent speaks to a roomful of writers. Agents have a huge volume of reading to do, week in, week out. They are short of time and have to read fast to get through the stack of manuscripts they are faced with. They may not always be able to give every writer feedback, but they are incredibly generous with their free time when it comes to going out and networking and meeting authors.

Now that you know more about what an agent does, you will have a sense of whether the agent–author relationship would benefit you and your career. You have also learned some of the reasons why you might receive a rejection. Armed with that information, you have reached the stage of being ready to pitch your book.

Every agent who speaks at our LWC Live events gives members their personal email address and encourages authors to submit when ready. This is a huge benefit and the number one reason why you should be getting out to writers’ events and festivals to meet agents. (And other writers are also often very generous with advice and help.)

Madeleine Milburn, agent 

‘[When submitting,] be as articulate and professional as possible in your introductory email. This should start with a short paragraph introducing the work you are submitting – the genre and the intended readership. A short, compelling blurb should follow. When writing your blurb, imagine you are talking to the literary agent in person about your book. Pitch your book in an enticing way that will make us want to read it immediately. Tell us a bit about yourself that is relevant to the book you are submitting. Your pitch should be as strong as a blurb on the back of a bestselling book. Remember, a blurb “sells” your story whereas a synopsis “tells” your story.

Towards the end of the letter it is useful to include a sentence or two about the next book you are working on. It is important for us to see that your next book would appeal to the same readers.’

Preparing your pitch package

Getting your pitch package right won’t guarantee that you’ll get an agent, a book deal or end up with a bestselling book on your hands. But what it willprevent is falling at the very first hurdle. Here is the London Writers’ Club step-by-step guide to preparing your synopsis and pitch package for fiction.

Your pitch package should include the following elements:

Synopsis

Submission letter

Title page

Author background and promotional hook

Market potential and competitive or similar works

Chapter synopses

Sample chapters

The synopsis

The synopsis acts as an overview of a book. It should tell the story in a clear way, without selling it, and take up a page or two, no more. You may want to include information here about the market for your book and the competition (but don’t just list the competition; tell the agent how your book differs from the competition). Tell the agent what makes your book stand out.

A synopsis is not a retelling of your book but a stand-alone tool – and it will help the agent decide whether they want to see more of your book. The sample chapters (see below) will show your writing style but the synopsis is the outline of your narrative. 

Some helpful tips to bear in mind when you are writing your synopsis are:

Trim it down by taking out all adjectives and adverbs, unless really vital.

Don’t include secondary characters or plots.

Tell someone about your book – by talking through the synopsis and trying to make someone understand the story, you will hit all the right points.

Take a look at the backs of other books – TV listings and film blurbs – and how they all manage to refine a story right down to the bare skeleton.

Writing the synopsis

A good list of questions to ask yourself when writing a synopsis is as follows:

  • What is the story about?
  • Who are the main characters?
  • What do these characters want?
  • Why do they want it?
  • What stands in their way of getting it?
  • What is the theme of the novel? 
  • What is the novel about?

Don’t leave any cliffhangers; you must include the whole story. Tell it in the present tense. 

Then read your synopsis aloud to get a sense of how the words flow. It must make sense –when an agent’s time is short, you don’t want them to have to ask you to explain it. 

The submission letter

Although they are always looking for the next big thing, agents are also incredibly busy, working on their current list of titles. They have only a small amount of time in which to read submissions. The submission letter will therefore be your crucial shop window – it must entice, intrigue and grab the agent’s attention. Don’t bore the agent with too many details; the letter should be concise and simple, professional and to the point.

The sample pages show ‘how’ you can write and the synopsis says ‘what’ you are writing, so the letter needs to be an ‘information pack’ with a paragraph about the book that will draw the agent’s attention to the other pages.

Here is a checklist of what to include in the letter:

The reason you’re writing to them 

What do you actually want the agent to do? Are you asking for feedback, for advice or for the agent to represent you? Many letters do not do this and though the assumption is made that they are looking for representation, it’s a bit odd not to make it clear.

The title of your book

It’s possible to win over an agent at this point, so much so that they’ll be excited and won’t need to read anything else in your pitch but will go straight to the writing sample.

A brief summary of your book

This is your very brief elevator pitch – keep it to three or four sentences at most. Remember that the sample pages will give an idea of the style of your writing, and so the letter needs to be brief and to the point when summarizing the story and the concept of the book. Once you have polished your synopsis, look at it carefully to see whether you can condense it down to three or four sentences – looking at blurbs on the backs of books to see how to use similar language to entice the reader (the agent). This paragraph should contain the ‘hook’ – your sales point.

Market position of the book

Who is your audience? Who are your readers? If you have approached an agent because they represent an author you admire or because you feel your work is similar or inspired by them, it’s worth making that connection. It also shows that you have done your homework and have targeted the agent well. This doesn’t mean saying, ‘Read it now or miss out on the next Dan Brown’. Make it about the agent, so say, ‘As agent to Dan Brown, you might be interested in my work in the same genre.’

Information about you, the author

Include a paragraph about why you were able to write this particular book. Keep the details relevant and say why you decided to write it, how you can personally market it and how your background can help sell it. Say whether you have written before and let your personality shine through. I was recently told that a book was ‘written in anger’, which was compelling and fascinating. Show that you know your subject well and that you are qualified to write about it.

Thanks and request for advice

End the letter by thanking the agent for their time; reading the pitch package alone will take some time, and if they agree to read the full manuscript it will take them four or five hours, plus an hour or so to digest the material and then respond to you. Ask them for some advice as well – they might just point you in the right direction if they decide to say no.

Workshop: Submission letters

The following list of things to watch for will help you prepare for and anticipate any objections and, ultimately, the reasons why the agent may reject your book.

Firstly, check the length of your letter. An agent only has a short window of time to read submissions – often it’s early in the morning or late in the evening. Pare down your letter so that it includes only the most vital elements. There are times – and every agent differs – when email submissions are requested. Emails are, by their very nature, short and to the point. Agents want to know what your book is about – a bit about you – and to be convinced to read further.

Start the letter in the conventional way – ‘Dear…’,  and state why you have chosen to send the proposal to them (for example, do they represent a writer you admire or a writer similar to you?). Say what you are attaching/enclosing.

The second paragraph should be a short and snappy few sentences about the underlining concept of your book. Think about your subtitle and make it memorable; it needs to really add something to the title. It can be used to explain the title more, to add something more to the title’s meaning but should still be interesting and easy to say/good to look at on a page and, essentially, not too long.

The letter should fit on one side of A4 and be three or four simple paragraphs. Take out the padding and just keep it to the point.

State what your intention is in writing your book – again, keep to just one or two sentences.

A paragraph about you! This information is especially vital to a non-fiction proposal. Why are you the expert? Why can you tell us this story? Why are you the only person who can write this book? If you have relevant experience, do ensure that the agent knows this from the outset; otherwise they will wonder why you are writing this book; why anyone would want to read a book on this subject by this person.

We need to know why this book is relevant now. Do what you can to make your book feel part of the zeitgeist.

State clearly your final word count, as you should only be pitching when you have a completed manuscript. We’ve lost count of the number of authors who’ve told us, ‘the agent asked to see more of my work but I didn’t have any more, I then was in a panic to get it finished which hindered rather than helped my writing.’

Title page

Once you have worked on your title and subtitle, give your proposal a title page. If you have chosen the right title, this will really help to imprint it in the agent’s mind.It also reinforces the use of the title as a marketing tool. 

Set your title in in a large, bold font in the middle of the page. At the bottom of this page, put your copyright line (just © and then your name and the year you completed the current material), your postal address, email address and your website if you have one. This looks professional and efficient and it also means that, if the letter goes missing, the agent still has the vital details. 

Key idea

It cannot be emphasized enough how important a good title is. Say your title out loud – does it work? Can you imagine telling others about it, booksellers ordering copies over the phone, or people typing it into the Internet? Does it have a five-star quality? If not, work on it until it’s absolutely right.

Author background and promotional hook

This will be an expansion of the short paragraph in your letter. Frequently, authors send out a proposal and neglect to mention that they have a compelling background reason for writing their book, which may present an excellent promotional opportunity for the agent and publisher.

For instance, I mentored a YA author whose novel is set in a gypsy world. She wrote a decent synopsis and pitch letter, but it was only when she was asked why she wrote the book and how she knew so much about gypsies that she mentioned that her schoolteacher mother worked with gypsy children. And so she grew up hearing their stories at the kitchen table. Not mentioning this would have been a missed opportunity that could have enabled the agent to see a good hook for PR.

Break down your ‘About the author’ into paragraphs in your proposal, and always use and work your backstory:

Be clear about your compelling reason for writing your book. 

Make sure you put that reason across effectively. 

Key idea

If you haven’t done so already, think about your backstory. It needn’t be wildly exciting; it just needs to be relevant – in some way linked to your novel.

Market potential and competitive works

Think about the demographics and statistics of potential readers. Who do you see as the readers? Who are your core readers? What will they learn? Again, think about the timing of your book – it should be both relevant to today and have a timeless quality. Find other books that might compete – how does your book differ? Which books would you compare your book to?

Good luck! And if you would like to read more about pitching to achieve a bestseller, get a copy of Jacq Burns’ book, Write a Bestseller.  And if you would like to try your hand at pitching to an agent  email us to find out how.  We run a live monthly event and masterclasses

 

6 Replies to “Getting your submission letter written”

  1. Thank you – this is so helpful. I have a non-fiction book in my mind, but collecting the material will be the costly part. Is it possible to approach an agent with an idea that would need support and endorsement from the start?

  2. Thanks for this. It was very helpful. I’m just beginning to pitch my book “Nomad Girl” subtitle “Adventures with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, The Dalai Lama and more. It all feels a little overwhelming. Although I have four published books, my other books went straight to publishers. However this time I want to use an agent. I hope it works. Your article was great for my confidence. Thanks

  3. This really helpful article was written in? 1 page? But writers will need to cover so many points in ….? 1 page – a beautiful paradoxial world of literary agents!

  4. The pitch letter is one page, the synopsis is one page but obviously your pitch package will be longer as it is comprised of all the things I list. It is possible. Writers are asking agents and publishers to invest time, energy and money in them so just as you’d spend a lot of time on a business plan where you are asking for money, same applies here. Good luck.

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