Make Every Word Count When Pitching to Agents or Acquisition Editors

A writer wanting to obtain a literary agent most often has to send an agent a pitch or query letter before ever entering into a conversation about representation. Additionally, if aspiring authors decide to approach publishing houses without literary representation, they must take the same route: compose and send a pitch or query letter.

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might have the opportunity to pitch agents and acquisition editors in person, such as at a writer’s conference or some other writing event. Or you might get the chance to do so on the telephone. I once called an agent to ask a simple question. I assumed a secretary would answer, but the agent himself answered. Before I knew it, he was asking me questions about my projects, and I was pitching them. This past summer I had a chance to meet with the actual publisher of an independent publishing company. She wanted to hear about all my projects. (I have a lot of them, so I had actually typed up all the pitches before hand and was able to hand her the piece of paper!) At such times, it’s so important to have your pitch, sometimes called an “elevator speech,” ready. Always be prepared to pitch!

A few years ago I won the pitch contest at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference. I actually was pitching a novel I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I give a lot of credit for that success to writing-career-coach and manuscript consultant Teresa LeYung Ryan and her co presenter, Elisa Southard (look for her guest blog later this month). What I learned in their session about pitching I immediately put to use. And it worked! I’ve been helping people hone pitches ever since. (It’s easier to help someone else, I must admit, than to come up with one for your own book.)

I asked Teresa to offer her tips on pitching to agents and editors here during WNFiN so more people could benefit from her wisdom. Here’s what she had to say.

Make Every Word Count When Pitching to Agents or Acquisition Editors
By Teresa LeYung Ryan

You have spent months, perhaps years, writing and rewriting your project.  Now you’ve decided to pursue either an agent (who earns his/her commission when he/she sells a client’s work to a publishing house) or an acquisition editor (who buys authors’ works for the publishing house for which he/she works). Let’s say you’ve done your homework and have compiled a list of agents or acquisition editors who specialize in the kind of project (commodity) you wish to sell.

An agent or acquisition editor receives hundreds of pitches or query letters each week.  What can you do to catch these folks’ attention?  Use the right bait.  Make every word count.

Whether you’re pitching in person, over the telephone, through an E-Mail, or by old-fashion mail, keep this in mind that the pitch (bait) has three components:

  • who needs your project
  • the unique qualities about your commodity
  • why you are the perfect author for this work

Here are three examples of nonfiction book pitches that put these three components to work and make every word count at the same time:

Genre: Self-Help/Metaphysical/Psychology

Most people over the age of 10 dream at least four to six times per night.

Through My Dreams: A Simple Guide to Dream Interpretation, I can help everyone interpret dreams by combining their feelings with personal symbolism, dream what they want to dream and improve their waking lives through their dreams.

I am Angie Choi, a certified hypnotherapist who has utilized radio, television, workshops, classes, articles, and a website to educate and inspire people to tap into their dreaming potential.  I’ve worked with school districts, youth groups and community-based organizations.

Genre: Journal/Guide/Inspirational

More than 50 million people provide care for a chronically-ill, disabled or aged family member or friend during any given year.

You Want Me to Do What? Journaling for Caregivers allows these caregivers to process their stress and celebrate the good in life by giving them open-ended instructions on spilling their guts in the safety of a private journal and offering two hundred sentence starts to help them begin writing.

I am B. Lynn Goodwin, a teacher of workshops on care giving.  I write for numerous publications, and, I am the founder and managing editor of WriterAdvice, which has been helping writers for twelve years.

Genre: Biography/Women’s Studies

The birth control pill is currently used by more than 100 million women worldwide and by almost 12 million women in the United States.

Margaret Sanger: Her Life in Her Words is a collection of compassionate writings, speeches, letters, and diary entries by the controversial fighter for legalized birth control and sex education and a key player in the development of Planned Parenthood.

I am Miriam Reed, Ph.D., creator of one-woman performances, who has revitalized appreciation for Sanger and her crusade to help women take charge of their bodies and their lives.

If you follow the above examples, not only will you have the perfect pitch, but also you’ll have core messages for all your writing endeavors.

Other Tips When E-Mailing Your Pitch:

  • Use an appropriate subject line.  (i.e. We met at _____ Writers Conference;  I’m referred by _____;  Book proposal from {your full name})
  • Use a proper salutation. (i.e.  Dear Ms./Mr. _______)
  • Provide your telephone number(s), email address and URL in your signature block.
  • Never write in all capital letters. If your email doesn’t give you the option to italicize (or bold) book titles, then it’s okay to use all capital letters with titles.
  • Separate blocks of text with white space.
  • Send the email to yourself first; check it, then send it to the agent/editor (cc or bcc yourself).

About the Author

Teresa LeYung Ryan’s motto:  “You can be happily published by being yourself.”  As a writing-career-coach and manuscript consultant, she helps her clients identify themes and archetypes, choose the right publishing route and map out their success.  She especially enjoys helping writers craft their pitches, query letters and synopses.  As a community spirit, Ryan speaks out for public libraries, honors immigrant-stories, advocates compassion for mental illness, and, helps survivors of family violence find their own voices through writing.

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  1. You’ve provided some really good information and I’m sure it will help. There is an unsaid that is significant. Sadly, a lot of getting published “traditionally” has nothing to do with talent, story, query, etc. I’m not saying they mean nothing, just less. As the traditional industry contracts and becomes a 5 to 10 business monopoly, less opportunity exists and more emphasis is placed on “other issues.” Like platform, like name recognition, like agenda, like age bias. It’s always been there, but as the pie gets smaller those issues retain an increasing percentage of the product– it simply restricts opportunities. A comment made in one of your posts, by a guest, was in effect that writing is a business and as far as it goes that’s true. A couple lines later writing was referred to as an art. Very true. The thing many of the establishment folks (and I like them) have lost track of is, “THE ART IS THE BUSINESS.” Do you really think that the miriad of novels written by name TV personalites, etc. would have been pubed if Joe Schmoo wrote them rather than say Glenn Beck? (No political statement made or intended. It’s just an example.) The distribution and retail portion of the book biz continues to shudder at the word self-published. And, in many instances the shiver is well justified. What the traditional industry must do to survive is revive it’s willingness to aggressively look for the next Harper Lee or Nicholas Sparks. There must be a larger list of B authors for the A’s to emerge from. No is seen as the industries safe answer, beginning with the agent and on up the chain. I wish I had the exact formula; I don’t. I do know that the old saying is true – “repeating the same action and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”

    • You are right on the money with this comment. It gets harder and harder to get a book published for all the reasons you mention above. That’s why many a really, really good writer has resorted to self-publishing his or her book despite the fact that the book still will not get the respect or attention — or exposure — of a similar (or NOT as well-written) but traditionally published book. The economic recession has not helped the situation; it has made it worse. I had a publisher tell me to my face that an agent today in the current publishing environment would have a hard time selling an unknown writer, no matter how good their skill (or art) and no matter how great their platform, to a publisher. She said the author would have to make their way into the publisher’s office, like I did. How many writer’s get that chance? Few. I just happened to know someone whose mother was in a sorority with this woman and who had an internship with her when she was still a new and small publishing house. She was interested in my work, said I had a pretty strong platform and commented that I presented myself well in person. That said, I haven’t seen a publishing contract show up on my desk from that publisher yet (although I’m still waiting…). So, I agree. The publishing industry seems to have somehow gotten its…well…priorities backwards. I know publishing is a business and publishing companies have to make money, but the business is–or should be–based on producing great writing and books on interesting subjects that are well written. These should sell and make money. Instead, publishing has become all about making money, and any writers (would-be authors) who can’t help them do that (since the publishing companies aren’t going to help the new authors help them make money by promoting their books) might as well call the best print-on-demand publisher around. You’ll have to do the same amount of work to publicize your book anyway. As the self-publishing advocates say, if you’re going to do all that work, you might as well make all the money. (Wow…I should have just written a whole post on this topic!)

  2. Christopher Wachlin says:

    This is great no-nonsense strategy, Teresa.

  3. I will admit that whether my writer or psychotherapist hat is on, I am a reluctant marketer. I attended a session for writers on this topic and got some annoying but useful advice: create a tagline. I bristled. I grumbled. I mumbled things like “this is so dumb” and “I don’t get the point,” but the experts (thank you, Teresa LeYung Ryan,, and Elisa Southard, insisted: If you’re shaking in your shoes and about to meet with a potential agent, editor or publisher, you need to deliver a short statement that summarizes who you are and what you are about.

    I went through many iterations before landing on this: “Invest in bringing joy back to your life.” When and if you arrive at yours, you are likely to feel a deep resonance. I actually could see myself saying to Joe Publisher, “In my book, I teach readers to invest in bringing joy back to their life.” I became convinced that this would lead to a longer conversation that just might stir the interest of a potential publisher.

    Teresa and Elisa did me a big favor: the tagline deeply influenced the development of my website and my monthly newsletter. These marketing tools, as well as the more traditional business card now send the same integrated message. The key word in that brief tagline is not joy. Rather, it’s the verb, invest. It is an investment of cash to engage in the therapeutic process but a double-meaning is intended. Implicit is a call to the client to invest time, effort and energy on the issues to be addressed. In between the lines, I intentionally convey that I will not do all of the work. I ask that my clients not just talk the talk, but walk the walk to bring joy back to their lives.

    On a parallel plane, this tagline is my prescription for myself. I use it as part of my e-mail signature so I get a brief, daily reminder to balance out the heavy, sad and daunting stories in both the consulting room and the headlines with activities and outlooks that bring joy.

    And finally, I’ll let shout it from the rafters when some very wise publisher decides to invest in my writing to bring joy back to his or her endangered life! Stay tuned!

    What’s your tagline? Go ahead: kick and scream first, and then get cracking. I promise: it will help!

    Martha Clark Scala, MFT, publishes a monthly e-newsletter, Out on a Limb, that focuses on how to maximize the joy in one’s life. To subscribe or see archives, please visit her website:

  4. I loved finding myself in this article, Teresa. I always add Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers after my signature, and I am sure you are the one who suggested I phrase it that way, so thank you!

    Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

  5. Coming out of your writing cave and pitching like the Sham-Wow guy is really tough for most of us. Thanks for the good advice, Teresa!


  1. […] Remember that a query letter has three basic parts: a “lead” (Yes, just like the beginning of an article…) or a paragraph that “grabs” the reader and explains what the manuscript is about; a paragraph describing the details of the manuscript; and a paragraph explaining why you, the author, are the perfect person to write this particular book, essay or article.  (For more information on how to “pitch” yourself and your ideas, read yesterday’s WNFiN post.) […]

  2. […] I had just gained some really valuable information in a morning session. (I mentioned this in an earlier WNFiN post.)  The session was taught by writing-career-coach Teresa LeYung Ryan and public […]

  3. […]   On Teresa’s blog: •     On Nina Amir’s blog:… •     In Writer’s Digest magazine, Sept. 2004 issue, p. 46-48   “The Perfect […]

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