Brad R. Cook, a former acquisitions editor at Blank Slate Press and a multi-book author of the fantasy series Iron Chronicles and The Airdrainium Adventures, has been teaching about successful pitching techniques since 2012. A packed audience turned out to hear Cook share his expertise on preparing to give the best possible pitch for your literary agent session at conferences, such as those hosted in Missouri this spring and summer:
“I’ve sat on both sides of the pitching table,” Cook said, and his perspective on writing makes this a popular talk every year for the SLWG. After finishing and editing your books, you’ll want to take these steps as you enter the waters of the writing business. First, identify the genre your book falls in, and then prepare a query letter, synopsis, and log line.
Next, identify literary agents and publishers who may be interested in your book and send them query letters or pitch to them at conferences. Cook recommended googling 'successful query letters' and mentioned WritersDigest.com, which has a number of query letter examples (link). Also recommended was Justin Wells’ talk in January 2018 at SLWG. If you missed it, you can catch the write-up on our blog (link) or the webinar replay (for SLWG members only).
Writers conferences, like Gateway Con, are particularly helpful for writers looking to connect with agents. “Writers conferences [are] where we all gather together as an industry to learn more and where agents [and publishers] will be looking for clients and books. Nobody is going to publish you if they don’t know you exist,” Cook added.
Query LettersQuery letters are the main way writers introduce themselves to publishers or literary agents. The query should be single-spaced, 12-pt font, black ink on a white background. “We do not call people, assault them, or contact them via Facebook,” Cook quipped. You email, or occasionally snail mail. Your query letter should start with your story’s hook and include the concept and your pitch.
What does a standard “pitch room” look like at a conference? Mostly, a bunch of tables and chairs where you’ll sit one-on-one with a literary agent, or, in the case of remote pitching, you’ll be seated with a laptop and pitching using a video app. Generally, pitch sessions last 5-10 minutes; if you’re attending Gateway Con this year, you will get 7 minutes for your pitch. Dress like a business professional; this is your chance to make a good impression with an industry professional.
“I know for you, this is a passion…you’ve spent five or ten years working on your book, but guess what, this is a business that you’re walking into. Agents don’t look for books, they look for clients! Publishers look for books. Agents get 15 percent off of every book you sell. They want multiple books over your [writing] career where you both make a ton of money,” Cook said.
You should plan to spend about 50 percent of your time on the pitch itself and reserve the other half for a Q&A with the agent. You want to provide them plenty of time to discuss your book with you. What should the pitch itself include? Let’s tackle the key points one by one:
The IntroductionCook said the introduction should be 12 percent of your time (and include a greeting with your name, the genre, word count, whether the book is finished or not, and whether you’ve been published before). All of these things let the agent know you have prepared in advance for this session. It helps them immediately classify whether this is the kind of book they represent (by identifying the genre/type of book) and whether you’ve overshot/undershot the standard publishing length. It’s remarkable how much you can convey in such a short amount of time, isn’t it?
The HookNext is the hook, which is 13 percent of your total time. Think of the hook like the taglines you see for films. In one to three sentences, your hook should establish who your main character is, what the setting is, the conflict, and the stakes. Consider the back-cover copy of a book that grabs your interest and makes you want to read it immediately. That’s what you’re going for. Note that in the hook, unlike in back-cover copy, you only make statements, never questions.
Another way people describe the hook is your “elevator pitch” – if you have the time of traveling one elevator floor to describe your idea, what would you say? Hooks are different from your “tag line” (aka a log line), which tends to be shorter, but they still include that high concept idea that gets people interested. Cook shared an example of a hook from one of his books:
Iron Chronicles: “In a steam-powered Victorian world where pirates prowl the sky and secret societies determine the future like a game of chess, Alexander, Genevieve, her little bronze dragon, and a crew of Sky Raiders must save the world from the four Iron Horsemen.”
The log line for Iron Chronicles, by comparison, is only a single phrase: “High adventure in the age of steam and steel.”
The BookMoving on, you need to consider what you’ll discuss when it comes to the book itself. Cook said only 25 percent of your total time with the agent should be spent on explaining what the book is about. What you discuss here will vary depending on whether you’re writing non-fiction or fiction.
For non-fiction books, you’ll want to focus the topic the book addresses and why we need another book on this subject. You should be able to explain who the intended audience is, and whether you’ve already got contacts/exposure with them (i.e. an author platform and a plan for reaching that audience). While you don’t have to be a professional in this subject area, it is helpful to explain what qualifies you to write about it, whether it’s extensive knowledge, years as a hobbyist in this field, or an astounding number of followers on Instagram.
For fiction books, while your author platform is important and will certainly be helpful in selling your book, you should instead focus on conveying to the agent that you’ve crafted a cohesive story. Who is the main character, and what challenges and stakes do they face? Who is the villain? What is the plot? What are the themes of the book? If you have time, you can include one or two subplots and associated characters.
Don’t focus so much on tone that might restrict your book into a niche genre, (ex. Southern Gothic Vampire Romance, instead of just ‘romance’) and may turn off an agent who isn’t interested in that sub-genre. Let the story speak for itself. This is your chance to let the story you’ve crafted really shine. Cook cautioned against getting caught up in backstory (it’s a rabbit hole). Don’t ramble -- keep your points sharp and on track.
Other habits to avoid in your pitch include being negative about your work or talking about how well it was reviewed by this person or that (unless it’s a high-profile author like Stephen King, it’s probably not going to matter). Avoid clichés and generalities – if you’re using them in a pitch, what does that bode for your as-yet-unread-by-them manuscript?
What is allowed in your pitch? Be friendly! Be positive! Be polite!
Questions & AnswersFinally, the majority of your time will be spent on the Q&A with your agent -- roughly half of your total talk time. What is that in real-time? If you are attending Gateway Con this year, it’s only 3.5 minutes! This is also the most important part of your pitch. If the agent doesn’t have any questions for you, something is broken in your pitch. Cook cautioned, “Beware the questions you aren’t expecting… ‘What is next?’ [or] ‘What else do you have?’ [or] ‘How does your book differ from [top book in the market right now]?’ And [then], keep your answers short.”
Inexperienced authors pitching their books may forget that this section of your pitch session is no longer just about your book, it’s a dialogue. Remember -- there is another person on the other side of the table (or screen). Please, please, practice beforehand! Avoid getting angry over feedback, and don’t argue. Do not try to engage in physical contact or offer gifts or bribes. Just don’t.
During your writers conference, look for other opportunities to interact naturally (not forced) with agents and publishers. At Gateway Con, for example, SLWG has a Meet the Faculty event on Friday night to allow writers and agents to interact. Or maybe you’ll bump into them out and about (stranger things have happened). Remember, though, always be respectful and polite. Agents and literary publishers are not your golden goose, they’re people, just like you. Remember that, practice, and from all of us at the St. Louis Writers Guild, good luck!
Author of historical fantasies, The Iron Chronicles, The Airdrainium Adventures, and Tales of the Gearblade, Brad is a former co-publisher and acquisitions editor for Blank Slate Press. He is a SCBWI member and currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as President. A founding contributor to The Writers’ Lens and The Sword Writers Academy, he can be heard weekly as a panelist on Write Pack Radio. He learned to fence at thirteen, and never set down his sword, but prefers to curl up with his cat and a centuries’ old classic. Find more @bradrcook on Twitter, Instagram, and tumblr. BradRCook.com