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GUEST POST: How to write a riveting pitch letter to literary agents

Janey Burton
10 March 2022 12:00

Getting representation from a literary agent is essential for anyone who wants to be published by one of the big five publishers, but agents are busy people and there are many other writers trying to get their attention. How can you make your submission stand out?

It should go without saying that the most important thing is the manuscript itself – you aren’t going to get representation unless the book itself is terrific, as well as being something the agent feels able to sell to a publisher.

But, before the agent even reads your manuscript, they will look at your covering or pitch letter. This is the place where you introduce your book, and it’s the best place to grab the agent’s attention.

There is a lot of expert advice on the internet about how to structure a pitch letter and what to include. There are some differences in details, but most of the positive advice in these articles boils down to ‘write a great book, find the agent who will want to sell it, and introduce it and yourself to them really well’ – because that is what the pitch letter is for. It is a quick introduction to your book that induces the agent to read the manuscript – no more, no less.

Perhaps it is because the list of what to do is so simple and short that many of these articles spend at least as much time, if not more, describing the longer list of what not to do.

Anyone who has had the experience of working their way through a submission pile will tell you about all the distracting nonsense writers put into their letters, all of it something other than introducing their book really well. Many writers pad their letter with various irrelevancies, and get in their own way by trying to be different or memorable for some other reason than presenting a fantastic book. And while they’re trying so hard, they – fatally – completely fail to do the one thing the letter is for.

The pitch letter should be short – definitely no more than a page and preferably shorter than that, so up to around 300 words total – and it needs to:

  1. Pitch your book
  2. Introduce yourself

It’s great if you’re able to explain how you think your book will fit in with that individual agent’s list or tastes, or if one of your comparable titles is something they also represent, or that you met at this or that event and the agent invited you to submit, but if you don’t have the material for this kind of personalisation, it’s better to skip it rather than forcing it.

Anyway, none of that will matter if you don’t get the main thing right, which is introducing your book. Even introducing yourself is secondary, and for good reason: the thing that matters is always the book.

Research other pitch letters

A great way to begin is to look at lots of other pitch letters. As well as giving you a feel for the shape and rhythm of a compelling introduction, reading others’ attempts will help you avoid many of the common mistakes. 

Am I suggesting you need to go and work for a literary agent so you too can have the unenviable experience of wading through a real-life slush pile? No, that’s not necessary. There might be a part of me that wishes I could make writers experience the letters they send to agents from the other side, just to hammer home why they are so frustrating, but luckily a literary agent has basically already done this. 

My suggestion is that you spend some time in the Query Shark archives and read as many posts as possible. There, you will find hundreds of query letters in a variety of genres willingly offered up to Janet Reid, an NYC literary agent and the eponymous shark, who proceeds to tear each one to shreds before explaining what the writer should do instead.   

There are obvious benefits to reading what an actual literary agent says about a given pitch letter (or query letter for Americans). It’s advice straight from the horse’s mouth. And her advice is very transferable, so you don’t need to worry about the source being American if you are from the UK or elsewhere. 

Janet Reid was once famously known as Miss Snark in an earlier, anonymous incarnation, so I will warn you now that she’s very direct and she doesn’t sugar-coat anything. But she’s not being mean, she’s just being clear. Her approach is probably quite alarming for some people, especially if they are not used to genuine directness, but I would argue that that’s no bad thing if one is trying to enter an incredibly competitive industry like book publishing, because too much sensitivity and a tendency to take criticism personally will not serve you well. Directness like hers will help you detach and see more objectively what makes a good letter and, by extension, some of what makes a book one an agent can sell.   

Pitch your book

Once you’ve got a strong sense of what works and what doesn’t, you will start to see how you can apply what you’ve learned. It will then be time to think about how to describe your own book. 

What is your book about? Many writers, on being asked this question, panic and start rambling. Or, they summarise the plot from beginning to end, when the synopsis is the place for explaining that.

Lots of pitch letters try to introduce the book using a list of dull facts shorn of context, like the time period, the place the book is set in and the protagonist’s job title, none of which is inherently interesting. Or, the pitch letter describes a version of one of the common plots, with nothing much to differentiate it from the thousands of other books using that basic plot.

Try to be deliberate about considering this question. What makes your book interesting? What is the central conflict or issue? What is it that will make a reader want to experience this story? 

But then, don’t go the other way and use only broad statements about the book’s plot and themes, because being so vague is nearly as unhelpful as concentrating on dry facts. If you’re tempted to try to encapsulate the book in sweeping statements of what it all means, consider whether those remarks are really relevant. If the reply to your pitch could be ‘Ok, but what is it actually about?’ then try again.

Keep reminding yourself that the purpose of your letter is to get the agent to want to read your book.

Simplify, simplify, simplify

At this point, you may have a long paragraph, and possibly two or three, that includes all the things you really want to tell the agent about your book. You may think that it’s all essential, but that’s not true. Every book can be introduced in two or three sentences.

Remember, what you need to get to is those two or three sentences that compellingly provide a reason to read the book.

Distil those paragraphs down to their fundamentals. Simplify your way down to the very essence of the book. Make the pitch as tight and forceful and striking as it can be.

Try the result on some of your early readers or your writing group and see if they agree that it’s an accurate description of your book, and that it’s strong enough to make someone want to read it.

When you feel really confident that you have a brief paragraph that accurately and compellingly introduces your book, you can write the rest of your pitch letter and use it to submit your work.

And if you want to test it out on a publishing professional first, I offer an online mini consultation service, during which we can go through your submission materials together and I can provide feedback and suggestions for improvements.

Janey Burton is a Publishing Consultant, Editor and Contracts Negotiator. She worked for literary agencies and publishers big and small before setting up her own business at in 2012. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook. You can keep up with her advice for authors by signing up for her monthly newsletter, The Inbox Edition.

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