Behind the Curtain, Part 2: Prepping Your Pitch

So you’ve written your manuscript. You’ve put it in a drawer for a bit, and you’ve gotten it back out and read it over with a fresh eye. You’ve rearranged, cut, added, and stitched it back together into an even better version. You’ve sent it off to trusted betas, and managed to incorporate the good suggestions while shrugging off the bad.

Great.

Uh…now what?

Now it’s time to start sending that bad boy out. But how? Getting your pitch together can be almost as time-consuming and nerve-wracking as writing the damn manuscript in the first place.

Since you’re reading the blog of a speculative fiction publisher, I’m going to assume that you’re not shopping a nonfiction manuscript. (Well, okay, maybe you are, but you probably have a fiction work in the pipeline, too…) So we’re going to focus on fiction here, and ignore the complex and confusing world of the nonfiction book proposal.

First things first. Where are you sending this manuscript of yours?

You have a number of choices: Big Publisher, Little Publisher, Agent.

Most of the Big Six publishing houses don’t accept unagented submissions anymore, but there are a few large independent houses that do – Baen springs to mind. So there’s that – you can send your manuscript directly to a willing large publisher, get it read, and see what happens.

Small presses and indie publishers, like yours truly, tend to welcome unsolicited and/or unagented submissions.

Agents are your other route. Sending your manuscript to an agent is sort of like auditioning for an audition – you try to interest the agent into picking up your book for representation, and the agent will then start pitching it to publishers for you.

Prepping your pitch package for any of these three options is pretty much the same. The goal, in any case, is to hook the person who opens the email – to get them to really really really want to read your book.

How do you do this?

There’s a few tricks here. The first one is something that should be self-explanatory, but seems to be forgotten altogether too much: Read the submissions page. Understand what the agent/publisher/slushmonkey is looking for, understand their formatting requirements and preferences, and then adhere to them. Don’t think that your project is special. Don’t think that you can send a full manuscript when all they want is a partial, or just a query.

Obey the rules. The fastest way to get your submission deleted is to ignore the rules. Most publishers and agents are so inundated with slush that anything that doesn’t follow the rules 100% will get deleted with extreme prejudice, no matter if it might be the most brilliant new work to come their way since the Iliad.

Seriously. Just do it. If they want a query letter, send a query letter. If they want a partial, send that. Format it the way they request, and save it in the file format they prefer (Word and .rtf are the standards; Candlemark & Gleam prefers .rtf because we work in OpenOffice).

If there is no default format specified for sending a partial, double-space it, put your contact information at the top-left of the first page, and number the pages. Use a simple default font like Times New Roman (personally, I can’t stand reading submissions in Courier New, but I know some people who like it, so your methods may vary). Use a 12pt font size. Keep it simple, keep it clean, and keep it identifiable.

Oh, and name your file something easy to remember and identify. Jane Doe – Manuscript Title – Partial.rtf always works. Ditto for the subject line of your email – keep it simple and identifiable. [QUERY] Manuscript Title or [SUBMISSION] Manuscript Title is usually good and gets you past most spam filters.

Now that we’re clear on obeying the rules, let’s move on to the next most important part of prepping your pitch: catching the slush reader’s attention.

Slush readers are unfortunate people. They have to wade through a giant pile of…well, “slush” is a kind term sometimes. And they do it day in, day out. They have a lot of submissions to read, and not a lot of time to do it in. So you need to really jump out at them and hook them immediately with your pitch.

At a large publisher, or a large agency, you’ve really got your job cut out for you here. Slush piles are immense and the slush readers may or may not be the actual editors and agents looking to acquire work; in fact, they’re usually low-level assistants, sent to the front lines to take the bullets for the full editors, who (having already escaped the slush mines with a few battle wounds and some serious PTSD) are in back, whimpering slightly and rocking back and forth. So you’ve got to impress this overworked, underpaid low-level assistant…and impress them enough to get them to take this manuscript of yours to their boss and say “Look at this!” And then your pitch needs to impress that boss enough for them to want to read more.

Yeah.

Not easy.

At a small publisher, the odds of the acquiring editor also being the slush reader are much better. You have a little more time to work your magic, because slush piles are smaller, but small presses also acquire fewer books, so the quality bar tends to be a bit higher (when you’re only publishing 10 titles a year, they all need to be damn good).

So you still need a good hook.

I’ve found that the best way to get a slush reader’s attention is to dive right in. Don’t make a cutesy windup; don’t tease the slush reader, promising to reveal the mysteries of life and guarantee an enhanced sex life and a lifetime of bestsellers if only they’ll pick up your book. Just tell them about the book.

Write 2-3 paragraphs about your book, basically pretending that you’re writing the back jacket copy. What would make you want to pick this book up? What are the major themes? What’s the big conflict? Where are the flying avocadoes, and when do they explode?

Make it catchy, make it dynamic, and don’t give too much away. (Unless the company requests a full synopsis. In that case, give the whole damn thing away – that’s the point.)

At the end, you can toss in a paragraph about yourself – any publication credits you have, any particular benefits you bring to the project, any interesting background you have that relates to the book (are you a molecular chemist writing a techno-thriller? Pimp that!).

This is your basic query letter. Tailor it to each place you’re submitting – make it clear that you’ve read their guidelines and know what they publish. It’ll win you points with the slush reader.

Next up is any other requested materials in the package. In many cases, all you’ll need is the query letter and a partial manuscript, usually the first 2-3 chapters or first 50 pages.

Some publishers, however, also request a synopsis of the book. This is where the “don’t spill all the beans up front” rule goes out the window. Unlike your query letter, which you want to intrigue and hook the reader without giving away all your secrets – you want them to request the full manuscript, after all! – your synopsis should tell all.

It should be several pages long, and lay out each and every major development in the story. Think of it as creating an outline of your book after the fact. Go through and condense the whole thing into a 2-3 page form. Take out all the pretty turns of phrase, all the lovely verbiage, all the tantalizing descriptions. Just put the bare bones of the plot down. Who did what, when, and how. This gives the editor reading an idea of what’s going down, and how, and a bit of insight into your pacing and characters. It’s a way to read the story without reading the whole manuscript, and gives a harried editor a fast way to judge how the story might fit in the publisher’s lineup.

So there you have it. Your manuscript is done, your pitch is prepped, and you’re ready to start sending your baby out into the world to be read by the people who can bring it into finished, published, distributed form.

Up next on Behind the Curtain: Acceptance and Rejection.

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