Friday, July 26, 2013

Pitching Lessons

Rachel Tolman Terry

There have never been more publishing options available to writers than there are today, which can be both exciting and overwhelming. I'm going to talk today about getting your foot through the door with traditional publishers; the way to do that is by pitching your manuscript to agents and editors. The big six publishing companies generally won't look at manuscripts that aren't represented by agents. Agents act as their first line of defense, weeding out manuscripts and authors so the big publishing companies aren't swamped with unsolicited manuscripts. Most smaller publishing companies will look at manuscripts that are sent directly from authors.

I worked as an acquisitions editor for several years, and I've been represented by two different agents, so I've seen how the process works. I've sent out plenty of query letters of my own, and I've also read hundreds of letters and had to decide which ones to accept and which to reject. I can tell you that it's not easy to be on either side of the desk, but the process seems to work.

The process is essentially the same for sending your manuscript directly to a smaller publisher and for securing representation through a literary agent. Either way, you'll need to take the following steps.

1. Polish your manuscript.

2. Update your online presence.

3. Do your market research.

4. Write your pitch (query) letter.

5. Send it out.

6. Send it out again. Repeat.

Let's take an in-depth look at each of these steps.

1. Polish your manuscript. If you're at the point that you're thinking about publishing, I'm assuming your manuscript is looking good. But just to make sure, go through it again with relentless, unforgiving eagle eyes. If editing is not your strong point, find someone else to edit it, whether you pay someone or swap editing jobs with a writer friend. It's tough to polish off your own writing, but it has to be done before you take any more steps toward publication.

1.  Update your online presence. Once upon a time, publishing houses had big marketing budgets. They spent lots of money on glossy posters, book tours, and fancy catalogs. Those days are gone, and today, publishers expect their authors to do the lion's share of marketing. That means you need a substantial online presence. So dust off your Twitter account, start writing blog posts, and get your voice out there. If you give public speeches, record them and put them on YouTube because publishers love to see eloquent writers who are willing to get out there and tackle in-person marketing opportunities. Some people love this part of publishing, and others wish they could just stay tucked behind their laptops, writing and writing. If you want to sell books, either through your own Indie imprint or through Random House, you're going to have to learn to market.

3. Do your market research. Blindly sending pitch letters out into the cyber-universe can be a waste of time, but if you take some time to research the agents or publishers, you'll have far better luck. That's because you'll be pitching your manuscript to agents and publishers who actually specialize in your genre. It's a waste of time (for you and the editor or agent) to send your collection of poetry to an editor who only publishes biographies.  You can usually find this information, along with instructions on how and where to send your queries, on the publisher's or agent's website. Double check the spelling of the person's name, and know whether you're addressing a man or a woman (sometimes it's hard to tell just from names). I find it's best to use a spreadsheet to keep track of this information while I'm doing my market research.

4. Write your pitch letter. Also called a query letter, a pitch letter is your chance to get an editor's or agent's attention. In less than a page, you need to offer a small, tempting taste of the book, explain the grand scheme (how long it is, whether it's one of a series, what kinds of readers would be interested in it, and how it will be marketed), and leave the reader hungry to read the actual manuscript. At the end of the letter, you also need to explain why you are the best person on earth to write this book. End with, "Thanks for taking the time to consider my work. I look forward to hearing from you," or something equally polite. For a great article about writing an agent query letter, take a look at this site. [link to]

5. Send it out. It takes courage and faith to send your query letters out. Most of them will be rejected, and that's okay. Editors and agents often have very specific ideas of what they're looking for based on current market trends, and yours might not fit. When I signed with my agent, I sent out 17 query letters. Two agents replied that they'd like to see my manuscript, and only one offered me a contract. But one is all you need.

6. Keep sending it out. Maybe every single publisher or editor rejects your letter or just plain doesn't respond. Is it time to give up? Of course not. You can handle this situation in several ways. You can continue your market research right away and find some more people to send your query letter to. You can make some changes in your query letter and try and improve it. You can lay that project aside for a while and get to work on something else until you feel ready to dive back into it. You can publish your book through CreateSpace and send the published book to publishers to see if they'd like to take it on. As I said at the beginning, the publishing options today are vastly superior and more diverse than they were just five years ago. There's never been a more exciting time to be a writer. Whichever road you take, be persistent enough to continue, confident enough to represent yourself well, and humble enough to take criticism, and you'll be just fine.

About Rachel

Rachel Tolman Terry started freelance writing shortly after graduating from Brigham Young University with a B.A. in English. She has written articles for magazines such as BackHome, Health Money & Travel, Parent:Wise Austin, The Old Schoolhouse, and Practical Homeschooling. She worked as Acquisitions Editor and Managing Editor for Mapletree Publishing Company and has ghostwritten books and web content for many years. She recently published an LDS novel, Sister WhoDat, NY Agent, which is available at Amazon.

Rachel recently moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, with her husband and three children. Since moving, the Terrys have acquired one rabbit and three chickens, which provide hours and hours of backyard entertainment.

- Rachel Tolman Terry

Twitter @_rachelterry_

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