The Perfect Pitch

I’m a literary agent who, truth be told, doesn’t actually believe in “the pitch.” My gut reaction to the question, “what is the perfect pitch?” is to answer, Zen-like, “the perfect pitch…is no pitch.”

Which is why, when I was asked to write this piece, I decided to look up the word “pitch” in the dictionary” – and this is what I found: to put, set, or plant in a fixed or definite position; to deliver to serve to the batter; to determine the key or keynote of a melody; to attempt to sell or win approval for, promote, advertise i.e. to pitch breakfast foods at a sales conference – politicians pitching on TV. Maybe it’s the breakfast cereal and politicians on TV aspect of “pitching” that turns me off (although the concept of hitting the perfect note of a melody is intriguing ).

While I am not interested in your selling me anything, or in your winning my approval, I am willing to be seduced, amazed, charmed, or moved.
What I really want is for you to share your enthusiasm with me, your passion…to invite me along on a journey…tell me something you, and you
alone, know…to open my eyes to a truth that will enable me to see the world in a different way. And, of course, to do so with beautiful writing.

As the unsolicited manuscripts and query letters arrive every day, I am not so naive, so high-minded, or so much of a romantic to ignore that a few clearly grab my attention – while others fall either flat or over-inflated on the page.

So what is it about the approach that works? What are the elements of the successful pitch letter? To begin with, let’s face it – we’re talking about writing. The importance of elegant, finely honed writing – even in the introductory “pitch” letter – cannot be overstated. Nor, for that matter, can all the other more boring aspects of good professional writing such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, and so on.

And while there are no hard and fast rules, my following preferences have formed over the years:

Write don’t call. If you are introducing yourself and “pitching” an unsolicited work, do so with a query letter. A letter gives you the opportunity to organize your thoughts, list your credentials, and provide a flavor of your writing style. It also gives me the opportunity to digest, ponder, and re-read what you’ve written. If, however, you insist on calling, introduce yourself and tell me what you do and how it relates to your book; and be prepared with a good story and a clear, succinct description of your idea.

I represent quite a few spiritual book authors and so I get calls from people who (more often than I can believe) say: “Hello, I’ve written the most amazing book about my spiritual experience.” And when I venture to ask what it’s about, the answer I get is usually a variation on the following: “Umm, well, it’s a new look at God, and human beings, and our relationship to the Universe.”

There is someone, on the other hand, who calls me every few months – a lovely woman from somewhere down South – and she is forgiven. Because with a voice that sounds like Dolly Parton, she refers to me as “Miz Sarah” and while I have never formally taken her on as a client, I have read the revisions of her manuscript for going on three years now. And she never fails to tell me how she is praying for me and for the entire city of New York. And I do believe she is.

Also, it doesn’t hurt to do a little research on what categories agents prefer. For instance, if you read the Literary Market Place or the Jeff Herman Guide you’ll see that I don’t represent science fiction or category romances. You’ll save yourself a lot of time by targeting the right agents for
your work.

And please, don’t under any circumstance be tempted to resort to gimmicks: ostrich feathers, scented candles, cutsie stationary, aromatherapy (or snake) oil, wands, cat paw-prints, dried flowers, or family photographs, all of which, and more, I have received. What those little enticements say to me is that you don’t have faith in your own material. Be outrageous if you will, but be dignified about it. Once we have begun working together and I have sold your book then, like one of my charming authors who has sent me an orchid for each of her books I’ve sold, and another who brings me freshly laid eggs from her hens whenever she comes to New York, you can send me chocolates, flowers, potpourri, artisanal cheeses…

I am drawn to authors who, in their introductory letters, demonstrate that they are confident but not boastful. It’s not a good idea to praise your own work and tell me how wonderful your book is. It is, however, helpful to list your credentials and make the connection for me between what you do, what you know, and what you chose to write about. And that’s as true for fiction as it is for non-fiction. It always amazes me how the flavor comes across in a query letter – not only of the work, but of many of the personality traits of the author. Whenever prospective clients start their letter with:
“I am looking for a New York literary agent who will aggressively market my book,” I read no further. I have learned from experience that this is not the kind of client I am interested in working with.

Being a literary agent is not just my work. For me, the line between work, books, writers, ideas, and my life, is blurred. Many of the authors I represent have become personal friends of mine and my family…friends with whom we have had the good fortune to share something of the world about which they write. One such sharing was the journey my husband and I took with my author to experience first-hand the magic of the “friendly” Pacific gray whales off the coast of Baja California. I have also spent time meditating with one of my authors in a Zen Buddhist monastery…stayed with one of my cookbook authors on the rugged Greek island where she and her husband now live and where she is writing her next book…I have traveled and given a writing workshop with another of my clients while she gave a photography workshop in Mexico. And with one of my more intrepid authors, I climbed New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock on the hottest day of the year.

The wonderful one-liner is rare and hard to come by. But if you’re able to sum up your entire book with either a title or a one-line description…that’s gold. Take, for instance, the title of a book I represented – and this was the title mentioned in the author’s pitch letter: a big new free happy unusual life: self-expression and spiritual practice for those who have time for neither. What more need one say? Or another author who described his book Vagabonding as “an uncommon guide to the art of long-term travel.” Or a book on a writing practice described as a way to write the mind alive. Recently I received a pitch letter written by a psychotherapist for a book called Enlightment through Chocolate: From Ordinary to Extraordinary One Bite at a Time. The proposal was accompanied by a small box of chocolate so exquisite that I forgave her and my chocoholic assistant and I ate the entire box as we read the proposal. These one-liners can be especially evocative when describing a work of fiction. So before you send off that final draft of your pitch letter, let your intuitive imagination run wild, get together with clever friends, and see if you can come up with a delicious one-liner that says it all.

In addition to terrific writing, there is another quality I really value and always look for – a quality that often shines through, even in a letter. It’s authenticity. By authenticity I mean the assurance and dignity that comes from being genuinely knowledgeable and truly intimate with the subject you are writing about; that you’ve immersed yourself in it; that you’ve walked the walk so you can talk the talk (or write the write). This authenticity makes me feel as if a book had to be written. Not just because the author would love to be published, but also because the author has something of importance to say, something to add to the world. And from a practical point of view, this authenticity helps with another key aspect of a good pitch – clear focus and good organization.

And what about honesty? How much should you tell me about your project’s checkered past. If, for instance, along with your pitch letter you enclose all the kind, beautifully written rejection letters you have received from other agents, you’ve told me too much. I am surprised at how often would-be authors do that. Maybe they feel the letters are an indication of how close they’ve come to being accepted. But what it says to me is how thoughtful most agents are. On the other hand, if you don’t tell me that, under another title, your book was sent out by another agent and rejected by twenty publishers…then you haven’t told me enough.

I would love to share with you some of the pitch letters I have received but it is telling, I guess, that I haven’t kept any. There is no cookie-cutter approach to writing a good query letter. Provided you write well and are coming from an authentic place, everything else is up for grabs. You can be as provocative, outrageous, sentimental, cynical, vulnerable, or humorous as you choose – whatever reflects who you are and what you have to say.

I am going to out on a limb here and will say with absolute conviction that, as with everything else in life, so much of what transpires between an author, an agent, and a book is timing…and chemistry.

Your eyes meet someone else’s on the street as you’re waiting for a bus, on the subway, in an art gallery, across the proverbial crowded room, on a ledge hanging off a mountain cliff, and something clicks. In other words, one either falls in love…or doesn’t. This, in my opinion, holds as true for people as it does for books on parenting, religion, travel adventure, science, business strategies, sports, cooking, and fiction. And when that “click” happens and a spark is ignited, one tends to rationalize: it was that charming query letter, his blue eyes, the subject is so timely, the author has such a fabulous voice, I really loved the paper and the font she uses, it’s such a great title, and so on and so forth. But for me the truth, alas and thank goodness, is both more simple and more mysterious.

We cannot end here however. After all, what can any of us do about that kind of chemistry? It’s something over which neither you nor I have any control. I often hear clients say, “what will be will be.” And while I believe in the mysterious, I refuse to accept that “que sera, sera” approach. When it comes to writing, as one of my clients always says, “Trust in God, but tether your camel.” So take responsibility for all the details listed herein, and the mysterious will take care of itself.