On Querying: Part 2 - Pitch and Professionalism
There are approximately fifty-billion resources online and off to learn about querying and writing a query letter, but in Part 2 of my series, I’m here to break it down a little differently.
If you read my previous post in this series, you’ll know that I’m a fan of the mantra made famous in The Godfather, and then doubled down on in You’ve Got Mail, it’s not personal, it’s business. IT’S NOT PERSONAL. IT’S BUSINESS. Your query letter is a piece of business correspondence. Not only does it pitch your book, but it is your first opportunity to prove to a potential agent that you are a writer who takes their career seriously. You want an agent to come away with two impressions from your query letter: excited about your pitch and confident in your professionalism.
During my time in the query trenches, I had about a 20% request rate for my queries: 18.9% with GAME. SET. MATCH. and 22% for #AngstyGymBook, my most recent manuscript. Averaging out to about 20%, that’s the generally accepted percentage for a successful pitch. We’ll talk about rejection in the next part of the series, but seriously, they call baseball a game of failure because Hall of Fame players generally hit about .300. That’s a 30% success rate for the best players in the history of the game. Publishing is one of the toughest industries in the world. Thicken your skin, put your head down, and keep going with that goal in mind: about a 20% success rate on your queries. Of course it only takes one agent to love your query and manuscript enough, but this kind of rate improves your odds of finding said agent in the first place.
Here’s how to get it:
First, the pitch. In short, it’s a quick summary, very similar to a cover copy, that gives the agent a taste of your manuscript. It’s generally accepted that the pitch should be told in same way a movie trailer is made - in the third person (regardless of your manuscript’s point of view), hitting on the major characters, conflict and stakes, without giving away the ending.
Here are the pitch portions of my query letters:
Eighteen-year-old Indiana Gaffney, the newest athlete at the Outer Banks Tennis Academy, has a killer serve that scares the crap out of her opponents and a pretty face that has the sponsors seeing dollar signs. There’s just one problem. She hasn’t actually won anything yet.
The OBX Classic – a prestigious, invite-only tournament – is her chance to prove herself to everyone, especially her dad, who isn’t really sold on the whole “tennis as a legit life-path” idea. Winning means wildcard entries to all the major tournaments next season, a huge jump-start for her young career. If she loses – well, she won’t lose, not even to Jasmine Randazzo, daughter of tennis royalty, current U.S. Open Junior Champion and world-class bitch.
Indy’s confident, but not delusional. To beat Jasmine, she’ll need more than just a big serve and a bright smile. To up her game, she starts training with Penny Harrison, one of the best players in the world. Working with Penny – a rare friendly face at the ultra competitive academy – is great for her tennis, but means being around the Harrison brothers, a double dose of good looks and charm. Love may mean nothing in tennis, but in life, it’s not that simple. Not when one boy makes her laugh, but the other makes her pulse pound.
With her heart and her future on the line, there’s only one thing left to do: win.
(Side note: if you’ve read GAME. SET. MATCH. you’ll know just how much changed, for the better, from the manuscript I queried to the final product!)
Here’s the pitch from my most recent manuscript, which you may know as #AngstyGymBook from Twitter:
The only thing seventeen-year-old Audrey Lee dreams about is swinging her way to Olympic glory on the uneven bars. Nothing is going to stop her, not even the agony in her back that forced her out of the gym for a year and will bring her career to an end after the Games. Every spasm and ache will be worth it once she has that gold medal around her neck.
But none of her training prepares her for her coach being led away in handcuffs, accused by a fellow gymnast of the unthinkable. No one knows what to believe and Audrey's teammates, including her best friend, are at each other’s throats. With a new coach, Olympic officials and the media circling like vultures, only one person seems to understand, her new coach’s son, Leo, with his sparkling green eyes, cocky smile and Olympic dreams of his own.
As the Olympic torch closes in on Tokyo - and the end of her career along with it - Audrey has no idea who to trust, let alone what life holds after her final dismount. The only thing she can do is hope that, in the end, belief in herself and what’s left of her team, will be enough for gold.
In both pitches I follow the same basic format:
Paragraph 1: Main character: who is she and what does she want?
Paragraph 2: Conflict: what is keeping her from getting what she wants?
Paragraph 3: Stakes: What are the possible outcomes of the conflict?
If you cannot identify what your main character wants, what’s keeping them from getting it and what the stakes are if they do or don’t...then you need to revise your manuscript. Those are the basic tenets of storytelling and if they aren’t clear to you, it certainly will not be clear to a potential agent.
Obviously, the pitch should be told in your voice, so it doesn’t have to be an exact match of the above, but make sure: main character, conflict and stakes. (Writing tip: I’m a plotter, so before I even start writing a manuscript, I usually write a pitch to make sure I’ve got what I need for a story. And what do I need? A main character who wants something, a conflict and stakes!)
Okay, so you’ve got your pitch ready to go with your character that wants something, a conflict keeping them from it and the stakes, but that’s just one part of your query. The next part is almost as important because if you’ve hooked an agent with your pitch, you don’t want to lose them through a lack of professionalism.
Some people think the title, genre/category and word count are a part of their pitch, but I put it in the “professionalism” section of the query. Understanding your genre and category, falling within the range of appropriate word count and a mini-biography touting whatever credentials you have or even just a bit - a very little bit - of background on who you are and why you wrote the book, shows the agent that you’re a functional human being who understands how to communication in a professional manner with a potential business partner. The first time I queried I had very few credentials, but I did have a solid grasp on what was expected of a YA contemporary novel and noted that I’d actually looked at their agency’s submission guidelines and sent along the appropriate amount of materials.
Here’s the “professionalism” portion of my query for GAME. SET. MATCH.:
Told from three points of view, Indy, Jasmine and Penny, GAME. SET. MATCH. is a contemporary YA novel of 65,000 words. As per your submission guidelines, I have attached the [insert agency’s preferred amount of content/pages here].
As a high school librarian and coach, this project is the merger of my two great passions, young adult literature and sports. I am a proud member of YALitChat.org. I also host a blog and am active on Twitter and Facebook.
The second time I queried, I had a little bit of juice behind me - previously agented, previous sale and a few industry credentials that qualify me to write the story I wrote. I also explained, as quickly as possible, my publishing journey up to that point, but it follows the same basic format:
An 87,000 word YA novel, [Title redacted because it’s changing] is THE NOWHERE GIRLS meets MAKE IT OR BREAK IT.
I am in search of representation after amicably parting ways with [insert former agent and agency here]. I have two previously published novels, GAME. SET. MATCH. (2013) and LOSING AT LOVE. (2015). They were sold in 2012 to Coliloquy (which was then acquired by Vook and subsequently, Macmillan where it was renamed Pronoun, before closing entirely earlier this year. It was quite the journey). After that final closure, my rights were reverted and I self-published both titles.
After following gymnastics for years as a fan, I covered the Olympic Trials and the Rio Olympic Games in 2016 for Fangirlish.com and have made several appearances on the famous gymnastics podcast, Gymcastic.
My sample pages are below, as requested. Thank you for your consideration.
In the second example, I used comp titles. In the first I didn’t. I do recommend having comps simply because it reinforces to the agent that you’ve done your research and understand where your book may fit in the market, but if - for whatever reason - you can’t come up with any, it won’t be a deal breaker if the agent is intrigued by your pitch and reassured by your professionalism.
There’s one more part of a query letter and I saved it for last because it’s only important to include if you actually have something to say. Personalization. I didn’t personalize either of the queries I sent to the agents I eventually signed with and going back through my records, it didn’t seem to have much impact one way or another in whether an agent requested a partial or a full. However, I don’t think it hurts a pitch and I know there are others who disagree with me. Personalize your query to the agent you’re querying, however, I say this with a caveat: only do so if you actually have something to say. For example, you spoke to them at a conference, they’ve requested materials from you before and you have a new manuscript to show them, you’ve interacted on twitter for years, your manuscript seems to have been written specifically for something they have on their manuscript wish list. If you don’t have anything like that to add, just leave it out. If the agent is interested in the manuscript’s concept and the writing in your pitch and the sample pages holds up against that concept, that will be enough.
So now we’re through two of the three majors parts of querying: finding agents to query and crafting a query letter! One more piece to the puzzle: the querying process itself!
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