Everything Authors Need to Know about Book Pitching
Find out what makes a good book pitch, and how to deliver yours with maximum effectiveness.
Pitching your book is one of those things that can keep an author up all night in a cold sweat. You’ve got a limited time to make your book idea sound as cool and appealing as possible - how do you even begin to approach that?!
Let’s break this process down a bit, and see if we can’t make it a little less scary by exploring what book pitches are, how they work, and how you can prepare for them.
What is a book pitch?
Your book pitch is the answer to the question, “what is your book about?” It’s the way that you present your story to other people, from agents and publishers to readers. Book pitches are how authors secure book deals and, later, make their sales. For indie authors, your pitch may be used with bookstores you’d like stocking your novel.
The elevator pitch
This style of pitching is named for a scenario: imagine that you’re in an elevator with your dream agent, and they’ve just said, “tell me about your story.” You’ve got until the elevator gets to its destination - about 30-60 seconds - to tell that agent your entire idea and catch their interest.
Your elevator pitch should hit the highest highlights of your story - the essential theme and concept behind it. That’s hard to do in 30 seconds, which is why your elevator pitch often comes after you’ve completed a larger, more in-depth pitch.
You may also hear this referred to as a logline (most common with screenwriters) - which is a 1-2 sentence synopsis of the story. Basically, how you’d pitch your book if you had to cram everything into a single tweet.
The query letter
Sometimes, the only chance you get to pitch your story is in the query letter for a contest or agent website form. A query letter is basically the formal way of asking an agent, publisher, or other professional to consider your story.
In this case, you’ve got about one paragraph of space to catch the agent’s interest, followed by potentially one more paragraph describing you as an author.
If you are querying agents or publishers, pay close attention to their submission guidelines. Some might just want the query letter. Others may also request the first chapter. If they want sample chapters, don’t send the entire manuscript! If an agent is looking for sci-fi, don’t send them young adult historical romance! You might be asked for the title’s word count. Failure to follow their requirements will relegate your book to their slush piles at best, or outright rejection at worst.
Blurbs versus proposals versus pitches
So something that might be confusing is that, when we’re talking about the description of a book, we throw around a bunch of different terms - blurbs, synopses, proposals, pitches, queries, etc. So what’s the difference? It’s actually relatively simple.
- A synopsis is the full summary of your book that covers the major plot points and themes.
- A blurb is the short, non-spoilery version of your synopsis - it’s the story description you find on the back cover or the front flap of a dust jacket.It’s a foundational piece of book marketing every book needs to have.
- A book proposal is a detailed document that you or your agent send to publishers in order to see if they’re willing to buy your book. This document usually includes a synopsis and a pitch, as well as other supporting materials like an author bio, platform review, and marketing plan sketch.
- A book pitch is a short, snappy description of your book designed to sell it, whether you’re selling it to an agent, a publisher, or a reader. They can range from being only a few sentences long (as with elevator pitches) up to about a page long in the case of a book proposal.
Today, what we’re really focusing on is creating your book pitch, which you can then use to help you create the other things on this list.
What to include in your book pitch
On a basic level, all book pitches should follow this general order:
- Hook your audience’s attention.
- Give the selling handle for your story (more on that later).
- Sum up why you have the right to write this book.
Now obviously, for something like an elevator pitch where you have only a few seconds to talk, you’ll want to shorten your time in each step. Additionally, different kinds of books have different pitching requirements. Let’s look over that in a little more detail.
Nonfiction book pitches
For nonfiction books specifically, a pitch might look a little bit different. It should include:
- What the category of the book is (business, biology, agriculture, humanities, pop culture, etc.)
- What the book is specifically about in that category
- Why people might want to read about that book (also called its “timeliness”)
- What makes you qualified to write about said book, especially if you’re a new writer without other published work in the field.
For example, a short pitch for a nonfiction book about dogs might look like this:
Reclaiming the Pug, an animal history book about the dangerous breeding practices in the history of the Pug dog breed and how they’re being combatted today appeals to animal lovers, pug breeders and owners, and those who root for the underdog (literally!). Written by veteran veterinarian Dug Pog, known for his advocacy work with the American Kennel Club and his personal charity Americans Against Squished Faces, this insightful and powerful story moves readers to reconsider what it means to “adopt not shop.”
This is specific enough to get a publisher’s attention without taking over the entire page, and it gives them a reason to want to listen to the author.
Fiction book pitches
Fiction book pitches focus way more on the book itself than on the person writing the story, as you really don’t need any qualifications (other than decent writing skills and a good idea) to write stories.
I’ll talk about fiction pitches in more detail below, but for now, it’s enough to say that your personal history as a writer matters a good bit less when you’re writing fiction apart from potentially giving you a platform that offers enticing sales opportunities.
Other book pitches
Here are some tips for more specific types of book pitches.
- When it comes to poetry books, it’s all about street cred and dedication. It’s awesome to get your work published in anthologies, through contests, and on a social media page with a good following before you try to pitch a full collection; this will make you more credible as a poet people are willing to read or watch. You might also include any workshops or courses you’ve taken to learn about poetry, as well as what your theme or collection gimmick is (for instance writing a collection with one poem for each letter of the alphabet).
- Memoirs are pitched quite a bit like fiction books. The main difference is that you are your own character - why would readers be interested in your life story? Include your own hero’s journey in your pitch.
- The same advice for memoirs applies to biographies, with an added question: why is this particular person worth people’s attention now? This is especially important if you’re writing a biography for a particularly famous person; if there’s already a biography for them out there, what is different enough about yours to make it sell?
Ways to approach your pitch
Michelle Schusterman, in her YouTube channel focused on book publishing, often talks about something called the “query formula:”
“[CHARACTER] was [STATUS QUO] until [INCITING INCIDENT] happens, and [HERE’S HOW THAT AFFECTS THE MAIN CHARACTER’S LIFE].
Now [CHARACTER] must [GOAL] despite [CONFLICT] or else [CONSEQUENCE].”
Basically, what you’re trying to do is frame your story up, talk about the journey involved, let us know the stakes, and give us something to look forward to. For longer pitches, you’ll also want to describe how your book stacks up to the rest of the genre, and who’s going to want to buy it when it’s out in the world.
The selling handle
So, once you’ve got your comp titles…how do you use them? Well, you can just list them and talk about how your book does what they do, just better/different. That works perfectly fine in longer proposals, and can in fact make it easier for an agent or publisher to see how they might find an audience for you. But what about in an elevator pitch or query letter? That’s where the selling handle comes in.
Have you ever seen a book described as “[Thing] meets [another thing]?” That’s a selling handle; this is how you clarify the market that your book appeals to. Most people do that by comparing their title to existing titles in some way. Some of the most popular formats for doing this are:
- ____ meets ____.
- Percy Jackson is Greek mythology meets modern amenities and issues.
- ____, but with ____.
- Warm Bodies is Romeo and Juliet, but with zombies!
- ____ in/on a ____.
- Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century is a family-friendly high-school dramedy in space.
You may also choose to focus on a particular character, style, or theme rather than a full work. The idea is to get your story’s main themes across in a way that lets your audience know immediately who might be looking to buy your book once it’s on the market.
Flaunt the publicity angle
If you’ve got some kind of following on the internet or in person, you might want to use that in your pitch, especially if you’ve written about the thing that people follow you for. While this mostly applies to nonfiction, fiction writers who have significant followings should feel confident in mentioning this as well. As much as we like to think people are falling in love with our stories purely for what they are, sometimes, the money-making aspect can add the extra appeal we need to get accepted.
So, mention if you’ve got a significant social media following (we’re talking in the tens of thousands here), if you run a particularly well-loved niche website or blog, or if you’re a part of any major associations or networks related to your book’s genre or subject matter. Be specific about your publicity speculations as well - how many people can you reasonably get your book in front of? How long would it take? How much of the budget are you willing to fork over yourself?
It’s also a good idea to name-drop a little if you can. If you’ve got a connection - like a real, solid, marketable connection - to a bestselling author or famous figure in your field, letting the publisher know can spark their marketing imaginations. Just try not to use this as the crux of your pitch; your book should stand on its own without any big names attached.
How to go about pitching your book
Knowing what a book pitch is is great, but it’s not quite the same thing as knowing how to pitch your book. While every pitch process is going to look different, there are a few things you can do to make pitching a little bit easier whenever you do it.
Decide whether you want an agent
A literary agent is essentially your professional cheerleader; they’re the person whose whole job it is to get your book into the hands of your readers and to get the royalties into your hands. Having an agent is a great idea if you’re interested in traditional publishing - the Big Five publishers don’t usually take unagented submissions, and most mid-range publishing houses will consider agented submissions first if they consider unagented submissions at all. Small presses are normally fine with authors submitting for themselves, and obviously, if you’re self-publishing on Amazon, Laterpress, or elsewhere, an agent isn’t necessary. Still, it’s good to have someone who’s got the connections you need to get your book’s foot in the door.
If you decide you do want an agent, do your research! Agents usually have specific wishlists for what they’re looking for and who they want to represent - you can usually find these lists linked on their social profiles or the agency’s website. You’ll want to find an agent who specializes in your genre or who has represented someone like you in the past; this ensures that you’re working with someone who understands and appreciates your book. Agents are also readers, and if they’re in your target audience, you’re more likely to succeed.
You can find agents in your genre by attending writers’ conferences, genre-specific conventions, looking into clubs and organizations associated with your genre, or by old-fashioned Google search. You might also consider looking through the latest edition of Writer’s Market, as they will usually include a list of agents broken down by genre with the appropriate contact information and what they’re looking for.
Build your network
Remember those connections I mentioned a minute ago? Yeah, your agent isn’t the only one who’s going to need those. If you can build a network of like-minded publishing professionals - editors, publishers, other authors, designers, small presses, and, yes, agents - you’re more likely to get a personal recommendation, which can go a long way toward making sure that your pitch is heard.
A good way to do this is to attend writing events, whether their genre-specific or just for the industry in general. Some US states have writing or author clubs that you can join that hold annual conferences that bring together local publishing professionals, which can be great if you’re writing local interest pieces. Otherwise, you might consider conventions for national writing groups for particular kinds of writing, such as the Science Fiction Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, or Horror Writers Association.
You may also consider joining a writing community on social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok have thriving publishing communities that can help you connect on a more personal, informal level with other professionals with similar interests. Building relationships takes a lot of time and effort, but having connections can be a significant boon to your writing career.
Be confident and professional
Whether you’re in person or digital while you’re pitching, you’ll want to appear like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t). Showing confidence in your writing can help sell the idea to other people, so here are a couple of last-minute prep tips:
- If you’re going to an organized pitch event - such as timed slots at conferences or social media events like Pitch Wars - make sure you understand and prepare for any limitations associated with it, such as time restrictions or character limits.
- Rehearse your pitch! Say it in front of a mirror, write it out to a group of friends, or have a mock pitch with someone you trust. Make sure that the first time you’re producing your pitch isn’t in front of the agent or publisher - this gives you room to mess up and learn.
- Be prepared to answer questions. If someone likes your work enough to want to know more about it, you need to be prepared to give them more. Consider any questions that might come up about why you wrote your piece, specific themes, or other interesting elements of your writing.
Pitching your book doesn’t have to be scary - in fact, it can be downright fun. Think of it as an opportunity to nerd out about your passion project to someone who’s likely to get just as invested as you are. As long as you understand what you’re doing and how to get there, book pitching is no scarier than any other part of the writing process.