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Agent Symposium Series -- Pitching Editors

Writers hear a lot about the query and submission process to agents, but once writers receive literary representation, there's not much information about how agents turn around and "pitch" their clients' projects to the appropriate editors. Could you discuss the submission process of a new client's novel or nonfiction proposal to editors? How does your pitch process to editors affect your decision to take on a prospective client and their book?

* agents' responses are listed in the order that they were received

LITERARY AGENT: Dan Lazar - Writers House LLC
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When I read a manuscript or proposal on submission, I know I'm going to offer representation when two things happen. (1) I'm excited because I know it's great and unique and fresh. (2) I'm only 50 pages in, already thinking, "So-and-so at Random House will adore this; this is totally up So-and-so's alley at Penguin; So-and-so at HarperCollins will eat this up with a silver spoon!" I could read a well crafted proposal about, umm, how to invest your life savings with minimal risk -- but I'd be a terrible agent for that author since I don't know many of the editors buying finance books. They'd shuffle my project to their assistant and sit on it for weeks before responding. Or months. Or make me follow up and shed tears to pull a response out of them.

However, when I'm not just admiring the author's work, but already matching it up with appropriate editors in my head -- the ones who know me, who take my calls, who don't mind catching up for 10 minutes about their vacation or the weather or their crappy ex-boyfriend before even turning to business matters -- then I'm clearly the right champion for it.

So those editors I know best are people I speak with on a regular basis. Some of us are good friends outside of work, others are like professional buddies. There are lots of cool people in publishing whose company I enjoy. It's one of the perks of the business. So we're chatting, and I might mention, "Oh by the way, I'm reading this fabulous project on submission, about blah blah, blah de blah..."

They might say, "Sounds great, I'd love to see it when it's ready," or "Sounds interesting, you should send it to my colleague here..." And then we get back to the weather or the stupid ex who wore women's underwear.

Sometimes it's calculated: I'm baiting them days or weeks in advance, so when this fabulous new project is finally ready to go out, they're hopefully eager - salivating! promising to tear through it overnight! - to read it. This is because, clearly, I am an evil and nefarious agent. And sometimes it's just my own enthusiasm; I fall in love with my projects and want to talk everyone's ear off about it. This has less to do with how evil I am, and is more related to my obnoxious charm.

So when I'm sending out a new project, the editors I know best have already heard about it, and hopefully read it quickly. Sometimes I'll call to let them know it's coming -- especially if I have a crackerjack pitch or the proposal has a great title. Or I just send it and know they'll read it because they trust my taste. If I'm approaching a new editor I haven't met (or maybe just met for lunch, but don't know well yet) I'll practice the pitch in my head a million ways to Tuesday, suck up my courage, give them a call and hope to not flub it entirely. Cold calling strangers is not my favorite thing to do, but I'm getting better at it. Sort of. Sometimes I'll just slap an introduction into my pitch letter and let the project speak for itself. As an agent, the best way to introduce yourself to a new editor is by sending them something they love. Works every time. Just like the same is true for a writer introducing yourself to an agent without a referral; if you send a great query letter, you'll get a response.

All in all, it's all a bit nebulous, since the editor-agent connection is usually some sort of relationship. So how I pitch to one editor will differ how I pitch to another. But I hope this gives your readers a better sense of how the process works in general.

LITERARY AGENT: Jenny Bent - Trident Media Group, LLC
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First, you identify the right houses and the right editors for the project. You don’t want to send a literary novel to a house that’s known for its commercial fiction. Having said that, these days most houses do a wide range of projects, so it’s even more important to be focused when you’re identifying the editor. The worst is to make an obvious mistake like sending a non-fiction editor a novel. But you also want to be even more subtle than that: what has the editor bought in the past? Does the editor tend to like your submissions and offer on them, or reject everything you send? Has the editor mentioned to you at lunch or on the phone recently that they’re looking for a specific sort of project? Do you know this editor’s taste and what he or she tends to like or dislike? Does this editor actually edit, or do they tend to kind of ignore their authors after they sign up a book (this one is particularly important).

Once you’ve done that, you develop a short pitch for the project. You compare it to other projects that have been successful in the past—this works particularly well if you’ve actually been the agent for said projects. You come up with a really compelling reason or fun catch-phrase that is going to make the editor move this project to the top of the pile when he/she gets it in. At this point, you’ve already written your query letter, so you may very well crib something from that when pitching to editors. You either call or e-mail the editors on your list and give them the pitch. 9.9 times out of ten they want to see it.

So you send it. If you’re lucky, there is tremendous enthusiasm and you can set up an auction or have an impromptu auction. This is when you go in rounds, publisher by publisher, to get increasingly larger offers (see my website for a more complete explanation). Or maybe just one or two publishers want to buy. Either way, it can be a tricky situation, and I just realized that this wasn’t part of the question anyway!

OK, how does the pitch process affect my decision to take on a client? Well, it does and it doesn’t. I suppose you could characterize the reluctance to take on certain projects because you don’t see how you could successfully pitch them. But really, you turn down projects because 1. you don’t like them, plain and simple or 2. you don’t think you could sell them. And often the reasons for not being able to sell them and not being able to pitch them are the same. But not always. Make sense? I thought so!

LITERARY AGENT: Jonathan Lyons - McIntosh & Otis, Inc.
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One of the first questions I ask myself when considering whether to take on a client and their work is whether I can sell it. Part of answering this question requires thinking of actual editors who would buy this work. As a result, preparing a submission list for a client’s project really begins quite early. Also, when I read a query I want to be able to envision what the flash points/hot topics would be in my pitch to editors. If there aren’t any, or if they aren’t convincing, I’ll likely pass on the project. Of course, I also have to be head-over-heels in love with the project. It’s getting harder each day to sell books, so an agent really does have to be as passionate about the project as the author.

Once I do begin representing an author, before submitting anything I usually ask for at least a few rounds of edits. During that time I will continue to work on the submission list, begin talking/hyping the project to various editors, etc. I almost never submit anything exclusively, and I think this has become the norm on the adult side of the business. Of course, there are exceptions to this, depending on the author and circumstances.

How many and which editors to submit to is an art, and so I’d rather not reveal my opinions on this. However, as a general matter you should know that your agent does put a tremendous amount of thought into this.

Once the project is ready I’ll usually call or write editors to ascertain or verify their interest. Usually I send a hard copy of the project out, but lately editors have become more willing to accept electronic submissions. I’ll follow up with editors as needed, depending on reactions to the work. The submission will conclude with a sale (hopefully at auction), or occasionally I’ll ask the author to consider a rewrite.

I really do believe that a submission is never dead, but the only way I am able to have that conviction is to be extremely selective in regard to who I represent. I have to have good answers to the questions I mentioned above or else I will pass on a project.

LITERARY AGENT: Diana Finch - Diana Finch Literary Agency
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I’m actually thinking about the pitch process from the moment I read a query letter, it’s an integral part of my evaluation of a proposal or partial manuscript, even a query letter. As I read a query letter I am intrigued by, I am thinking: can I envision myself calling an editor and pitching this book to her? Do I know what I would say? Is there anything I can anticipate that the editor would have questions or reservations about, and how would I handle those? I try to have the toughest, most discerning editor in mind when I do this.

If a query, even one I am drawn to, doesn’t pass this “pitch test,” I will pass.

Much of the work I do with the authors I represent on their proposals and manuscripts before submitting them is related directly to the pitch. I make sure they have included all the information and done all the work that is needed in order to back up my pitch. I hope that my clients do learn a lot from this process about how I’ll pitch their work and what my pitch will be.

I always try to call the editors I want to submit something to and have a brief conversation about it first, in order to pitch the project, to highlight the submission so that the editors will be anticipating its arrival, and to “take the temperature,” to gauge the editors’ very first responses. I like to find out in these conversations whether editors will have any reservations I might not otherwise know about (ie, they just bought a similar project the day before) and whether they indicate any key considerations they’ll have in mind when they evaluate the submission. For example, sometimes they ask about the author’s background or how the project compares to another similar book. I also want the editors to know that they are an important part of my pitch: I want them each to know that there is a specific reason I have selected them for the submission – another author they’ve published, something I know they are looking for, a specific interest I know they have.

I do discuss the submission plan, the pitch and the list of editors with my clients – often they have editors or publishers they’d like to include because of other books the publishers have done.

The pitch is an integral part of the process for me, from the very first query onwards.

LITERARY AGENT: Ben Salmon - Rights Unlimited, Inc.
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This is a difficult one to answer. Unless I’m missing the super secret agent club meetings and was skipped over for the handbook mailing list, there isn’t one standard submission process for agents of which I’m aware. (And in fact, this information may even be a bit proprietary.)

There isn’t one way I submit to publishers. My strategy is different for every project, just as each one is unique. Every pitch letter I write is completely different, in structure, form, length and tone; every package I send out is different (though, branded with my agency’s standard box, folder, letterhead, etc.), even the specific components of a proposal for nonfiction; my editor submission lists vary in size. It all depends on the project at hand.

One of my favorite parts of the job is the matchmaking. I adore putting the perfect project and the perfect editor together. Editor submission lists are a lot of fun for me to compile. I'm thinking about the right matches all the time; it's the type of thing that I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about. When I'm taking editorial notes on a project I'm reading, I'm also scrawling the names of potential editors to send it to as the names come to me. Even when I read for pleasure, I can't get it out of my head. I read books thinking "Oh, so-and-so would love this and would totally want to buy it." And then I have to remind myself, "The book's already been published. It has an editor, dummy." (That's when I email my editor friends reading suggestions.) It's important to consider all sorts of things when matching editors and projects: Is there a category they want to acquire but haven't? Is there a category they have acquired but never want to work on again? What are their interests? What are their backgrounds? What are their hobbies? Where are they from? What do they read for pleasure? What do they wish they acquired? There are a million things to consider and my submission lists go through many drafts.

Before I send a writer’s work to an editor, I always make contact first to confirm it’s something they want to see (and so that they’re expecting it when it lands on the paper refectory that is their/their assistant’s desk) via a phone call, email, lunch, breakfast, dinner, drinks… you get the picture. And then I personalize the cover letter. My first round sizes range from 1 to 8 to 10 to 12 to 16… I recently sent out a book to 19 editors for the first round. Wow, it was a lot of work (and our messenger service scolded us for neglecting to tell them that one bike messenger couldn’t handle the load), but it was right for the project. Once in while I’ll send a book out for a week exclusive or head start for various reasons, but only if the match is just too perfect.

It’s different each time. I share the strategies and material I propose using with my clients and am always happy to answer questions about the process. In the end, authors’ manuscripts are their art form; the submission process is mine. (And it’s a lot of fun too.)