The Big Pitch: 4 Questions Literary Agents Want You to Answer

Alana Sousa

Last year, I took a shot. I applied for the Irish Writers Centre’s international Novel Fair. If you haven’t heard of it, I suggest you click that link right now. Picture two days of intense speed-dating with a selection of literary agents and editors from Ireland, the US, and the UK. Around ten times a day, for fifteen minutes, you sit across a screen from someone whose approval can dramatically change your life, and try everything in your power to impress them.

Well, the shot paid-off. I got in. As I write this, the Novel Fair wrapped up just under a month ago. In the end, fourteen out of the sixteen agents and editors I met with asked to see more of my manuscript. Recently, one of those agents made me an offer. Reader, I accepted.

I went into the Novel Fair knowing nothing at all about how to pitch my book, with only two months to learn. Google helped a bit, the advice of the Novel Fair judges and the Irish Writers Centre staff helped even more, but what really got me there was changing my entire mindset about querying — something I’d been doing, unsuccessfully, for over a year before I sent in my application. Writers make a living by putting ourselves in others’ shoes. And yet, when querying agents, we become so intimidated that we often forget who agents are and what matters to them. Literary agents are human beings. They love books, they love talking about books. Any agent attending a pitching event — or diving into the slush-pile — does so hoping to strike gold. Everyone I spoke to at the Novel Fair was down-to-earth, friendly, and helpful. And across the board, they all wanted to know four key things:

  • What’s the story? (The Elevator Pitch)
  • How is it told?
  • What makes it special?
  • How can I sell it?

I thought about my pitch as a conversation based around those four questions. For the “Elevator Pitch,” I boiled down my nearly 120k-word historical fiction doorstopper into three sentences. (Some agents will demand a single sentence, so I had a version ready for them as well.) Writing a killer 1-3 sentence pitch is a big topic in itself, but what really helped me in writing mine was to stick to a formula, something like this:

In (time/ place), (catalyst) happens to (character A), who then (makes a decision) to (action) with (character B), leading to (high-stakes consequences).

Short and sweet, and driven entirely by the characters’ actions.

Having heard the Elevator Pitch, most agents then wanted to know about structure and style: how is the story told? From whose perspective? Is it darkly funny, bittersweet, flat-out grim? Agents often mention in their bios what sort of voice draws them in, so this is where you demonstrate why they’ll love your book about, say, small-town murder, over someone else’s. In fact, a novel’s voice may just be that coveted “hook” which sets it apart from other, similar books on the shelf. Which brings me to…

So, what does make your book special? What is the “hook?” This question is crucial, and one that writers all too frequently leave unaddressed in query letters. Sometimes we neglect this question out of the hope that our work will speak for itself; sometimes we honestly don’t know the answer. Good news is, if we want to figure it out, the remedy is to read. In the two months I had to get ready for the Fair, I read (sometimes skimmed, let’s be real) stacks of recent books in my genre (historical), my sub-genre (literary-historical), and my sub-sub-genre (LGBTQ+ literary-historical). Later on, when agents came at me with that dreaded “hook” question, I was able to say why my book stood out from the crowd by virtue of knowing what the crowd looked like.

Having digested all of this information — and hopefully having been enticed by it — the agent must then ask themselves, “How can I sell this?” This is truly the make-or-break question. Almost without fail, they posed it to me like so: “Where do you see your book on ‘the shelf?’” This mythical shelf exists somewhere in every agent’s imagination. It’s in ours too: not a shelf in a bookstore, but in someone’s living room, or in a pile on a nightstand, our book’s beautiful dust-jacket worn to tatters, its pages well-thumbed, broken-spined through too much loving. Beside it, around it, are all those books we read to prepare for question three. These are what we call, somewhat crassly I think, “comps.”

Here’s where a shift in perspective is helpful. Because the “comps” question really is about readership. It’s about people. Who’s going to buy your book? What other books has this person bought and loved? What stories are they hungry for, and how are you going to satisfy that hunger?

Picture that shelf you want to sit on, and who else is there beside you. Dream big. Use a shelf in your own house, your book nestled cozily between your favorite authors. Just stick to a couple of rules: Don’t use titles that came out more than three years ago. Don’t use titles that are too obscure, or that didn’t sell at least reasonably well, or that are too far outside your genre. (If you’re writing commercial horror, best not to use a literary fiction title unless you have a damn good reason.)

Of course, there are many ways of nabbing an agent’s attention. This is simply what worked for me, and in this business there are no guarantees. But if you’re reading this, then you are obviously willing to give it a shot, and sometimes that’s all it takes.

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