So this year at the Stockholm Writer’s Festival I had the lucky opportunity to pitch my manuscript to an agent. My actual manuscript. TO AN ACTUAL AGENT.

And whilst I didn’t get a: “holy moly, you’re amazing, it’s done deal!” I did get a: “I’d read that, send it over.”

Which I’m taking as a huge success!

So here are my 6 steps for anyone who is going to verbally pitch to an agent. Now if you don’t have a meeting booked – don’t close this just yet. You can meet people who can get you somewhere in the publishing world all the time. It could be at a dinner party, it could be in a bookshop during a signing. It could be at an awesomely organised festival like SWF.

So before you sigh and close this tab looking for query letter tips instead (also coming to this blog shortly)… hold fire. You never know when you’re going to need a 60-second book pitch.

It could be the difference between your book getting published and it forever sitting on your computer.

adult beard beverage blur

How to pitch to an agent verbally

What I’m going to talk about in the next 6 points is how to construct your pitch. But throughout, the golden rule is less is moreReally, you want to spend your time with an agent listening rather than talking. I know that sounds counter-intuitive because you’re the one pitching, but the agent is the one with the industry knowledge.

The questions they ask you (or the questions you ask them) will help you get an understanding of how commercially viable your book is and the more they talk, the more you can get an idea of whether they actually want to sell it.

You also don’t want to talk too much – and you also don’t want to stuff so much into the 60-second pitch that you’re talking faster than Captain Marvel can fly.

But follow these six points and you’ll have a good skeleton:

(1) Talking about your novel

This portion of your speech should be a maximum of 60 seconds. Here’s what you need to cover off in the plot-centric portion of your pitch:

  • The novel’s hook – what’s going to draw the reader into the story?
  • How the main conflict builds
  • The character development as the novel progresses
  • The climax
  • Your closing hook

Now, this isn’t a query letter. You don’t want to include a wealth of information – they’ll get that when you send your synopsis or even your manuscript.

What you’re doing in your verbal pitch is whetting the appetite for a full manuscript read.

For each of these points, try and capture them in 1-2 sentences. I KNOW this is a big ask, but remember: this isn’t your synopsis. This is your verbal pitch, and verbal pitches are different.

Now… I’m not going to give you my verbal pitch, because it includes things like plot twists (which will spoil the book for you) and it outlines some of the events in the book (which will also act as spoilers. Instead, I’ve pretended I’m pitching Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (a beautiful book, and one I’ve spent a lot of time with recently thanks to my master’s thesis)

The novel’s hook

When Clare bumps into Henry in a library in Chicago, she already knows two things. Firstly, this is the man she will marry. Secondly, Henry is a time traveler. The problem is, her past is Henry’s future, and the man she knows doesn’t quite exist yet. 

In just a few sentences we have:

  • The conflict (the gap between Clare’s knowledge and Henry’s)
  • Setting (Chicago)
  • Inciting incident (implied)

How the main conflict builds

With Henry piecing together his past with Clare, Clare works to piece together their future. Every moment she spent with him as a child is now an absence that puts a strain on their relationship, and it soon becomes clear that being in love with a man that regularly disappears in time will have devastating consequences for them both. 

How the character develops

Caught between the future she knows she’ll have and the lonely reality of her present, Clare realises that sacrifices have to be made. She and Henry work together to try and slow, or even stop his time-traveling so they have a chance of being a family.

How events build to the climax

Despite their attempts, Henry finds himself disappearing more often to Clare’s past, where he discovers their time together in the present has a limit. 

In my pitch, I also alluded to the plot twist. This isn’t something you have to do – but it’s worthwhile treating the end of every paragraph in the same way you treat the end of your chapters. Just like you want to keep your reader’s reading, you want to keep an agent listening.

Closing hook

As the clock begins to run out for Clare and Henry, they are faced with the question they have, in some way, faced throughout their relationship. Can their love transcend time?

The closing hook isn’t something you necessarily need, but it’s a good way to mark the end of talking about the novel and move into talking about the statistics, word count and similarities of your novel, which we’ll come onto next.

(2) Novel statistics

Now you’ve (hopefully) sold them on the content of your novel, time to start selling the facts. This can be very easily summed up in one sentence:

TITLE OF YOUR NOVEL, complete at X words, is a X genre novel that tackles themes of Y and Z through the eyes of it’s ADJECTIVE protagonist, NAME. E.g.:

The Time Traveler’s Wife, complete at 154,860 words, is a cross-genre novel that tackles themes of love and predestination through the eyes of its star-crossed protagonists, Clare and Henry.

Don’t be afraid to mess around with this a little, and feel free to turn your attention somewhere different (e.g. if your novel is about the D-Day Landings, you might turn the protagonist focus above into an event focus.)

(3) Novel comparisons

The one question that consistently came up in agent pitches was “what existing works would you compare your novel to?”

There are a thousand ways you can slice this up:

  • The Time Traveler’s Wife is The Notebook meets Slaughterhouse-five
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife is written in a style similar to that of AUTHOR FROM THE GENRE, with a conversational tone that flits between humour and seriousness.
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife would sit on a shelf beside novels like The Lovely Bones and Water for Elephants.

It’s important that you can draw comparisons within your genre where possible. You don’t want to say they’re similar in content (as hopefully they’re not!) but you do want to draw similarities between successful works and your own in other ways. Try to include this with comparisons between:

  • Character focus/journey
  • Narrative voice/tone
  • Themes/conflicts
  • Language style (especially pertinent for historical fiction authors like me!)

(4) Projected readership

The agent will already be doing a few calculations in their head of who would want to read a novel like yours and where they could position it: so make their job easier. Tell them who you envision your readership to be. E.g:

  • My novel would appeal to fans of AUTHORS/WORKS/SERIES

(5) Turn the attention onto the agent

Do your research before you walk into the room. You want to show the agent that you’ve researched them and their niche, and you haven’t just blanket-booked anyone you could find. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply in the dinner party scenario.)

You want to say something like:

I wanted to speak to you particularly regarding MY NOVEL’S TITLE because you mentioned on your website that you are searching for NICHE/GENRE/PLOT IDEA and your agency has had success in selling books similiar to mine, most recently with BOOK THEY GOT PUBLISHED.

(6) End on a question

This could be something as simple as “do you have any questions?”, but you want to avoid the awkward pause between the agent registering this information and deciding on something to say. Prompt them to pick up the conversation from the point you left off (and, if I’m honest, they may well have jumped in before this point to question you)

If you include these 6 points, and try and condense your ‘speech’ to about 60 seconds, you have a good chance of heading off a lot of the preliminary questions an agent will ask, whilst showing that you know a lot about them and where your novel will be positioned in the market.

The full pitch (example):

(1)

When Clare bumps into Henry in a library in Chicago, she already knows two things. Firstly, this is the man she will marry. Secondly, Henry is a time traveler. The problem is, her past is Henry’s future, and the man she knows doesn’t quite exist yet. 

With Henry piecing together his past with Clare, Clare works to piece together their future. Every moment she spent with him as a child is now an absence that puts a strain on their relationship, and it soon becomes clear that being in love with a man that regularly disappears in time will have devastating consequences for them both. 

Caught between the future she knows she’ll have and the lonely reality of her present, Clare realises that sacrifices have to be made. She and Henry work together to try and slow, or even stop his time-travelling so they have a chance of being a family.

Despite their attempts, Henry finds himself disappearing more often to Clare’s past, where he discovers their time together in the present has a limit. As the clock begins to run out for Clare and Henry, they are faced with the question they have, in some way, faced throughout their relationship. Can their love transcend time?

(2)

The Time Traveler’s Wife, complete at 154,860 words, is a cross-genre novel that tackles themes of love and predestination through the eyes of its star-crossed protagonists, Clare and Henry.

(3 & 4)

Written in a conversational first person but tackling darker themes of love, loss and free-will, The Time Traveler’s Wife would sit on a shelf beside novels like The Lovely Bones and Water for Elephants (4) and would appeal to readers of both time-travel and romance fiction.

(5)

I wanted to speak to you, specifically, because I saw you are searching for cross-genre work with a strong female protagonist.

(6)

Do you have any questions for me at this point?

TOTAL SPEAKING TIME: 01:39:60

  • Time spent talking about novel content = 59 seconds
  • Time spent talking about novel statistics and positioning = 40 seconds

In a 10 minute meeting, this meant I had roughly 8 minutes left for discussion. This might be about points in the novel the agent wants to dive into deeper, the wider impact of the novel, or where they would see it working. I got to share some of my historical research and discover that we actually live two streets apart. (Small world!)

 

What other questions will agents ask?

Regardless of what you’re writing, the agent will likely ask you what other novels from within your genre you enjoy. This isn’t small talk – it’s ensuring you understand the genre in which you’re trying to position your book and you have a good understanding of what’s already out there.

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction and have been since I was a child, so I have a broad (if subjective) basis on which to form my opinions of what makes a good histfic novel, which time-periods have been done to death* (Tudors, I’m looking at you) and which authors my work might sit alongside.

They also want to know that you know your novel inside out. Understand your themes. Get under the skin of your characters. Sell them. Breathe life into them. Talk about them with the passion you’ve injected between your pages and it’ll come across.

You got this!

More help:

10 Tips for Agent Pitching

Points in your story where an agent will stop reading


* Just because something’s been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it, it just means you need to find a way to make your novel stand out amongst the rest.

Share your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.