But what happens if they LIKE my pitch?

Congratulations to long-time reader Auburn McCanta, who took third place in the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association’s literary contest’s poetry division! Well done, Auburn!

Please join me in a big round of applause to everyone who was nominated, and I’ll keep reporting good news as it rolls in. Or not, as the case may be. But I’m proud of all the finalists, and everyone who was brave enough to enter.

Congratulations, too, to all of you who have mustered up the courage to pitch, query, and/or submit this year. It takes genuine bravery to put yourself and your work out there; I don’t think the writing community gives aspiring writers enough credit for that. I’m proud of you, though.

In an effort to become prouder of those of you who do not have easy access to face-to-face pitching opportunities or — dare I say it? — the vast majority of you who do not have the resources readily available to attend a first-rate writers’ conference, I am going to show you how to apply those lessons we learned in constructing a pitch to crafting a pleasing query letter. I hope you’ll pardon me, though, if I put that worthy topic on hold for a week or so to go over how to put together a submission packet.

I know, I know: I’ve been lavishing a lot of attention on pitching lately, and I freely admit that the timing on this week’s series is all about trying to help those pitching this conference season. However, since all of you, I hope, will be facing the joyous-but-stressful prospect of responding to a request for pages at some point, whether you get there by querying or pitching, I feel justified in dealing with this all-important topic now.

Another reason to leap right into submission packets: for those of you who aren’t already aware of it, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between mid-August and Labor Day — and yes, that includes the staff of the average agency. So if you’re pitching or querying this summer (or already have), you’re better off either sending your submission within the next couple of weeks or waiting until after Labor Day.

If you haven’t had the opportunity to read your pages for submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, might want to take advantage of the annual August break to do that. Ditto if you have yet to get good feedback from first readers outside of your circle of family and close friends (who tend to have a hard time giving unbiased feedback, no matter how gifted they are as readers; for more on the hows and whys of selecting good first readers, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right).

But I see that mad light in some recent pitchers’ eyes — some of you are determined not to sleep, eat, or take your multivitamins until you get those requested materials out the door, right?

Okay, let me tackle your dilemma…but wait; what is that strange whirling object floating in the air before you? You are getting sleepy, I tell you. Sleepy…

Did it work? I thought not. Worth a try, though, because the single best piece of advice those of you who have pitched or queried successfully recently could get right now is RELAX.

Actually, it’s some of the best advice you could take at any point of the marketing process: you are relaxing, I tell you, RELAXING in the face of your upcoming pitching appointment…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work…you are buttonholing agents in at conference events and successfully giving your hallway pitch…you are calmly going through your 2-minute pitch to an agent who is delighted to hear it…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work, and you are thrilled when they do…

So let’s assume for the moment that the mantras I’ve been chanting at you for the last few weeks have worked, and an agent or editor has asked to see the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or even the entirety of your manuscript. What do you do next?

In the first place, you should send your submissions simultaneously to everyone who asked for them, for reasons I explained via example over the weekend: it’s in your best interest to do it..

Your heart may tell you to give that dreamy agent who was so nice to you an unrequested exclusive, but believe me, your brain should be telling you to play the field. Don’t tell me that love is blind. Wear your glasses, for heaven’s sake.

Second, you should send precisely what each agent asked you to send.

The first 50 means just that: the first 50 pages in standard format. Under no circumstances should you round up or down, even if pp. 49 or 51 is the last of the chapter.

Yes, even if that means stopping the submission in mid-sentence. (And if you aren’t absolutely positive that your manuscript IS in standard format or if you were not aware that manuscripts are NOT formatted like published books, please run, do not walk, to the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Or wait a few days until I run over the rules again.)

No slipping in an extra five pages because there’s nifty writing in it, no adding a videotape of you accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor, no cookies or crisp $20 bills as bribes.

Need I say that I know writers who have done all these things, and now know better? Remember, showing the beauty and innovation of your writing is not the only purpose of submission — part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions, a rather desirable attribute in a potential client who might be expected to meet sudden deadlines or make surprise revisions down the line.

Believe me, an agent who decides to sign a writer will be issuing a LOT of directions between that initial handshake and sending out that book or proposal to editors. A writer who cannot follow basic packaging directions (such as “Send me the first 50 pages, please.”) is inherently more time-consuming to represent.

Is that really the first impression you want your submission to convey?

If you’re asked for a specific number of pages, don’t count the title page as one of them — but no matter how long an excerpt you have been asked to send, DO include a title page.

I shall be going over how to construct one in a few days, but if you’re in a hurry and if you don’t know how to format a professional title page, or even that there is a professional format for one, please wend your way to the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right. (You see, I really have been preparing my readers for this moment.)

If asked for a synopsis, send one; do not enclose one otherwise. Ditto for an author bio (don’t worry; I’ll be talking about how to build one soon; if you’re in a hurry, check out the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right), table of contents (unless you’ve been asked to submit a book proposal), illustrations, letters of recommendation from your favorite writing teacher, and/or the aforementioned cookies.

Just send what you’ve been asked to send: no more, no less. With two exceptions: you should include a SASE, industry-speak for a stamped (not metered), self-addressed envelope for the manuscript’s safe return, and you should include a cover letter.

Why the cover letter? Well, in the first place, render it as easy as humanly possible to contact you — the last thing you want is to make it hard for them to ask for more pages, right? But also, you should do it for the same good, practical reason that I’m going to advise you to write

(Conference name) — REQUESTED MATERIALS

in 3-inch letters on the outside of the envelope: so your work doesn’t end up languishing in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts (which are, incidentally, almost invariably rejected).

Agents and editors hear a LOT of pitches in the course of the average conference; no matter how terrific your book is, it’s just not reasonable to expect them to remember yours weeks after the fact (which it almost certainly will be, by the time they get around to reading it) simply by its title and your name.

Thus, it is in your best interests to remind them that they did, indeed, ask to see your manuscript.

Be subtle about the reminder — no need to state outright that you are worried that they’ve confused you with the other 150 people they met that day — but it is a good idea to provide some context. Simply inform the agent or editor him/her where you met and that s/he asked to see what you’re sending. As in,

Dear Mr. White,

I very much enjoyed our meeting at the recent Conference X. Thank you for requesting my fantasy novel, WHAT I DID TO SAVE THE PLANET.

I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at the address and phone number below, or via email at…


A. Writer

That’s it. No need to recap your plot or re-pitch your concept. Just simple, clean, businesslike.

But do NOT, I beg you, present it in block-indented business format, as the rigors of blog format have forced me to do above — indent your paragraphs. Why? Well, many folks in the industry regard business format as only marginally literate, at best.

Trust me, they don’t care what you do in the multi-million dollar factory you run: indent those paragraphs whenever you are dealing with anyone in publishing.

Oh, and if other agents or editors requested pages, say that others are also looking at it. No need to be specific. This is considered good manners, and often gets your submission read a bit faster.

The other reason that mentioning where you met is a good idea is — and I tremble to tell you this, but it does happen — there are some unscrupulous souls who, aware that pitch fatigue may well cause memory blurring, send submissions that they CLAIM are requested, but in fact were not.

“Oh, like he’s going to remember ANY pitcher’s name,” these ruthless climbers scoff, stuffing first chapters into the envelopes of everyone who attended a particular conference.

Such scoffers occasionally receive a comeuppance redolent with poetic justice: VERY frequently, the roster of agents and editors scheduled to attend a particular conference changes at the last minute. How well received do you think a, “I enjoyed our conversation at last weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named,” letter goes over with an agent who missed a plane and didn’t show up at that particular conference?

Tee hee.

Do remember, though, for the sake of your blood pressure, you do NOT need to drop everything and mail off requested materials within hours of a conference’s end. The standard writers’ conference wisdom advises getting it out within three weeks of the conference, but actually, that’s not necessary.

Especially this time of year. Had you heard that the publishing industry pretty much shuts down from early August until after Labor Day, anyway?

And no, an agent or editor’s perceived friendliness during the pitching session should NOT be regarded as a legitimate reason to rush a submission out the door willy-nilly. As I believe I said half a dozen times in the week leading up to the Conference That Shall Not Be Named, a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not a blood pact.

Nothing has yet been promised — and it can’t have been. As I have mentioned several dozen times throughout this series, no agent is going to sign you on a pitch alone; no matter how good your book concept is, they are going to want to see actual pages before committing.

Why? Consult that old industry truism: “It all depends upon the writing.”

By the same token, you are not bound to honor the request for materials instantaneously. And no, the fact that you said you would send it the moment you got home from the conference does NOT mean that you should send it off without proofing and performing any necessary revisions; unless they asked for an exclusive, they do not expect you to send it within a day or two, or to overnight it.

Besides, it is very much to your advantage that they see your work at its absolute best, after all, not as our work tends to be before a hard-copy proofing.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: take the time to read EVERY page you intend to submit to ANYONE in the industry in hard copy, out loud, every time.

There is no better way to weed out the mistakes that will strike you a week later as boneheaded (for real-life samples of these, see the archived Let’s Talk About This on the subject), and the extra couple of weeks fixing any problems might take will not harm your chances one iota.

Trust me, agents and editors meet too many writers at conferences to sit around thinking, “Darn it, where is that Jane Doe’s manuscript? I asked for it two weeks ago! Well, I guess I’m just going to reject it now, sight unseen.”

A common writers’ negative fantasy, but it just doesn’t happen. These people are simply too busy for that. If you wait 6 months to send it, they may wonder a little, but 6 days or 6 weeks? Please.

So unless you already have the manuscript in apple-pie order (which includes having read it — take a deep breath now, so you can say it along with me — in its ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ALOUD), it’s worth your while to take the time for a final polish.

You want your book to be pretty for its big date, right?

While you’re doing that, I’m going to be running over how to pull together a submission packet that just bellows, “This writer has done her homework! How refreshing!” So do keep checking in throughout the next week or so.

In the meantime, you are relaxing about getting those requested materials out the door, I tell you…relaxing…

Keep up the good work!

9 Replies to “But what happens if they LIKE my pitch?”

  1. About that SASE, stamped not metered . . .

    What say I find a book that I can convince an agent has a similar audience as mine. Furthermore, what say said agent is in Britain.

    Considering postage rates and the use of American stamps are rather variable, how would I best go about including a SASE in this submission?

    1. Ooh, tough question, Jake — because actually, in order for a British agent to be able to use your SASE, you would need to apply UK stamps to it, not US. Basically, this places you in the same quandary as non-US writers querying US agents.

      Happily, the Royal Mail website sells UK stamps online, as well as international mailers. Once you have those in your hot little hands, you may use them like any other SASE.

  2. Thanks for the timely advice. And I’m happy to report that I placed third in the Sci Fi/Fantasy category at PNWA this year.

    1. Woo hoo, Serenissima — I’ll definitely gloat about your triumph in today’s post!

      And good for you, Dave and Auburn! I don’t know that my advice makes the process EASY, but I do hope that it makes it EASIER.

  3. Congratulations Auburn and Serenissima! My contest entry didn’t fare quite as well…I wasn’t a finalist. I do try to imagine that I was number nine out of the eight, however.

    Nonetheless, I ended up with a request for pages, even after I felt I had totally butchered my pitch, a pitch that I thought I had prepared and honed better than ever before.


  4. Congratulations, Serenissima! I’m still smiling myself.

    If I could have given my tearful, stunned, who me?, heartfelt acceptance speech, it would have gone something like this: “Blah … blah … blah … And finally, special acknowledgment to Anne Mini, who, in spite of a year of horrid illness and unfortunate literary luck that should never befall any writer, nevertheless unselfishly gave herself over to daily pleading, cajoling, whipping her readers into a frenzy, then just when we think all is lost, gently guiding and instructing us in all ways literary. Thank you, Anne … and in the immortal words of Tiny Tim, ‘bless us all, everyone!’”

    Well, maybe something like that.

    During the conference, I pitched a Women’s Lit/Mainstream novel. Employing Anne’s tried-and-true help, several agents requested I send them selected material. One agent even wants a Marketing Plan. (Do I have one? Of course! That is, I will in about five days.) Another agent wants the entire manuscript. Much hard work coming up, but Anne has made the process easy.

    Dave, good luck with your request for pages. I’m holding grand thoughts for all of us.

  5. Congrats to all those who were recognized at the conference and to those who entered, Dave!

    I have a question (don’t I always?): Now a days, it seems all agents request submissions via email — without attachments. Consequently, we have to copy our meticulously formatted manuscripts into the email text area. After we remove all the indented paragraphs and put two returns between each paragraph. Plus figure out how to indicate italics or bold…

    Doing so, in my opinion, negates the meticulous formatting we put our original documents into.

    Right? Or have I missed something?

    1. I’m going to respond to Kathy’s question, if I may. It so happens that the request for pages I have from the recent conference is to send them via e-mail. However, in asking for the submission, the agent specifically announced to send as an attachment. It has been my (limited?) experience that if asking a specific writer for pages to be sent via e-mail, a good many agents do want the submission as an attachment. It seems to be agents/agencies who ask for pages along with a query letter who ask that those pages be pasted into the body of the e-mail. Maybe it is wrong of me to not worry to much about it, but I don’t worry about how the e-mail messes up what had once been standard format. Of course, I’m assuming that the agent or agency screener who will receive it will understand that peculiarity of electronic mail.
      With regard to what I have been requested to send, my biggest chore will be to combine the synopsis, various chapters, and cover page into one document. That in itself is easy. I always end up with problems with the page numbers in the slug lines when I try to do stuff like that.

  6. It’s not all agents — or agencies — by a long shot, Kathy — it’s SOME of the ones that primarily solicit clients via their websites. Not all agencies even have websites. The request for in-text attachments is purely a means of minimizing the risk of acquiring viruses from total strangers’ sending them unsolicited manuscripts. Perfectly reasonable.

    Since the vast majority of agencies will still not read unsolicited material at all, I’m a little at a loss as to where you’re getting the impression that ALL agencies have suddenly changed their policies on the subject. Dave is right — REQUESTED e-mail submissions (i.e., ones that the agent has asked specifically to see, rather than submissions from anyone who might have happened to visit a website) are pretty much invariably requested as attachments.

    So I assume the ones you’re talking about here are the agents whose websites ask that e-queriers include a small writing sample with the query, right? In those cases, one is asked to copy one’s query letter and a sample into a dialogue box very much like the one here for comments.

    That, by definition, is an unsolicited manuscript. Typically, they’re usually only asking for a few pages, at best, not the whole manuscript — effectively, they are not asking to see the manuscript at all, but a writing sample. Even should they ask for as much as a chapter in-text (which would be so rare that I would seriously doubt that they actually intended to read more than the first couple of pages), it would be far, far more work for anyone who worked with manuscripts to read more than just a few pages in this manner.

    There’s a very practical reason that no agent in his right mind is going to ask for more than a few pages as anything OTHER than an attachment. It would be well-nigh impossible to read, for one thing, and it would be absolutely impossible to submit the resulting text to a publishing house, since it’s not in manuscript form.

    In other words, the format of this sort of submission doesn’t reflect at all on standard format. It’s simply a function of how comment boxes work.

    So it’s very simple: all you need to do is copy the relevant pages from your Word document into the text of the e-mail. In my e-mail program, the indents remain, but as you point out, much of the rest of the formatting disappears. Any agent who asks for writing samples this way would already be aware of that.

    Which leads me to the other part of your question, the one that implies that these agents are deliberately trying to get writers to waste their time or that observing standard format restrictions is obsolete. Neither, in my opinion, is a realistic response to the request that a few pages be sent in-text. In the first place, agents would be the FIRST to appreciate the value of a properly-formatted manuscript, since it would be impossible for them to market any other kind, and second, they’re going to ask for a properly-formatted manuscript if they like what they see.

    Which, again, renders this a moot point, because any requested manuscript will be either sent as an attachment or in hard copy — and thus be expected to exhibit all of the species markings of a properly-formatted manuscript.

    I suspect that what’s happened here is that you conflated this type of submission-via-website (an unsolicited submission) with the REQUESTED kind, simply because they both might conceivably be described as e-mailed submissions. In practice, however, what you’re describing is a query with extras, not a submission at all.

    Thus, a request to see a writing sample as part of a query cannot logically have anything with agents’ feelings about standard format at all — and as a necessary result, couldn’t possibly negate the formatting effort.

    I do wish that aspiring writers weren’t so eager to leap to this type of conclusion — because you’re certainly not alone in this particular assumption, Kathy; half of the comments and e-mails I get each time I go over the rules of standard format are howls of protest from aspiring writers who are absolutely convinced that the rules have changed altogether. Almost invariably, the changes for which they are arguing are ones that would make the writers’ life easier — not entirely a coincidence, I suspect.

    If the rules have changed, I assure you, none of us who work with agents and editors on a day-to-day basis have been informed of it.
    No one is claiming that the submission process is writer-friendly, but the rules are really pretty straightforward. If one wants to be a professional writer, one needs to learn the formatting standards of the industry and apply them. Period.

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