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How to pitch a story: 10 killer pitch tips

Learning how to pitch your story so that its merits and unique intrigue are clear is crucial. Read tips from Penguin UK, Penguin Random House and more.

Learning how to pitch a story so that you demonstrate your story’s interest, timeliness and other merits is valuable. Read ten killer tips on pitching stories from agents, editors, and publishers:

What is a story pitch? Summaries that sell

Let’s first define pitches. Broadly speaking (according to Oxford Dictionaries), pitches are ‘talk or arguments used by a person trying to sell things or persuade people to do something’.

This twin purpose – demonstrating your story’s value/interest and spurring to action – is essential.

When you pitch a novel to an agent, you’re selling the merits of your story. Motivating (rather than persuading) an agent to represent you (the action).

When you pitch a news story to a magazine or paper, you’re selling the timeliness or relevance of your story. Why it is current or newsworthy, plus how you have done (or will still do) relevant research.

If it is a fiction story, you demonstrate why it is interesting and a fit for the publication (in terms of genre, demographic appeal, and other aspects).

The content of a story pitch thus differs depending on your medium and what editors and publishers require in your medium.

How to pitch your story: 10 insights

  1. Finish, revise, redraft first
  2. Know and follow guidelines
  3. Do the three Ps
  4. Go for highlights over layers
  5. Give recent, nuanced comps
  6. Show which shelf it fits on
  7. Pitch in person if possible
  8. Take care and time to pitch
  9. Avoid bland or generic: Be specific
  10. Get a beta reader or editor

Let’s dive into how to pitch a story, with insights from Penguin Random House, Writer’s Digest, Jane Friedman, Queryshark and others:

1. Finish, revise, redraft first

You could, in theory, pitch a project that is still in development. Agents and editors often request partial manuscripts (with fifty pages of your manuscript being a common page count for partial requests).

Yet what if an agent or editor were to ask to see your full manuscript and you hadn’t finished it?

Penguin Books, on the ‘getting published’ segment of their blog, advise finishing, revising and redrafting your book well before you pitch it.

Aside from enabling you to submit the full manuscript if requested, it also has other benefits as Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer shared in our webinar on querying:

You don’t want to waste your shot. So definitely try and have your full novel complete before you submit to editors and agents. The other reason for doing this is that sometimes the book only takes shape and might change while you’re writing it… it might change by the time you are complete and might not be what the editor or agent wants anymore.

Romy Sommer, ‘Crafting an Effective Query’, available to subscribers here.

2. Find and follow guidelines

Speaking of not wasting your shot: Follow guidelines if given (a polite request for preferences if not readily available doesn’t hurt).

The surest way to end up in the ‘no’ pile is to see ‘please submit in Times New Roman, 12 point font’ and say ‘I think I’ll submit in 9 point Comic Sans’. Avoid giving busy publishing professionals a reason to say no on a technicality.

Guidelines an agent or publishing house provides (smaller publishing houses may allow direct submission) may include:

  • Line spacing
  • Indentation rules
  • Font size and family
  • Page numbering

Common requests include adding your manuscript’s title at the top of each page as a header, including page numbers, and using double spacing.

If you put all your effort into a sparkling pitch but your manuscript is a mess, this won’t bode well for decision-makers.

Quote on how to pitch a story - Romy Sommer says finish first

3. Do the three Ps

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies offers some valuable advice for writing powerful pitches: The three Ps. In a piece on pitching a story (drawn from a course by Dan Grech called ‘Writing for the Ear’), Vicki Kreuger says:

Pitches need to prod, pique and provoke. You need to make it impossible for an editor or producer to say no.

Vicki Kreuger, ‘3 guidelines for a good story pitch’, Poynter.org

So how do you prod, pique and provoke?

  1. Prod with your pitch: To prod is to spur to action. Indicate why your story is timely or relevant, why it is worth publishing now (or in the near to mid future).
  2. Pique an editor-agent’s interest: Why is your story interesting, not only to you but to a target audience who loves your category of book (e.g. paranormal fantasy)? Demonstrate understanding of your genre’s terrain (this is where comp titles help – more on that below)
  3. Provoke an emotional response: A strong pitch suggests the core problems in a story, the journey the story will take a reader on, the core challenges its primary agents will face.

Read the blurbs of books you love. How do authors or their marketing teams use precise, emotive language to make the central questions in the work more vivid and need-to-know?

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4. Go for highlights over layers

This is advice on how to write a pitch courtesy of Penguin Random House.

In advice on detailing the ‘high-concept hook’ that makes your story unique for your pitch, Phil Stamper-Halpin says:

Think about what makes your book unique—what you’ve explored that others haven’t, or how you’ve approached a story in a new way—and note that. Instead of describing the many layers within your book, touch on the highlights.

Phil Stamper-Halpin, ‘Author’s Toolkit: How to Pitch your Book to Anyone’, Penguin Random House, September 2017.

Highlight details such as central conflicts or choices, main characters, core obstacles, the crux of your story, with specific, noteworthy details.

5. Give recent, nuanced comps

What are comp titles? Short for ‘comparison titles’, these are recent publications (within at least the last three years) in your genre that are similar in terms of target reading audience, reader demographics and genre.

When Janet Reid of Queryshark was asked whether it was a dealbreaker that a comp title an author had listed was 20 years old, with the querying writer saying that beta readers couldn’t think of a better one, she said:

Yes. Comp titles need to be recent, no more than three years old […] It’s not up to your beta readers to find them (nice try). This is your job.

Janet Reid, via the Queryshark blog.

So then, how do you find decent comps to mention if you’re pitching a manuscript query for a novel?

Penguin Random House suggests:

  • Not referencing bestsellers which your manuscript would possibly not go toe to toe with
  • Referencing books that sold reasonably well in your niche (more reasonable comparison)
  • Using data sources such as ‘people also bought…’ on online bookstores to find similar titles to known comp titles

6. Show which shelf it fits on

When you are pitching, you are selling. And when you are selling, indicating a shelf that makes sense helps. Nobody looks for chocolate in the cleaning product aisle. Readers make a beeline for the categories they want and the content they expect.

Book categories such as genre, subgenre or demographic niche (e.g. YA or Young Adult) are useful because they give some guide to what readers can expect. There is still wide room within these categories for variety and individuation.

Queryshark is again a great resource to read through for insight into aspects of pitching, such as finding how the content of your book can guide what you pitch it as to agents or editors. For example this nuanced take on a fantasy pitch that had both adult and younger elements:

This is fantasy. The question is which shelf: adult or MG.

You have an adult plot and it sounds like Aman is also an adult (or at least not a child.)

But 55K is way too short for an adult fantasy novel. Fantasy needs world building and world building needs words. And the comps below are kids.

Janet Reid, via Queryshark
Quote on how to pitch a story - focus on highlights

7. Pitch in person if possible

These days, it is so easy to get someone’s email and pitch them. [Emails we receive asking for links on this blog are great lessons in how not to pitch. Don’t begin ‘Hi Dear, I need…’].

Peggy Eddleman, in an older article for Writer’s Digest that still offers relevant insights, makes a great argument for attending conferences where there are story pitching opportunities:

Agents get tons of queries every single day, and a good 90 percent of them come from people who haven’t worked very hard to perfect their craft. Agents know that if you go to conferences, you’re likely in the 10 percent who have. If you go to a conference and pitch, you’re likely a top 10 percent writer who has a book close to being worthy of representation.

Peggy Eddleman, ‘7 Tips for Pitching to an Agent or Editor at a Conference’

Getting published, and into the book world, means also attending events that enable you to meet and learn from others already deeply involved in the book business.

8. Take care and time to pitch

We take so much care over stories, yet often beginning authors want to rush the process as soon as the draft is complete.

There is no good reason not to put the same amount of care and patience into revision, editing, and pitching your book as you put into writing it.

In a piece on pitching ‘like a Hollywood pro’, publishing strategist Jane Friedman talks about the value not only of pitching your story with full preparedness, but taking time to answer questions potential agents or editors may have for you.

If there is a takeaway, it’s that ‘considered’ builds more trust and rapport, when pitching your book, than cocksure.

9. Avoid bland or generic: Be specific

If you read the blurbs of great books, the tantalizing details given are tantalizing for a crucial reason: They are specific enough to make the story’s unique merits stand out.

This is one of the reasons why it’s better to have strong mid-range titles as comp titles often. If you choose everybody’s favorite bestseller, there is a generic and bland obviousness to this often.

In how you sell your book’s best highlights (as PRH advises), look to the specific detail.

Where is the story set (the town or city, not continent)? What is the central choice or conflict for your main character (not ‘whether or not to leave a job’ but the specific contours, the unexpected and potentially exciting aspects, of this switch).

10. Get a beta reader or editor

Editors and beta readers are useful for getting external perspective on your manuscript.

Extend the insights to the materials you plan to send out into the world. Have someone read over your pitch before you send it to every agent who’s accepting. Nicholas Sparks describes a successful query letter that took ‘seventeen drafts and two weeks’ to write.

An editor can definitely help you avoid the PT of seventeen drafts.

Have you found a specific strategy for pitching that worked for you? Share your thoughts on pitching and querying in the comments.

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Jordan was extremely helpful throughout the process of me writing my novel. His notes and feedback were always thorough and well organized. I really liked that he wasn’t just telling me what I wanted to hear, which boosted my confidence in my writing. — Joe

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By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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