Dear Author, We are writing to propose an article about pitch letters. It's informative, interesting, and entertaining. We are confident that you will enjoy this article, and look forward to hearing from you at your convenience. Very truly yours, Jay and Ruth
What is a pitch letter?
That is one of the greatest open questions in fiction, insofar as we can tell: how to attract the attention of an agent or an editor.
The answer is simple enough at its heart. Write an excellent story with a strong hook. If the manuscript is taut enough, brilliant enough, you could probably write the pitch letter on butcher paper with crayon and have the publishing world still beat a path to your door—assuming anyone were to read it at all, that is.
You see, given the sheer volume of proposals, manuscripts and pitches that cross the desk of any agent or editor, no matter how brilliant you are (and we're all brilliant, right?), you still need to catch their attention.
This is where the pitch letter comes in. It provides a hook for the book, stimulating the interest of your chosen editor or agent sufficiently for them to request a look at the three-chapter partial of your brilliance. Or the whole thing, if you're lucky.
First off, you need to recognize the distinction between a transmittal letter and a pitch letter. The transmittal letter is another word for cover letter—it's what comes with the partial or full manuscript when that is sent to an agent or editor at their request. That one's simple:
Dear Famous New York Editor, As you requested in your letter of March 17th, enclosed please find the first three chapters of Nixon Agonistes, my alternate history, rock-and-roll murder mystery. The full manuscript is available at your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you soon. Best, Ruth Nestvold
A transmittal letter is simple and businesslike. It reminds them what you're sending and why, signs off politely and gets out of the way. It is only indirectly a sales tool.
A pitch letter, on other hand, is first and foremost a sales tool. It needs to explain what you're offering and why your manuscript is interesting. It needs to pique the interest of the target audience and engage them. More to the point, it needs to not oversell, or focus on the wrong things.
Mystery agent and New York blogger Miss Snark frequently talks at length about pitch letters and opening hooks on her blog. (1) She discusses what does or doesn't belong in the pitch and the hook and the query, all with a delicious and highly pointed, well, snark.
So what is the anatomy of a pitch letter?
First off, write to the right person. There's no point in sending a letter to an agency or a publishing house if you're not going to address it to a specific agent or editor. Their slush piles are so deep you'll never come out alive if you don't make the effort to land on someone's desk. You do want to be targeted—sending your hard science fiction novel to a romance agent doesn't make all that much sense.
We're not going to cover researching best matches for submittals here, but suffice to say there are plenty of resources out there for that step in the submission process. (2)
The opening sentence is like the first moments of a blind date. They've opened the envelope (or email), they're glancing across the page, and those words hit their ears. You want to be professional, informative and interesting, without either pulling your punch or overwhelming your target.
So what should it say?
That very much depends on your personal style, the style of your manuscript, and the approach you want to take. It's a lot easier to talk about what it shouldn't say.
No compulsion: "You must read this book."
No telling them what to think or do: "You will want to publish this masterpiece."
No threats: "You will regret it if you don't publish my book."
Just lead with what's strong and interesting:
I hope you'll be interested in Nixon Agonistes, my alternate history, rock-and-roll murder mystery set in Russian-colonized Southern California.
Get the point of the letter out right up front. Introduce what is interesting and original about your book, and move on. The only exception would be if you'd met the agent or editor at a conference or workshop, or he or she has been recommended personally by another writer. If you have some kind of connection of this sort, you could include a line about how nice it was to make their acquaintance, and leave it at that.
You need to continue to be informative but economical with your letter body. Explain the book in a little more detail, tell them why it's exciting and different, and give them just enough to want more without overselling or overexplaining.
Even more to the point, remember it's not about you. It's about your book. Don't sell yourself, sell the manuscript. The only exception would be if you have some very specific qualification that has an obvious and important relationship to how the book can be promoted and sold. For example, if you're a computational biologist writing about post-Singularity evolution, that's probably worth mentioning. Otherwise, let it go.
In other words, something like this:
It's 1963. Richard Nixon, Andy Warhol and Timothy Leary are an unsuccessful Balalaika lounge act in the clubs of Los Angeles Okrug. Tsar Vladimir Ulyanov, aging widower of the late Tsarina Anastasia of the European and Pacific Russias, has declared an ukase against the decadent musical influences from British America and Louisiana Grande. Nixon leads a freedom movement which gives rise to an analog of the Summer of Love until he is finally assassinated at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Tejas by the secret police. Warhol and Leary lead a paint-and-pot uprising in Nixon's memory, as the musician becomes a hero to millions of oppressed worldwide.
You give them enough information to see why the premise is interesting, and where the story will go—i.e., step beyond the premise into the plot, but only as a teaser. At that point, they want to see it or they don't. Keep it direct, simple and engaging.
That's it. You're done. A simple sign-off and you're out of there. For example:
Partial or full manuscript is available upon request. I look forward to hearing from you. Very truly yours, Ruth Nestvold
What You Didn't Write
You didn't go into detail about yourself. You didn't explain why the book was going to be good. You didn't make comments to or about the editor or agent you were trying to address.
It's so easy to begin overselling, to begin spinning, to spew across the page. Just like blabbing on that first date: easy but almost always deadly.
As in all things, there are exceptions. It is certainly justified to talk about your publishing history, especially if you already have dozens of short stories sold, and maybe even an award nomination or two. A brief mention of why you are interested in this particular agent, given the types of books he or she represents, if it isn't so vague as to be useless and doesn't bloat the query, can demonstrate that you have done your research. But none of this should take over from the pitch. The letter needs to remain short and to the point—a grabber.
For the most part, however, the anatomy of a pitch letter is this simple:
Make your pitch, and let the work sell itself.