Before you charge into publication ...
That’s one of the thoughts I like to hammer home every time I teach my class “Crafting the Pitch” [FYI, spots still open for the next session of this seminar, Monday, March 7th, 6:30-9:30pm. Register here!]
In this seminar, I teach students how to write killer cover letters for submitting essays to literary magazines, non-fiction book proposals to agents, and articles to editors of magazines, newspapers and online publications.
We look at the basic elements of a pitch, or "query" letter, and try to plumb the mysterious depths of editors’ and agents’ hearts and minds and souls (good luck with that, I know ....). But, namely: What the heck are they looking for? Once we suss that out, we talk about how to lure in the decision-makers with custom-tailored pitches they won’t be able to resist.
But best of all, we examine real pitch letters that actually worked. Because, yes, I do believe that general pitching strategy than CAN be taught. And you might want to learn this before you try to charge into publication.
Here’s a sneak peak at some of my top advice:
Think of realistic, marketable story and book ideas that work for you. Who do you know who can give you great access to a killer story? What are you an expert at? Even if that expertise comes by accident—like you know a lot about caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s, or coaching a Little League team, because that’s what life gives you. That makes you an “accidental expert.” Even if you don’t have much publishing credits under your belt, your expertise can be your ticket to publication.
Tailor your pitch to a specific publication, specific section, specific editor. Choose one original, focused, clearly described idea or project. Don’t propose 5 ideas, or suggest you’ll write whatever the editor needs. Make it clear to the editor or agent you are aware of what he or she has worked on before. Saying you liked a recent book (in the case of an agent) or subscribe to the magazine (in the case of pitching an editor) can help. Do your homework. Just don’t overdo the brownnosing.
>Be patient, Grasshopper.
Don’t expect immediate response; editors are overworked and overwhelmed; OK to follow up in 10-14 days, then send pitch elsewhere if “no” or no reply. Don’t expect immediate New Yorker assignments or contracts from Knopf, either. Build up contacts and begin small before you work up to bigger fish. Get smaller pieces published before proposing the book. Prepare yourself for a 2/5/10 year plan.
If you’re pitching a book to an agent, it helps to have published shorter pieces like personal essays, op-eds, and articles on the same topic in newspapers, magazines, and websites. This establishes: 1) your expertise in your topic; 2) a potential platform/audience; 3) that you are a published writer; and 4) your dedication and enthusiasm to your topic or subject area. Even novelists should learn to write topical, newsworthy non-fiction and essays that tie into their book.
>The Big Three.
Alas, Garnett, Pierce and Allen can't help you here. Whatever story or essay or book you are pitching, that cover letter has to answer three questions:
1) Why this topic? What is important/key/crucial/newsworthy/compelling?
2) Why now? Why is now the time to tell this story/write book (and why is your take different from past stories published in the place you’re pitching to, or competitors, or books on this topic already in the marketplace)?
3) Why you? What is your expertise/background/insight/insider status/publishing cred?
That’s just a tease of what we’ll try to cover in three hours in my “Crafting the Pitch” seminar on March 7. I hope you’ll join us. [Register here]
Ethan Gilsdorf is the Somerville, Massachusetts-based author of the award-winning travel memoir/pop culture investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, now in paperback. He also publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories regularly in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and other magazines and newspapers worldwide. His blog "Geek Pride" is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com; he teaches creative writing at Grub Street and Emerson College; he speaks at colleges, bookstores, conventions, and book fests; and appearrs regularly on radio and TV. You can follow his adventures (and read more about the book) here: http://www.fantasyfreaksbook.com.
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