Kill an Editor or Agent with a Killer Pitch Letter
[Another entry in the ongoing blog "Would We Lie To You?: News from the Non-Fiction Career Lab"]
By Ethan Gilsdorf
So you've had your one-on-one with an agent or editor at the Muse and Marketplace conference. And you have this sinking feeling you need to give that query letter a makeover.
Or, you want to send out your manuscript. And you've never written a cover letter before.
Or, you just have an incredible idea for an essay, article, blog post or op-ed that you want to get out there into the world.
Guess what? Your meal ticket in this industry is the pitch letter. You need to write a pitch letter to sell that idea. And your pitch letter needs to rock.
The pitch letter (aka the query letter or cover letter) is the tool you use to communicate your idea, be it an essay, article, book proposal or book manuscript, to the buyer of your idea, such as an editor or an agent. And so the ability to write this letter needs to be in your writerly toolkit as you go forward into your career. It's as important a tool as other tools and weapons a writer needs to have and master, like a thesaurus, a bull whip, a fedora, a hip flask and a +2 Eraser of Revision.
This Friday I'm teaching the latest iteration of my "Writing Killer Pitch Letters for Nonfiction Projects" class. (Still seats available! Sign up here!) In that class, and my other marketplace-oriented classes, I teach tips and tricks for writing the letter that best works for the editor or agent or publication where you are trying to sell your work.
I have seen success from my students who are trying to sell short-form nonfiction (essays, op-eds, articles, and feature stories) in mainstream and trade magazines, newspapers, literary magazines, blogs, and online publications, as well submit their nonfiction book proposals to agents and editors. (Sending that literary essay to a literary magazine requires less salesmanship, but still there's a smidgen of pitch involved in those kind of cover letters, too.) And, as I said, these letters do work.
By examining pitch letters that actually worked (and we'll do this in class), you'll see writing pitch letters isn't all that complicated. It just has to be done well -- with verve, wit and originality.
Here's a sneak peak of strategies to make sure your idea --- and letter describing your idea ---is sharp, focused, original, and targeted. Some tips:
1) Mimic it. The quality , tone and style of your pitch should match your project. If your novel is a thriller, then pitch it as if it were a thriller. Put us in a scene, in a moment of suspense. If it's a timely op-ed, introduce your devastatingly-original idea by pegging it right to the bubbling news item everyone is talking about.
2) Custom fit. Remember that the same query letter doesn't work for each editor or agent you are trying to pitch. You need to customize it based on what you know about the publication or the agency. A pitch for the Wall Street Journal is going to look a lot different from a pitch for Cosmopolitan.
3) Flattery. Yes, it works. In your letter, say how much you enjoyed the latest book this agent helped sell, or the article that the editor recently edited and published.
4) Why you? Why now? Why this topic? Your pitch needs to answer at least two of these three questions: Why are you the best person to write this article/op-ed/essay/book? (Possible answer: "Because my dad was in the CIA, that's why.") Why is the time for this idea now? (Because there's a new study that's been released that says spaghetti decreases blood pressure.) Why is this topic compelling? (Because people are interested to know how to prevent concussions in their children playing football.) Etc.
5) Don't be boring. You have about two or three paragraphs max to grab your reader's attention. Use all of your writerly powers to be compelling and artful and interesting. Think of seduction. Force the agent or editor to want to read further.
And there are more tips. But like a good pitch letter, my job is to tease you to want more. You have to attend the seminar for the rest. I hope to see you Friday. Sign up for "Writing Killer Pitch Letters for Nonfiction Projects" here.
Ethan Gilsdorf is the author of the award-winning book Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, his travel memoir investigation into fantasy and gaming subcultures. The poet, teacher, critic and journalist has worked as a freelance correspondent, guidebook writer, and film, book and restaurant reviewer. Based in Somerville, Massachusetts, he publishes travel, arts, and pop culture stories regularly in the New York Times, Boston Globe, and Christian Science Monitor, and has been published in dozens of other magazines, newspapers, websites and guidebooks worldwide, including wired.com, Salon.com, Playboy, National Geographic Traveler, Psychology Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, the Washington Post and Fodor's travel guides. He is a book and film critic for the Boston Globe, film columnist for Art New England, his blog "Geek Pride" is seen regularly on PsychologyToday.com, and his blog "Hip Points" appears on ForcesofGeek.com. He also contributes to blogs at wired.com's "Geek Dad"; Boston.com's Globetrotting; Tor.com; and TheOneRing.net. Read more at www.ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak.