Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Critiquing an agent's pitch letter

I just signed with an agent (hallelujah!) who is fairly young and new to the business. He sent me a draft of his pitch to editors. The book is a thriller, and to my eye the pitch draft needs work. It doesn’t capture the tone or excitement of the book (and I told him so; he was quite receptive to my feedback).

But here’s my question. Is there any comparison to be made between the query letters/pitches that authors send to prospective agents (over which we massively obsess) and the pitches that agents send to editors at publishing houses? I don’t want to fault my guy on not writing a proper pitch, if the rules are quite different for agents.

I find it fascinating that your agent sent you a draft of the pitch letter.
I'm not sure I've ever done that.
And if an author suggested revisions for anything other than a flat out mistake (for example, I spelled his/her name wrong, or misquoted the word count) I'd probably suggest the author needed a new agent.

Prickly about my writing much? Yes, I am. I know it, I confess it freely, and I don't apologize for it.

When young and starting-out agents here at The Reef were drafting their pitch letters I helped them revise. We never sent it to the author as far as I can remember.

But, your agent did send, and you made suggestions and now you think he can't pitch very well.

There is one very big difference between a query letter from an author to an agent and a pitch letter from an agent to an editor.  When I pitch editors, I'm almost never cold calling.  They know me, or my list, or at least, the agency where I work.  Thus they're MUCH more likely to read the pages and see if the writing grabs them, and use the pitch letter just for category and word count, plus author info (for example, is this a debut, does the author have pub credits other than a novel.)

I strongly STRONGLY urge you not to micromanage your agent.  Almost no one responds well to that, and agents tend to skew heavily toward entrepreneur, self-starters, self-motivators, and that group responds even more poorly than the average bear to micromanaging.

There are things you're entitled to know: where you book has been pitched, who has it on submission, any comments the editors make in reply.  That's NOT micro-managing to ask for that.

Micromanaging is asking to vet the pitch letter, or worse: making lists of imprints and publishers and asking why your book wasn't sent there.

I'm sure you'll have questions about this.
Fire away!


Theresa said...

My agent and I often discuss where to pitch, which ramps up my excitement/anxiety more than enough. I'm very happy not to micro manage.

Michael Seese said...

Off topic, stay warm.

Donnaeve said...

I would chalk this up maybe to the agent being new, and maybe a little insecure, afraid to misrepresent the tone/feel of the book on behalf of the writer?

The only thing my agent ever sent me was the list of where my books went, some of the feedback from editors, and the occasional "hang in there/talk her off the ledge," email.

I didn't need to see how he pitched the books. I figured he knew how to do that better than I did.

Colin Smith said...

Opie: First off, COOL BEANS that you got an agent!! (And those can be green beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, or coffee beans--whatever floats yer boat!)

I presume Noob Agent is part of an agency stuffed to the gills with wise and experienced agents? Would it be better form, I wonder, if you, perhaps, responded to Mr. Noob along the lines of: "I'm flattered that you want solicit my input on your pitch letter, but since I'm not an agent, and don't have the relationship with editors that you and your agency have, I don't know that I'm the best person to give advice. Maybe ask one of your co-agents for tips?" I know you've already responded, but in the event he comes back for more, or perhaps does this again with another project, given Janet's sound advice, maybe this would be the way to go.

Might it also be a warning sign, Janet, if Mr. Noob agent keeps going back to his client for pitch letter proof-reading, especially if he has colleagues he could consult?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

In no way would I presume to suggest my agent (if I had one) to do anything other than their job as they see it.

Having said that...I wish I had more to say other than looking out my window this morning looks like someone shook the snow globe I live in.

DLM said...

For all in line of the storms, hoping you are safe and warm and well. NYC looks to be having a time of it. In central VA, we got off lightly, a rather pretty glazing of the trees, but little on the ground other than good old-fashioned wet.

It would be a mighty fine day to pull up an afghan, a cat, and a good book - but, as I said to a friend, if I must work at least I have a job I love, a team I like, and a workout room I need. :)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

This is great infornation. It demystifies another part of the process. I would not want an agent if I thought I needed to manage him or her. I am acquiring an agent to manage me and my career so I don't act like a bumbling idiot sending my book into the stratosphere. But, Opie, it is so cool you have an agent and are being pitched.

Off-topic: I hope those in the path of the blizzard are staying safe and warm. My daughter is in New York now, right in the middle of all that snow. So last night, she texts me that she urgently needs me to FedEx pillows, knives, and her Berkinstocks to her ASAP. Should I be concerned? Huh? Birkenstocks in a snow storm? Ah well, back to coffee and day job.

Amy Schaefer said...

I'm also in the "let agents agent, and writers write" camp. If I'd somehow made a personal connection with an editor who showed interest in my work, I'd pass that along. Otherwise, no.

We have 30cm of snow here so far, and my kids are wild with excitement. We have hardly had any snow this year and they have the week off for March Break, so I expect my backyard will shortly be full of snowmen. And I fully intend to Tom Sawyer them into shovelling the front walk. Hmm, it actually looks kind of fun out there; I think I may join them.

Unknown said...

Dear Janet, thanks so much for posting my question. Your advice, as always, is very helpful.

I’m not at all in the habit of micromanaging, but I’m quite ignorant as to how the business works on the agent’s end, and my agent actually solicited my advice on the pitch. I suppose the big follow-up question is what to do if he asks for further input. Should I politely decline, or gently suggest that he seek advice from other agents?

[I’ll further note that he works for a well-established agency, and he emailed me yesterday to say that he’s now working with the head agent on the pitch and on putting together the list of editors. Hopefully, that will be the end of the issue.]

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

OP... Congratulations on landing representation. Although I've never had an agent/author relationship, I was nonetheless surprised by the topic today, an agent reaching out to the author for feedback on the pitch letter.

Boy, this drives home the importance of seeking an agent you respect and the value of trusting that said agent knows his/her job.

Me, author = write.
You, agent = sell.

Publishing ain't for sissies. The nuances of angst will stalk you every step of the way. Even beyond landing an agent and getting the book sold. Case in point: While authors are rarely allowed input on the cover of their own books, I genuinely disliked the jacket copy my publisher wrote for my second book and decided to speak up. I'm thankful they weren't put off when I asked for changes, and that they were receptive to my suggestions.

Write on...!

Unknown said...

Everyone, thanks for the helpful comments and suggestions.

To Colin: Thanks for your thoughts. Yes, New Agent Guy is part of a well-respected agency. I noted in my follow-up to Janet that NAG (sorry, that was unintentional) is now working with the head agent on the pitch for my novel and on the list of editors. Good call.

To Melanie: Thanks! I love your formula (Me: Write; Agent: Sell). I wish it were that simple and that I only had to worry about writing (my dream), but I fear that it's not that simple with all the promoting of ourselves we're supposed to do. But your basic point about the division of labor between agents and writers is solid.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Mark... Good to see the update regarding your agent working with those more experienced within his office. It sounds as though this sticky situation has been resolved. Congrats, once again, and all the best to you.

Colin Smith said...

Mark: Thank you for asking the question. This is the first I've heard of an agent doing this, and now we're all well prepared should it happen to one of us. :) It sounds like Mr Noob Agent is doing the right thing, so hopefully all will be well from here on. May he find the right publisher for your masterpiece. And when he does, be sure to let us know so I can add it to the List of Reiders' Published Works in the Treasure Chest!

Stacy said...

This is a great question and a really enlightening answer. Thanks for asking, Mark.

Shaunna said...

Yeah, but...I'll play devil's advocate for a minute. In the agent/author relationship, I assume that the author is the better writer of the two. If this were not the case, then the agent would seem to be working at the wrong end of the business. If this is the case, however, what is wrong with an agent asking a writer to use his skills on his own behalf? Maybe Opie's writing impressed the newbie agent so much that he/she felt it would be wise to harness Opie's word-stringing abilities in crafting the first thing editors would see. If the agent is really new to the business, perhaps his/her agency's reputation would only get his pitch letter, not his pages, perused by interested editors. And I still go back to the presumption that writers are the better wordsmiths of the partnership--why not use this to the agent's advantage? Then again, I am an unagented writer, so perhaps I don't know what I'm talking about.

Colin Smith said...

Shaunna: I think what Janet's saying is that while the writer's job is to wow the agent with his/her writing, the agent's job is to sell the book to the editor. This is not all about writing skill. It's also about knowing the editor, what the editor wants to see, and how to pitch the book to each editor according to the existing relationship between the two of them. The editor may love everything the agent sends, in which case the pitch letter might be a simple, "I've got a great new ms. to send you. It's by a new writer, Lottie Newpens, and it's about a shark and her fixation with writing implements." Or it may be a full-bore sales pitch to convince an editor the book is right for that publisher's list. We, the authors, are not a part of that conversation, so our input on how to pitch the agent's letter is not nearly as valuable as we may think.

BJ Muntain said...

So, let me understand this... if you get a young, inexperienced agent, you might get to see the pitch letter?

A newbie mistake that, I'm sure, this agent will never make again. :)

Did anyone else get the feeling that Janet's tone said, "How quaint?"

I did, however, find the question interesting, and the answer interesting. Thanks for asking it, Mark, and for answering it, Janet.

I also suspect that editors are looking for slightly different things in a pitch letter than an agent is in a query. Agents are looking for great writing, etc., of course, but they're also looking for an author they can work with. An editor can trust the agent to have vetted the author, so they're looking for the right story for their slate. (If the editor doesn't trust the agent - or the agency, in this case - though, that's a whole 'nother problem.)

Mark: It sounds like your agent's boss has things in hand now, guiding your agent a little more closely. That's good. The experience will help your agent to become a better agent.

BJ Muntain said...

Let me add to those offering best wishes to those in the storm areas. It would probably be best for many of those folks to do what I did during our recent blizzard - stay home, if at all possible, with the heat turned up and a small, warm, furry critter curled up next to you. If not possible, or if the weather isn't that bad where you are, enjoy the snow! It sounds like it won't last that long where you are.

We don't get 'snow days' here, although if it's really bad and you can't get your car started or out of the driveway, most employers will understand. Schools are always open - it's legislated that way - though the rural school buses won't be running if it gets too cold. Schools stay open so that, if kids wind up at the school on cold/snowy days, they're not stuck outside, freezing to death, because the school is closed. In the small town schools I used to attend, where at least 1/3 of the students were rural, you couldn't do much on the days the buses didn't run, but at least you were warm and sometimes you got to play games in class.

Amy: Enjoy the snowmen! Have a friendly snowball fight, if the snow is right for it. And if you can make snow shovelling fun... tell me how, please. I can't seem to get anyone to help me with mine.

The Sleepy One said...

My agent sent me a draft of his pitch letter and asked for feedback. He's not a newbie.

I kept my feedback simple (a misspelling of a regional name). He showed me the final draft, too. I enjoyed seeing the pitch, and not just because it was an ego boost. It also showed me that the agent really gets my book.

Plus his letter was so much better than my query and having seen it will help with my pitches later, as I write pitches along with my manuscripts to help maintain focus and occasionally revise my end goal.

Stacy said...

I looked on Google Maps the other day and was shocked to find that Columbus is almost directly west of NYC. Hopefully whatever they get will dissipate before getting to us.

Casey Karp said...

Congratulations, Mark. One step closer to achieving the dream.

I don't have much to add--though that never stops anyone around here (have I mentioned that I love this community?)--but I did want to call out what The Sleepy One said. That really seems like the best of all possible worlds to me: seeing what the agent is doing, with the chance to learn something. Isn't that what we come here for?

I wouldn't want an agent who relied on me in writing her pitch letters, for all the very good reasons everyone has listed. But sending me a copy with a "Hey, let me know if there's anything grossly wrong with this" note? I'm in!

Beth Carpenter said...

I have nothing to add except my hearty congratulations, Mark, and hope that the right publisher falls in love with your story.

Leslie said...

Other than checking for factual, spelling, etc., errors, I assume that the agent knows what he/she is doing.

But I like The Sleepy One's point of being able to learn from the agent, to apply to future queries and pitches. At this point, I'm all about learning wherever and from whomever I can.

Mark Conard - Mazel Tov & continued good luck! May I ask what type of book you're writing?

Off-topic: We in NYC (at least downtown) aren't getting much snow, more like freezing rain and slop. I hope those in the direct path of the snow are staying warm, dry, and safe!

Lennon Faris said...

Mark, congratulations! I have nothing to add other than that, and hope all turns out well now.

Shaunna - I've heard some agent say that they used parts of fantastic query letters for their own pitch.

Hope everyone stays safe!

Unknown said...

All, thanks for all the good wishes.

I’ll note, just FYI, that I have every confidence in my agent. He’s new at the agent business, but he has a very good editorial background and seems to know well the book world.

Leslie: the book is a thriller.

RE: the snow storm. I live in the Bronx, and there is some accumulation and wind, but nothing too dramatic. (I could go on a rant about the 24-hour news cycle whipping people into a frenzy, etc., but you know all that…)

Amy Schaefer said...

BJ Muntian, the only way to get anyone excited about shovelling snow is novelty value. My girls have a lot more experience swimming with manta rays and hacking bananas down from the tree than in dealing with the white stuff. So throwing snow around still sounds like a rare treat.

Steve Stubbs said...

Very helpful and informative post. Much appreciated. If I ever finish this thing I am working on, I am not planning on managing any agents at all - nano, micro, mini, or maxi. If she calls or writes with a question or a revision or a demand (such as that I relinquish all rights to the project and ride off surly into the sunset) I will answer with alacrity. But other than that she will have to check the obits to be sure I am not in the ground rotting somewhere. Very helpful to know that not following an agent around like Nemesis from Greek mythology and letting her do her job undisturbed may be well received as courtesy and not mistaken as a sign of snaughty indifference.

If other people can contract the words bold and audacious and make the word bodacious, I should be able to contract snotty and haughty and make the word snaughty and so ha!

The only question I have is where can we see specimen agent pitch letters. No critiquing forthcoming, but you have piqued my curiosity.

This is off topic, but I wanted to encourage everyone here to Speak Truth to Power. Let this be Speak Truth to Power Day. Everybody join in and make this day a success. Say what you have always wanted to say and say it LOUDLY.

I probably won't pay any mind at all, but Speak Truth to Power anyway and see what it gets you.

Joseph S. said...

I’m uncomfortable with today’s answer. It’s so contrary to how I worked as an attorney and a CPA, and how my publisher works with me.

The author is the principal in the relationship. The agent is the agent representing the principal. The agent should be willing to consult with the author and to explain why she’s doing something if requested.

Panda in Chief said...

Congratulations to Mark, for making it to this part of the process! My first reaction when I read your question was to immediately start spinning on my hamster wheel, thinking crazed thoughts like, "OMG!!!! We talked about the pitch but my agent never showed me the pitch! He didn't ask for feedback! Should I email him and ask, even though we are several months into the submission process!!!!!!?????"

Fortunately, I read Janet's answer, as well as all the astute comments, talked myself down off the ledge, and did not annoy my agent with a micromanaging plea for attention.

It sounds like your agent has things under control. I'm kind of imagining an exchange between senior agent and NAG, along the lines of, "You WHAT????? We NEVER ask the author for feedback on our pitches!" Or something like that.

I am happy to announce that we are having another winter with virtually no snow here in the upper left-hand corner. Stay warm everyone!

Colin Smith said...

Joseph: I think the process you're describing would be akin to the agent discussing submission and marketing strategies with the author. What Janet's objecting to is the idea that the agent should get the author's feedback on the specifics of how the agent does her job (e.g., what her pitch letter to an editor should say). This would be like your client telling you which cases to refer to when building your defense of your client, and having your client proof the text of your opening argument. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think that's something you want your client to do, since this is why you went to law school. Yes?

Unknown said...

Panda: Thanks! Yes, from an email exchange today, it does seem like NAG has things under control, which probably means he had a fruitful exchange with the head agent. He's ready to start pitching, so I'm very excited about that.

Panda in Chief said...

Good luck, Mark. That is encouraging news! Keep us in the loop. But don't worry if you aren't one who gets an immediate offer. (Though I hope you do.) i am learning from experience, and from reports of other friends, that the process can be a long one. I'm working on a new book to distract me from the fact I don't have an offer yet.

Unknown said...

Thanks, Panda! I'll try to be patient, and just keep my head down and keep writing. That's all we can do.

The Sleepy One said...

Steve Stubbs, Kristin Nelson of Pubrants has Gail Carrigan's query letter up on her website, followed by the pitch letter Kristin wrote. Here's the link (I'm feeling too lazy to look up the code to embed it):


Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting look into the submission process and not something I'd ever considered. Thanks, to both Mark and Janet.

I seem to remember Janet posting an example of a pitch letter she'd written a while back, but I can't remember the context. I don't think it was for feedback. *snort* Anyway, I was really impressed by the succinct information it conveyed as well as the tone and enthusiasm. That's not easy to accomplish and I can imagine a new-ish agent asking for feedback (albeit, perhaps, from the wrong source). And god knows, it's probably one of a writer's greatest strengths, and biggest flaws, that we will compulsively edit the hell out of any piece of writing put in front of us. Even if not asked.

Mark, congrats on finding an agent who is apparently happy to communicate with you, and best of luck with finding a publisher. Keep us posted.

Unknown said...

Thanks, KD. I appreciate it.

Steve Stubbs said...

Hi Sleepy,
Thanks so much for the link. Much appreciated.

Matt Adams said...

Wow -- here's the contrasting opinion. My agent runs everything she sends out on my behalf past me and asks for my opinion. While I don't offer many -- if any -- changes, I'm sure she'd be more than happy to make any I suggested. She's not a noob -- been with three highly respected agencies since I've been with her and she's sold a lot of books (unfortunately, mine was not one of them). Her first pitch letter was mostly a modified version of my query and I think it got read by almost everyone she sent it to. I've gotten the feeling that getting the book read (which is the first step in an agent's job) is as more about relationships and trustworthiness in the industry than it is about a well-crafted pitch.

Along that point, it is your work, after all. If it crashes and burns, the agent is out some time and some effort. You're out a novel that you shed blood, sweat and talent into. While I think micromanaging is never a good idea -- and you should trust people to do their job -- in the end it's YOUR book and the agent is a broker.

And on the converse, agents have no problem asking for (sometimes big) changes to your book. And you certainly know it a lot better than they do, but I assume it's rare that an author takes offense or terminates the relationship solely because they were questioned. It does bleed back into the inherent inequity in this relationship.

So while I respect anyone's right to not work with anyone, there's a bit of special snowflake-ness in this idea that agents should not be questioned. If I didn't like a way a lawyer was presenting my position, I'd feel no hesitation in asking them about it, and it would feel irresponsible to just assume they knew best. If I didn't like the way an advertising agency was representing my product, I think it would be crazy just to take their word that it was fine until the commercial showed up during the Super Bowl. It's the product of your work, and while i don't think micromanaging anyone is usually a good idea, wanting to see how an agent is pitching your book seems completely reasonable and, honestly, should be the expectation.

And I'll add in my best wishes for the storm, and any time you want to ship some of that show out here to Colorado, we'd appreciate it. Pretty darn dry year so far, and we're closing in on fire season.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I'm usually in bed by now... long before now... but feeling a bit restless. I circled back to this to read any new comments. Interesting subject with an interesting array of opinions and input, as always.

Matt Adams, Thanks for offering your take on all this. I suppose much of the agent/author relationship boils down to the dynamics of each of us as individuals, while respecting basic guidelines and goals of what we're all trying to achieve.

Write on, right?

Megan V said...

Interesting scenario. Glad to see it worked out for you Mark.

I'm not sure where I fit on the let me see the pitch / just pitch it spectrum. That said, I can imagine agents do not appreciate penmansplaining. And when it comes to selling a client's book--agent knows (or should know) best.

Hope all of you in snowcentral are holding out all right. Here in AZ I neither had to deal with snow, nor daylight saving.

BJ Muntain said...

Amy: May I borrow your girls? I have TONS of novelty snow for them to move... ;)

Sleepy's link: Kristin Nelson's comparison of query letter vs pitch letter

Lily Cate said...

I never saw the pitch my agent sent to sell my first book.
She just sent out pitch #2, and I haven't seen that one, either. After years of querying, I was fully ready to have a professional handle all of that for me. Leaves me time to write, after all.

Joseph S. said...

I'm in Matt's camp on this one.