In Edinburgh, the Southeast Scotland network of SCBWI British Isles has invited two fantastically experienced literary agents to help writers get practical insights into pitching. Lindsey Fraser of Edinburgh-based Fraser Ross Associates and New-York based Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency are coming together for this expert workshop in September, aimed at helping writers understand not just the essential elements of a great pitch, but also the children's book markets they're pitching into.
1. Writers often query a manuscript too soon. What are the giveaways in a submission that a writer has jumped the gun?
JENNIFER: The first and most obvious giveaway that somebody isn't ready, of course, is that the author hasn't followed submission guidelines, and/or, the book isn't even done. You faithful SCBWI-ers would no doubt be shocked (shocked!) at how many people query daily with either only a partial manuscript complete, or nothing more than a vague idea of what they MIGHT write about. Yes, I know, this flies in the face of everything accepted wisdom tells us. And yet. People simply not following guidelines at all are the norm in my inbox. The good news is, all those folks get rejections, so if you are simply following guidelines, you are already in the top 30% of queriers without even trying. Let's say all the guidelines are followed, and there is a complete manuscript. The second most obvious giveaway that somebody isn't ready is that their manuscript is rife with errors. Look, everyone makes a typo now and again -- but if there are multiple misspellings or grammar gaffes on the first page? Well... let's just say, spell-check is your friend.
LINDSEY: The covering letter/email is often full of giveaways. We’re looking for writers and illustrators with a keen eye for detail and an awareness of the industry they want to be part of. So careless mistakes, and a casual ‘To whom it may concern’ approach are always going to hit the ‘no thank you’ pile fairly swiftly.
Most of the submissions we receive and reject have merit – but are not suitable for a commercial publisher’s list. I’m full of admiration for anybody who takes time to create a story – but publishers are very selective, and writers who want to be published need to be aware of that. We can only represent writers we feel have the potential to be commercially published. The classic ‘my friends and family have read these stories and loved them’ approach is always going to be problematic, unless your friends and families number in their thousands. There are occasionally good reasons not to follow submission guidelines closely, but on the whole an inability to do so indicates a writer without the necessary attention to detail, discipline, or understanding of how a literary agency works. People are always amazed at how many submissions we receive every week. They need to give themselves the best possible chance to stand out.
2. Many submissions stand out for the wrong reasons. What's your top advice on how a writer can help their submission stand out in a positive way?
JENNIFER: Be professional. Follow the directions. (They really are simple, and they help us winnow out the terrible and get to your amazing manuscripts that much more quickly). Use spell-check. Invest in a book such as Self-Editing for Fiction Writers . Get a solid critique group, and utilize them.
LINDSEY: Yes, be as professional as you can. But feel free to show a bit of personality. We want to know who we might be working with. Make sure your submission is as glitch-free as possible. I get easily distracted by silly mistakes and my mental red pen comes out...
3. How do you (personally) develop verbal pitches for the books you represent...are there any guiding principles that you use?
JENNIFER: As an agent, I am luckily never in the position to stand on stage with a spotlight on me and have to give a soliloquy. So I never have a specific "pitch" memorized. In the real world, pitches are an organic part of conversation. So I get to know the book as well as I possibly can, and I figure out what the different "hooks" or "big ideas" are, and what I'm most passionate about in the text, and then I'm prepared to talk about it. But remember, conversation is a two-way street. I have to keep in mind who my audience is, what their needs are, and also be listening and gauging their responses as I speak. Put on your bookselling hat and imagine handselling a book to a customer in a bookstore! Not all books are for every reader, but your goal is to talk about your book in such a way that MOST people will at least be interested in cracking it open.
LINDSEY: I used to be a bookseller, and I always imagine how I’d talk about a book to one of my customers to persuade them to buy a copy. What is it about the book that I think will mean that an editor (or a reader) won’t be able to put it down?
Huge thanks to Lindsey and Jennifer for their insights.
To find out more about pitching, understand how your pitch is used throughout the bookselling process, and get practical pitching practice in a supportive environment with fellow attendees, come along to the SCBWI expert workshop in Edinburgh. Bookings are open now for How to Pitch Your Book Without Panicking here.