by Laura Meehan, Associate Editor, Indigo

Bernadette Baker-Baughman, an agent with Victoria Sanders & Associates, revealed the exclusive, secret, magical trick for pitching your book to agents: “There is no magic involved. It’s going through the process, just taking the steps you must take. The magic is in the writing.”

What writing does she mean? What are the implications of this, dear Indigo-affiliated reader? She means the writing you are pitching in the first place. She says, “The writing must speak for itself.” No pitching gimmick in the world will get an agent to represent a work that is not in his or her area of interest, or one that has not been professionally put together. But don’t despair; there is good news!
The good news is that you don’t have to come up with an incredibly clever query letter or pitching strategy; the writer’s first job is to produce an incredibly clever work in the first place. Come up with a great concept. Plan it out. Do some research; make some outlines. Write. Revise and edit. And then, write a very clear, concise, informational letter about it.

But what to include in this letter or pitch? Bernadette does offer would-be clients some tips. Many resources out there, such as the Writer’s Market Query Letter Clinic, are helpful for learning how to structure a query letter. The industry-standard format helps busy agents who are rapidly scanning many queries find the meat of what you want them to know about your manuscript. Don’t force agents to puzzle out what kind of book you are selling. While every rule has its exception, it’s often ill advised to go off in your own wild direction in an attempt to set yourself apart.

Repeat: “The writing must speak for itself.” Set yourself apart with an awesome manuscript, in concept and in execution.

Bernadette likes to see some sort of publishing track record. Winning an award or other recognition, graduating from an MFA program, or having been published elsewhere can all give you a leg up. In terms of this latter accomplishment, new authors may find it useful to start by pitching some smaller works or articles to build their publishing credentials. Bernadette also finds endorsements valuable, whether they are referrals from other clients or blurbs someone has written; these are vehicles for showing that someone likes and recommends your work.

Last, Bernadette says, “If you only have one paragraph to express what your story is about, include your genre, a description of where the work fits into the market [by giving a couple examples of similar works], and one or two descriptive words evoking the work: lighthearted, melancholy, tragic. Not clichés, but words that really convey the feeling of the book.” Together, these descriptors and your genre form your short pitch, or elevator pitch, and tell her what kind of book you are pitching. “For example,” she says, “if someone tells me, ‘This is Winter’s Bone meets Justified,’ I know the place is as important as the characters to the story, and there is a particular regional aesthetic.”

In conclusion, don’t fear that pitching is mysterious or magical. If you help agents get a clear understanding of what you have written, it not only helps them decide if it’s the kind of book they enjoy representing, but it also shows you to be the professional that you are.

For further guidance on developing the magic of your writing, check out Susan DeFreitas’s upcoming class, Hiding the Plumbing: Strategies for Invisible Exposition at Indigo. She’ll also be teaching Speculative Fiction: Tapping the Imaginative Dimensions of the Scientific Paradigm, at the 2012 Willamette Writers Conference.

Associate Editor Laura Meehan was born with a book in her hand. At the age of eight, she won a school-wide book-cover illustration contest, and she started telling people she wanted to be an “author-slash-illustrator.” Since then, she has dropped some of the visual-art dreams, but she still loves books—reading, editing, and writing—with a passion. She’s edited authors from across the spectrum: from newbies to successfully published (and agented) authors, including Amy Hatvany and Sarah Pekkanen.