Bath Pitchfest Literary Agent Masterclass
The Independent Bath Literature Festival 2016
During last week’s Independent Bath Literature Festival, The Bath Novel Award hosted Bath Pitchfest, which included a masterclass with literary agents Sallyanne Sweeney, Susan Armstrong and Richard Pike. From covering letters to twitter contests, here’s a summary of their pitching tips:
SUSAN ARMSTRONG is a senior literary agent at Conville & Walsh literary agency and 2016 judge for The Bath Novel Award. Susan joined Conville & Walsh in 2005 after working at Macmillan. As an agent, she loves to see literary fiction, book group/upmarket commercial women’s fiction, crime, psychological thrillers, suspense and YA. She is also keen to see high-quality magical realism and speculative fiction.
SALLYANNE SWEENEY became a literary agent in 2008 and a Director at Watson, Little Ltd in 2011. She joined Mulcahy Associates in 2013 and is building her list of fiction authors for children and adults. Passionate about working with debut authors, her fiction tastes are wide-ranging, from the literary to the very commercial. Sallyanne judged the inaugural Bath Children’s Novel Award in 2015.
RICHARD PIKE joined Curtis Brown in 2012 and is currently building his list of authors. Richard is looking to work with debut novelists writing psychological suspense, crime and thriller, speculative fiction, stories with an element of magic, or reading group historical fiction.
Q: How do I know when my book is ready to pitch?
Sallyanne: The most common mistake I see in my submissions pile is people who have submitted too early. Publishing is a long game, so take as much time as you need beforehand to make your manuscript the best it can be before submitting.
Q: Should you use an editor before submitting a manuscript to an agent?
Susan: Sometimes you can get a manuscript which can feel like there have been too many fingers on it. A really trusted editor can be great, but really trusted beta readers can be just as good.
Sallyanne: In my opinion you can definitely overwork a book. You want to make it as good as possible, but at some point you have to stop. The first read is the one where you’re really taken by the novel. The great thing is when a second, third or fourth draft still excites. I like to focus edits on the big picture.
Sallyanne: And don’t get too hung up on word counts. Although anything over 130k words needs to be really, really good.
Q: What part of submissions do agents read first?
Richard: I always start with the cover letter. If I’m intrigued by that I’ll read the extract as soon as possible. I read a synopsis last.
Susan: I get around 100 submissions a week and of these usually around five will catch my eye. I like a short cover letter, with a clear sense of the story narrative and what makes it unique. Show why your story is being told from a different angle. Be clear about your genre and what you’re writing so that agents can start thinking about which editors they might be able to pitch your manuscript to. Snappy and attractive pitches work best for me.
Think of yourself as a reader and a book buyer. Study blurbs and first pages and see how quickly you make you your mind about whether a book might be right for you. Would your book pass your own test? Having said this, I have definitely taken on books where the pitch didn’t connect with me straightaway.
Things not to mention include: where you used to live; pets; hobbies, unless directly relevant. It’s also very helpful to know why you chose to submit to me.
It’s very off-putting to see a pitch cc’d to every single agent you’ve submitted to. I want to know that you’re a serious writer and someone with plans for a long writing career and an idea of where they want to go beyond this book.
Richard: Avoid saying things like ‘it’s the first in a ten book series’. It’s all about that first book and putting your efforts into that book. Two book deals are the norm; a three book deal is unusual. Even JK Rowling didn’t get a seven book deal. Be aware of what it could be and the scope.
When pitching your book’s premise in a cover letter, comparisons can be helpful but Twilight and Harry Potter are very over-used.
Q: What happens if you take a writer on, but you’re not able to sell their first book?
Susan: I’d stay with an author for as long as their writing continues to connect with me.
Q: How important is it for a writer to have a website?
Richard: Not that important. If you have one that adds value, great. But it generally happens later as part of the publisher’s strategy.
Sallyanne: Some of my authors don’t tweet and that’s fine.
Susan: But it can be seriously beneficial if you have a flair for it. Social media profiles are less of interest at the agenting stage but are definitely of interest to publishers. Organically grown social media presences can be a huge sales factor.
Sallyanne: No one is ever taken on or rejected on the basis of a synopsis. Even very experienced writers find them hard to write.
Susan: It’s good to give a sense of knowledge of the market. Where your book sits. And mention any relevant courses, competition wins or publishing credits.
Sallyanne: And Twitter can be great for anticipation and building a nice community / support network. It’s a great way to engage in conversations around books.
Susan: I have taken on a mid-career author after tweeting to say I loved their book.
Q: Is self-publishing a total no-no if you ultimately want to be traditionally published?
Susan: It can be a route. If it’s selling hugely, it can be taken over, or book two can be signed.
Sallyanne: Self-publishing is an extra avenue and it can be brilliant.
Richard: Whatever you do, have a strategy for getting it out there.
Q: Can you give examples of pitches for books you subsequently took on:
Susan: One of the best pitches I’ve ever signed was a manuscript submitted as “ a love story about a girl who is turning into glass. This is Ali Shaw’s The Girl with Glass Feet and it’s a pitch which people either love or hate, but it grabbed me straight away.
Richard: The first manuscript I took on was a speculative novel pitched as “What if the only person who can save the world has nothing left to live for?” In some ways it sounds like a borrowed line but I loved it.
Sallyanne: You know a pitch is really good when it makes it all the way from a submission letter to the book jacket blurb. One of the first books I signed was The Legacy of Eden by Nelle Davy. Nelle pitched it as ‘I Claudius but in C20th Iowa, a family saga with an evil matriarch.’
How to find the right agent for your book:
Sallyanne: Look for agents who are actively growing their list. Make sure that they’re accepting submissions by checking their website.
Multiple submissions are fine but do be respectful of submissions etiquette. For example, if you get an offer of representation do let any other agents who are reading the full know this, so that they can try to prioritise their reading.
Submit to say, ten at a time, rather than hitting every agent all at once. That way you can incorporate any feedback.
Susan: And submit to your A list first. I’d never submit a book to my B list of publishers first.
Sallyanne: Publishing statistics can seem really grim. But we all still want to find brilliant new voices, we’re all still looking and hoping to take great debut writers on. Don’t panic if you get an offer and need time to think. It won’t be taken away. Agents understand that writers can get multiple offers and will understand and respect that you need time to consider them.
Susan: No agent should insist on submission exclusivity
Sallyanne: Publishing statistics can seem really grim. But we all still want to find brilliant new voices, we’re all still looking and hoping to take great debut writers on.
All agents want to find someone amazing. We’re looking for reasons to take someone on, not reasons to reject.
Susan: If you get anything outside a form rejection, be encouraged.Don’t be put off by rejection. Almost everyone is rejected
Sallyanne: Most agents unfortunately don’t have time to send anything other than form rejections. So if you do get a personalised rejection, it’s definitely a sign of being on the right track and that the agent has seen potential in your writing.
Richard: Quite often, a debut published novel isn’t the writer’s first.
Susan: Half my list came from the slush.
Q: Do agents look for writers on sites like Wattpad?
Susan: I’m afraid just don’t have the time.
Sallyanne: I have taken on a writer from Wattpad, when I happened to be doing some YA novel research.
Q: is there a best time of year to submit?
All: Avoid pre-book fairs and xmas. So Sept/Oct, Mar/Apr. But if you do submit then, you will still be read but be aware that everybody’s response times are much longer.
Richard: Also January. So many submissions seem to arrive in the New Year.
How to pitch on Twitter:
Richard: Pitching on Twitter has become a much more accepted channel in the last couple of years. It’s an exciting space to reach agents, especially internationally. It’s not for everyone and involves a fair amount of luck but there have been some notable success stories.
On the 4th Friday of every month, Curtis Brown and Conville Walsh agents log on and look at pitches submitted on Twitter with the hashtag #PitchCB. They receive about 2,000 a month and Jonny Geller of Curtis Brown has recently signed Laura McVeigh an author he found on #PitchCB . Her pitch was for The Almond Tree, about a girl who survives Afghan war and fundamentalism whilst living on the Trans-Siberian Express
Richard’s tips for pitching on Twitter:
- Make sure your novel is finished before you pitch it. The beauty of pitching on Twitter is that it is such a speedy process, so be ready to capitalise on any interest.
- Research the contest. Each Twitter contest has slightly different rules and it’s essential you use the right hashtag and know any additional signifying hashtags for example genre, so that your pitch can be spotted by agents searching for particular book types. It’s also key to research the timescales and time zones, especially with US contests, so you’re not pitching at a time when all the agents are asleep. Some contests restrict you to just one pitch, so use yours wisely.
- Ask yourself where your novel sits in the marketplace and look at similar book blurbs on Amazon then focus on what makes your book unique.
- The most effective Twitter pitches reflect the central conflict of your book
- Use your 140 characters wisely. Comparisons with other books take up a lot of space.
- Make sure your Twitter profile showcases your seriousness as a writer. It’s the first thing an agent will look at if they like your pitch. For example, if you have a writing blog, link it to your Twitter profile.
The Bath Novel Award 2016, judged by Susan Armstrong, is open to entries until 10th April 2016. Read her competition submission tips here.