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January Program: Pitch Writing

Chicago Women in Publishing's January program, Pitch Writing, featured three panelists from several sectors of the publishing industry, including Molly Moynahan, author of the novel Stone Garden; Todd Stocke, vice president and editorial director at Sourcebooks; and Lynn Haller, a literary agent and CWIP member. The panelists generously shared their tips on how to write effective pitch letters and advice for writers just beginning their quest for publication. The program consisted of a mix of prepared questions from CWIP and questions from the audience.

What will help me stand out in the sea of pitch letters that cross your desk?

The answer to this question was unanimous: “Show that you know your way around the publishing industry. This will impress me.”

Todd commented that you should know which one shelf your book would sit on in a bookstore. It needs to be one shelf so that he knows he can market it. If he can't tell booksellers what type of book it is, it's hard to get them interested in it.

Lynn remarked that you should make sure that you approach publishing companies that publish your type of book. Do your research. Look at the company's website. Does it specify what types of books not to send? If your book falls into one of the categories listed, do not send it.

How long should a pitch letter be?

Your pitch letter should only be one page. Do not send a long document detailing what the manuscript is about. A two- to three-page synopsis is sometimes needed later—once you have the publisher's interest. Do not send your entire manuscript.

What should I include in the pitch letter?

State how your piece is different than others of the same kind. Why would people buy it? You can state this fairly briefly. For example: “My book is about [insert topic] and is similar to [insert titles of similar books]. However, it is slightly different because ….” Your reason for writing the book should also come across.

Good ole flattery in a pitch letter will get you somewhere. You could mention that you really enjoyed a book they published because [insert reason]. Then segue into how your book is similar to that one but is slightly different, as well as how it is different.

How do writers just starting out get noticed, particularly without connections?

Todd stressed that there are many different avenues for getting published. It's not necessarily just about knowing the right people. Persistence is important. Equally important is the quality of the pitch letter and, later, the quality of the material being pitched.

Meeting people at conferences and knowing other writers and publishers can lead to meeting more of the same. Joining a critique group is also a way to meet people in the industry. Finding an agent who wants to represent you can also be a tremendous help.

Publishing company names and literary agent names are on or near a book's copyright page. Scan the names in books similar to yours and contact them. There are also thousands of small publishers doing great work. This might be an option if your piece is about the specific subject they publish, such as organic gardening.

Should I send my document electronically or as a hard copy?

The panelists all agreed that emailing is best. Again, checking the company's website about how and where to send your document is key. The email will most likely be read as most publishing companies have systems that can handle the thousands of submissions that come in.

Any tips on dealing with rejection?

If your pitch is rejected, don't take it personally. The number one reason a pitch is rejected is that the type of manuscript pitched doesn't fit the publishing company. Molly added that sometimes there's just not a need for a certain type of book or article at the time of submission. This is particularly true for newspapers.

Jill Wester is a freelance copy editor, proofreader, and writer with a background in marketing communications. She can be reached at jillwester@yahoo.com.

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