Pitch perfection: finding the spark to hook an agent or publisher

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Pitching a passion project should be easy, shouldn’t it? After all, you’ve dedicated years of your life to writing a book, to polishing your precious words until they gleam. Surely everyone will appreciate your efforts and clamour to read your story, won’t they? Unfortunately, the answer is often ‘no’, unless you can convey that level of excitement in your pitch. Unless you can find the hook that will entice industry professionals, who see countless queries every single week, to want to read your work. Finding your hook can be the most difficult part of the process. In my case, learning how to craft an effective pitch has taken years and is still a work in progress.

This month, it was a case of third time lucky when I decided to attend the December ASA Virtual Literary Speed Dating event (in 2020 this face-to-face pitching event has moved online and has been rebranded ‘Virtual Literary Speed Dating’). I pitched my first manuscript at an in-person event in 2018, and my second manuscript via Zoom in the first virtual event in July this year. The December pitching event represented an opportunity to fine-tune my pitch for my second manuscript, based on responses to the first version. Although I was fortunate enough to receive two out of three manuscript requests in July, I didn’t generate enough excitement with my pitch; it clearly still needed work.

Although literary speed dating is now conducted via Zoom, the structure is more or less the same as the live event, and equally nerve-racking: you have three minutes to pitch your novel to an agent or publisher and answer their questions. Then a wait of up to a week to find out via email if anyone is interested in reading your work. Rather than lining up for a chance to pitch, though, you can book up to three meetings in advance, which provides an opportunity to target those who are most likely to be interested in your story and tailor your pitches accordingly.

In order to improve my pitch, I signed up for the ASA’s recent Pitch Perfect course. This course is run regularly throughout the year and provides an excellent overview of the publishing industry in general, as well as specific elements to consider when composing a good three-minute pitch. I would recommend this course to anyone seeking traditional publication in Australia. Although much of the information was familiar to me, I did experience a lightbulb moment during the session on speed dating. I suddenly knew exactly what was missing from my previous pitch.

I had done the research. My previous pitches contained all the information an agent or publisher would need in order to understand what the story was about and where it would sit in the market. What I didn’t adequately cover was the why. Why did I write this novel? What problem does the story address? Why am I the best person to tell this story? Why am I passionate about getting this novel out into the world? My unique selling point and my passion provided the spark that was missing from my original pitch. Adding it in made all the difference. This time my pitch was clearly more engaging and the response to it universally positive. What happens next is out of my hands, but at least I’ve finally managed to pull together a decent pitch with an effective hook.

According to an ASA source, the online speed pitching format has been such a success with agents and publishers that they’ll likely continue to run these pitching events at least twice a year via Zoom, and may never return to face-to-face events. This year they have been well attended by a large number of agents and publishers. Speed pitching is a golden opportunity to sell your work directly to an industry professional. And thanks to the online format, geography is no longer a barrier. All you need is a pitch with a suitable hook. With a bit of luck, you’ll figure it out faster than I did.

Passion is vital when pitching. Harness the passion and the rest will follow. And good luck!

By Lisa Kenway

Lisa Kenway is an Australian writer and doctor. Her debut psychological thriller, ALL YOU TOOK FROM ME, is coming in August 2024 from Transit Lounge Publishing. An early version was long-listed for the 2020 Richell Prize. A 2023 Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre fellow, her work has appeared in Island Online, the Meanjin blog, Meniscus Literary Journal and elsewhere. Find her at www.lisakenway.com or on Twitter @LisaKenway.


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