10 tips to help you write a stand-out pitch letter to an agent
Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Who better to tell you how to write a cover letter to an agent than creative writing teacher and published author, Russ Thomas. Russ is the author of Firewatching, published by Simon & Schuster in February 2020. It’s the first in a new series of crime thrillers featuring DS Adam Tyler, and I for one CAN.NOT.WAIT to read it. You can find him over at www.russthomasauthor.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram @thevoiceofruss.
Over to you, Russ:
Firstly, I’d just like to put this into perspective. I’ve been rejected by agents many, many times, and each one was gut-wrenching and awful. BUT… I honestly don’t think any of those were because my cover letter wasn’t quite right. So try and keep that in mind and hopefully you’ll find the process of writing one a little less agonising.
Here are my top 10 tips:
1. Do your research and target individual agents.
Your favourite author probably mentions their agent in the Acknowledgements. But don’t just aim for the big-hitters! Consider approaching newer agents too (or those actively building their client list). They’re more likely to read your manuscript quickly, and will have more incentive to sell you. Stephen King’s agent might be brilliant but does he/she have time for anyone else?
2. Keep the cover letter short.
Three or four paragraphs maximum! It should fit on one side of A4. Don’t be gimmicky! No flowers, presents, scented paper, or multi-coloured fonts. Keep it clear, clean and professional. 12pt Times New Roman (or similar), unless the agent states otherwise in their submission guidelines (separate point: always read and follow the agent's submission guidelines).
3. Para 1 – Introduce yourself and your book.
Tell the agent why you are writing to her/him.
4. Para 2 – Pitch your novel.
This is where you need your one-liner (or two or three at most) that sums up your book, the main character(s), and what happens. Be clear what your book is – Thriller, Romance, Science Fiction. The agent, like any potential publisher needs to know where this is going to sit on the bookshop shelves.
5. Para 3 – Sell yourself.
Mention any successes - prizes, short stories published etc. If you don’t have these, then sell yourself in some other way, even if it’s only to say something interesting about yourself. They want to get a small flavour of who you are. Especially if this is relevant to the novel you’ve written. If you have a blog or website, mention that too.
6. Don’t oversell yourself in the cover letter.
You’re NOT the next J K Rowling. You have NOT written the new Gone Girl. But it’s okay to say who you admire/aspire to.
7. Open with Dear (INS. Agent’s name here)and sign off with Yours sincerely.
Always approach an agent by name, not just the agency as a whole. Some agents only read Crime or Children’s books. Make sure you’ve addressed your letter to the right person.
8. Send only what they’ve asked for.
(usually about three chapters or 10,000 words – they will say on their website). Don’t be tempted to break their rules. If they say they only want three chapters then only send three chapters.
9. Make sure your manuscript is finished.
If you get a bite, you don’t want to embarrass yourself by telling them you haven’t quite finished it yet. They’ll move on and never deal with you again. Unless it’s non-fiction, in which case they may only want to see an outline and a sample of your work.
10. The dreaded Synopsis! Agggh!
This is the hardest thing you will ever have to write, after all, if you could tell your story in two pages, what the hell were the other 396 for??!! But, don’t agonise over this forever. I don’t think any agent has read three chapters of a book they loved and then rejected it on the basis of the synopsis. (Trade secret (shhhh) – some agents don’t even read them!) It’s important, but not more important than your opening chapters. [Read: Top 10 tips: How to write a knock-out synopsis]
Finally, and most importantly: Never EVER pay for someone to represent you! No reputable agent will ask for money up front. The standard deal is 15% of whatever they get you from a publisher.
Russ is represented by the best agent in the entire world, Sarah Horsley of the Bent Agent http://www.thebentagency.com/sarah-hornsley
Sarah is currently open to queries and writes this: I’m on the lookout for a book club novel with a standout concept and a character we can’t forget. I love books centred around a moral dilemma, one which means you immediately pass it on to your friends because you can’t wait to discuss. I represent across a broad range of genres, everything from crime and thriller to women’s fiction and historical fiction.