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June 30, 2024 12:00
Darcy Nicholson on pitch writing
literary agents
getting published
novel writing techniques

How to Write a Book Pitch (and Why it Matters)

October 1, 2023
Darcy Nicholson
October 1, 2023

How to write a killer book pitch is one of those questions all of us writers have grappled with at one point or another in our writing journeys.

We’re told it’s integral for our query letters, and that all the hard work we’ve put into our manuscripts will be for nothing if we can’t form a perfectly pithy elevator pitch to catch the eyes of those busy literary agents.

But just how do you do all of that?!

On this week’s blog, we’ve asked Darcy Nicholson, Publishing Director for Commercial Fiction at Bloomsbury General, to answer exactly that. She explains what a pitch is and why it’s important, gives her own examples of killer elevator pitches from published novels, and reveals the four things every great pitch should include.

Now over to Darcy...

How to write a book pitch and why it matters by Darcy Nicholson from Bloomsbury Publishing

What is a book pitch?

Any writer who has breathed the same air as anyone working in publishing will have been bored to death by the word ‘pitch’.

Right across the industry – from fiction to nonfiction, commercial to literary – we talk constantly about a book’s pitch and how important it is.

It matters to agents, editors, marketers, publicists, reviewers, cover designers, booksellers and more. On a subconscious level, it even matters to readers. But before we go into how the pitch is used and why it’s so important, let’s take a moment to ask the question I know writers can often be afraid to ask:

What even is a pitch?

It’s one of those questions that is so simple as to seem silly. But there’s no such thing as a silly question, especially not where pitch is concerned.

My advice is this: don’t get distracted by people talking about an ‘elevator pitch’ or an ‘X-meets-Y pitch’ or a ‘one-line pitch’ or a ‘hook’ – they’re all more or less the same thing.

Put simply, the pitch is the shortest, pithiest, catchiest, most enticing, meaningful and appealing summary of a book possible.

Put simply, the pitch is the shortest, pithiest, catchiest, most enticing, meaningful and appealing summary of a book possible.

Easy, right?!

There’s a real knack to coming up with a good pitch for a manuscript or a proposal; it takes time, practice and – crucially – perspective.

This is why, like titles, the writer’s first pitch might not be the same as an agent’s pitch to publishers, and the publisher’s pitch might be different still.

Examples of elevator pitches

How do you summarise your manuscript or your proposal into something short, pithy, catchy, enticing, meaningful and appealing?

Let’s take a look at some bestselling books and how they might be pitched...

  • Spare: The tell-all memoir from Britain’s most divisive second son
  • The Love Hypothesis: A classic fake-dating romance for the TikTok generation, showcasing women in STEM, written by a woman in STEM
  • Gaslight: The second in the Philip Taiwo series. An investigative psychologist is called in when the First Lady of a Nigerian megachurch vanishes: is it suicide... or murder?
  • Yellowface: A wickedly scandalous tale of intellectual appropriation that asks the question: who has the right to tell a story?

Now, you’ll have to forgive me – these are my own quick pitches based on my reading of these books. There are lots of ways to pitch a manuscript or proposal, and we’ll come to this later.

For now, let’s have a look at the different component parts of these pitches.

Spare by Prince Harry


The tell-all memoir from Britain’s most divisive second son

  • ‘tell all’ – promises revelations, perhaps even scandals
  • ‘Britain’s second son’ – helps to situate and make sense of the title (and the author)
  • ‘most divisive’ – reminds us that there is a debate here; that people will have opinions which will be nurtured by this book, or they may want to form an opinion by reading this book

 

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood

A classic fake-dating romance for the TikTok generation, showcasing women in STEM, written by a woman in STEM

  • ‘fake-dating romance’ – tells us what this novel is in the language of the genre
  • ‘for the TikTok generation’ – pinpoints a primary audience and therefore implies a tone/delivery style favoured by that audience which may or may not appeal to others
  • ‘showcasing women in STEM’ – pulls out the USP of the setting
  • ‘written by a woman in STEM’ – backs up the authenticity of that USP setting by showcasing the author’s credentials to write in this space

Gaslight by Femi Kayode

The second in the Philip Taiwo series. An investigative psychologist is called in when the First Lady of a Nigerian mega church vanishes: is it suicide... or murder?

  • ‘the second in the...’ – situates the novel in its series
  • ‘investigative psychologist’ – calls out the credentials of the series character and also the genre
  • ‘First Lady of a Nigerian mega church’ – flags the USP of the location
  • ‘is it suicide... or murder?’ – immediately sparks the imagination

Yellowface by R. F. Kuang

A wickedly scandalous tale of intellectual appropriation that asks the question: who has the right to tell a story?

  • ‘wickedly scandalous’ – sets the tone; despite this novel having serious themes, the delivery is wry
  • ‘intellectual appropriation’ – calls out the major theme/topic of this novel
  • ‘that asks the question’ – demonstrates the capacity for this book to spark debate
  • ‘who has the right to tell a story?’ – immediately draws people into this question before they have even begun to read

So, if a pitch requires perspective (which we all know can be famously hard for a writer to have on their own work) and the writer’s own pitch may not be the final pitch anyway – why bother?

How to write a book pitch or elevator pitch by a publishing editor

Why is a great pitch important for literary agents?

When a writer queries a literary agent, the pitch in their cover letter can be the simplest way to let the agent know what the manuscript or proposal is about.

It can help them assess whether they’re the right agent for a project like this and therefore apportion their time appropriately across the hundreds of submissions they get each week.

For example, if they don’t accept horror and they receive a query letter that states my novel is a retelling of Carrie for Gen Z, they know where they stand immediately.

As a clear indicator of what a submission is, it helps the agent to prioritise their (already scant) time.

No literary agent expects a book pitch to be polished and perfect at this stage; it is more a useful signpost to help them do their job – which is, hopefully, to sign you.

query agents book pitch
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Why does a publisher require a great pitch?

This is the same for a publisher.

The commissioning editor will receive the agent’s pitch for a project as part of the submission.

Bear in mind this book pitch might be an evolved version of the writer’s pitch, playing more accurately to the current market – or it might be totally different. You will always know how your agent is pitching your work and have the chance to interrogate it if you don’t think it’s accurate.

As an editor, the pitch helps me to situate the submission. It is the first moment for me to consider whether I have the appropriate space on my list or whether I am the right editor for any manuscript or proposal that lands in my inbox.

On occasion, an editor will read a submission and disagree with the agent’s pitch – in order to take the project forward at work in that situation, I might pitch it to my colleagues in a different way.

This happens when there are a few different routes in to a project, or when an editor sees a different way to engage a different market, or when an editor responds to something specific about the submission.

At this point, the way that an editor pitches a book internally forms a part of the publishing vision – a strategy to say what the book is, who it is for and how we talk about the book with its intended audience.

This is then taken up by marketing, publicity, sales and other departments, and developed into a publication plan.

The pitch is a vital part of the discussions that will result in internal decisions on cover design, audience, routes to market, retailers etc. – all the moving parts of a publication.

Here are just some examples of how the different teams might use your pitch:

The Design Team

A designer will use the pitch to understand the message they are conveying and to whom. A version of the pitch may well make it on to the front cover of the book as a copy line.

The Marketing Team

The marketing department will use the pitch to inform how they speak to the book’s audience; a version of the pitch may appear in advertising, too.

The Publicity Team

The publicity team will in turn pitch to reviewers – who are sent so many books every day that the pitch becomes a vital tool to pique their interest and help them to prioritise their time and attention.

The Sales Team

The sales team will then use the pitch in conversation with retailers. Again, these retailers are seeing many, many books each month, and so a strong sales pitch will help your book stand out among the many titles being pitched to retailers by different publishers.

And finally, at the end of the chain is...

The Reader

They might be sold a book by a bookseller using the sales pitch, or they might read a review of the book in a newspaper or magazine (which will have been chosen for coverage using the publicity team’s pitch). They might even be lured in by a copy line on the front cover of the book or an advert on their phone from the marketing team’s pitch.

All of this starts with the pitch.

Now, that probably feels like a lot of pressure on a couple of sentences.

And, from my position as a publisher, that’s fair – I need to nail that pitch so I can feel confident my publishing colleagues will be able to use it to inform their own work throughout the publishing process.

But for writers looking to submit to a literary agent, the pitch needs to clearly communicate only a few things:

  1. What is the book? (is it crime fiction, a memoir, a self-help book?)
  2. What is special or different about it? (nail down its USP)
  3. Who is it for? (Who is the market or audience? What are the comp titles? Is it for fans of X or romance readers or home cooks?)
  4. And finally, what is intriguing or exciting about the book that will make me want to read it? (bonus points here!)

So what next?

All that remains is to share a few words of encouragement.

  • DO mention other books/authors/films/TV shows to help identify your readership
  • DON’T only mention the mega bestsellers; mention those that actually feel similar. Be accurate, not showy
  • DO make the most of any relevant credentials you have
  • DON’T write a pitch of more than 40 words (better yet, see if you can do it in 20)
  • DO read up on your area of the market or genre to pinpoint accurately what makes your book special

And remember, your pitch is just the beginning. Your future status as a bestseller does not hinge solely on your ability to write that hook.

You focus on getting our attention with the shortest, pithiest, catchiest, most enticing, meaningful and appealing summary of your book possible.

Let us worry about the rest.

 

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry – the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Darcy Nicholson

Darcy Nicholson is Publishing Director for General Fiction at Bloomsbury’s new commercial division, Bloomsbury General, where she is building a new list. She previously worked at Hachette and Penguin Random House. She blames the Richard & Judy book club for her career choices, otherwise she might never have discovered The Time Traveller’s Wife or The Lovely Bones – books that make you want to become an editor.

Members of The Novelry team