Agents tend to be highly specialized, only working in a select few genres that they know and love. When considering who to sign, we tend to favor those who bring that same kind of energy to the partnership. Inspired by our authors being awesome (and a few recent pitches that missed the mark), here are some tips for presenting yourself as knowledgeable when pitching your novel.
A necessary first step here is to actively read in your genre. As with any product, you must know what your competition is and the kind of experience your target consumer is looking for. Beyond that, the passion you have for your genre often comes across on the page and resonates with the community. Likewise, if you don’t read in the genre you’re writing, that will always be apparent on the page with negative results. We want authors who live, breathe, and celebrate the type of writing that they are offering. Bonus points if I can look you up on Twitter or Goodreads and see you regularly reviewing the hot new books in your genre.
Do not under any circumstances belittle your genre in your pitch. No agent wants the writer who claims to have the first YA with substance or the first romance that isn’t formulaic. Not only is that not true, it conveys a lack of knowledge and insults the agent’s personal tastes. We all have books that inspired us to do this job, and we may even have books on the market that we don’t consider having those deficiencies. Present yourself as one who knows and loves the genre and is here to add something cool and unique to it.
Comparable titles speak volumes here. If you’re writing YA and you comp Twilight and The Hunger Games, that immediately positions you as an outsider, someone looking to cash in without paying attention to what has been happening in the category in recent years. Comps should be successful publications in your specific genre from no more than 5 years ago, and we should be able to draw clear lines between those books and your manuscript. Once you have that covered, you don’t have to stop at the titles. One trick to really convey your knowledge is to cite specific attributes of the comps (character, setting, emotion, etc.) that apply to what you’re pitching.
Just as you don’t want to disparage your genre, you don’t want to disparage your comps. After all, you want those same readers who made those books successful to make your book successful as well. Instead of trying to find fault in your comps, use them to build yourself a Venn diagram of awesomeness. It’s worth noting that every book (even something as personal as memoir) has comps. “There’s nothing like this on the market” is often considered a red flag.
You also show your knowledge simply by keeping your manuscript within genre conventions. For example, when The Art of Fielding came out, I received a lot of manuscripts that were way over standard word counts citing the example of that one book. That’s not how that works. The exception does not negate the rule, and if you want to give yourself the best chance for success as a new author, you’re probably going to have to play ball, at least until you build up an undeniable fanbase. Reading heavily within your genre helps here as well. Often times, that will make a lot of those conventions second nature or at least provide a solid basis for any additional research.
Aside from how you present your book, you have a great opportunity to convey your expertise in how you present yourself. In a query, this is your author bio. Yes, an author bio is not as important for pitching fiction as it is when pitching nonfiction, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Savvy novelists use the bio as a tool to lift themselves above the competition. Even if you don’t have publication credits, awards, an MFA, or applicable life experience, you can still show us that you’re approaching this from an informed perspective. A great way to do that is by joining your genre’s preeminent organization, like ITW for thrillers or SCBWI for children’s. That alone conveys that you care enough about doing this right to place yourself among experts. Participating in genre-specific conferences or online events helps as well, as does having a critique group, writing partner, or editor that focuses on your genre. And in the absence of everything else, if you’re going to cite your favorite authors, try to keep them in the genre that you’re writing. Just that shows the kind of focus and passion that can help your submission stand out above the others.