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« Lesson 12: How to Impress an Agent, Editor, or Reader - The Five Spheres of Greatness | Main | Lesson 10: Don't Pitch to Everyone (3 Ways to Use Your Book to Find Your Audience) »

Lesson 11: Pitch University Ultimate Challenge (“Prepare to Die!”)

**This Lesson is part of the January series “30 Pitch Lessons – 30 Days.”  Pitch University Pitchfest weeks and Expert-In-Residence weeks kick off the 1st full week in February.**

Subtitle: How to have a 75% Success Rate When Pitching Your Book to Agents and Editors.  Really.

But first... we need to get into The Challenge frame of mind.  Not just any challenge.  A duel! For that, we need The Princess Bride, novel and screenplay by William Goldman.

Inigo Montoya
 Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
Count Rugen
Stop saying that!

Everyone who's ever seen the film is now using the right accent to say, "Prepare to die!"  

And you know you need more.  So go ahead, watch the clip; I'll wait.  Don't mind me.  Just waiting here while you--


As I was saying, the idea for this post began with a ::ahem:: controversial workshop by a very good thriller writer, Marcus Sakey, on his experience writing and sending out query letters.  

He claimed that not only did he have a 75% success rate when sending out query letters....  He claimed you should too.

Apparently, some writers didn't believe him.

He then wrote a response over at Jane Friedman's blog for Writer's Digest, and he's generous to share it with us as well.  So what you're about to read is his unique plan for getting a YES 75% of the time, with running commentary from me on exactly how this translated to pitching and you.  Because, if he can do it, so can we.

Getting to 75%

Not long ago I, Marcus Sakey, pissed off a bunch of writers.

I was attending the Midwest Writer’s Workshop at the time, where along with my buddy John Gilstrap, I gave a presentation on “The Secrets of Getting Published.”  One of the things I said was that a properly-written query letter should result in at least 75% of agents requesting the manuscript.  

My host, the delightful Jane Friedman, tweeted this, and many people disagreed rather…let’s go with vehemently.

To them, I can only respond, respectfully: you’re wrong.

I know because I had that success rate.  In fact, once I had my query in its proper form, about 80% of the agents I queried requested materials.

Some of you said that this isn’t realistic for today’s market.  But this was late 2005.  While the rise of e-books and a down economy have taken a toll, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convince me that agents have fundamentally changed their business model in the last five years.

Others pointed out that I’m an established author.  However, when I was querying my only publication credit was a short story in a U.K. journal with 600 subscribers.  

Still others said that there were too many variables in play.  You raise a point, but remember, I didn’t say any query letter.  I said a properly written one.

So, not everyone writes a good query letter.  Shocker, eh? Kinda like saying not everyone is good at pitching.

Here’s how to do it.  

(By the way, all of this applies to fiction; non-fiction is different, and I don’t know beans about it.  Sorry.)

First of all, finish the book.  And I don’t just mean type “THE END.”  If it isn't polished to a high gleam, if it hasn't been read by a dozen friends and re-written in response to their comments, then you aren't ready to worry about Step Two.

Same for pitching at conferences.  Here at Pitch U, where we focus is on learning, you are allowed to “practice pitch,” which means stating up front that you’re just practicing and not actually finished with your book.

But let’s assume that it is.  The next thing you need to do is decide which agents to approach.

This is one of the ways you limit the number of variables in the equation.  Only query agents who represent work like yours. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It's not his market, and even if he did like it, you'd be better served by an agent who really knows your field.

It’s like he’s been reading our Pitch U article “Don’t Pitch to Everyone.”

How to do that? Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In their acknowledgments, authors almost always thank their agent (if they don't, you don't want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don't obsess. Don't try to pick a favorite in advance.

After three or four deeply boring hours, you should have a sizable list. To find their addresses, turn to the Internet. You can Google search, using quotes around their full name. You can also look at sites like and Again, not fun, but necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent's name, the authors they represent, the address and email, and sections for dates to track who you've sent letters and when.

Apply the same to pitching, only in reverse.  When you attend a conference or Pitchfest where a number of agents are accepting pitch appointments, research the books these agents rep, then look at the books to find matches to your genre, tone, topic, style, etc.

Okay, so you've got a targeted list.  Now it’s time to write the dreaded query.

Translation: It’s time to… find the dread pirate Roberts!  Okay, I couldn’t help myself.  But you know I meant write the pitch, right?

It’s dreaded for a reason, which is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms. Now you have to forget all that.

Here's the key to writing queries. You're not actually selling the book.

I want to repeat that:  You are not selling the book.  In fact, you could write a highly successful query for a book that does not exist.

All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That's it.

Eureka, it’s the same as pitching!

It's like online dating. If you can write a charming email, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won't get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you're worth someone's time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.

Pitch U officially endorses the sincerity, respectfulness, and being interesting-ness that is 100%  professional and not creepy, flighty, or desperate. 

How do you do that?  Well, for one, you're polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect.

Pitching translations:  You’re polished, your message is compelling, and then you shut up.  You can ruin a perfect presentation by stumbling your way through random facts and rambling on and on.  Just saying.

Also, you're brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read.

It’s okay to have time left at the end.  That’s where discussion happens and relationship building starts.

Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you're not afraid to put those wiles to work.

Be the storyteller of a clean, coherent pitch called, “My Book Is About….”

After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1 - 2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar.   This shows that you have done your homework.  It also begins to frame their expectations.  By implication they know the genre and style of your work.  This is also a good place to put the word count, because if it’s appropriate (70,000 – 120,000, give or take), that’s a hurdle you’ve already cleared.

Next, in 3 - 5 lines, sum up your story. This is the hard part, but it’s easier than most people make it.  In essence, what you want to do is leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here's mine:

For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score--until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny's millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

This is awesome, isn’t it.  For a verbal pitch, you can put this into a more conversational format, which allows you to breathe more and not have to memorize an entire passage. 

“My book is about Danny Carter, who used to be a thief but now he’s a respectable businessman with a normal life and loving girlfriend.  Finally he has the ultimate score…."  And so on.

Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. And man oh man did it hurt at first.  But look at what it accomplished.  By keeping the pitch brief, using only one name, and including significant stakes, I demonstrated that I know how to tell a story.

And boy, does he. That’s why his book, The Blade Itself, was selected as a New York Times Editor's Pick and named one of Esquire Magazine's 5 Best Reads of 2007.

And that, my friends, is the point of the query letter.  

Yeah, pitch, ditto.

Think about it.  Agents get hundreds of these a week.  Do you really think they remember them?  Hell, I bet they forget the beginning of most by the time they reach the middle.  You try and read 300 queries, see how fast your eyes glaze over.

So instead of trying to convey the beautiful bleeding soul that is your novel, just show an agent you know how to tell a story.  That’s what makes them willing to read your manuscript.

Heck, I’d say, YES.  Wouldn’t you?  80% of the agents he queried did.

Okay, next paragraph.  This is the place for awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. Will Stephen King blurb you?  Is Oprah your aunt?  Do you run a wildly successful blog?  Put it in there.

Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious: if you're hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention that you’re a cop. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out. In fact, if you have nothing to mention here, leave the whole damn ‘graph out.  Never write just to fill space.

These are the details that can come up in conversation if you keep your pitch short and leave time to talk.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: "May I send you the finished manuscript?"

If you haven’t heard a 'no,' ask for a 'yes.'  That’s a key principle in sales.

If you're writing a conventional query, you're done. However, when possible, I recommend you query via email. There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this: "Page one of <insert compelling title here> follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?"

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since email can screw that up, and manually insert line-breaks to double-space. Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They're intrigued. It's the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more.  And then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.

This is great advice for queries.  Probably obvious, but don’t pull out your manuscript and start reading in a pitch appointment.  Just get a 'yes' for sending pages (a partial or a full) to the agent or editor. That's a success.

A good query letter is not written in a day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it's ready, start sending out waves, say 5 - 10 a week.

Practice with friend, practice here at Pitch U, practice in the shower.  Practice is good.  It will make you feel confident.

Doing it in waves is crucial, because it will tell you how effective your query letter is.  (Note: I didn’t say how interesting your book is.  Query letters and novels are separate things.)   Remember, your query letter isn’t finished until you’re seeing about a 75% request rate.

This is amazing advice.  You’re learning how to pitch.  You want to always improve.  How effective were you this time?  Use that to help you adjust next time.

When you do get a bite, remember to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in big letters on the envelope so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries.

I’m thinking we need to see your happy dance on video.  Yes, that would go right onto our success page for everyone to enjoy.

Of course, the painful part is that for all the requests, you’ll get plenty of rejections.  I did.  This is a subjective business, and some very big names told me they didn’t like the book, that it lacked tension, that they didn’t think it had a market.  Which made it all the sweeter when CBS Sunday Morning called The Blade Itself “how immortality gets started,” or when we sold the film rights to Ben Affleck.  

Ah, success.  It is sweet revenge.

Don’t sweat the rejections.  Have a beer, then send another query.  And great good luck!

 Marcus Sakey's newest book, The Amateurs, ""Introduces one of the scariest villains in recent memory...quickly becomes a nightmare, leaving readers gasping with fright and pleasure at Sakey's genius."Chicago Tribune.

The film version of his book, GOOD PEOPLE, will be produced by and star Tobey Maguire.  The screenplay is being done by Kelly Masterson, whose movie Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a wonderful, heartbreaking modern noir. Director, Niels Arden Oplev, will be making his American debut following his masterful work on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo



Our thanks to Marcus.  He’s just outlined the ultimate pitch strategy.  It’s time to actually do it.  Take the Pitch University Challenge. 

Yes, you heard that right, we challenge you.  Slap, slap, slap!  

Practice your pitching until 75% of the editors and agents you pitch to say, “I want it!  Send me the pages.”

***So, tell us, are you writer enough to accept?  Take the oath in the Comments section.  Put it in permanent ink, and prepare to pitch!***


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Reader Comments (11)

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Use your real name. Agents, Editors, and Experts will be using their real names. Show up with yours. If your profile isn't your name, please sign your name in your comment.

Comments need to be...

Free of Snark, Finger Pointing, and Personal Attack

This is a professional environment. Be professional. No one is fooled by the phrase, "I'm just being honest."

Agents and Editors will be viewing your comments. If you can't be kind toward your own fellow-writers, the thought is you'd make a pretty miserable client.

Don't be* that* writer.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Holmes

75%! I wish.

I've taken most of Marcus advice. I do my querying in waves as well.

I've been lucky with this query and had about a 20 - 24% request rate which isn't great but it's not terrible either.

I'm going to have to look at mine again and utilize his ideas. I never thought of just coming out and asking if I can send the finished manuscript, but then I've never been much of a sales person either. LOL.

Thanks for another wonderful post!

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCandi Wall

Hey Candi,

I know it stings, but if you're getting a 24% request rate then your query letter is broken. The good news is that it's not your novel; the two exist independently.

I would recommend scrapping what you have and starting fresh. Try to really boil down the essential conflict of the story. Remember to include stakes, and to build tension. Once you're done, have friends and colleagues read it, and b>ask them to be brutal. Hearing that you're a genius may feel good, but it doesn't help you any.

Good luck!

-Marcus Sakey

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Sakey

Absolutely spot-on, Marcus! And something to keep in mind at all times. Thanks for this advice.

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Simon

I remember reading this article at the Writer's Digest website and thinking it was impossible. However, I now think the points here are completely valid. If you're pitching to the right people, the ones who are looking for your type of story, it's possible to sell the idea of your book to most of them. In a way, it's like the browsers at a bookstore. Can well-written back cover copy get 80% of the people interested in your genre - and already holding your book in their hands - to open the book to the first page? I think yes.

I don't have any plans to attend a conference to do in-person pitches, but I'm actively querying. What do I need to do to sign up for this challenge?

January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJami Gold

Bingo, Jami! That's it exactly. I'm not saying that you can get 75% of all agents to ask for more--why would they? And why would someone who reps literary want a romance, or someone who reps crime want nonfiction? Targeting is essential.

But you'd be surprised how many agents there are out there. Even targeted, you're talking about a pretty extensive list, and that's just the A-Listers.


January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Sakey

Dear Jami,

Post your Oath right here.

"I hereby accept the challenge to achieve 75% success with my pitches (or queries). I will track my pitches (or queries), adjust my approach, and perfect my abilities as I continue to learn and receive feedback. Now, all you Pitches (or queries), prepare to die!"

And then report back and let us know what happens, the adjustments you make, and how your percentage improves. You can write me at and I'll compile our Oath results!

January 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterDiane

I hereby accept the challenge to achieve 75% success with my queries. I will track my queries, adjust my approach, and perfect my abilities as I continue to learn and receive feedback. Now, all you queries, prepare to die (or succeed)!

Love it! I just tweaked my high-concept hook today too. I need to figure out if/how my queries should be changed to incorporate this:
To save the world from a power-hungry immortal, a reformed con artist must sacrifice her family, the husband and son she's fought so hard to deserve.


January 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJami Gold

Books are very profitable business, if you know for sure how to run it and only after that you'll be successful. You have to have good business partners.

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March 17, 2017 | Unregistered Commentertyson

The high success rate depends on many factors. First of all, it is the correct selection of the material. The information should be relevant and interesting for the readers.

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