We’ve all heard stories about successful authors who could literally wallpaper their offices with rejection letters. We’ve also heard about first-time authors whose manuscript was snapped up on their very first attempt at querying. The experience of most writers falls somewhere in the middle. Querying an agent or an acquiring editor at a publishing house can be a complicated, lengthy, and frustrating experience. But are there proven strategies for giving your manuscript the very best chance of acceptance? Turns out there are. So what is the best time to pitch a book?
1. When you have a finished and polished manuscript
An idea for a great story isn’t the same thing as a finished great story. If you’re a proven author with a track record, publishers may be willing to give you a contract on the basis of an intriguing concept, but if you’re a first-time or emerging author, trust me—that isn’t going to happen. Agents and publishers want to know you can tell a compelling story from beginning to end. They want to hear your voice and see that you know your craft. They want to read a manuscript that is complete, polished, and proofread. Do not send your manuscript without being asked, but when an agent or editor does request a partial or full manuscript, you don’t want to say, “It’ll be ready in three months. I’ll get back to you.” Here’s my advice: give your manuscript a rest before you begin revisions. Use beta readers. Search for weasel words. Proofread for typos, misspellings, and errors in grammar. I highly recommend purchasing a copy of Chris Roerden’s classic, Don’t Sabotage Your Submission.
2. When you know your genre and comps
New writers believe that agents and editors are looking for something completely fresh and new. That’s right, but they’re not looking for something singular or without parallel. They want to sell your book to their team or to a publisher; and to do that, they need to know where it would fit on the shelves of a bookstore. The broad genre categories of crime fiction include Private Investigator, Cozy, Traditional, Police Procedural, Hard-Boiled, Suspense, and Thriller. Each of these categories has sub-categories. Thrillers might be legal, medical, political, or psychological. Take time before you query to research your genre and find comparables. Does your word count fit into the genre expectations? How is your book similar to and different from books on the market? You might say in your query letter, for example, “No Time To Kill is a 110,000-word legal thriller in the tradition of John Grisham but set in modern-day Botswana,” or “Fans of Ann Cleeves and Charles Todd will like Rising Tide, my 90,000-word police procedural that takes place on the Isle of Skye in the 1920s.” What kind of book have you written? Why is it fresh and new? Which readers are likely to buy it?
3. When you’ve developed a clear pitch
Finishing a manuscript is the first step in selling a book. How you sell it to an agent or editor depends to a great extent on how well you pitch it. If someone asked what your book is about (and they will), could you tell them in one coherent sentence? You should be able to do this without thinking. A one- or two-sentence summary of your book is called a logline, and it usually includes a snatch of setting and flavor, the identity of your protagonist, the conflict, and the stakes. Here are some log lines for books or movies you might recognize:
- Luke Skywalker, a spirited farm boy from the planet Tatooine, joins rebel forces to save Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader and the galaxy from the Empire’s Death Star.
- While visiting his terminally ill aunt in Cornwall, private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner Robin Ellacott investigate the disappearance of Margot Bamborough, a doctor who vanished in 1974.
- At an artists’ colony on the North Devon coast, detective Matthew Venn finds the body of a local doctor, fatally stabbed with a shard of one of his glassblower daughter’s broken vases. The line between Venn’s professional and personal lives is blurred when he learns the daughter is a close friend of his husband, Jonathan.
Your logline can then be expanded into an elevator pitch, a query pitch, and a plot synopsis. Have these ready to go. For further information and details, check out the excellent summary in Writer’s Digest: The Four Elements – Writer’s Digest (writersdigest.com).
4. When the timing is optimal for success
If you want an agent or editor to actually read and consider your query, don’t send it on New Year’s Eve or when they’ve announced publicly they’re closed to submissions. Has there ever been a successful pitch on Christmas Day? Probably, but why not give your manuscript the best chance of success? Generally speaking and based on the advice of professionals, here are the best and worst times to submit a manuscript:
WORST TIMES TO SUBMIT
- During the holiday season (November and December) and the summer months of July and August when many people are enjoying family vacations
- At the end of the year when publishers’ budgets are at their low point
- On Monday morning when everyone is catching up on emails
- On Friday afternoon when they’re thinking about the weekend
BEST TIMES TO SUBMIT
- January through March, early autumn (September and October), and June
- Midweek—Tuesday through Thursday
- Mid-day (10 am to 2pm)—and do consider the difference in time zones
5. When an agent or publisher is looking for a book like yours (i.e. do your homework)
One of an agent’s common pet peeves is receiving a query for a type of book they have clearly stated they don’t represent. Do your homework. Begin with the agent’s or editor’s website. Read any recent blogs or articles they’ve published. Take note of the kind of book they represent and are seeking. Spell their name correctly. Let them know you are querying them for a reason and they’re not just one email in a mass mailing. Here’s an example:
After reading your recent article in Writer’s Digest, I thought you might be interested in my 80,000-word cozy mystery, Going to the Dogs.
Consider sending personal emails in small batches of, say ten to fifteen. Do develop a system to keep track of your submissions and any responses.
Good luck! And if you have any further tips on querying, let us know!