Pitch Contests: The 5 Elements of a Successful Book Pitch

Pitching your book is no easy task–you’re turning your thousands and thousands of words into a few characters. How can you possibly fit all that makes your book your book into a tweet? How can you grab an agent/editor/publisher’s attention?

Read on to see my five elements of a Twitter pitch, as well as some of the things I’ve learned from my own pitching experience.

I’ve participated in a few pitch contests, some more successful than others. Lately, though, I think I’ve finally figured out how to write a strong pitch. Once I did, I got some great response on Twitter:

my pitch

A lot of pitching is about luck and timing, so I can’t promise your pitch will “go viral,” but at the very least, I want to share with you what I consider to be the necessary elements to a strong pitch.

So, without further ado, let’s discuss the five necessary elements in a Twitter pitch:

1. Character

By looking at the pitch, we should have a rough answer for the question “Who is your main character?” For Young Adult (YA) pitches especially, it’s important to include the age of your protagonist, if you can (looks like I didn’t do that in mine–oops!). A short hand can be “18yo” instead of “eighteen year-old”. Including the name of your protag is also a good idea. Consider, too, something that makes them stand out. When I read queries for people, I often ask myself why is this character the protagonist of this story? What about them as a character is unique? A profession? A talent? A quirk? If it’s relevant to their plotline, it’s a good idea to include it.

2. Goal

It’s important to know that your character has agency, that their story is their own and they aren’t being pulled around by the plot. We know who they are now (Clara, or a pastry chef, or a firewoman, or a clumsy warlock), but what do they want? What gets them out of bed every day? What are they fighting for? For Clara, it’s both tangible and intangible: she wants to control her magic so that she can heal her dad. You don’t have to justify their want here in the pitch. Just tell us, and try to be specific. Do they want to find a lost treasure? Rescue a princess? Become famous? Find the man who killed their sister? I can’t wait to find out!

3. Obstacle

Something is in your character’s way. What will they have to overcome in your story? Clara’s magic makes her dad sick. That’s her obstacle–her magic is dangerous and out of control. Maybe your character lost something important. Maybe a stranger has interrupted your character’s perfect life. Maybe your character has to go to the worst summer camp ever. Make it clear to us that this obstacle SUCKS and that your character wants to (and will try to) overcome it!

4. Stakes

Usually, stakes are set up as follows: Character must X or else Y will happen. If your character fails in their task, what will happen? What will they lose? If Clara can’t get her magic under control, her dad will die. If Bob can’t find the magic unicorn, the world will end. If Karen doesn’t win the bakeoff, she’ll lose her bakery. Make it clear that their mission in this book is important — if not to the world, at least to them. Make us care about your characters and root for them!

5. Outstanding Details

With hundreds of pitches posted, make sure you have something that makes you stand out! Try to include a detail in your book that’s very visceral, visual, unforgettable, or unique. What makes your book different from all the other books people have read lately? I tried to embody this answer by mentioning Clara’s dad having flowers in his lungs. It is the great obstacle Clara encounters, but it’s also a very jarring, unique image that may stick with you. It will also help indicate the tone of the book, giving the reader of the pitch a taste of what’s to come.

There are few more helpful tips below–not always necessary, but they can be extremely helpful to you.

Hashtags

Don’t forget to include hashtags! Hashtags are how agents/editors/publishers can see your pitch and navigate through genres and age categories. And don’t forget to double check your hashtags. One contest may have #fa for fantasy and another could have #f.

PitMad has a list of their hashtags here: https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/#hashtags 

Comp Titles

Comp titles are where you compare your book to other books, TV shows, musicals, current events, movies, comic books, WHO KNOWS. My rule of thumb is ONE BOOK + One Wild Card. Ideally, your comp title book has been published in the last 5 years and is in your age category and genre. It’s usually at the front of the pitch and can be stylized as follows:

ONE OF US IS LYING + WILLY WONKA or ONE OF US IS LYING X WILLY WONKA

Well, uh, pretty interesting comps you have there. The job of the comps is to give an idea of the potential audience for your book and a hint as to what your book is going to be like. From the comps I made up here, I would guess your book has multiple POVs, is contemporary, is true crime, and features a fantastical, slightly sinister setting… maybe in a candy factory?

(If you successfully write the story above, please let me know.)

BUT what if I totally guessed your book wrong based on those comp titles?

Here’s the thing: No comp titles are better than bad comp titles. And if you can, try to be specific in the comps you do use.

A lesson I learned: I comp’d UPROOTED, an amazing book with plant magic–like my book! But the UPROOTED comp alone left many agents believing and wanting for a book that was dark, steamy, and based in folklore–which isn’t my book at ALL. Here’s what I did: instead, if I mentioned UPROOTED, I very clearly said “UPROOTED’s plant magic + the light tone of HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE.” You don’t want to falsely advertise your book. If you see that agents are getting the wrong impression from your pitch, make sure to clarify in your query or consider removing or altering the comp titles you use in your Twitter pitch.

The Obvious

If your book is still being written, has never been revised, has never been read by another person, or is in heavy revisions, don’t pitch yet. It’s so much better to wait until your book is TOTALLY ready than to have to turn in a project that you’re not proud of.

And, as always, pitch contests aren’t everything. Cold queries work just as well and have gotten agents for a great many authors!

Do your research!

Above all, I’d say, DON’T SETTLE. If you get a like from an agent you don’t feel good about, or a teeny tiny publishing house when you’re dying to publish with one of the Big Five, don’t submit to them! You are not required to submit your materials to anyone you don’t want to.

Publisher’s Marketplace is a good place to see what kind of sales your interested agent/editor/publisher has had recently. Also check the agency’s/publishing house’s website. See what books and authors they’ve published. If you see lots of picture books and your book is erotica, maybe proceed with caution before submitting to them.

QueryTracker is also a good place to go to read comments and see if the agent’s reputation is up to snuff. Don’t EVER work with an agent or agency that will make you pay for any additional services. That’s a shmagent right there.

With editors, sometimes they will like your pitch, but only accept submissions if you already have an agent. Check their Twitter to see what their rules are about this. If this is the case and you don’t have an agent, write the editor’s name down. When you do have an agent, it’ll be super helpful to know which editors have shown interest in your project.

When in doubt, reach out to someone in the writing community. We are very knowledgeable, very helpful, and it’s much better to proceed with caution than to throw your book baby into the arms of someone who isn’t a good fit.

You got this. Best of luck in your contest!!

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