Sandra Kasturi on Pitching Manuscripts
(Excerpt from an interview with Jim Harrington July 2010; reprinted with permission)
With respect to pitching, I think the things I see most that make me really really annoyed are the following: A lot of people simply don't read the guidelines carefully. If a publisher asks you to send your manuscript as a certain kind of attachment, well—YOU SHOULD DO THAT. Don't give the publisher a reason to reject you right off the bat. I love it when writers say in their cover letter, "I've read your guidelines closely," and then they STILL don't submit correctly. This might seem like a minor quibble, but when you're getting hundreds of submissions, you don't have the time to reformat everyone's document. I had a guy once who was annoyed because he didn't want to use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. He didn't like how they looked! That was an eye-roller for sure.
What else puts me off in pitches? Oh yeah--when they tell me how wonderful their book is in their cover letter. Thanks very much, but I think we'll decide whether your book is wonderful. It's like parents insisting that their spoiled, tantrum-throwing two-year-old is the Most Amazing Child That Was Ever Born! Please.
Another thing that will spoil your pitch really fast is an incomprehensible synopsis. Just tell me what your book is about. Is that so hard? Again, we get a lot of writers telling us how brilliant the book is, and how we're gonna love it, and it's the most exciting thriller/space opera/ghost story/whatever since...whoever...but they don't give you a clue as to what the book's actually about. Sometimes they can't even manage to tell you the title of the book! They also write to tell me that they're married, have X number of children, just bought a house, have 3 cats called Fluffy, Muffy and Duffy, that their dog is 15 years old, that they just moved to a new city; that their parents/friends/priest/writing group/message board/other publisher/psychiatrist just told them how wonderful their manuscript was, and we MUST NOT PASS IT UP. Guess what? I don't care. I don't care about your cat or your house or your weather or your baby or whether your mom thinks you're awesome. I've never met you. We don't have a relationship yet, and the sort of chatty cover letter that presumes one, just gets my back up. If we decide to publish you, THEN we'll develop a relationship. Until that time, I Just Do Not Care.
You know what's a terrific pitch? "Dear CZP, my name is Joe Blow. I have written 3 books (insert names) which have sold reasonably well. I enclose the first four chapters of my horror novel manuscript, BLAH DI BLAH, approximately 90,000 words, for your consideration. I also enclose a one-page synopsis. The full manuscript is available, should you wish to read it. Thank you for your interest; I am available at the above e-mail address or phone number at your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Joe."
And then the synopsis really IS one page, and it actually DOES tell me what the book is about. And the manuscript is formatted properly, in a readable font, double-spaced, one-inch margins, etc. In that very brief cover letter, there is a wealth of information: the author's name & contact info, the type of thing it is (horror novel), the title, the length, the number of chapters being sent, the fact that the whole book is available, that he's published some other books. I mean, we don't necessarily care if they've been published before, but it's handy info. There's no extraneous crap, nothing about how his sister thinks he's the next J.D. Salinger. And there's no sucking up, either, which is nice. If all pitches/subs were like that, it would make me a lot less tired!
Lastly, a really bad pitch is one in which it is very clear that the author has never read anything in the genre, and is therefore pitching a novel that we've all seen a million times; but they, of course, think it's unique. What do you say? "Dear Sir/Madam, your entire premise is a cliché." Well, we don't say that. Sometimes pitches are so bad that no amount of criticism is going to fix them. Then we just write, "Sorry, it's not for us," or something similar.
Sandra Kasturi is Co-Publisher ChiZine. Comments reprinted from an interview on Jim Harrington's popular Six Questions for..." blog which asks a different editor each day six questions about what they are looking for in a manuscript. Highly recommended.