How to Get a Literary Agent: 4 Rock-Solid Tips to Stand Out

Literary Agent Advice: 4 Rules to Write a Stand-Out Book Pitch

Evan Jensen | 28 Comments
Book Pitch Advice From a Literary Agent. Makealivingwriting.com

Thinking about pitching your book idea to a literary agent?

It’s no secret that scores of book pitches and proposals end up in a mammoth-sized slush pile every year. So what’s going to help your book idea stand out?

Literary agents have to sift through a mountain of book ideas. Many of them miss the mark and get dumped. But if your book pitch is handpicked by a literary agent, they’ll partner with a publisher to bring your book to life.

Note: This does not happen by accident.

If you’re serious about writing a book and pitching a literary agent to help you get published, the throw-this-together approach usually doesn’t work.

You need a plan of action for how to get a literary agent. Look at it this way: More than half of the book pitches an agent receives aren’t a good fit. If you don’t want to fall into the abyss of rejections, you need to know how to stand out.

Want to get your book published and become a real freelance writer? Check out this insider advice from a literary agent.

Table of Contents

  1. Master the elevator pitch
  2. Provide details to describe your book idea
  3. Craft a perfect author bio
  4. Write a one-page pitch

Meet literary agent Mark Gottlieb

Mark Gottlieb is a literary agent for Trident Media Group, based in New York City.

He’s represented many New York Times best-selling authors, and helped up-and-coming writers get published.

Some of his recent clients include:

  • “The funniest dad on Twitter,” James Breakwell, author of Only Dead on the Inside: A Parent’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse
  • Marco Rafalà, author of the debut novel, How Fire Ends
  • Deborah A. Wolf, who submitted a book pitch that turned into a five-book deal for The Dragon Legacy series.

“If you have an interest in book writing and pitching a literary agent to become a published author, I want you to take a look at what works, success stories, and these three tips.”

4 Rock-Solid Tips for How to Get a Literary Agent

1. Master the elevator book pitch

Wondering how to get a literary agent’s attention? Make it as easy as possible for him/her to get a taste for your book idea… just enough to want more. Consider it the elevator speech for your book.

If you’ve pitched magazine-article ideas to editors, you already know how to do this:

  • Practice your elevator pitch. Before you pitch a literary agent, you’re probably going to spend some time thinking about your book idea, doing research, maybe even interviews. Boil all of that down into an elevator pitch, and practice it: “I’m writing a book about…(describe it in a few sentences). The process will help you refine your book idea so you can write a compelling query letter.
  • Write a query letter to your literary agent with a quick pitch, hook, or  your “elevator pitch.” Get their attention, and pull them in within the first few sentences.

Success story: Deborah A. Wolf

After reading an interview with me, Deborah A. Wolf, wrote a beautiful query letter that showcased her writing abilities and pitched her book idea for The Dragon’s Legacy series.

Her extremely well-written query letter helped me secure a five-book deal for her.

Deborah A. Wolf

2. Provide details to describe your book idea

Dial in your elevator pitch for your book idea, and you’re ready to move on to the next part of your pitch. Here’s what to include:

  • Explain the purpose of the book (non-fiction) or plot details (fiction)
  • Describe the main points or topics of the book in short-paragraphs
  • Include a list of two or three comparative or competitive book titles. A good comp-title is a best-selling book, appeals to a similar age-range and genre as your book, and was published within the last five years. In case you’re wondering, it’s OK place the comp titles within the quick-pitch portion of your query letter.

Success story: Marco Rafalà

When Marco Rafalà pitched his book idea to Trident Media, he listed some great comparative titles similar to his book idea. His bio, endorsements from award-winning authors, and writing community involvement, also helped me sell his forthcoming major debut novel, How Fires End, to Little A, the literary imprint of Amazon Book Publishing.

Marco Rafalà

3. Show off your street cred with a well-written bio

There’s one more critical part of a book pitch that new authors often overlook: Your bio.

It’s another opportunity to show your literary agent that you’re the perfect person to write your book, and have enough street cred to make it happen. And it needs to be one tight paragraph at the end of your book pitch. Here’s what to include:

  • Relevant writing experience and writing credentials
  • How you became interested in writing the specific book or writing in general
  • Links to social media pages or author sites

Success story: James ‘The Funniest Dad on Twitter’ Breakwell

Buzzfeed.com gave James the moniker after reading his posts @XplodingUnicorn where he writes humorous post about being the parent of four girls, family life, and other topics for an audience of 1.1 million followers. With his bio and a built-in audience, I’ve been able to land James multiple book deals, including the forthcoming book, You Can’t Be a Pterodactyl.

James Breakwell

4. Write a one-page book pitch to land a literary agent

Remember when I said literary agents have to sift through mountains of pitches, most of them bad? The vast majority are also too long. If you’re thinking about pitching a book idea to get an agent to help you find a publisher, keep this in mind:

The entire long-form pitch or query letter for your book should fit on one page. That’s it. No multi-page pitch or novel-length prose.

One. Page.

You’ll need to do some serious editing, writing, and rewriting to get your book pitch down to one page. But it’s worth the effort.

If you follow these rules to write a stand-out book pitch, you’ll be more likely to convince a literary agent to take you on for representation. You can do this!

Think you’re ready to pitch your book idea to a literary agent? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Evan Jensen is the blog editor for Make a Living Writing. When he’s not on a writing deadline or catching up on emails, he’s training to run another 100-mile ultra-marathon.

Join my freelance writer community: Freelance Writers Den

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28 comments on “Literary Agent Advice: 4 Rules to Write a Stand-Out Book Pitch

  1. Hina on

    I’ve been told to write a book for years. I’m a gay Pacific Islander and a veteran who served under the DADT policy and had to fight for respect in just about every duty station I was in. I’ve had some pretty crazy experiences and things never made sense until I was properly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder; 32 years. All of the “crazy experiences” I went through all made sense. I also want to talk about my experiences living majority of my life in conservative circles as a minority and a gay veteran and how I fought for acceptance. I also want to talk about living in the Arctic as a POC/PI/gay/veteran and it’s impact on me, and the direction I’m heading. There are a lot more things, but I’m looking for help on putting this together.

    Reply
    • Angie Mansfield on

      Hi, Hina –

      Sounds like you’ve got a heckuva story to tell! It’s really hard to give book writing advice in a blog comment, but you may be able to find some help in the Freelance Writers Den. We’ve got 1,300+ members with a wide variety of experiences. And if you’re looking to self-publish, we have a few resources on that, too. You may also want to check out Self-Publishing School.

      Best of luck with your writing.

      Reply
  2. Geri Spieler on

    I have an excellent literary agent and I know she has picked up books that have been self published, but were doing well? If they think a book has legs, it doesn’t matter.

    It matters that you can show you have followers, the book is selling and it’s also very good that it is a series.

    Reply
  3. Ashley Addison on

    I self-published my debut novel, Real Estate, Murder, and Mayhem, on Amazon. It’s book one of the Vivianne Murphy Mystery series.

    Now I’ve finished book two, Real Estate, Dating, and Death. It is yet to be published.

    For my debut novel I received good reviews from both Book Viral and Kirkus.

    My problem now is, I’m looking for a literary agent and I’m being told by some that they won’t pick it up because the book is published and the second is in the series so that’s not going to be picked up either.

    I can’t unpublish my first book. Any ideas on how to overcome this problem?

    Thanks,
    Ashley

    Reply
  4. Dan Wilkinson on

    idea for a book

    “close to beautiful”

    I grew up 100% in the system.
    Then the tweenage years.
    Then hormones.
    I went back to 100% in the system
    Then my mom died.
    I went back to 100% in the system
    then I my wife left me.

    Reply
  5. Cindy Peruscini on

    Thank you for this article! I’ve been holding the idea for my book in my head for years now. When I turned 39 in April, I put it on my 40 by 40 list and now it’s in the beginning stages. I am writing a memoir recounting my 23-year battle with eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. In all the years I’ve struggled with eating disorders, I’ve never been able to find a book that lets you laugh at just how absurd it can truly be. It’s like some secret society that no one talks about. Even if you feel like a horrible person for laughing, it is essential to survival. I am drawn to the personal storytelling style of writing. Jenny Lawson’s books, Furiously Happy and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened spoke very clearly to me about the type of book I wanted to put out there. I have a decent social media following for a “regular gal” and would be prepared to promote on my profiles, etc.

    Reply
  6. Debajit Kumar Das on

    While going through an article on a newspaper i felt, if such article can find publishers attention i can write far better and that made me to sit down and sketch out my experience as salesman. It’s all about salesman and salesmanship. Why people fail, why people cannot impress a client and why people get bogged down and crumble under pressure. I’ve already completed the book and is looking for a literary agent who can recognize the dearth of inspiring books; it’s completely different to all motivational books where one can develop spiritually by staying composed even during hardest moments

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      No offense, but your comment has a bunch of spelling and grammatical errors. If your pitch, proposal, or manuscript looks like that, it’s going to be a tough sell. But if you’ve got a legit idea, pitch it to a literary agent, directly to a publisher, or consider self publishing.

      Reply
  7. Diane Young on

    Five years ago I came across a quote that triggered an idea for a book about France and the French. I did LOTS of research and filled several spiral notebooks with all kinds of grist for my mill. I even did due diligence researching published books on the French. Then I hit a snag when I couldn’t decide on the genre and quietly put the notebooks away. Now, in reading them again, I see the conflict–two books in one–a serious, critical book and the other, a tongue-in-cheek poke at the French. I’ve decided to go with the latter. I’m glad all my research wasn’t for naught after all. Now that I know I can use the same type of pitch as I use for magazine articles, I think I’m off to the races! Thanks so much for inviting Mark Gottlieb to share his insights.

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Diane,
      If you’ve got a solid book idea, pitch it to a publisher, literary agent, or self publish. Carol’s advice: “Be a writer, not a waiter.”

      Reply
  8. David Craig Berliner on

    I’ve written a 32-verse poem for children that provides marvelous word images for an appropriate illustrator.

    The “story” will captivate youngsters and inspire them to use their imaginations to reach out to the worlds [plural] outside their bedroom windows.

    Question: How do I identify an agent or editor who is involved with children’s books and will actually read the work and respond?

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi David,
      Get Writer’s Market and look for literary agents for children’s books. That’s my best guess. Generally, poetry is very poor way to make a living writing.

      Reply
  9. Abbas Karimian on

    Hello,I have finished a memoir book about my college time and working in the States at 6o’s.
    I would like to publish it so looking for an agent, will be glad to know your remark abou it.Thank you very much.

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      If your college experience has some lesson to share that provides perspective or helps others, or something highly unusual or unique about the typical college experience, your book may have potential. Sift through Writers Market to find a literary agent that takes on memoir projects, and pitch your idea. You can also pitch a publisher directly, or self publish.

      Reply
  10. Marvlyn Vincent on

    I started writing my biography last year on my birthday after being adviced by at least five therapist and two professors since migrating to the US. I was told that sharing my story will give others hope and might even save lives.
    I’ve finished the book and is now doing some of the editing on my own.
    It is my dream to one day publish my work and write two more after the publication of this edition.
    However I’ve been unsuccessful finding an agent, this article just explained why.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
  11. Valerie Maxwell on

    The FBI called, and Alexis Heflin believed she would finally have closure after 50 years. What happened to her husband on New Year’s Eve 1969? A near-death experience prompted a woman to tell what she had been afraid to tell all of these years. The cold case of John Lloyd “Buddy” Heflin was now active! Mississippi Whispers is the book recounting the known evidence of Buddy’s mysterious disappearance. A car riddled with blood and bullet holes and a police investigation suspiciously finding no information, now had a voice. An eyewitness.

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      Hi Valerie,
      So Mississippi Whispers looks like a novel you wrote or co-wrote with another author. Did you go the traditional publisher route, work with an agent, or self-publish?

      Reply
  12. C. A DAWSON on

    I have just finished my 2nd book my 1st has never been published due to funds, now on my last book I would like some help in getting it out there, all these publishers are always looking for money upfront in which I do not have, I know myself this book would be a great seller even when I finished it I had a choking feeling and actually shed tears.

    Reply
    • Evan Jensen on

      There’s more than one way to publish a book…work with an agent, pitch publishers directly, or self publish. Or publish every chapter on your blog. Writer Pamela (Mogen) Aidan, did this for her Pride & Prejudice spin-offs, built a huge fan-base, and eventually landed a major book deal.

      Reply
    • Mark Gottlieb on

      Hi C.A.,

      Congratulations on finishing your second book. A legitimate book publisher should not charge you for the chance to get your book published. Self-publishing can be costly to the individual author, though.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Reply
  13. Geri Spieler on

    This looks like an excellent class with solid advice. I managed to land a fabulous literary agent, Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary and Media Management when I was peddling my nonfiction book. She sold it to Macmillan/St. Martin’s press, and now it has been optioned for a major motion picture by the same screenwriters from the movie, Chappaquiddick.

    What I learned was that you have to have a well written and provocative query to the RIGHT agent and then you must have a fully comprehensive proposal which in many ways a marketing piece. And, you must have your proposal ready to go if you get a green light from the agent. Landing an agent is not easy, but you must keep these things in mind. It’s worked for many of my writing friends. As Sharlene would tell me when she was trying to sell my book, and it took her about a year, “All you need is one.” Same goes for your agent….it can take a very long time with a ton of rejections. Never give up. You won’t get an agent if you don’t reach out. All it takes in one.

    Reply
    • Mark Gottlieb on

      Hi Geri,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I am delighted to hear that it worked out well for you. It is kind of you to share these words of encouragement with others.

      All the best,

      Mark

      Reply

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