Getting Past the First Reader—How Your Manuscript Can Make the Cut was presented on Tuesday, May 18th, as part of the SCBWI Metro New York Professional Series at the Anthroposophical Society in Manhattan. Katherine (Kate) Jacobs, an associate editor at Roaring Brook Press and Grace Elizabeth Kendall, an editorial assistant at Blue Sky Press/Scholastic offered many nuggets of wisdom for authors who want to make their books rise to the top of the submission heap.
If you were to take away only two things from their presentations, they would be:
- Know who you're submitting to and bring a personal touch to your query letter. Be specific when submitting to editors or agents. Do some research—look on the acknowledgments page of books you admire for the editor’s or agent’s name, or Google the author or editor, or even call the publishing house to find out what book a certain editor has published. (EVEN BETTER, though the editors didn’t mention this, the SCBWI has a publication that lists which editors are at which houses, and what books they’ve worked on. See the SCBWI website for details). Know what books they’ve published, and make a connection with the editor or agent by mentioning books they’ve worked on that you’ve admired or that are similar to your book. There’s nothing worse to an agent or editor than feeling like they’re part of a mass mailing. It wastes your time and theirs.
- Spend time distilling your book down to its essence. Write a one-word keynote, like editors do when they pitch a book to their publishing house. Pretend you’re the one selling your book. Study jacket copy for books you like, and write the flap copy for your own book. Think about what books are comparable to yours. You don’t have to say your book is exactly like another book, but there may be elements of your book that are similar e.g., the humor of the Wimpy Kid series, or the honesty of another book). Write a synopsis of your book. All this will be time well-spent when you go to craft your query letters.
Now for the longer version.
How Editors Pitch Their Books
Kate Jacobs felt it would be helpful for authors to learn how editors at Roaring Brook Press pitch their books, so they could apply those same skills when pitching their books to agents or editors.
As an example, she used Jacqueline Wilson’s young adult novel, Kiss. Jacqueline Wilson is enormously successful in the UK, but she’s not as well-known in the U.S. She wrote the middle-grade novel, Candyfloss, among others, and her editor felt she could break into the YA market with Kiss.
Here are the steps Jacobs took to pitch Kiss:
- PITCHING FOR ACQUISITION: First, she pitched the book to her boss. Since Roaring Brook Press is a small house, Jacobs only had to pitch to her boss. At other houses, they may have to pitch to a larger group. Included in her pitch: What’s the book about, how does it fit into their list, how does it fit into the market, what books are similar to it, is it literary or commercial? Most importantly: How enthusiastic is the editor about the book? Editors will spend years working on a book, so they need to LOVE the book. Since Wilson’s middle grade novels didn’t sell in great volume in the U.S., Jacobs lobbied for her as a teen author. She had to pitch it many times, before her boss agreed.
- PITCHING TO MARKETING AND SALES: Next, she had to get the marketing and sales teams excited about the book, so she pitched the book to marketing and sales. This involved the following:
- TIP sheets (Title information sheets), with info. on the title, the cost, the genre, etc.
- KEYNOTE: A one-sentence description of the book (For Kiss, the keynote was: A novel of first love, first heartbreak and coming out, told with ---(missed this part) and honest feeling.) NOTE: The keynote is a great thing for any author to write, so if you go to a conference, you are armed with that one-sentence pitch.
- DESCRIPTION: Here, Jacobs went into greater detail in one long paragraph. What happens in the book? She wanted to make it clear that one character is gay. She needed to give away that detail (the “spoiler”), so the sales force would know how to pitch the book. They need to know what happens. (For flap copy, visit the author Jacqueline Wilson’s website)
- SELLING POINTS: Very important. Jacobs said it’s hard to come up with original selling points: Lots of stories are pegged as “unique.” What is special about this book? For Kiss, they said it was a compelling, great story; honest; tackles teen sexuality in a straightforward manner; cheerful and funny. Often, editors will say an author is a “fresh new voice.”
- COMPARABLE (COMP) TITLES: What books are similar in theme or tone to the book? Find something recent. This is a delicate task, because it’s important to be ambitious, but realistic about your goals. Not every book will have the sales of Wimpy Kid, for example, but lots of books are compared to Wimpy Kid. Find something similar in terms of sales. Or, if you’re comparing to Wimpy Kid, pick out an element of that book that your book is similar to: i.e. Similar in its humor to Wimpy Kid. (Later in the program, Grace Kendall pointed out that it’s like the part on Amazon that says, “If you bought X book, you might also like…”)
- PITCHING TO BUYERS: First you pitch to the gatekeepers: librarians, booksellers, reviewers. This includes bound galleys & catalog copy.
- For catalog copy: What is one important thing about the book? What is the heart of the book? The center? For Kiss: He loves me. He loves me not. Sylvie is sure Carl loves her, so why hasn’t he kissed her? Then, Jacobs wrote a one paragraph description. Keep it short. Two sentences of plot description. Tell the reader why they would want to buy the book. For Kiss: With her trademark blend of honesty, sensitivity and humor, Wilson delivers a novel about first love, first heartbreak and the power of a kiss.
- On the front of the bound galley: What happens when the boy you want to kiss wants to kiss the boy next door?
- On the back of the bound galley, another keynote that makes the themes of the book universal/general: …about the heartache of loving someone who doesn’t love you back…
Next you pitch to the consumer:
- Selling line/Back cover copy. This is where the editor wants to speak directly to teen readers. Give them a sense of the flavor inside the book. The copy is not as dry.
- Cover & sell line. On the flap copy, the editor can speak to the teenagers directly. Here, the editor tries to allude to what the book is about, without giving it away.
- The book may have plenty of subplots, but these are not mentioned in the flap copy. Distill the essence of the book. (Note: This is important for a synopsis, too).
- The cover or query letter to an agent or editor is your first impression. It should only be one page long. Shorter is better.
- A cover letter (or query letter) = a conversation.
- It’s like tweaking a recipe until you get it right. Grace Kendall gave the following example: She followed an old recipe for pancakes to the letter, but it came out terrible. After lots of tweaking, she figured out that the recipe was missing an important ingredient: Sugar.
- In the same way, there’s no recipe for the perfect cover letter. Each cover letter should have certain elements, but the “sugar” or the sweetness—that extra touch-- can only come from you.
- Put a little bit of YOU in the cover letter.
- Introduce yourself to the editor and the ideas in your manuscript.
- The letter is like a frame for your manuscript. What would you highlight if you were introducing your best friend to someone?
- Ask the editor if they would be interested in seeing your manuscript. PITCH the manuscript before giving it to them.
- Identify yourself, giving any connections you have to that editor: met at a conference, have a shared acquaintance
- Mention any shared interests: Books that they’ve worked on that you loved, etc.
- Tell the editor about the manuscript—succinctly. Be honest. Don't over-pitch by saying it will be a bestseller or an Oprah pick. Give the essence of the book only, not all the details. What’s the target audience? What's the premise/hook of the book? Who (briefly) are the protag and antag? Where does your book fit in the market? What is its niche/comparable titles— does it fill a niche?
- Tell the editor about yourself and your writing. Previous publications, awards, honors, etc. (If you have a long list, attach it on a separate sheet. Don’t waste valuable space in the cover letter).
- List your literary training and experience (conferences you’ve attended, workshops, mentorships. SCBWI is a great thing to list!)
- Enclose an SASE, contact info (if sending by mail).
- Build an author/editor relationship: The most important thing is not to do mass mailings. Know who you’re sending to, and why they’d be a good fit for you. Spell their name right, and get their title and address correct. Mention specific books they’ve worked on that you loved, or that are similar to your book. Be thoughtful about who you’re writing to. Make a connection.
- Pull the essence of a character or situation into a short description of your book. Read flap copy of many other books to learn how to do this successfully and achieve economy of language.
Kate Jacobs spoke about the DONT'S of first pages. She gave examples of books that broke each of these rules, but as a beginner, she felt it was better to stick to these basics:
- Dialogue: Don’t begin your book with dialogue. (Famous exception: Charlotte's Web: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”)
- Don’t begin with quotidian details, like an alarm clock going off or a character brushing their teeth, in an attempt to pad out your manuscript. It’s just boring.
- Don’t use passive verb or begin sentences with “it.” (In general, not to be followed to a “t”—and Pride and Prejudice starts with “It…”).
- Don’t use physical description as a shortcut to character development. Don’t just tell us what a character looks like: tell us what he/she thinks, feels and does.
- Don’t overuse body language: things like “his pulse raced” or “her heart leaped”—there are other ways to convey emotion, and these are overused.
- Don’t use flashbacks in the first chapter. It’s an easy way to give information, but often, the information can be conveyed in other ways. Flashbacks are Jacobs’ personal pet peeve, and she doesn’t really like too many of them anywhere in a manuscript.
- Don’t use contrived devices like journals or writing assignments. It’s often a cheat, and it’s been done to death.
- Don’t be repetitious. Avoid repeating words, emotions, using the same sentence structure, etc. Make the language varied and interesting.
Grace Kendall gave the DO'S for your first pages:
- Build a relationship with the reader with your first line or page. Your first line or page should have a hook, and be highly enjoyable. Your voice should engage the reader right away. She loves first lines that force her to answer them. Examples of different kinds of voices:
- PUSHING-AWAY VOICE: Cathcher in the Rye: “IF you really want to hear about…” He implicates the reader by using “you”
- DARING VOICE: Flight by Sherman Alexie: “Call me zits.”
- WELCOMING VOICE: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. The character lures you in, by sharing a confidence with the reader.
- MATTER-OF-FACT VOICE: Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick.
Other nice openers:
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret: “From his perch behind the clock, Hugo could see everything” (follows many pages of just drawings, these are the first lines).
- The Great Fire by Jim Murphy (Nonfiction): First lines draw you in with mention of a character called peg leg, the day, the weather, etc.
- Everyone Poops (Children’s picture book): Draws you in because you’re immediately relieved that everyone poops!
- First pages should show the character and make them shine. Set the unique tone for the book.
- First pages should introduce plot elements. It should all be there. Everything in your book is in those first pages. Set up: what’s at stake, setting, pace.
- First pages should set up the goals and consequences. Ask yourself: What is at stake in your manuscript? Why are you writing this? If you nail that, then you’ll write those first pages with confidence.