Sunday, April 03, 2016


A query letter sits on my desk from a first-time author of nonfiction who has hired me to whip it into shape. At least two pages long, 50% of the text is consumed in explaining why the writer wrote her first book. Acquisition editors are not interested in an author’s motivation in a query or a pitch  – all they want to know is what the book is about, if the book has a market that is panting for it, and if the author has a following.
   Pitches, aka concept statements, are not query letters but equally important. They can be as short as one sentence or as long as a paragraph of about 200 words. The single sentence is harder to write and answers the question: “What is your book about?” I always tackle this after I have written the paragraph and before I write the book. Here is the single sentence I used for one of my books: Sing a New Song is about four Canadian bishops who pushed the envelope and changed the world. This short pitch is more suited to conversations than written communications, but it also provides the book’s theme or mission statement. Once you have pinned down this sentence, you can measure everything you plan to include in the book against it. Very useful….
   The longer version of a pitch is a c. 150 word summary of a 500 word query letter. It includes a description of the book, its slant, the market, why the book is needed, hints about why you are ideal to write it, and highlights some of the benefits and features of the book. To get all this into such a short piece takes tight writing, elegant word choices, and much revision. This pitch must also begin with a compelling hook. Here’s an example, with my thanks to Elizabeth Lyon for the template (this book is imaginary):
Too many worthy Canadian nonfiction writers are rejected by editors, simply because they lack the necessary insiders’ knowledge. Get Published on Your First Try! answers the plight of these writers by teaching them how to develop winning non-fiction book proposals. This how-to guide is written “writer-up” instead of “editor-down,” showing as much as it tells by integrating examples of successful proposals into the text. As the most instructional book on the subject in this country, it features simplicity, step-by-step directions, and offers a template for the best proposal format. Written by author and speaker, Julie H. Ferguson, Get Published on Your First Try! makes liberal use of examples, exercises, and checklists to guide the aspiring author from inspiration through to a publisher’s acceptance of their first nonfiction manuscript.       (126 words)
    The above pitch is not enough for a query letter, which needs to be fleshed out more. Note the title is mentioned above twice. However this para can be also used as the opening paragraph in a proposal. With a little tweaking and maybe shortening, a pitch is ideal for a publisher’s catalogue blurb and at full length, the copy for the back cover. You can use it verbally before publication for editor/agent meetings and after publication for media releases; interviews for print, TV, and radio; introductions given at readings, and more....
Resources to help you:
  • Ferguson, Julie. Crafting Irresistible Queries, Vancouver: Beacon Publishing, 2010. (Has a unique questionnaire to help mine the data required.) Canadian and digital only.
  • ______. Book Magic: Turning Writers into Published Authors, 3rd ed. Vancouver, Beacon Publishing 2012. Covers nonfiction and fiction. Canadian and digital only
  • Herman, Jeff. Write the Perfect Book Proposal, New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2001 (US)
  • Larsen, Michael. How to Write a Book Proposal, 3rd edition, Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books. (I used this one as a guide for my first NF proposal)
  • Lyon, Elizabeth. Non-fiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write and The Sell-Your-Novel Toolkit, New York: Perigee, 2003. Industry standards, but American (Excellent guidance)
Top image: from the Surrey International Writers' Conference, 2008: Julie on left listening to a delegate's short pitch. © Laurel Hickey