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How to Pitch a Book to Literary Agents: A Case Study

Last week, I got an email from Susan, a participant in my Bring Your Book to Life® Program.

Susan had signed up for the Nonfiction Writers Conference, including the pitch-the-agents session.

Nonfiction Writers Conference logo

“What if I get chosen to pitch? What will I say?”

I offered to get on a call with Susan and give her some tips to pitch literary agents plus help her to develop her two minute pitch. We spoke on Tuesday and she felt incredibly nervous — as most of us do when we need to “perform.”

Anatomy of a Book Pitch

I suggested:

  • Start with a counterintuitive or shocking statistic or fact.
  • Or start with the huge size of the audience; be very clear who the book is for and what problem it solves (why they’ll buy it).
  • Give a sense of scope.

If we weren’t in such a hurry, I may also have suggested comparing it to a complementary or competitive book that’s done very well, and show how the two books are different. Or else, go for the x meets y description of the book, where x and y are either bestselling books or bestselling authors.

The Pitch to Literary Agents

Susan began her pitch with questions to draw the agents in, following that with some big statistics that indicate a very large market for her health book.

questions about target market

She then introduced herself, her 30 years in a specific subspecialty of medicine, mentioning when and how doctors refer patients to her. She extrapolated data for the specific number of people in her target market, and followed up with the content and features of the book and the problems it will help solve.

Her platform was her weakest link and she mentioned the work she is doing in that arena to bring it up to speed.

Battling Nerves When Pitching Your Book to Agents

Susan rehearsed and still felt nervous. She said, “I’m afraid to let my coach down.”

“You can’t let me down. I’m so proud of you for getting up and doing this! I’m also excited about what you’ll get out of it.”

book proposal coach Lisa Tener

You see, she still had platform to work on. Her proposal is in early stages. She’s not really ready to sign with an agent.

Instead, this was all about practice and getting feedback about her concept. Testing the market.

I told Susan that doing the pitch is 95% of success. It doesn’t really matter whether she gets an agent through this pitch; in fact. given where she’s at in the process, it would be surprising. She’s still working on her platform, so the pitch is a little premature. This is not necessarily about getting an agent from the experience but hearing back from agents about what to emphasize, what’s missing, what grabs them, what else to include. And she might get some interesting advice along the way about growing her platform (or not).

The Benefits of Pitching Literary Agents, Even if it’s a Bit Early

The agents would also suggest any tweaks they saw necessary (market, genre, etc.) although in her case that seemed less likely, since she nailed that part.

In addition to the valuable agent feedback, I knew the experience would make her clearer about her book, provide great ideas for her book proposal overview, and grow her confidence as an emerging author.

When she talked about being nervous, I told her what helps me when I need to present. “I remind myself that it’s not about me but about the people whose lives I’ll be helping. My nerves are about me. When I shift my focus, the nerves go away and I’m present. It flows.”

Susan realized, “I can channel my testifying self” (she is often an expert witness in court cases). This reminded Susan that she recently asked a published author friend how she did it, “Kathy, I need advice.”

“Susan, when I did my pitch, I channeled you!”

So, Susan, got to channel her testifying self and she got excellent feedback from agents, including confirmation about one of her complementary books—making it clear to highlight that comparison early on in the overview.

A Top Literary Agent Responds!

The next day, Susan heard back from the conference. A top literary agent was interested in her book proposal.

While the email said to send agents a proposal within two months, I was concerned that the platform would not be ready and it could become a lost opportunity. I suggested she ask the agent whether she would prefer Susan wait until the platform was in place.

Sure enough, the agent said to wait until the platform was in place, proving it’s a good idea to trust your instinct and ask questions when you have them!

Now comes the hard work of completing the book proposal and growing the platform, but how exciting to have this opportunity waiting at the other end!

Go For It!

So, if you’re attending a writers conference and have the opportunity to pitch literary agents, consider going for it, even if your book proposal or author platform are not quite ready. In addition to practice and confidence, the feedback from agents and ideas and insights they share will be well worth it.

And when you’re ready to choose a literary agent, read this post!

Here’s a conversation I had with Carla King of the Nonfiction Authors Association on how to meet and choose the best literary agent for your book:

Good luck! Share your own tips and experiences below, as well as any questions you have on writing and publishing nonfiction.

Lisa Tener

Lisa Tener is an award-winning book writing coach who assists writers in all aspects of the writing process—from writing a book proposal and getting published to finding one’s creative voice. Her clients have appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS Early Show, The Montel Williams Show, CNN, Fox News, New Morning and much more. They blog on sites like The Huffington Post, Psychology Today and WebMD.

Reader Interactions


  1. Elizabeth says

    Interesting. I didn’t realize you can pitch the book at conferences or to agents before you have a book proposal completed or that ‘strong enough’ platform. I think if I had an experience where I felt a publisher was actually interested, then my excitement, motivation, and commitment might soar to get the book proposal done.

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