Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Dispatches from the Trenches: Pitch Wars by Joanna MacKenzie


Enjoying a quiet President’s day as publishing is closed and I’m getting caught up on email!

Listening To:


It’s my first PitchWars as a featured agent and I did everything I could to get ready. I cleared the decks as much as possible, caught up on queries and submitted manuscripts and was waiting, coffee in hand, at 5 pm last Tuesday when the first requested manuscripts were set to drop in my inbox. An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned. But I knew it wouldn’t be smooth sailing. There were over 70 agents participating in this year’s ‘Wars, and we were battling it out over 50 Adult projects, 42 Middle-Grade offering, and 83 YA submissions. It was about as close as any of us would get to a IRL version of The Hunger Games.

For those unfamiliar with PitchWars, it an ingenious program that matches unpublished authors with published author mentors who work to hone a manuscript over the course of a few months and then present those projects to a group of invited agents for a first look. Why do agents love it? Simple—if editors are willing to spend more money on manuscripts that have been edited by agents (and we know they do), it stands to reason that manuscript that have been shepherd by published authors and agents will garner ever more attention in the market. As an added bonus, PitchWars classes create amazing groups of cheerleaders and readers for authors, which is a priceless asset on the journey to publication.

That first night of reading was like an agent slumber party over at NLA—we read, we iMessaged, we read some more. I called it quits around 11:30 pm and by the time I hit my desk the next morning, there were already projects with offers of representation out there. I know, right? How did those manuscripts do that, you may be wondering? And how realistic an experience is getting an offer of rep so quickly for a first-time author?

There were a handful of projects that got snapped up right away. These had the magic combination of stellar writing, pitch-perfect positioning, and a great hook/concept. PitchWars mentees know to be prepared for anything, from immediate offers to waiting. So I’ve been thinking a lot about what it was that made these project stand out. Here’s my take on the most successful offerings:

Positioning – The PitchWars madness begins during the agent showcase, where authors present a short pitch and excerpt for featured agents to respond to. The projects that got my attention were the ones that possessed compelling positioning sentences. This can be a mash-up (“Tarzan meets Six of Crows”) or a comp (“Perfect for fans of Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn”).

Hook/High Concept – As we’ve previously defined it, a high concept is a new twist on an established narrative trope; something that flips a known idea or story on its ear. The manuscripts that received the most requests contained the “It’s {familiar story line}…but {with a twist}” that got us thinking.

Killer Opening – One chapter. That’s what you have to get our attention. Agents are going to try to feel out as many projects as possible in a short amount of time in a situation like PitchWars. I can’t speak for everyone at NLA, but I was jumping in and out of manuscripts to get a sense of how they measured up. If it wasn’t holding my attention after one chapter, I’d move on. Check out Angie and Kristin’s advice here for opening scenes.

Voice – It’s that elusive thing that’s hard to define, but we all “know it when we see it.” The projects that really grabbed me—from contemporary romance to contemporary YA—were the ones that displayed a confident, consistent voice. Not surprisingly, a number of these were by long-time authors, which just goes to show that voice, like anything else, takes time to evolve.

As the adrenaline rush of running headfirst into PitchWars subsides, I found myself thinking about how strange this process must seem, especially for authors watching from the sidelines. PitchWars offers no guarantees, but it can be a game changer if you approach it with the right mindset. Of course, if you didn’t get into PitchWars, does everything I just said matter at all? Absolutely. I’m jumping back into my query inbox today and I’ll be taking all of these lessons with me.

4 Responses

  1. John said:

    “An inbox full of professionally mentored manuscripts is like Christmas and your birthday all rolled into one as far as I’m concerned.” So are you saying for everyone else, you assume their manuscripts were first drafts who don’t deserve the time of day?

    Funny story about your agency. I didn’t get past your initial readers, even though my MS would’ve been perfect for a specific agent unnamed here. I doubt she even saw it. I’m now agented and am on submission to editors.

    In my experience in the publishing industry, interns 90% of the time don’t know what they’re talking about. I even had a conversation in New York last week with an unnamed intern at an agency, and they gave the worst advice ever. Verbatim:

    “Yeah, you don’t always have to follow the guidelines. Agents don’t have time to scrutinize every submission anyway. I’d just send as many pages as I can, like twenty when it asks for ten, and hope the agent reads all the way.”

  2. Kevin A.Lewis said:

    I stopped sending samples a long time ago; how many restaurants would put up with someone asking for “just a bite of the chef’s special and maybe I’ll get back to you?” I send a simple e-query that will break the speed of sound and crack champagne glasses for a block around, and if that doesn’t get anyone’s attention (and it usually doesn’t, for the reasons you mentioned) I reasonably assume there’s nobody home and go trick-or-treat elsewhere. Now, to be fair, this usually indicates that an agency’s already making bank on their current list and in spite of claiming otherwise, they’re simply not looking that hard. Hence the proliferation of disengaged unpaid interns. Just part (albeit very tedious) of the territory…..

  3. Eowyn said:

    Thank you for the info. It is so helpful to understand yours and other agents decision making process. I don’t envy all the rejections you have to write or the responses form bitter writers that you get sometimes. I’ve found Pub Rants to be one of the more helpful blogs out there. Keep them coming– I missed them over the two month hiatus.

  4. Bryan Fagan said:

    This is my goal. To have you or other agents being a part of my work. Dreams can turn into the good stuff with excellent writing, smart decisions and listening. I should have put listening at the top. That’s where it all begins.

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