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A Strong Pitch & A Good Hook

How Can We Get Our Novels in the Door of a Publisher?

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I recently interviewed Anne Brewer, a Harvard grad, who has worked as an editor and senior editor at both St. Martin’s Press and Cobblestone Books. She is currently a freelance editor. She provided a great source of knowledge to aspiring authors and those curious about the industry.

How can we get our novels in the door of a publisher?

The best way to do this is to develop a strong pitch that encapsulates a captivating hook. A good hook is short--only 1-2 sentences--and immediately intriguing. It should convey something about your genre as well as the central conflict of your book. For example, the hook for THE FAVORITE SISTER, a thriller by Jessica Knoll, is: two sisters compete on a reality TV show, but only one will make it out alive. This hook conveys genre: "only one will make it out alive" implies action and intrigue around a murder. We know there will be conflict between two sisters and that it will involve the high-stakes, back-stabbing world of reality TV. The hook also entices you to read more--you want to know which sister will be murdered, and how the other sister will be involved. A strong hook will make an editor want to read the book--and also make their job of pitching it successfully for acquisition easier.

Is there anything that immediately turns an editor off?

As an editor, I get turned off if a novel on submission doesn't dive into its central conflict pretty quickly. For a mystery, this is pretty straightforward: most professional readers agree that the murder should occur (or be revealed) within the first 50 pages, ideally as soon as possible. But the same is true for other genres as well: in a romantic comedy, I'd want to see the two leads come into conflict right away; in a historical novel set in WWII, I'd want the heroine to be sent on a mission fairly quickly; and so on. If you feel that you need to write for awhile to set everything up, let yourself do it--then determine where the conflict really starts and go back to make that the beginning of your story.

What are the three top qualities you look for in a manuscript?

I look for a unique, exciting voice--it doesn't always have to be super likable (though of course in some genres, such as cozy mystery, that's a must!), but it should feel fresh and entertaining. I love brisk plotting--I like to see the characters moving forward and getting into interesting scenarios, rather than lots of downtime and/or introspection. And, I'm always excited to curl up with a manuscript that can transport me to an enticing setting, whether it be something "normal" like a cozy bookshop; far-flung like the glamorous streets of Paris; or historical like the court of Queen Elizabeth.

Does word count matter for a first time author?

Yes. The industry standard novel length is 80k words. This can be stretched about 10k to either side, so I'd say most editors would consider works in the 70-90k range. Anything shorter is an indication that you don't have a fully realized book; anything longer will raise concerns about what will need to be trimmed. Either way, falling outside that range raises a red flag that potentially heavy edits will need to be done.

Can you cross genres or have a book in more than one genre?

Although not impossible, this is very difficult to pull off, and my best advice would be to avoid it. Publishers typically prefer books that they can market to a clear-cut audience; readers, for their part, tend to have fairly strong genre expectations, whether they are looking for a romantic comedy or a gritty procedural mystery. It's difficult to market a book that straddles more than 1 genre to different audiences, because it's likely the book will not fulfill all of the genre requirements, thus disappointing readers. If you find that your book is a combination of genres, ask yourself if it's more one than the other. Are there fairly simple changes you can make that would push it one way or the other? If you're looking for a traditional publisher, doing so will better your chances.

Is setting important?

Absolutely! I think it's important to offer readers a setting where they're excited to spend their time while reading the novel. Setting is integral to the reader's overall experience of the book. Whether it's a feeling of warmth and jollity (for example, in a small Southern town populated by colorful characters) or adventure and excitement (for example, in an international thriller where the hero is jumping out of airplanes and racing through streets avoiding sniper fire), the setting should be a place where readers are looking forward to returning to when they pick up the book.

Is having self-published in the past a problem?

I don't think so. Most editors I know are willing to make an offer on a book they're excited about even if the author has a self-published past. I do know that different publishing houses have different takes on using a name that an author has self published under; some feel that the sales track attached to that byline can be detrimental and will ask to publish a new book under a pseudonym. But as long as you're OK with that as a possibility, I wouldn't have any hesitation in pitching traditional publishers if you've self published in the past.

Thank you, Anne Brewer!

Happy Writing!



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