#PitMad and the Modernization of the Query Letter

#PitMad and the Modernization of the Query Letter

Amy Jackson

December 2, 2019

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For aspiring authors, querying can seem like the most inscrutable and dispiriting obstacle between themselves and literary fame. The core process of obtaining a literary agent has not changed much in a century; since the first literary agencies began in Britain in the early 1900s and quickly spread throughout the United States, the process has typically consisted of authors writing letters of interest called “queries,” in which they pitch their books for representation[1]. What has changed is the sheer volume of queries, which has caused the number of successes to dwindle exponentially. This rejection breeds bitterness. Today, a cursory glance through forums such as Writers.Net, r/PubTips, and WritingForums.org unearths countless frustrated authors announcing that they are hanging up the pen—or claiming that literary agents’ disinterest in them proves that the system is rigged, and that agents are mean-hearted gatekeepers who thrill at crushing dreams[2]. On the other side of the divide, literary agents are typically overwhelmed with thousands of queries in their inboxes, only a fragment of which will ever lead to a contract, let alone a bestseller[3]. At the center of this controversy is the query—essentially, the archaic practice of letter-writing. However, the querying process has begun to expand into the digital world through social media. Through the Twitter event “#PitMad,” established in 2013, several hundred authors have found representation with literary agents[4], eventually being published by houses such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster[5]. Although admittedly, as some are concerned, social media is ultimately too shallow to support the querying process on its own, #PitMad’s yearly success stories expose the areas in which literary agencies should modernize to benefit both agents and authors.

Currently, the querying landscape is burdened with too much supply and not enough demand. Lowenstein & Associates, an NYC-based literary agency, received 12,819 queries in 2010 and requested 478 partial manuscripts, eventually leading to requests for 87 full manuscripts and offers to just seven authors, five of whom accepted—a .05% signing rate. Rachel Gardner of Wordserve Literary received more than 10,000 queries that year, and offered a contract to zero[6]. Rejection rates across the industry range from 70-98%—and, even more discouragingly, the average response time can range from 2-3 months, with the waiting period restarting upon requests for partial or full manuscripts[7]. Even in a success, it can take up to a year between initial query and signed contract. As a result, authors often feel like they’re punting their queries into a void, receiving only form rejections or, worse, silences. These are struggles that cause social media to immediately stand out as a possible solution: where else can you receive such instant feedback, and get noticed by people who otherwise would have never known you existed?

Other creative attempts to directly connect agents with authors have existed, the most common of which being 1) pitch events, such as Writer’s Digest’s Pitch Slam, and 2) writing conferences with elevator pitch sessions, such as the Toronto Writer’s Conference. These in-person, Shark Tank-style events see authors pitching their queries verbally, with partial and full manuscripts in-hand. Whether you’re accepted or rejected, you find out immediately, and can redirect your energies accordingly. But although this certainly expedites the process, it doesn’t actually expose agents to more hidden gems, for the same reason that in-person events are only of use to a small sliver of hopeful authors: because these events charge entrance fees, which do not typically include transport, food, and hotels, they are not accessible. #PitMad takes the spirit of these events and places them in the most accessible venue imaginable: social media.

#PitMad founder Brenda Drake first attempted to make querying more modern, accessible, and community-based by creating Pitch Wars; if accepted, authors are mentored by “published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns” on their queries, which, along with the first page of their manuscripts, are then passed onto participating agents[8]. After the first Pitch Wars, Drake realized that the idea could be expanded to exponentially more authors and agents through a free-to-all social media event, and created #PitMad. In this quarterly 24-hour event, authors Tweet their book’s sales handle with the hashtag #PitMad, as well as other tags[9]:

 

MANDATORY TAGS OPTIONAL GENRE TAGS OPTIONAL OTHER TAGS
#PB = Picture Book #AC = Action #POC = Author is a Person of Color
#C = Children’s #AD = Adventure #OWN = Own Voices
#CB = Chapter Book #BIZ = Bizarro Fiction #IMM = Immigrant
#MG = Middle Grade #CF = Christian Fiction #LGBT = LGBTQIA+ subject matter
#YA = Young Adult #CON = Contemporary #IRMC = Interracial/Multicultural subject matter
#NA = New Adult #CR = Contemporary Romance #DIS = Disability subject matter
#A = Adult #E = Erotica #ND = Neurodiverse subject matter
#ER = Erotic Romance
#ES = Erotica Suspense
#F = Fantasy
#FTA = Fairy Tale Retelling
#GN = Graphic Novel
#H = Horror
#HA = Humor
#HR = Historical Romance
#INSP = Inspirational
#MR = Magical Realism
#M = Mystery
#Mem = Memoir
#MA = Mainstream
#LF = Literary Fiction
#NF = Non-fiction
#P = Paranormal
#PR = Paranormal Romance
#PM = Poetry Collection
#R = Romance
#RS = Romantic Suspense
#STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics
#SF = SciFi
#SHRT = Short Story Collection
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#SPF = Speculative Fiction
#SH = Superhero
#S = Suspense
#T = Thriller
#TT = Time Travel
#UF = Urban Fantasy
#VF = Visionary Fiction
#W = Westerns
#WF = Women’s Fiction

 

 

Thanks to this diversity of content, #PitMad is a useful forum for almost every category of author and agent. Agents peruse their preferred hashtags and “like” the ones they want to see more of, essentially turning what would have been an unsolicited query into a solicited query with the click of a button (and often skipping straight to partial manuscript requests).

 

Example #PitMad Tweets[10]

 

According to Jessica Sinsheimer of Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency, “All these wonderful books I was seeing in Publishers Marketplace, and they weren’t submitting to me, because they didn’t know I wanted manuscripts in their genre[11].” #PitMad helps to close this divide. Many participating agents claim that “Twitter events yield better results than simply posting what they would like to see in queries,” because “[Twitter events] give us an opportunity to see something we may not have seen in our queries,” according to Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary[12]. It makes sense: sometimes you simply don’t know what you want until you see it, and #PitMad provides a brief window in which you are exposed to new ideas beyond the preconceived notions of what you think you want. Additionally, because Tweets are short-form content, #PitMad allows agents to be exposed to a huge number of premises in a 24-hour span. Therefore, as stated by Beth Phelan of Gallt & Zacker Literary Agency, who has signed authors from #PitMad, “It’s a good way to get a bird’s eye view and tailor your pitches if the slush pile isn’t working[13].”

The event is equally beneficial for authors. First, traditional querying takes time. If even 100 agents are reading #PitMad, then #PitMad is a worthwhile use of 24 hours when you consider how long it would take to research, personalize, and send 100 formal letters. Next, #PitMad is one of the only opportunities in which you can position your query in different ways to the same people. #PitMad allows you to Tweet up to three different pitches per project[14]. Not only does this help raise your chances of striking the magic combination of words and themes to pique an agent’s curiosity, it also helps you shop which sales handles are working. Additionally, just as #PitMad can expose agents to hidden gems, #PitMad also exposes authors to agents they may otherwise have not been able to query, or wouldn’t have thought to query: “I had a rejection on a query from an agent at an agency that said ‘a no from one is a no from all’ but then got a request during pitmad[sic] from another agent at the agency and it quickly became a full request…. You’ll also occasionally find great agents you’d never heard (I know a lot of agents but there are always a few that fly under the radar) or agents you didn’t think would be interested based on their clients but request anyway[15].” Finally, #PitMad is a massive research opportunity, helping authors peruse agents that were active, take note of what pitches they “liked,” and investigate that agent and agency for future queries.

For all of these reasons, #PitMad revolutionizes the querying process and proves that social media is an extremely powerful tool for agents and authors. However, many are still skeptical of social media’s usefulness. One common criticism is that authors spend too long crafting their #PitMad Tweets when they could be perfecting their craft or formal queries. Admittedly, this has some truth to it. Every four months when #PitMad approaches, writing forums are flooded with advice, requests for feedback on carefully-worded Tweets, and debates on when in each hour to schedule Tweets—should it be 1:14 p.m. and 1:48 p.m., or 1:24 p.m. and 1:55 p.m.? Jessica Faust of Bookends Literary is concerned that authors see #PitMad as a “fast-track way to bag an agent and watch your book become a bestseller[16],” which it is not—but neither is formal querying, which authors are just as obsessive over. Any blog post offering advice on query letters is inevitably tagged with links to the blogger’s other articles, proprietary guides to finding literary agents, classes, coaching services, consulting calls, and more[17]. I agree that this is unfortunate, and authors should focus on simply producing the best work that they can, but in any venue, this is an element that will separate the hobbyists from the professionals. The #PitMad website, as well as many #PitMad veterans, stress that the most important thing after receiving a “like” on a #PitMad Tweet is, as in all things, more research, first to determine whether this is an agency that you even wish to pursue a relationship with, and second to determine the agent’s submission guidelines for following up[18]. Responsibility is key.

Some agents are reticent to embrace social media as well. Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency explains:

 

I don’t usually look at things like PitMad because, well, I’m too busy. And, what if they’ve already queried me, or one of my colleagues. I have the regular query system set up the way it is because it provides maximum efficiency, and this just seems like it could get messy fast. And I also feel like, if somebody really wants to work with me, they can just QUERY me, and I’ll read. The system really does work, and I have enough to do without seeking more queries out. I’m not exactly invisible—if they haven’t queried me because they DON’T want to work with me, why should I want to work with them?[19]

I disagree with the latter statement—as shown earlier, no matter how much research an author does, there are agents that slip through the cracks. Otherwise, Laughran makes good points. Jessica Sinsheimer concurs that “complicated plots are not always encapsulated well in a Tweet, implying that traditional querying is still best for certain projects[20],” to which I agree. So, while social media cannot be seen as the singular great white way for the future of querying, it is nevertheless an important tool, which can be taken further by authors, agents, and even publishers. The Chicago-based publisher Sourcebooks, for example, decided to take unsolicited manuscript queries into their own hands by hosting a social media “pitchfest” based off of #PitMad, deftly ensuring that they did not need to compete with any other publishers when receiving pitches[21].

One last concern about social media querying is its reliance on third-party companies. In 2017, Twitter increased its character limit from 140 to 280[22], which thrilled #PitMad authors; however, it is easy to imagine great damage being done by changes in policies and algorithms that the literary world has no control over.

Ultimately, although #PitMad should not be considered the sole route through which the next Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings will be discovered, and should not completely replace formal querying, it is a powerful example of how social media can be harnessed to mutually benefit authors and agents, and even publishers such as Sourcebooks. At the moment, #PitMad essentially has a monopoly on the social media query market, being called the “gold standard” by many agents[23], but I hope that in the future we will see more social media-based innovation in the world of acquisitions.

 

 

Bibliography

Asselin, Kristine Carlson. 2015. “How Many Queries Does It Take to Get an Agent?” WRITERS’ RUMPUS (blog). April 24, 2015. https://writersrumpus.com/2015/04/24/how-many-queries-does-it-take-to-get-an-agent/.

Constantine, Lee. 2019. “F*ck Literary Agents.” Medium. February 2, 2019. https://medium.com/publishizer/f-ck-literary-agents-19579374509b.

Drake, Brenda. 2017. “A Guide to #PitchWars & #PitMad.” Writer’s Digest (blog). July 29, 2017. https://www.writersdigest.com/online-exclusives/oct-17/guide-pitchwars-pitmad.

Faust, Jessica. 2017. “Why I’m Not Mad for #PitMad.” BookEnds Literary Agency (blog). April 11, 2017. http://bookendsliterary.com/2017/04/11/why-im-not-mad-for-pitmad/.

Hummel, Heather, ContributorFounder, Creative Director of PathBinder Publishing, L, and Seascape Photographer. 500. “Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions.” HuffPost. 57:14 500. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/why-agents-reject-96-of-a_b_4247045.

Kirch, Claire. 2017. “Twitter Events Connect Agents and Writers.” PublishersWeekly.Com. December 19, 2017. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/75679-twitter-events-connect-agents-and-writers.html.

Koboldt, Dan. 2013. “Querying Literary Agents: The Numbers.” Dan Koboldt (blog). December 19, 2013. http://dankoboldt.com/querying-literary-agents-the-numbers/.

Larson, Selena. 2017. “Welcome to a World with 280-Character Tweets.” CNNMoney. November 7, 2017. https://money.cnn.com/2017/11/07/technology/twitter-280-character-limit/index.html.

Laughran, Jennifer. 2014. “Trying to Understand PitMad [Archive] – Absolute Write Water Cooler.” AbsoluteWrite. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-287535.html.

Levangie, Richard. 2011. “By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats.” Richard Levangie (blog). January 23, 2011. http://richardlevangie.com/blog/2011/01/23/literary-agent-query-stats/.

MacDonald, Marylee. 2016. “Agents and Where to Find Them.” Marylee MacDonald (blog). April 1, 2016. https://maryleemacdonaldauthor.com/agents-twitter-pitch-sessions/.

Malatesta, Mark. 2013. “Literary Agent Query Response Rates – Book Agents.” February 13, 2013. https://literary-agents.com/literary-agent-query/.

———. 2013. “Literary Agent Query: Answers to Questions You’re Too Afraid to Ask.” Writer’s Digest (blog). April 4, 2013. https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/literary-agents-unleashed-answers-to-questions-youre-too-afraid-to-ask.

McKenny, Rachel Mans. 2016. “#pitmad- No Reason to Get Mad about Pitches.” Rachel Mans McKenny (blog). June 8, 2016. https://rachelmansmckenny.com/2016/06/08/pitmad-no-reason-to-get-mad-about-pitches/.

“New? Start Here.” 2017. Pitch Wars (blog). June 14, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/new-start-here/.

“#Pitchmadness: Twitter’s Contribution to Querying – Publishing Trendsetter.” n.d. Accessed November 30, 2019. http://publishingtrendsetter.com/industryinsight/pitchmadness-twitters-contribution-querying/.

“#PitMad.” 2017. Pitch Wars (blog). September 18, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/.

“#PitMad Successes.” 2017. Pitch Wars (blog). October 3, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/pitmad-successes/.

Ragsdale, Melissa. 2015. “What Is #PitMad? Writers Should Take Notice.” Bustle. December 4, 2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/127759-what-is-pitmad-why-writers-should-definitely-be-on-twitter.

Russell, Rachel. 2019. “The Pitfalls of Pitching Contests.” Medium. October 8, 2019. https://writingcooperative.com/the-pitfalls-of-pitching-contests-51581a7c82a1.

Secor, Erica. n.d. “#PitMad About You: 3 Authors Discuss Pitching via #Pitmad.” Authors Publish (blog). Accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.authorspublish.com/pitmad-about-you-3-authors-discuss-pitching-via-pitmad/.

Singh, Sheritha. n.d. “Online Writing Contests: Approach with Caution.” Authors Publish (blog). Accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.authorspublish.com/online-writing-contests-approach-with-caution/.

Smith, Rebecca Ann. n.d. “How #PitMad Works: Instantly Pitch Book Publishers Via Twitter.” Authors Publish (blog). Accessed November 30, 2019. https://www.authorspublish.com/how-pitmad-works-instantly-pitch-book-publishers-via-twitter/.

“Sourcebooks 2019 #OwnVoices Pitchfest!” n.d. SavvyAuthors (blog). Accessed December 3, 2019. https://savvyauthors.com/sourcebooks-2019-ourvoices-pitchfest/.

Tone, Nicole. 2017. “On #PitMad and Pitch Events.” Medium. September 7, 2017. https://medium.com/the-coil/on-pitmad-and-pitch-events-nicole-tone-66d7a4e26afb.

Tromboli. 2014. “Trying to Understand PitMad.” AbsoluteWrite. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-287535.html.

Urban, Diana. 2014. “How #PitMad Helped Me Get a Literary Agent (And Tips for The Next One).” Diana Urban (blog). February 3, 2014. https://dianaurban.com/how-pitmad-helped-me-get-a-literary-agent-and-tips-for-the-next-one.

 

 

 

[1] Britannica Academic, s.v. “History of publishing,” accessed December 2, 2019, https://academic-eb-com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/levels/collegiate/article/history-of-publishing/109461#28639.toc.

[2] Constantine, Lee. “F*ck Literary Agents.” Medium, February 2, 2019. https://medium.com/publishizer/f-ck-literary-agents-19579374509b.

[3] Levangie, Richard. “By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats.” Richard Levangie (blog), January 23, 2011. http://richardlevangie.com/blog/2011/01/23/literary-agent-query-stats/.

[4] Drake, Brenda. “A Guide to #PitchWars & #PitMad.” Writer’s Digest (blog), July 29, 2017. https://www.writersdigest.com/online-exclusives/oct-17/guide-pitchwars-pitmad.

[5] Pitch Wars. “#PitMad Successes,” October 3, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/pitmad-successes/.

[6] Levangie, Richard. “By The Numbers: Literary Agent Query Stats.”

[7] Koboldt, Dan. “Querying Literary Agents: The Numbers.” Dan Koboldt (blog), December 19, 2013. http://dankoboldt.com/querying-literary-agents-the-numbers/.

[8] Pitch Wars. “New? Start Here,” June 14, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/new-start-here/.

[9] Pitch Wars. “#PitMad,” September 18, 2017. https://pitchwars.org/pitmad/.

[10] Kirch, Claire. “Twitter Events Connect Agents and Writers.” PublishersWeekly.com, December 19, 2017. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/75679-twitter-events-connect-agents-and-writers.html.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ragsdale, Melissa. “What Is #PitMad? Writers Should Take Notice.” Bustle, December 4, 2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/127759-what-is-pitmad-why-writers-should-definitely-be-on-twitter.

[15] Tromboli. “Trying to Understand PitMad.” AbsoluteWrite. Accessed December 5, 2019. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-287535.html.

[16] Faust, Jessica. “Why I’m Not Mad for #PitMad.” BookEnds Literary Agency (blog), April 11, 2017. http://bookendsliterary.com/2017/04/11/why-im-not-mad-for-pitmad/.

[17] Malatesta, Mark. “Literary Agent Query: Answers to Questions You’re Too Afraid to Ask.” Writer’s Digest (blog), April 4, 2013. https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/literary-agents-unleashed-answers-to-questions-youre-too-afraid-to-ask.

[18] Urban, Diana. “How #PitMad Helped Me Get a Literary Agent (And Tips for The Next One).” Diana Urban (blog), February 3, 2014. https://dianaurban.com/how-pitmad-helped-me-get-a-literary-agent-and-tips-for-the-next-one.

[19] Laughran, Jennifer. “Trying to Understand PitMad.” AbsoluteWrite. Accessed December 5, 2019. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/archive/index.php/t-287535.html.

[20] Kirch, Claire. “Twitter Events Connect Agents and Writers.” PublishersWeekly.com.

[21] SavvyAuthors. “Sourcebooks 2019 #OwnVoices Pitchfest!” Accessed December 3, 2019. https://savvyauthors.com/sourcebooks-2019-ourvoices-pitchfest/.

[22] Larson, Selena. “Welcome to a World with 280-Character Tweets.” CNNMoney, November 7, 2017. https://money.cnn.com/2017/11/07/technology/twitter-280-character-limit/index.html.

[23] Kirch, Claire. “Twitter Events Connect Agents and Writers.” PublishersWeekly.com.

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