Tuesday, 26 June 2012

A non-fiction pitch - Deep Country

Not exactly a pitch paragraph today, but a pitch letter - the covering letter that you'd normally send with your synopsis and sample chapters if fiction, or your proposal+synopsis+sample if non-fiction.


In a minute, you'll read a letter that actually did grab an agent, and then a publishing deal. It's also an example of an imperfect letter, and an illustration of the truth that if your idea and writing are good enough, your letter can be less than perfect! The letter is from Neil Ansell and this is what he told me:

"It is my initial query letter for a book of non-fiction which won me the first agent I approached almost overnight on the strength of one chapter. Three chapters and a proposal later it went to auction between five publishers. DEEP COUNTRY is memoir / nature writing." It is published in paperback by Penguin, after hardback release last year by Hamish Hamilton.

This was Neil's letter.
Dear XXXXX,
I am seeking representation for a book I am currently working on concerning a period spent studying the natural history of a small area in mid-Wales. For 5 years I lived alone in a remote mountain cottage with no running water, gas or electricity, with no vehicle or phone.
There seems to be an abiding interest in subjective accounts of natural history, and I think that my story would have a unique selling-point in terms of the extremity of the lifestyle I adopted.
My background is as an award-winning journalist who has worked both in print and with 7 years experience with BBC Current Affairs. I am now working freelance, and am hoping to garner some interest in this project before it is complete. Let me know if you would like to see what I have so far.
I have not yet approached anyone else, I thought of you because of your portfolio.
Best wishes
Neil Ansell
In my view, he caught the agent's positive interest for two reasons: it's a good idea, with novelty and interest, also catching the zeitgeist. And he's a proven career writer. A non-fiction submission needs those things. Or, if you're not a proven writer you need to show qualification/platform in the subject-matter of your book falls.

To make the letter better - even though this turned out not to be necessary - I'd have liked more information about the book. Its structure, for a start. And Neil should have mentioned the title in the opening paragraph. The proposal (if not the letter itself) would need to talk a little bit about the market and competition, showing what sort of person it would be aimed at.

But it did the job, and that's the most important point! But it did the job more easily because the idea was a good one.

By the way, do you want to know the pitch that got me the contract for Write to be Published?
Dear Emma,
I was wondering - if I pitched you a book based on my blog, Help! I Need a Publisher!, would you be interested?
And she emailed back five minutes later saying "YES!" However, that is NOT how to pitch a book in normal circumstances!

Any comments on Neil's letter, anyone? Neil said, "I'm sure there are all sorts of ways this could have been improved and I will be interested to hear what people have to say. I had not done any research, or ever seen a query letter in my life, so I was basically winging it, and feel very lucky that I got away with it."

6 comments:

Susan May said...

Sounded straight up like a fab idea & since 'Man vs Wild' has been such a success it is no wonder the agent & publishers grabbed it.
It alsI shows that if you have done your apprenticeship in writing it certainly is worthwhile. As soon as I read the paragraph about the author's background I also knew the book would be an interesting read for sure. Thank you for sharing. I've just discovered your blog. It's great.

Whisks said...

This is refreshingly uncluttered and quite a relief to read. Clear and to the point. As someone who is battling to write a succinct pitch letter for non-fiction, it shows me how little you need to say. Of course, having a credible CV helps, but is doesn't come across as 'selling' - more like a straightforward question: Interested?
I can see it's time to sharpen my scythe and chop, chop, chop.

Sally Zigmond said...

And it's a fabulous book. If you ever fancied "getting away from it all" then this is the books for you. I wouldn't have the courage but was able to enjoy it from the comfort of my armchair. His observations of the birds and animals that surrounded his cottage are outstanding.

What Neil didn't say in his letter is that it was set deep in the beautiful mid-Wales countryside.

And, as I'm currently angsting over covering letters and synopses, it's encouraging to know that they don't have to be 100% perfect.

Sally Zigmond said...

Oops sorry, yes, of course, he mentioned the Welsh setting. *scuttles off with tail between legs to learn how to read properly.*

Neil said...

Thankyou Nicola and everybody for your comments, and a special thanks to Sally for her kind words about my book.

womagwriter said...

Sigh. I'm going to have to buy this one now.