Columns > Published on October 29th, 2012

Ask The Agent: How to Perfect Your Elevator Pitch & The Low-Down on Agency Assistant Salaries

Navigating the rough terrain of today’s publishing industry shouldn’t be a solo event. This week in Ask the Agent, I’ll explore and dissect two of the industry’s mysteries, straight from the shoulder.


Question from Lauren

Can you give us some tips on writing loglines/elevator pitches? I'm having a hard time boiling everything down to a line or two.

I feel you. When I was a new agent and editors would ask me about the basic plot of the book I was pitching, I would choke every time. It almost sounded as if I had never read the book! Perfecting your elevator pitch is both an art and a science.

For those of you unfamiliar: it’s called an “elevator pitch” because in any given hypothetical situation, you have that short elevator ride to pitch your manuscript to one of the most important people in the industry and once that person gets off the elevator, your shot is over.

I often note that writers intuitively believe that they don’t need to practice their elevator pitch because, after all, who knows their manuscript better than they? They think: Of course I can boil it down to a few sentences if asked to on the fly! It’s my manuscript…my concept…my heart and soul!

But when that moment arrives, all logical thought takes a vacation and you’re left looking like you just choked on a piece of literary chicken.

During an elevator pitch you want to be clear, concise and captivating in 2-4 sentences. Things that are good to mention: genre/market, main character, basic plot, and conflict. Then leave it off with a little intrigue.

Helpful Tips:

1. Don’t waste your time talking about anything outside of your novel, i.e., telling the agent/editor how great you think they are, talking about your purpose for writing the manuscript or the manuscript’s backstory, etc. Focus on the story. Nothing else matters—your age, your background—right now it is just about the story.

2. Think of your story in terms of what your character does that drives the plot to move along. What is the inciting incident? The main conflict?

3. Cut out useless information, namely comparisons. It’s a waste of time to sit there and compare your novel to other books or movies and not really explain the plot. Unless you have a very concise comparison in the vein of: It is ______ meets ______.

4. Structure the pitch in the same order that the manuscript follows. Don’t jump around. For example, starting with the end when the girl finds her destiny, then jumping to the beginning when she is starting high school, then jumping to the major conflict then back to the end. That shows that you aren’t familiar with your own book, you’re just throwing out plot points.

5. If in person—do not “um” and “uh” and just generally forget what your story is about. That’s why practice is KEY!

Be Accurate/Clear:

Really consider your elevator pitch then pitch people who have never read your manuscript. When you’re done, ask them what they think your book is about. If they are pretty close, then you know your pitch is accurate and clear.

Be Captivating:

Are you hitting the strongest points of your manuscript? Are they the triggers? Are they going to make the listener wonder and want to know more?

Pro tip: Perfect your pitch in a few sentences, or spoken out loud in about 20-30 seconds.

Question from Elizabeth

What kind of salary on average can aspiring literary agents assistants expect?

I am not, and have never been a literary agent assistant. But I thought this was an important question, so I've received some help from a dear colleague of mine to help with this answer.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that literary agents themselves are commission only. There are a few (and I mean few) agents who might make a small salary working as an assistant. But it is not much of a salary at all.

Victoria Marini, agent at Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency, has direct experience with this, being an office assistant herself.

I’d be reluctant to answer this with a solid [number] …because for those of us lucky enough to get a salary it can be embarrassingly small. Like, I kind of don’t want people to know what I made when I started as an assistant at the very first agency I worked for, because I’m pretty sure most people would assume I had to be out of my mind to try and live off that.

It depends on the experience of the individual, what agency they’re working at, and whether or not they work on commission, a draw, or salary. I’ve heard of agency assistants making 25K a year and I’ve heard of agency assistants making upwards of 40K a year, and there’s really no way to know where on the spectrum any given person might fall.

If I were to throw out a number, it could be anywhere from 10K-30K a year, usually without benefits. But as Victoria mentioned, it’s tricky and almost counter-beneficial to give a number because it varies so much.

One thing to expect if considering becoming an agency assistant: it is possible that if you're an assistant and take a salary, you will get less of a commission when you sell a book or the salary will be drawn against your commission. 

Pro tip: If you are a salaried literary agent assistant, the majority of the agenting you do (as in, your own agent career, your own clients) is on your own time and takes place outside the office.

Thank your for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor


Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 10 of Ask the Agent. Issue 10 answers will be posted Monday, November 12th.

About the author

Bree Ogden is a literary agent at Red Sofa Literary and a comics/TV columnist and reviewer at Bloody Disgusting.

When she's not agenting, compulsively watching horror films, reading comics, hiding out at her local science center, or killing off her bee colonies, she serves as the managing editor of the macabre children's magazine Underneath the Juniper Tree, which she co-founded in 2011 with artist Rebekah Joy Plett.

Bree teaches query craft and graphic novel scripting at LitReactor as well as serves as the Assistant Class Director. Unless you are an exciting new piece of taxidermy, she'll probably never let you in her room. You can find her at agentbree.wordpress.com.

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