How to Think Like a Publishing Gatekeeper

Once upon a time, I was a magazine editor with an inbox full of pitches from writers and publicists. Many of the senders probably submitted those queries and imagined me waiting for them to come in, reading through each one carefully to decide whether or not it had merit. 

Here’s what was really on my mind each time a new pitch pinged through: Crap, why haven’t I heard from that fashion designer who flaked on the interview? Is that quote I need to finish my feature here yet? My story is due tomorrow! When will the photos for that column come in? How long before lunch? What did my boyfriend mean by that comment last night? My head is killing me. I wonder if I should see a doctor? I’d better get back to work.

Once upon another time, I made my living as a freelance writer, so I get why you would submit a pitch and then hold your breath, expecting the agent or editor to patiently and thoughtfully evaluate your book’s potential. Kind of like a teacher grading a paper. After spending decades in school, I sometimes have that delusion too. But in reality…

It’s nothing like turning in homework. 

It’s nothing like taking a test. 

It’s more like sending a flyer to someone’s personal snail mail box. 


To picture an agent or editor looking at a slush pile, imagine yourself standing at your snail mail box. You turn the key, open it up and start to flip through everything the mailman has jammed in there since the last time you checked. You’re dreading an expected bill, hoping for a needed check, and most of the rest is junk mail a.k.a unsolicited submissions. 

Some of the letters are annoying mortgage scams, but most are from well-meaning businesspeople trying to get your attention.  You eat food, so all of the restaurant coupons are somewhat targeted to you, and who could refuse a great discount? But you probably chunk most of them anyway. Maybe you don’t like Greek food. Maybe that cool new bar is too far away. Maybe that gorgeous ad for a Japanese restaurant is useless because you already have a favorite sushi spot. 

Next come the home improvement ads. Hey, if you’re a home owner, all of those ads should be perfect for you, right?! Wrong. Let’s just say for a second that you love every single ad you see – from kitchen remodeling to grout cleaning to roof repair to landscape design to pool installation. Are you going to hire all of those people? Or even request free estimates from all of those people? Heck no. Even if you had all of the money in the world, you don’t have anywhere near enough time to deal with them all at once. 

If something fits your immediate needs, your taste, and your budget, you’re going to make that call. On the other hand, when you throw away that solar-panel mailer, you’re not saying, “Sorry Solar Solutions, you’re not good enough. You shouldn’t even be in business.” No, you’re just not in the market for their product. Maybe you already have solar panels. Maybe solar panels just aren’t your thing. Your rejection doesn’t reflect on that company’s value. It’s either exactly what you’re looking for right now, or it’s not.

If it seems heartless that I’m comparing your manuscript, your labor of love, to junk mail, remember that most of those small-business-owners have poured everything into their businesses, too. 

But I’m not done. There is good news! There is a lot you can do to keep from being like junk mail sent to every mailbox in town.

LEVEL-UP YOUR STRATEGY: Instead of the shotgun approach, use a tightly-targeted agent-search strategy to pitch agents who are looking for books just like yours. I’m working on something that will show you how to find agents whose needs and taste matches your book. I’ll post that soon.

PERSONALIZE YOUR QUERY: Send a highly-personalized query letter. I tell you exactly how to personalize your pitch in this post – How to Attract Agents With a Personalized Query.

HAVE A KILLER OPENING: With only a few seconds to grab an agent or editor’s attention, your opening is make or break. Sadly, most openings I see go off the rails thanks to the same three easy-to-make mistakes … even when the writer is super talented and the rest of the book is amazing.  



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