Pitching Your Potential

SproutWriters pursuing publication usually come up against the question, “What have you published in the past?” If they haven’t previously published, they worry nobody will take them seriously; if they have published, they wonder if their books were successful enough to  impress anyone. The fact is, the majority of writers don’t have a track record that will make agents and publishers jump out of their seats with excitement.

But lack of track record can be overcome, if you know how to highlight your potential instead. Despite the fact that editors and agents are always looking for writers who make financial sense (i.e. writers with a strong, successful sales history), they are often swayed by an author’s potential more than track record.

In fact, some research shows that people instinctively value potential more than track record, even when it doesn’t make logical sense. Potential is more exciting because it’s an unknown; the sky’s the limit with potential. We’re not limited by history and numbers. This is where our humanness becomes part of the decision-making process. Looking at potential is one of the ways we “go with our gut” in seeking out writers for publication.

So in the absence of an impressive track record, what are some ways you can sell your potential to a publisher or an agent?

1. Be exciting.

Make sure every idea you pitch is unique and compelling. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the strength of the idea itself is the first thing that will herald your potential. Your ideas can’t have the ho-hum ring of “been there, done that.” Your ideas ARE your potential.

2. Have a large bag of tricks.

Always make sure you’re NOT pitching just one project or idea, but you also have a list of your future books, projects and ideas. Let your future potential be apparent in your abundance of ideas, ready when anyone asks, “What else are you doing?”

3. Know how to network.

In almost any field of endeavor these days, proving that you already have social media and networking savvy will help you be perceived as someone with potential. It’s a necessary competency for today and for the future.

4. Let every word shine.

Make sure every piece of writing you show (synopses, proposals, emails, blogs) is stellar. Make people love your writing, love your ideas, love the way you communicate. Make them desperately want to work with you—not because of your track record, but because of what they see right in front of them.

Focus on selling your potential rather than worrying about your lack of track record, and I bet you’ll find the pitching process less stressful and possibly even more effective.

What are the advantages of selling your potential rather than your track record? Does this idea change your thinking about pitching to publishers and agents?



Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Monday Links « Midweek Read on September 24, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    […] Pitching Your Potential- Rachel Gardner […]

  2. […] how do you sell yourself when you don’t have a publishing track record? Rachelle Gardner explains how to pitch your potential. Jennifer Laughran explains how to genre categorize your book in a query—it’s not as painful as […]

  3. Emily Grove on September 12, 2012 at 3:03 PM

    Imagine coming too in a room full of strangers – It’s a big room and the sun is shining through big cathedral-like windows. It’s almost blinding. You can see the dust in the air and you are awakened to the misery of your reality. You’ve come to a point where you’ve given up your old ways. You’ve become exposed. There’s no more hiding. You’ve surrendered.

    A window of willingness has opened up inside of you. You relate with these strangers and the shame upon their faces. You can actually see the guilt weighing on their lips while their mouths drupe. And you can almost see the faint lines of where their childhood smiles once laid.
    These faces — these oh so familiar faces stretched from exhaustion and longing for hope.

    This is room full of alcoholics and addicts — A room filled with shattered dreams. But that’s not all, there’s a mutual feeling which fills the room: it’s a common despair that is shared among these strangers. It’s comforting.

    You look forward, and a man stands before you. You don’t know him, but there is a light about him that draws you into his words. There’s no doubt, you trust him. He takes his time, making eye contact with each individual as he says, “Look around you. Look at the person to your left… Now look to the person to your right. Statistics show that only one of you will make it through.”

    At that point, I made a decision. A decision I’d love to share with the world. It took no thought, whether it was the competitive nature I’ve always had, or because I had reached a point of true desperation. But I knew at that point it time, that it was going to be me. I would make it, I would find a way, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I became willing to do whatever it takes.

    Through my journey I have found a new way of life – a different way to live. And to this day, it’s one of the best decisions I have ever made. I am so thankful to all those brave individuals around me who have supported me, who have guided me, and those who reach out for my help and remind me why I’d never want to go back.

    A fiery determination burns inside me to share this with the world and those who may need help! Mark my words, I will not let them down.

  4. Dale S. Rogers on September 11, 2012 at 11:36 PM

    Thanks for the encouragement, Rachelle.
    Your post inspires me to push forward and
    make every word count.

  5. Apthum2r5 on September 11, 2012 at 4:35 PM

    Help your blog into Wall Street !!!

  6. Magda on September 11, 2012 at 12:17 PM

    “Let every word shine”.

    I am going to remember that…

  7. Connie Almony on September 11, 2012 at 12:08 PM

    What are the advantages of selling potential rather than track record, you ask? Well, for me, I have lots more potential than track record, so the advantage is clear. I love this idea and it’s very encouraging. One thing that makes me impatient with the “getting the call” process is that I can’t wait to move on to my other stories. And though I’ve begun work on them, my focus has been on the polishing of the one I hope will get me in the door. But that’s the process of getting better and I know the next stories will be better for it.

  8. Julie Sunne on September 11, 2012 at 2:13 AM

    Love the idea of potential, Rachelle. It gives all of us hope that our passion, hard work, and gifts do count for something.

  9. Kathy Rouser on September 10, 2012 at 11:17 PM

    As usual, your advice has much wisdom. Potential is the promise that we show as writers. It’s exciting to think of it that way rather than worry about what we haven’t accomplished yet. Looking
    forward is always better than worrying about the past or present.
    Of course, it must be done realistically, but this concept will help me look at my pitches and opportunities differently. Thank you
    for this post.

  10. Peter DeHaan on September 10, 2012 at 6:24 PM

    This is most encouraging; I think I have great potential — now I just to convince everyone else!

  11. Dee White on September 10, 2012 at 5:26 PM

    Thanks for another great post, Rachelle.

    I’d previously been advised not to mention what else you’re working on, but recently I decided to vary my submissions and attempt to sell my potential…and I mentioned to a publisher that if what I’d submitted didn’t suit their list, I was also working on other manuscripts – and I mentioned their genre – and I received a positive and speedy reaction from a publisher.

  12. Stephen H. King on September 10, 2012 at 4:39 PM

    Selling potential is, I think, one of the hardest things for a fiction author to do, because there are so many of us out there that I don’t know how an agent is really going to differentiate one versus another.


    • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 4:51 PM

      It’s like making recipes for Henry the Eighth. Either they’ll love it or they’ll chop your head off. Fortunately, our heads are like Jack Jeebs (MIB pawn broker).

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 10, 2012 at 5:16 PM

      It’s like being on the Bachelor. Only with people who can read. AND write.

  13. Angie Dicken on September 10, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    Thanks so much for this post. I have often referred to your blog for conference prep, it’s awesome! This will be my third year attending ACFW, and I am finally starting to feel comfortable in my writing shoes! In the past, I was probably a little too unsure as I pitched my stuff…but that came with lack of knowledge about the writing craft, profession, etc. Now, I finally feel like I have a good sense of expectations, and that gives me some relief to pitch with confidence and excitement. Excited for next week!

  14. Deanna on September 10, 2012 at 1:56 PM

    “happy dance”…

    Thanks for reminding me to embrace how God made me and that it’s really my potential!!

  15. April W Gardner on September 10, 2012 at 1:15 PM

    You’ve just obliterated my one HUGE insecurity. And it’s the second time this week someone’s advised me to be excited, confident, believe in my calling–that doing those things will go a long way toward making my pitches stand out.
    Thank you!!

  16. Denise Petrey on September 10, 2012 at 12:49 PM

    Thanks. My email was just hacked and my website destroyed by malicious content. No matter how you believe in yourself as a writer, you have to be cyber-savvy now. Because the way we receive and interact with the written word is much different now, what lives in the air, today, is very important.

    For those who can afford a perpetual cyber-bodyguard and staff of internet genuises, it might be easier to achieve that WOW appeal, while keeping it current, fresh, and even cutting-edge. And as writers and dreamers, most of us resist the nuts and bolts of dreary, day-to-day obligations.

    However, I agree. We must first believe in ourselves, and our potential, and show that to its fullest regard. I’m not sure how much our old track records count these days. The game is new. We too, must be new.

    Thanks, Rachelle, and commenters, for being a light in the smog.

  17. Tedra on September 10, 2012 at 12:47 PM

    Hi, Rachelle. I’ve been reading your posts for awhile now but have never really commented before. I just wanted to say that you’ve helped me a lot latetly. I’m currently writing short stories to submit to different contest and I’ve been working with shorts only because I read somewhere else that that was the best place to start as a young writer and the number of published submissions would make me look better. I think I got so wrapped up in trying to build credit that I forgot why I’m writing in tbe first place. I just realized this a few days ago and thought this post was perfect. I don’t have to be anybody else or publish as much as anybosy else so long as I have a really great story to read.
    Having other published stories won’t hurt either though.

  18. Sandy Nadeau on September 10, 2012 at 12:16 PM

    Thank you. That actually took some of the pressure off for the upcoming conference. It also reminded me of an elderly lady’s advice from church. “Just be yourself.” Great advice.

  19. R.A.Savary on September 10, 2012 at 11:53 AM

    Whether it’s an author or a book, the ones that “knock my socks off” are the ones I least expect.

    When a story unfolds in a different way from the way the author’s track record has lead me to expect, I find myself thinking “Wow, this is exceptional, even for him.”

    And sometimes, I’ll start reading a book, “knowing” it’s not going to be that good, because of the author’s published history and am pleasantly surprised when it captivates me.

    This is the way it is for me when I read; why wouldn’t I want it to be that way when I write?

    And the promising issue: if it’s that way for me, it’s that way for you!

  20. Nichole Hall on September 10, 2012 at 11:34 AM

    I am planning to pitch to agents next week as well and this post has helped me see it’s more than about the here and now. It’s more than focusing on my current project. It’s about goals and plans to be in this for the long haul.

    I can see how connecting with an agent/editor on this level can be more prosperous than just a one time meet and greet based on the hopes of a the current project coming to fruition.

    Thank you for your insight Rachelle!

  21. Brianna on September 10, 2012 at 11:33 AM

    Pitching my potential is something I hadn’t thought of. I don’t have a huge record of published stuff, but I’m working on it. I am noticing that things are starting to change in my writing and it’s getting better so maybe that means I’ll start getting published more often.

  22. Jaime Wright Sundsmo on September 10, 2012 at 11:11 AM

    I get so excited and inspired when I read your blogs, Rachelle!

    • Jaime Wright Sundsmo on September 10, 2012 at 11:12 AM

      Oh, and I’m not kissing up when I say that, ’cause really I do get excited and inspired. I just realized that sound a little schmoozy. 😉

  23. Susi Robinson Rutz on September 10, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    Potential. What an encouraging word as I begin to dig in on Monday morning! So many ideas flowing to establish that potential for a prospective publisher. I will be very busy this week and in those to come. Thank you for the push, Rachelle. 🙂

  24. Diane Yuhas on September 10, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Excellent and encouraging way to direct one’s thoughts away from paralyzing anxiety.

  25. Cherry Odelberg on September 10, 2012 at 10:58 AM

    Once upon a time, I did talk face to face with an agent. Since he had written off children’s books completely in the foregoing lecture; I was thankful to have three chapters of another book in my folder. He didn’t like the working title or premise of that plot either. “What else do you have?” he asked.
    Just sayin’.
    I’ve got 48,000 words on one back-burner and 30,000 on another, maybe it’s time to focus on just one?

    • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 4:47 PM

      Yup, get ‘er done. I want to go to one of those expos, but with money in/money out, I can’t until I sell the other house. Meanwhile, I’ll live vicariously through you when you go, OK? 🙂

  26. Karen Adair on September 10, 2012 at 10:32 AM

    LOVE this! So nice to hear something encouraging about how publishers are looking for the potential in authors. I read too much negativity about how hard it is to get published that I worry the writer has lost the joy and vision of their work. I’m excited by the fact that I do have several works in progress, so when people ask me what I write I usually give them a list. 🙂 It’s great to see their faces light up when I share my ideas. That gives me hope that my books will be well received. Thank you for the encouragement! Love this!

  27. Meghan Carver on September 10, 2012 at 10:31 AM

    I so much appreciate your inclusion of emails and blogs in #4. My husband is a college professor, and some of the emails from students that he shows me just sicken me. And then they want an A? It also seems, in some blogs, that typos and missing words don’t matter. Yet, if an agent is interested in us, wouldn’t that agent pop over to our website or blog to see more, even just for a few moments? As a perfectionist, I agonize over word, making sure my grammar is proper and all words are spelled correctly in an email to my husband asking him to pick up some milk on his way home. It makes life a bit stressful, but who ever said life would be easy? (Okay, now I feel like I need to check today’s blog post for the sixth time!)

    Thanks for the great encouragement, Rachelle. I’m making notes for the conference I’ll be attending in November.

  28. Joe Pote on September 10, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    Thanks for the great suggestions, Rachelle!

  29. Becky Taylor on September 10, 2012 at 10:19 AM

    Great info.. I have included some ideas and other projects a couple of times in cover letter, but worried that it was not “appropriate” thanks for the encouragement!

  30. Joanne Wiklund on September 10, 2012 at 9:59 AM

    Rachelle: As usual, you’ve come up with a way to inspire us. Potential+Motivation = Hope. That’s what we all need: Hope.
    Someone said once that Hope stands for Hold On, Pray Expectantly. We need to send out those queries with Hope.
    Thanks again.

  31. ed cyzewski on September 10, 2012 at 9:54 AM

    A good reminder to consistently ask ourselves, “What’s next?”

  32. Maggie Lyons on September 10, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Rachel, I have the same question as P.J. Casselman: I have always understood that only one book at a time should be pitched. Are you saying it’s okay to pitch other finished, or even unfinished, books? Or should we do this only when asked, as you seem to imply?

  33. Jeanne on September 10, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    I love the idea of selling potential. This post relaxed some of the stress building inside me about attending ACFW. Thanks for sharing this perspective! Your tips are practical. Now, is there a way to sell potential in a cover letter? That’s what I need to figure out. 🙂

    Thanks for this, Rachelle.

  34. Wendy Paine Miller on September 10, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    I loved pitching (crazy like that). It was exciting to share the stories I so passionately believe in.

    Currently working on building that bag of tricks.
    ~ Wendy

  35. Amy Morgan on September 10, 2012 at 9:03 AM

    Four great straight forward pieces of advice that yes, do change the way I will approach a pitch. My published pieces are few, the venues quite different and span a long time frame, so I worry about appearing non-consistent, although behind the scenes, my writing is slow and steady. And I love the reminder to “let every word shine”. Thanks!

  36. Jackie Layton on September 10, 2012 at 8:58 AM

    Thanks Rachelle. I’d planned to pitch next week in Dallas, and I’ve been focused on one story only.
    I’ll make notes on my other stories now in case I’m asked.
    Thanks so much!

  37. Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 10, 2012 at 8:37 AM

    Great post, great questions!
    For me, I have to employ a bit of spin when presenting myself and my belief in my own potential. Since I live in mortal fear of looking like an idiot. (Certain Miscreants are now thinking ‘but it clearly hasn’t stopped you from acting like it!)
    I haven’t a problem singing about my potential, since I know I half a slew of ideas on the back burner. But I need to harness those ideas and DO something with them. Which I am, BTW.

    So I need to be practiced and polished when it comes to pitching my ideas and myself. Harness the creative juices and put them all in an eye popping package that has appeal and promise.
    If I had 2 minutes with an agent,I want to sound like
    “Good afternoon, I’m Jennifer Major, I’m writing in the genre of historical romance and using the Long Walk of the Navajo and the struggles of abused women as my catalysts to explore the issues of grace and redemption in the light of deep spiritual and emotional trauma.”

    As opposed to “ohmywordareyou’reachellegardner?ireadyourblogI’msuchafanhere’smyproposalanddidyouwantcreaminyourcoffee?”

    If I had to sell my track record, it wouldn’t bother me. But my track record combined with what I know I can do? I’m ready!

    • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 12:47 PM

      I have that problem as well. The only way I can handle cold meetings is to have a well rehearsed elevator speech and contingency comments. By the time I’m through with those, I’m relaxed enough to be the me that loved ones see.

    • Ann Bracken on September 10, 2012 at 10:36 PM

      LOL! I loved this! I’m very cool, calm and collected in front of my mirror. Face to face? Total and complete brain flush.

  38. carol brill on September 10, 2012 at 7:39 AM

    I never thought about it this wey, but “Potential” is often what keeps me writing in spite of barriers, so it makes sense, it might entice agents too. thanks Rachelle.

  39. Vero on September 10, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    Great post, and straight to the point of what really matters when facing the world of publishing as a fresh writer.
    Thanks, Rachelle!

  40. Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts on September 10, 2012 at 2:43 AM

    What a wonderful post! Thank you for the ideas and the encouragement, Rachelle.

  41. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on September 10, 2012 at 2:23 AM

    Our history…servant, or master? For those of us whose literary past is a formless void, you’ve supplied some glorious pixie dust, which we can cast on the face of the ether to catch the dreams a-borning…

    Marketing potential is a wonderful idea, but I have the feeling that at least some of it should be ‘demonstrated potential’.

    For instance, to me it would be much more compelling if an author said she had a second book on the shelf, and ready to submit, rather than an idea or a part-finished MS. Same with other projects…if the platform was already being exercised through talks and workshops at local churches and community groups, I’d be more likely to sit up and take notice.

    • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 12:29 PM

      I see your point. There needs to be a clear understanding that the writer can complete their work and do what it takes to market it.
      Glad to see you, Andrew. You’re always in my prayers.

  42. P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 2:20 AM

    Thank you for the word of encouragement, Rachelle. It’s difficult to know what’s in the mind of an agent when it comes to a vacant track record. My sketch comedy was for acting groups back in the 1980’s (e.g. Jeremiah People) and years of sermons don’t impress anyone.

    QUESTION- You mentioned a list of future projects or ideas. We’re told to query just one book. Is it OK to mention that I’ve written 4 other unpublished books (2 of a trilogy) or does that give the impression I’m a 4 time loser?

    • Joe Pote on September 10, 2012 at 10:24 AM

      PJ, IMHO, it makes you a potential client with four potential best-sellers already in-hand.

      It also says that you are dedicated to your writing and to improving your craft. You’re not just looking for a one-book instant fame-n-fortune.

      • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 12:21 PM

        Thanks Joe. I’d hope they’d see that.

        If I wanted a one hit wonder claim to fame and didn’t care about who I wanted to touch with a message, I’d write that semi-erotic garbage that sells so well. Maybe a love story between a teenage girl and a monster–a Wall Street banker. 😛

    • Cherry Odelberg on September 10, 2012 at 10:50 AM

      Good question, PJ. I have come to the conclusion that there are differing tastes and opinions out there; to send chocolate or not to send chocolate; AP, Strunk and White, Chicago, stream of consciousness, first person, third person, backstory, cut the adjectives, describe in detail, electronic only, don’t call us, market anyway you can, don’t be obnoxious; blog, twitter, tweet, but don’t smother. There is only one answer: Keep writing.

      • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 12:26 PM

        Mmm hmm. Yeah it’s a maze of contradictions all right. I keep writing, but some days it’s hard to keep filling up the black hole with words when it feels they’ll never come out bound for distribution.
        Oh well, it’s what I do and I have to finish this trilogy so Jennifer and Joe can read what happens after they beta read the first two. GRIN

        • Stephen H. King on September 10, 2012 at 4:36 PM

          P.J. – Maze of Contradictions is absolutely right. Sometimes it feels like my head’s going to explode.

          And hey–never say never, man.

        • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 10, 2012 at 6:09 PM

          Will you HURRY UP!!!!

  43. Gabrielle Meyer on September 10, 2012 at 2:12 AM

    Love the idea that instead of fretting about what I don’t have, focus my strength and energy into what I do have – and what I want to achieve! I especially like that you pointed out all our writing should be stellar – not just our books. No matter where we’re at on the web, we’re building a presence and that presence should ring with our personality, exciting others and enticing them to keep reading what we have to say.

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 10, 2012 at 8:15 AM

      Hi Gabrielle!!
      It’s that “is the glass half empty or half full?”mindest that can trip us up, isn’t it? Your web personality is full of joy and encouragement. Oh my word, I used to rue the days you didn’t post. Now I’ve grown some patience and just imagine you resting and creating something amazing for us all. But hey, NO pressure…

    • P. J. Casselman on September 10, 2012 at 12:36 PM

      Me agree. Stellar writing in all places. This a solid impression makes.

  44. Michael Seese on September 10, 2012 at 12:40 AM

    As always, great advice. I’m especially encouraged by “Let your future potential be apparent in your abundance of ideas, ready when anyone asks, ‘What else are you doing?’ ”

    I have several books published, but none are named “DaVinci Code” or “Harry Potter.” So I don’t run with the big cats…yet! But it’s nice to know that the in-progress sequels to my still un-sold YA thriller are not a waste of my time, but rather examples of “future potential.”

    • Alan Kurland on September 11, 2012 at 1:52 PM

      Rachelle, are you saying it’s okay to mention possible future books in your query letter? If so, won’t it muddy the water? Thanks.

  45. Keli Gwyn on September 10, 2012 at 12:29 AM

    Sheesh! I’m so excited, I forgot to say “I’M getting excited.” Great way to impress my agent, huh? =)

    • Jennifer Major @Jjumping on September 10, 2012 at 8:10 AM

      Keli, that was funny! But at least you didn’t spell things wrong or write in crayon.

  46. Keli Gwyn on September 10, 2012 at 12:27 AM

    What an encouraging post, Rachelle! I’m going to put these great ideas to work at my upcoming conference. I getting excited about it already.