There are countless ineffective ways to pitch a manuscript, ranging from the slightly boneheaded (addressing a female literary agent as “Mr.” in a query letter) to the more extravagantly awkward (pitching an agent in the bathroom). The last few years have brought a new scourge to the industry: authors who describe their unpublished manuscripts as just like Eat, Pray, Love.
Since the 2006 publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir of traveling abroad for wisdom after splitting from her husband, agents have taken to warning authors about this during writing conferences and on blogs. Referencing Gilbert’s book in a query letter has come to signify a memoir of travel and revelation (travelation!), usually written by a woman, and quite possibly without a speck of originality or talent.
In the hundreds of query letters agents may skim a week, just seeing Gilbert’s book title often shouts: Don’t bother. The Eat-inspiredpitches reached a peak a few years ago for Jesseca Salky, a literary agent at the small agency Russell & Volkening in Manhattan. She’s bracing herself for another onslaught after the Eat Pray Love movie starring Julia Roberts comes out Friday. “Oh my God, it was insane,” says Salky, who estimates that at one point she was getting close to 30 pitches a week invoking the book. “It’s my most-hated thing as an agent.”
There are other books and authors frequently invoked in query letters; Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Pollan are perennials for nonfiction. But Gilbert’s book has a special resonance because it promotes the very American notion that everyone has a story to tell. Who among us hasn’t been transformed by an experience that allowed us to step outside ourselves? Maybe Gilbert’s trip was more lofty—she went to Italy (to learn “the art of pleasure”), India (“the art of devotion”), and Indonesia (“the art of balancing the two”). Perhaps I only went to San Jose on business. Still, is there not some kernel I can extract from my nights killing time at the Doubletree bar?
Well, maybe not. From the perspective of a literary agent, the crime of Eat, Pray, Love was to amplify the cacophony of the self-discovery genre, and give everyone license to do the literary equivalent of forcing your friends to look at your travel photos. The typical pitch starts where the rat race ends, and then follows the author on an unlikely journey leading, inevitably, to a land of fulfillment. One, forwarded to me by an agent, was authored by someone who “retired from my executive sales career with a Fortune 200 aerospace company to solo hike the Pacific Crest Trail.” The query letter promises readers Eat’s “exuberant discovery” in “the story of a life-changing adventure.”
Sometimes, instead of travel, the Gilbertian memoirists offer more humble paths to awakening—the it’s right there if you reach out and grab it school of discovery. “‘I wanted to change so I started buying a lot of dogs and helping raise dogs and that was just life-changing,’” says Salky. “Or, ‘I started taking dance lessons and these dance lessons taught me this.’ “
The pitches sometimes transcend the memoir genre, extending into fiction. One, posted to a writers’ discussion site, described a proposed book as similar to Marian Keyes’ novels with “a touch” of Eat: “Love Like the French marries the fashion and romance of traditional chicklit with a profound tale of one woman’s personal tragedy and how she looks to the French culture to help her heal.”
And some are just strange and vague. Like this one, billed as Eat meets the novel Wonder When You’ll Miss Me by Amanda Davis: “Premise of the book- Roots buried beneath the dark soil. … Seeds first are planted into the ground – the way sperm is implanted inside a woman’s body to create a beautiful baby. Over time and with patience, both will transform into a beautiful thing.”
Jessica Sinsheimer, an agent at Sarah Jane Freymann Literary, did a search in the agency’s database of query letters from recent years: 131 of them mention Eat, Pray, Love. (Other biggies in the database: German spiritual author Eckhart Tolle, Harry Potter, and, of course, Twilight. “We’re so tired and done with vampires that if I could treat my submissions with garlic I would,” Sinsheimer says.)
It’s not Eat itself that literary agents dislike. After all, the book has sold more than 9 million copies worldwide, according to Viking. Plus there are now Home Shopping Network products and perfumes and Eat, Pray, Love-style travel adventures.But many of these would-be writers misunderstand the initial appeal of the book. It’s not primarily the premise that grabbed people, says literary agent Mollie Glick, who works at Foundry Literary + Media. The premise was “kind of gimmicky.” The book succeeded because of Gilbert’s precise, playful, and intimate writing style, which is so hard to emulate.
Are there unknown writers out there waiting to be discovered? Sure. And the best writers are not always the best marketers of their own talent. But for every “astonishing new voice,” as the blurb might put it, there are many more people unaware of just what the narrative arc of their own lives might be. “If you risk going to your elderly parents’$2 80th birthday party in a retirement community somewhere in Northern California you will be approached,” says Steve Wasserman, a literary agent to Christopher Hitchens, among others, and the former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review. The life stories may be fascinating, rich with historical detail, but that doesn’t mean these would-be writers know how to weave them into a story. “Talent,” says Wasserman, “is unevenly distributed.”
Gilbert is an exception. She was known as a gifted writer well before the publication of Eat, Pray, Love. She’d written for GQ and the New York Times Magazine and published a book of short stories, a novel, and a nonfiction book, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Not only did her name make her more marketable; her talents allowed her to shape and find meaning in a narrative construct that could have otherwise felt, well, overly constructed.
Writers who compare themselves to a well known, first-rate talent make agents wonder how much they know about the industry and how rare and unpredictable blockbuster success is (Oprah endorsements being akin to acts of God), not to mention how realistically they view their own talents. “Saying that your book is like Eat, Pray, Love is like saying that your favorite book is The Great Gatsby, says Sinsheimer, who has blogged about the problem of Eat queries. “It doesn’t make you look well-read.”
So be warned. If your proposal mentions a book that’s been on the bestseller list for more than 180 weeks, it may be a sign that your book isn’t worth writing.