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 The last few years have brought a new scourge to the industry: authors who describe their unpublished manuscripts as just like Eat, Pray, Love.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."