Further to Jane’s post discussing the selling process, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at pitch letters: first, a writer’s successful query letter, one that prompted to me to request the material and sign journalist Jason Ryan as a client; next, my pitch letter to the editors to whom I submitted his proposal; and finally, the jacket copy that the publishing house drafted to pitch the book (ultimately titled Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs) to readers. All three are a bit different, and each is calibrated to its recipient.
1) Query Letter:
This is Jason Ryan, a journalist in South Carolina and former reporter for The State newspaper- the state’s largest daily and capital city paper. I’m seeking representation for my first book, ‘Jackpot,’ and was impressed by your representation of Arab authors and your ‘hands-on’ work ethic. I think your eclectic tastes might facilitate an interest in my unique journalistic endeavor, a narrative concerning smugglers whose sole connection to the Arab world was their fondness for Turkish hash. My nonfiction narrative, ‘Jackpot,’ details the rise and fall of fraternity brothers who, in a decade, smuggled more than $1 billion of marijuana and hashish into the United States aboard sailboats. ‘Jackpot’ also spotlights an age of innocence in drug trafficking, when violence was not ubiquitous.
‘Jackpot’ is the country’s greatest untold marijuana tale, and its twists and turns rival the slickest Hollywood screenplay. Two disaffected men from South Carolina rose to the top of the East Coast drug smuggling underworld with the help of their band of “gentlemen smugglers”- a now extinct breed of drug running rogues defined by their college educations, nonviolent business methods and love for the sea. The smugglers’ adventures involved jailbreaks, transatlantic smuggling flotillas, and dangerous overlaps with international armed conflicts. It all came to an end when the government unleashed a task force known as Operation Jackpot.
While the smugglers themselves have an amazing tale, so do the government agents involved in Operation Jackpot. Their task force fought a pioneering battle in President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, using new civil seizure laws and financial evidence to help take down South Carolina’s elusive gentlemen smugglers, men whose nicknames included “Rolex,” “Flash” and “Bob the Boss.”
“Jackpot” is the tale of two groups of men, both cunning and fearless, yet diametrically opposed. On one side was a set of seafaring smugglers with a slipping grip on America’s fast-fading hippie culture. On the other side was a band of investigators empowered by Reagan conservatism that sidestepped bureaucratic hurdles, expanded prosecutorial power and chased drug kingpins to the corners of the earth, sometimes going undercover. Their clash commenced as America underwent a sea change in its attitude toward recreational drug use, severely criminalizing substances long tolerated.
I’ve spent the last year researching Operation Jackpot and interviewing those involved on both sides of the law. I am currently contacting a select group of literary agencies regarding my book. I’m happy to provide a more detailed proposal if you’re interested.
In Jason’s letter above, what leapt out at me was the original research he’d done—a year’s worth of legwork. True crime, as this book might be loosely categorized, is not a genre in which I often work, nor do I count the debate surrounding the legalization of marijuana as one near to my heart, but his query seemed to contain the elements of a great story, one that had a colorful regional focus but national implications, and an author who, as it turned out, had both the access and the ability to capture it
2) My pitch letter:
I am pleased to send you Jackpot; the true story of the rise and fall of a ring of “gentlemen smugglers,” a colorful and incorrigible cadre of good ol’ boys, bon vivants, and drug traffickers who made a fortune, lived a fantasy and became the targets of one of the most extensive and ambitious anti-drug operations ever launched in the United States. Operation Jackpot was the opening volley in newly-elected President Reagan’s War on Drugs; its fascinating story captures a watershed moment in American political and popular culture, when hippies gave way to preppies, kids learned to “just say no,” and a group of seafaring sybarites became Public Enemy Number One.
In the late seventies and early eighties, the gentleman smugglers sailed a veritable flotilla of drug-laden luxury sailboats across the Caribbean, through the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic, ultimately unloading almost a billion dollars worth of marijuana and hashish along the South Carolina coast, relying on the same sleepy islands and labyrinthine waterways favored by the rum runners and privateers who preceded them.
The ringleaders were native sons of the Palmetto State, and depending on who was asked, Les Riley, Barry Foy and their comrades were local boys made good—or promising young men gone irretrievably bad. The college-educated scions of middle-class and well-to-do families, they traded in conventional careers for a lifestyle flush with adventure, high times, and cash. Lots and lots of cash. Yet lucrative as it was, they steered clear of the burgeoning cocaine trade and the culture of brutality that surrounded it; these men eschewed violence as much as they loved pleasure, and in an instance of life imitating art (or perhaps art imitating life), endeavored to live the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffet song. Their idyll would not, however, last forever: greed, lust, hurricanes, and the occasional disaster at sea caught up with them—and eventually, so did the law. Led by an exceptionally ambitious US Attorney named Henry Dargan McMaster, what ensued was a cat-and-mouse game played out against a backdrop of tropical islands and quiet bayous, crumbling plantations, as well as a vicious civil war (Lebanon) and a US invasion (Grenada).
Author Jason Ryan is a journalist who lives in South Carolina; long fascinated by the Jackpot case, he has gained unprecedented access to both the smugglers and the law enforcement agents who brought them to justice. I hope you find the story as compelling as I did, and will want to add it to your list.
With all good wishes,
In my letter, I tried to stress the “bigger” story, and tie the specific misdeeds and exploits of the drug smugglers to the cultural and political moment in American history. As a kid during the both the Carter and Reagan administrations, I noted the vast political shift, as Carter’s “malaise” gave way to Reagan’s sunnier (and arguably less accurate) vision of the USA. Nancy Reagan’s ubiquitous Just Say No Campaign was, at least for me, an essential part of the zeitgeist. I also try to layout the bones of the basic conflict: smugglers versus US attorney McMaster, who brought a whole new raft of tools to bear on the “kingpins.” Speaking as a former editor who pitched projects to my colleagues, I remember the utility of a pitch letter that helped to position a project, and could sometimes even be cribbed down the line for catalog or jacket copy, so I always try and write the sort of letter I liked to get.
3) Jacket Copy:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a cadre of freewheeling, Southern pot smugglers lived at the crossroads of Miami Vice and a Jimmy Buffett song. In less than a decade, these irrepressible adventurers unloaded nearly a billion dollars worth of marijuana and hashish through the eastern seaboard’s marshes. Then came their undoing: Operation Jackpot, one of the largest drug investigations ever launched and an opening volley in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs.
In Jackpot, author Jason Ryan takes us back to the heady days before drug smuggling was synonymous with deadly gunplay. During this golden age of marijuana trafficking, the country’s most prominent kingpins were a group of wayward and fun-loving Southern gentlemen who forsook college educations to sail drug-laden luxury sailboats across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Les Riley, Barry Foy, and their comrades eschewed violence as much as they loved pleasure, and it was greed, lust, and disaster at sea that ultimately caught up with them, along with the law.
In a cat-and-mouse game played out in exotic locations across the globe, the smugglers sailed through hurricanes, broke out of jail and survived encounters with armed militants in Colombia, Grenada and Lebanon. Based on years of research and interviews with imprisoned and recently released smugglers and the law enforcement agents who tracked them down, Jackpot does for marijuana smuggling what Blow and Snowblind did for the cocaine trade.
The actual jacket copy is shorter, punchier, and more profligate in its pop culture references. Odd as it sounds, the combination of Jimmy Buffet and Miami Vice positions the book pretty accurately. Here, the emphasis is on the big story, but also the colorful adventures of the smugglers themselves, and the text is juicier, studded with interesting details. In addition, the flap copy draws an oblique contrast between the content of most contemporary drug trafficking stories—the bloody, brutal, and horrific reports from warring cartels in Mexico—and the nonviolent approach that these smugglers took. In all three letters, however, the first task of the writer is to be interesting—all three of us are hoping to attract a reader. You can judge for yourselves whether you think we succeed.