Monday, June 29, 2015

10 things to never, ever, ever do in your query

A post by Mary Fan
If you're an aspiring writer, then chances are, you're going to find yourself querying literary agents at some point (unless you're planning on going indie). I spent a few years in this state of writerly limbo, reading everything and anything I could find about how to write a letter that could hook one of those elusive gatekeepers to the Big Five publishers. And along the way, I discovered a few exclamations of query frustration from agents on their Twitter feeds and blogs.

Below are ten agent peeves to avoid. Many may seem like common sense, but you'd be surprised what some people will stick in a query...

10. Send an attachment (unless one is requested)

Agents get dozens (if not hundreds) of emails a day from total randos. Most are legit aspiring authors hoping to hook their interest. Some may be jerks sending out viruses disguised as manuscripts. For this reason, most (if not all) agents who accept email queries will explicitly state NO ATTACHMENTS in their query guidelines. So unless their guidelines specifically say otherwise, assume that they want everything in the body of the email.

9. Copy a crap ton of other agents

Even though sending basically the same letter to multiple people may feel tedious and tiresome, copying a crap ton of agents on one email (even if you BCC them) is a bad idea. When you query an agent, you're asking for a business partnership, and business partners should be chosen for a reason. Personalizing each query (even if 98% of them are identical) shows that you at least took the time to email that agent individually.

8. Get the agent's name wrong

Because duh.

7. Waffle about your audience

Examples of what not to do:

This book could appeal to adults or teens or even younger children, depending on their level of maturity...
I suppose you could call my book science fiction, though it really is more like women's fiction in a lot of ways...

Writing may be an art, but publishing is a business. You've got to know who your target audience is. Even though a wide range of people with all kinds of tastes read all kinds of books, marketing folks love to segment. And so do readers. So do a bit of research into what books like yours are being called these days and zero in on the appropriate audience. Also, be sure it's the right audience. If you pitch your book as a romance when it's actually a graphic thriller, the agent will not be impressed.

6. Bloviate about how amazing your book is and how many copies you'll sell

Examples of what not to do:

This is a guaranteed bestseller that will make Stephen King's sales numbers look like pocket change! It will sell at least 10 million copies in the U.S. alone!
My book is the Great American Novel and will put the so-called classics to shame.

This kind of overconfidence makes you sound like an oily used car salesman. In other words, a jackass.

5. Attempt to be "clever" 

Examples of what not to do:

Greetings, Monsieur Agent! Please call me Jaques. I am the charmingly Parisian protagonist of...

I dare you to just read the damn thing.

Sure, some back-of-book blurbs or jacket copy might be written in the voice of the main character, but when it comes to queries, it's a bad idea. Don't get cute with your query... just follow the damn guidelines.

4. Forget the query part

Some people, for whatever reason, just send pages without the cover letter. Maybe they don't know any better (in which case, you're ahead of them because you're reading this blog and picking up tips), but in any case... don't forget the query part of querying.

3. Badmouth another book

Examples of what not to do:

All the thrillers put out by the big publishers these days are total crap, but my book is different because...
Unlike filth such as [title of bestseller], my book...

Yeah, Ms. Agent might rep one of those, and she won't appreciate you insulting her clients...

2. Whine about your lack of success

Examples of what not to do:

I know you'll probably delete this query before reading it, but...
If you've made it this far into my query, then I'm impressed, because I'm pretty sure no one has actually read my pitch...

That ain't being clever or irreverent. That's just whiny and irritating.

1. Insult the agent and his/her industry

Examples of what not to do:

You gatekeepers will do anything for money and can't appreciate true art, so I don't expect you to appreciate the work of genius before you...
I've been working on this novel for thirteen years and none of the idiots in the publishing industry seem able to see its true worth, but I'm hoping you'll be different...

That's like saying "your face is hideous, now go stake your career on my stuff."

BONUS: Don't forget to finish the book before query. Querying an unfinished manuscript hoping the agent will love your idea and voice and sign you before it's done is just silly. Sure, maybe some authors get contracts on spec (though usually with publishers, rather than agents), but that's because they have established careers and relationships. For the rest of us, all the agent's got to go on is the strength of the book you're pitching (unless you're a celebrity. In which case, why are you reading this post? Your name alone will get you an agent!)

Hard to tell what to do when it comes to writing a good query - so much about the whole thing is subjective - but I can pretty much guarantee that if you do any of the above, then the form rejection you receive will be the last you'll hear from the person you queried.

As in, you are never, ever, ever getting back together...


  1. I had to Google this word 'Bloviate.' I learn something new every post.

  2. Great post, Mary! I'll have to remember these if I ever decide to query.

    1. Thanks, Carrie!

      Well, I suppose you could always be rebellious and write a query in the voice of your character that insults the agent, whines that no one will read the book, claims that they're all being fools for passing it up because it's gonna be a bestseller, and explains that all the other books in the world suck. Guaranteed to get attention... maybe not the right kind... LOL

  3. Thanks for the post, Mary! Definitely something to remember when I finally get to the querying stage. Some of the don'ts seem like common sense, but I'm sure there's a whole host of folks out there who have made these mistakes...

    1. My pleasure! It's a compilation of agent peeves I've seen repeatedly on Twitter, so I figured I'd aggregate the fruits of my stalking... err... research

  4. These are great tips! Searching #pubtip on Twitter gets you a whole bunch of query don'ts too. I love reading through these a) because they're funny and b) b/c they're sometimes super obvious things and sometimes little gems that could make the difference between a request and not.

    1. Yay! I'm glad you enjoyed the post! :-)


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