Thinking about query letters. Part I: Query don’ts.

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Last week I got a query letter that had me so taken aback, I Twittered about how I wished I could share it. Not to humiliate or ridicule the author in any way, but because I would love to talk about all the reasons it was full of query don’ts, and offer you concrete, real-time examples. In mulling this over, I’ve decided to do a list of query letter don’ts and a list of query letter do’s (list of query do’s to come tomorrow). Since it’s unlikely I can offer a snippet from an actual letter, without making someone feel as though they’ve been made a target, I’ll use paraphrased examples when necessary.

Don’t:

1. Start with a rhetorical question

I see a lot of editors and agents mention this. The reasons are varied, but ultimately it comes down to this: What if the editor or agent’s answer to the question is NO? Is No what you really want them to have in mind when they begin your query?

Example (not real but similar to some I’ve had): Have you ever wondered why time doesn’t run backward? Not only is the answer no, but now I’m wondering why I’d wonder this, and I’m not thinking about the query or concentrating on the details, but I might now be wondering why I’d care why time doesn’t run backward. And perhaps thinking how this sounds like something my five year old would ask. But I’m not thinking about the query.

2. Tell the editor/agent how you know there are submission guidelines but you’re not going to follow them.

Example (paraphrased): I know there are submissions guidelines but I didn’t follow them this time because I’m different.

What do I hear? “I’m more important than you, I’m going to disregard what you suggest when we work together, and clearly I know better than you.” Not only that, but I hear how little respect the author has for me and that it doesn’t matter to them that there are very good reasons I have guidelines. Also? I’m probably hearing the blood rushing in my ears as I get just a little angry.

3. Send a blanket email to every publisher/editor/agent all at once.

You know, as in don’t just throw it out there at everyone and see what sticks. Doing this makes it impossible to personalize the query and tailor it to the person/company you’re sending to, and thus makes your query one of the crowd rather than standing out.

But even worse? When you send it to 50 of us at once and do it in a way that it’s not bcc–we can see every one of the other 49 email addresses you’ve sent it to. It shows, again, a lack of effort and interest in the process.

4. Include details of your family life/personal life/how you’ve wanted to write since you were five.

Tell us only the things that are going to sell your book. Think of us as the first readers you’re trying to sell to. If you were trying to convince a reader to buy your book, would you include a story about how you own five dogs, two cats, a goldfish named Sally? Possibly if your book is a mystery about a petstore owner, but even then…probably not. Because it’s not important information in the marketing of your book to readers, and it’s not important in the querying of your manuscript to editors and agents. It just makes your query letter longer, takes the focus off your book and allows us the opportunity to let our attention wander from your query.

5. Send a query letter that says only: manuscript and synopsis attached.

Not even bothering with a query letter means 1) that I’m going to suspect you’re too lazy to go to the effort of writing even a short query letter and therefore will probably only do the minimum amount of work in response to edits or to market your book and I don’t want to work with an author who’s going to do minimal or no work. 2) That I have to do more work and spend more time figuring out the basics of your query and so you don’t respect that my time is limited and of value. 3) That you really don’t care whether I take a look at your book or not, if you’re not even going to take some basic steps to convince me I should.

Plus? Some editors/agents don’t open attachments. Oops!

6. Address it to “whom it may concern”

On our FAQ page, I give a few suggestions for who you can address the letter to, since authors have no idea which of the editors will be seeing their manuscript. I do this because I know many authors stress over how to address the letter, and while I do like a personalized letter and you should use one as often as possible when sending to specific individuals (for instance, people who read our blog have been addressing their queries to specific editors who said they were looking for a certain genre), there are times when a specific address isn’t possible. However “to whom it may concern” is not even making an effort to personalize it. It’s more of a copy and paste effect. Possibly “Hey you” is the only thing worse. Dear editors or something similar at least lets us know you’re not sending the exact same query letter to every agent, publisher and editor out there. Again, it’s about the effort, however subtle, that we see being put into the query.

7. Send a letter with another publisher’s (editor’s/agent’s) info in the body of the query letter.

Oof. Look, we don’t expect that we’re the sole person or publisher you want to work with, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make us feel as though you’re really interested in working with us and not just whatever editor, agent or publisher you can get to take you or your book.

8. Say that you were recommended by one of our authors, fellow editors or agents without their permission.

No no no no. Don’t be name dropping or saying someone suggested you to us unless you’ve asked permission and are fully prepared for us to follow up and ask that person about you. Just don’t.

9. Query for a genre the person you’re querying doesn’t publish.

Because that’s just silly. Why waste your time? (or theirs?)

10. Forget to include the pertinent information.

I’m always amazed at how verbose query letters can be without imparting information that’s relevant and necessary: title, genre, length, completed or not and a short (short) description of the book. Also, if you have a special affinity for the subject (for example, if you’re an ex-FBI agent and you’re writing a romantic suspense) then that might be considered pertinent info as well. These are the things we want and need to know about the book, not whether your critique partners really loved it!

Also, don’t forget to include your contact information. Real name, address, and phone number so we can contact you, if, you know, we want to publish your book. And include this information on your synopsis and manuscript as well.

11. Address your query to dear agent if it’s going to an editor (and vice versa).

(and don’t tell a publisher/editor that you’re hoping they’ll agree to represent them because we won’t).

12. Don’t send any query, ever, without looking at the submissions/query guidelines for the person or place you’re sending it.

Most of what I said above can be encapsulated down to this: friends don’t let friends send queries without reading the guidelines first!

But since you’re all reading this, I’ll be you already knew this stuff already.

12 thoughts on “Thinking about query letters. Part I: Query don’ts.”

  1. Some of these made me cringe! Thanks for posting the ‘don’t’ list and I’ll be looking forward to the ‘do’ list :)

  2. Judith Leger says:

    Whew, that relieves me. Thanks, Angela for these insights. They’re a big help.

  3. Rebecca says:

    There are a lot of query letter blogs over the last couple of days. I wonder if there are just an insane amount of queries going out right now, or if there’s some kind of buzz in the universe that everyone seems to be in tune with. :-) Thanks for this post, though. Looking forward to tomorrow.

  4. Linda Rader says:

    Obvious but apparently not to everyone. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. The thing confusing me right now is #2. I don’t even know what’s not to follow. There are some epubs out there that want an obscure font, specific spacing, weird margins, and other such things. CP’s is… “write a synopsis, and save it and the manuscript as RTF files. And give us a quick summary and your contact information in the cover letter.”

    No mention of font, spacing, preferred headers/footers, nothing. It’s the least complicated set of guidelines in the industry. My dog could follow them if she had thumbs.

  6. Thanks, Angela, this kind of insight that is important for aspiring writers. BWT, I don’t know if it’s appropriate to post this here, my intention is to share a tool that might help others, Noah Lukeman, the author of The First Five Pages has made his e-book, How To Write A Great Query Letter, available for free.

  7. Leanne Dyck says:

    Angela, thank you so much for this information. I have made notes and will review these notes when I query you.
    Okay, so, I’m wondering what you the person(s) who made these mistakes should do? Should they immediately query again — this time correctly. Or should they wait. If so, how long? Or should they abandon all contact with the publishing house/agent they treated in this manner?
    I’m just curious… I did say that I haven’t queried yet, right.
    Thank you again

  8. Leanne Dyck says:

    Okay, I will confess. Here’s what I did. I recently sent a query letter (not to Carina Press). You know that “Dear Editor” part. Well, I forgot to include that part. I’m just wondering what my next move should be.

  9. Dawn says:

    Thank you so very much Angela, for taking the time to construct and post this. The information was very informative in so far as what should be obvious, although probably one of the most things overlooked and/or not followed as you mention. You shared this in such a way to stress some very important facts which allow all to work together more efficiently and professionally. Thanks so much.

  10. Lorraine Nelson says:

    Excellent write-ups, Angela. You provide an interesting look into the world of editors and some of what they put up with on a daily basis. I know I’m guilty of the ‘Dear Editorial Staff” salutation. I thought about addressing it to the actual editor but there were two possibilities and I know from your posts, Angela, that you get them first. Sorry if I made more work for you but I wanted to make sure my ms landed on the right desk and I relied on you to forward it to the right editor. You’re doing a fantastic job. Keep it up!

  11. Madam,
    Good day from Ramesh Ch. Dash. I was to send a query letter about my MSS titled ‘the tears beneath her veil’ when I thought I should go through some Dos and Don’ts. This page is immensely helpful to me.
    thanking you
    Faithfully yours
    Ramesh Ch. Dash
    a u t h o r

  12. Zrinka says:

    I think some people assume that if the email address starts with submissions@… or resumes@… or info@… it goes to a general inbox where a computer is programmed to read their emails and so people just can’t be bothered with details.

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