Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Top Ten Marks of a Bad Query Letter!

So I thought I would take a moment and list the top ten marks of a poor query letter for authors trying to pitch their books to literary agents or publishers.

Over the past month (since I began moonlighting as a literary agent, see that post here) I've received many queries for representation, and in my time as an acquisition editor, I've been at the receiving end of thousands of queries and book proposals. With that still somewhat limited view, I will list the worst I've seen both from authors, and from other agents. By the way, here are my Literary Agency Query Guidelines again, as a reminder.

So now then: The following ten things will get your query letter tossed into the recycle bin faster than anything else (at least for me):

10. Describing Our Future Relationship. Don't do it. Lines of description such as: "We'll have many years of successful partnership on these books" just come off as looking odd and presumptuous to my eye. Lines like that make me want to delete your e-mail. Sorry.

9. Crazy fonts or colors (or packaging for that matter). I am not especially fond of seeing strange fonts, colors or weird spacing arrangements in either e-mails or hard copies of queries. Times New Roman is my font, but I'm fine with Courier, Arial or Verdana (or other simple fonts). Keep it simple. All I really want to see are the words. I once received a book proposal in a box that had been ducktaped so many times I couldn't see the box itself anymore, someone had hand scrawled the address and the manuscript inside looked worn and used as if it had been sent out before. Point? Take care to present your work with professionalism.

8. Leaving out ALL biographical information. This may be just a pet peeve of mine, but I want to know who is writing the book I am considering. This is particularly important for nonfiction proposals, however, I would like to know about novelists too. Give me a sentence. At best, give me a few lines about yourself, your experience and your writing history.

7. Astounding (dare I say it, ridiculous) claims about your book. "My book will become a bestseller." "This story will leave you breathless." Let the work speak for itself.

6. "I have written a 7 book series, and books 1-4 are complete and ready for review. Book 5 will be ready in a few weeks." To me this kind of statement signals a bit of naivete, and frankly is overwhelming to read for an agent (and a publisher) . Now the red flag is up.

5. A letter about something other than the story. Why would you spend most of your query letter talking about things others than the story you want to sell? It defies logic. Don't write about how you wrote the story, or why you wrote it, or the history of naming the characters. Write about the story.

4. Flawed usage or major grammatical problems in the first few sentences. I read most of the query letters I get, but once I get 3, 4, or 5 sentences in and the errors are coming hot and fast, I'm done reading.

3. Incredibly short queries. Incredibly long queries.

2. "I have two previously published books" and then it turns out they're both self-published books. I don't like checking Amazon to find your self-published book with an awful cover that happens to be ranked #6,000,000. Makes me want to delete your e-mail again. Mention that your books are self-published, or don't mention them at all. Self published books might as well just be unpublished manuscripts in the mind of an agent or publisher.

1. "My last agent said my book was amazing!" My response has to be: "Then why are you querying me? If your book is so good, why didn't your last agent sell it?" If I were you and I had previous agents who either dropped you, and moved on to another business, I would consider the implications before I mention such information.

So these are some of my top query issues for today. I'm sure there will be others tomorrow. Until next time.

Photo by freedigitalphotos.net


Samuel D. Smith said...

Helpful. I was going to do all ten.

Lady Glamis said...

Excellent list. Thank you!

Rachel said...

I love number 10. Together we will take over the world! LOL...

Alex said...

Will most definitely bear this all in mind when I reach that stage!

L said...

"Self published books might as well just be unpublished manuscripts in the mind of an agent or publisher." Isn't it a different story, though, if the author has sold a large number of those self-published books? I've read of more than a few authors who were picked up by traditional publishers for that reason.

Laura Martone said...

Thanks for the laughs! My query letter is currently a work-in-progress, but despite my fluctuating frustrations, I'm ever so grateful that it contains NONE of the above. Yahoo!

Kori said...

Haha. To date, I've written 1 and 2/3rds novels (1 complete, the other... nearly complete.) as well as a short story that I intend to shop around in a magazine. I'm terrified of queries and synopses, and when I first saw the title (Ten Things NOT To Put In Your Query Letter) I was terrified that I was going to break all ten rules when I wrote mine. It was a huge relief to realise that I'm not - they seem to be pretty self-explanatory, common sense tips. Of course, common sense isn't so common any more, so maybe these are actually true gems of advice, and I'm just ahead of the pack when it comes to debut authors.

Unknown said...

Number 8 you mentioned leaving out all biographical information. What if, though, an author has no relevant biographical information (like me)? If there's no history of published work, no contest wins, not even work in a field related to the plot, what should be written in a biography?