Reposting this from my Publisher’s Marketplace Blog
It’s now 2017 and thousands of authors will be embracing their New Year’s resolutions to send out their queries. So this is a probably a good time to address the subject.
From the questions I receive and the thousands of queries I wrangle every year, this seems to be a subject fraught with mystery and angst. But it’s really pretty simple.
Be yourself… but be your best self. Be confident, yet modest. Don’t be afraid to show some personality without going over the top. Agents want your query and the project you are pitching to be wonderful. So, you don’t need to go overboard with self-praise trying to convince them to read it.
Don’t tell me how good your book is. Show me. No one cares if your whole family thinks you are a genius. Make me admire your cleverness for myself.
If the book is a thriller, the query should be exciting. If the work is humorous, the query should make me laugh. If it is wise and philosophical, make me nod my head in appreciation. And don’t be coy. None of this, “Is the killer Sarah’s own husband, and can she stop him before he murders all his high-school bullies? Read the manuscript to find out!” I won’t.
Make sure to look up each agent’s submission guidelines. Many, like me, place a lot of importance on a synopsis and writing sample. That’s because I have had terrible queries for really good books that I have sold easily, and great queries for books that turned out to be full of problems. Either the author spent more time on the query than they did on the manuscript, or they paid a professional to write it. So, the query can only tell you so much.
Therefore, I usually scan the query to get a sense of the project, then jump directly to the writing sample. If the writing is promising, then I go back up to the query.
Your work might be excellent, but still being passed on because there will be certain memes and scenarios that may seem fresh or marketable to the author, but which agents have seen, in one form or another, many times. I’ll go into these in another post.
I may well write more posts on this subject, but for now, let’s do a quick rundown about what not to do, in no particular order. These are all things I see multiple times daily.
- Do not start off with a rhetorical question, such as: “Did you ever wonder what it would be like if you woke up and had been transformed into a giant cockroach? Well, that’s exactly what happens to Gregor Samsa.” Queries like this are like scraping your nails on a chalkboard inside my head.
- Do not call your story a “fiction novel,” or worse, a “fictional novel!” A novel is by definition a work of fiction.
- Likewise, do not refer to your memoir as a “novel.” A memoir is an autobiography, non-fiction.
- Do not write about yourself in third person. Some people are querying about a memoir, for instance, then go straight into a summary that sounds like they’ve written a work of fiction. “Bob Summers endures three years of torture as a prisoner in North Korea before he escapes through the sewer system. He then evades a search and hikes 500 miles through….” If you are the narrator, this should all be in first person.
- Do not write a bio in third person that reads like a back of the book author blurb: “Susan Smith is a CSI who resides in Minneapolis with her husband, Bob, and their three amazing daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who, like their mother, simply won’t take “no” for an answer; along with two massive fur babies, Fido and Wolf who are not as ferocious as they look.”
- Unless this is a book about your family life, your bio should contain only subjects that pertain to your platform, expertise and experience that makes you qualified to have authored this book.
- If an agent passes, but gives you some advice or kudos, you may certainly send a thank you. In most cases you shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about what they liked or didn’t like, or ask for referrals to another agent. If that is information or advice that an agent feels comfortable giving, they will do so without prompting. We actually do wish you the best.
- You do not need to reply to a stock “rejection.” (Though, I don’t like the word “rejection,” as I may pass on a project for any number of reasons.)
- “No” means “no.” Don’t plead.
- Agents aren’t always “right.” When we say things like, “Another agent may well have a different opinion…” we usually mean that. I have not liked some books that have won major prizes, and vice-versa. Everything is subjective.
- I buried what could well be my most important point in #10 above. The statement that everything is subjective is one of the most important points in this post. Don’t bury your “lede.”
- If an agent asks for a writing sample, either as part of your initial query or afterwards as a partial, always make sure to include the first chapter. This is the entry to your book. If you are not confident enough to send the first chapter… rework it.
- Obvious shotgun queries should be avoided. No “Dear Sir/Madam” salutations. No “I am querying you because of your well-known list of great titles…” Try not to include anything generic that you would say to a hundred agents.
- *** IMPORTANT!!! Research appropriate word-counts for the genre in which you are submitting. I will write a longer post about this, but it’s amazing how many queries I read for “novels” under 50k words (I have seen as low as
38,00014,000 words recently!) or for other projects that are well above 125k words…. I’m talking 200k-400k words. Most works for the adult trade market should be no shorter than 65k words and no longer than 125k words, and that’s pushing it. Certain genres may be more lenient in either direction. <EDIT!> Some publishers are experimenting with novella length and even serial ebooks these days. But it is still not the norm.
- Agents will look past obvious typos, but please be careful about the correct usage of the words: “their,” “there” and “they’re; “your,” “you’re” and “yours;” “whose” and “who’s,” “it” and” it’s,” “peak” and “pique,” etc. especially if you are an English or Creative Writing professor!
- Confidence vs. modesty. You should resist claiming that your book is going to be a “runaway bestseller” that will interest millions of readers around the world and will make us both rich. Neither should you be a mouse, saying, “I hope my humble effort will pique your interest…” Or, “I wrote this over a couple of weeks during my summer vacation and thought, ‘what the hay?’ let’s see what some agents think…”
- It is unprofessional to post a copyright notice on your work.
- It’s amazing how many people submit a query at 4:30am on a Saturday during a three-day weekend. By Tuesday, it will be buried under a hundred other queries. My personal opinion is that it is best to submit during business hours, and not right before or during a normal holiday or even a weekend.
- If you have sent out your query to a dozen agents, let’s say, with no response or just form rejection replies, then consider reworking your query.
- If you have received requests for manuscripts, which are then passed, consider doing some rewriting.