I recently received a query letter that was literally painful to read. Yikes! While I believe many agents would have ignored the query, I actually felt compelled to respond and tell the writer why it was imperative to rewrite the letter if he or she had any hopes of getting an agent. Not only was the query a “FWD” email, it was one paragraph (addressed to “AGENT”), it had a thread of over 70 agents it had already been forwarded to, and it was CC’d to another 20 agents. And that is all before I even got into the actual content…
With just a simple search, the Internet provides so many resources on how to format a query letter and explains in detail what type of information should be in your query letter. As a writer, it is your responsibility to do your research before you start sending out query letters. If you skip this important step, your query will most likely be rejected or ignored. You could literally have the most amazing story in the entire world, but it may never see the light of day if you refuse to follow formatting requests, submission guidelines, etc.
Another thing I look for in queries, that the example above was also lacking, was some type of personalization. When I was querying for my hybrid-memoir, I spent months researching agents, their likes and dislikes, hobbies, and past acquisitions. After reading about hundreds of agents, I had compiled a great list of around 30 agents who seemed to fit so well with my genre, goals, and even personality (after all, you will be working with the agent for some time!). Knowing a little about the agent also helped me personalize every single query letter. It took time, but almost every single person wrote me back – even if some were rejections. And many of those responses were personalized and gave me incredible feedback (which I believe eventually led to me landing an agent).
Rejection is never easy, and when it comes to the publishing industry, it happens every single day. I think one area that authors continually question – and I did as well when I was getting a traditional publishing contract – is why the query was rejected in the first place. There are literally dozens of reasons why and I want to cover some of the most common scenarios here:
You didn’t follow submission guidelines. Almost every agent has specific query guidelines listed on his or her website or other agent websites such as QueryTracker or Publishers Marketplace. If for some reason there are no guidelines listed, you can follow a standard format of an email query (NOT sent as an attachment), that is three to four paragraphs long. The first paragraph should grab the agent’s attention immediately and introduce the book. You can use the next paragraph or two to go into more detail, explain why this book is needed and why it is unique, and why you are the perfect person to write it. You can wrap up your query with a few sentences about you, your platform (if you have one), and any writing experience. I would not attach your proposal or sample chapters until it is requested from the agent. There is much more that goes into a query letter, and if this is a new endeavor for you, I would love to have you at one of my query letter masterclasses or 1-on-1 query letter workshops. You can learn more under the Services tab on the website.
You didn’t confirm the genre. Also typically noted on the agent’s website or on literary agent database websites will be any genres the agent is interested in. This is crucial and you need to make sure your book genre lines up with his or her interests. For example, on my website (and numerous other sites), I specifically state I am not interested in erotica. Recently I received a query for an erotic novel that went on and on about how I was the absolute perfect person to represent this manuscript. I know without a doubt this person did not research me before querying and that is a major red flag in my book…
You don’t talk about the book. I’ve seen queries where most of the content is the author talking about him or herself. While I do need to know your background and other highlights that are related to your book, if you don’t get me interested about the book immediately, I won’t request your proposal. Your query is your one shot to sell this idea to an agent, so share what makes this book amazing (in a concise and captivating way). Then add your bio toward the bottom.
You send a synopsis instead. A synopsis is much longer and comprehensive than a query, and sending a synopsis vs. a query makes the agent think you did not do your homework or that you struggle with concise writing.
An overdone plot or concept. It seems like everything under the sun has already been done in the publishing world, and yes, certain types of concepts will come up again and again. Your job is to make it unique and set it apart from books that are already published. If your book is almost identical in plot and concept to something already on shelves, it could be impossible on our part to sell it to a publishing company.
Not understanding word counts. Every genre in publishing has a word count. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule but you need to know the typical word count for your book’s genre. If you send me a memoir query and state the word count is 25,000 words, or let’s say 150,000 words, then I know you have most likely not read a lot of memoir and have not researched the genre.
You’ve self-published with limited success. If the book you are submitting has been self-published and did not sell well, it could be difficult on our end to get a publisher excited about republishing the book. Again, there are exceptions to everything but this is typically the norm.
The timing is off. Sometimes we just have bad timing in life. I recently received a terrific mental health memoir query, but had already received two before it in the same category that held my interest. It is unlikely I would take on three different mental health memoir submissions at the same time. The agent may have just signed for a manuscript somewhat similar to yours, or the market timing could be off. This has nothing to do with your writing, platform, etc. but is just a scenario of bad timing. Luckily, there are so many agents that you can query and every book genre has a market cycle that repeats.
Another reason (essentially number nine) for rejection that I’d like to share before I wrap this up focuses on the number of submissions vs. the number of clients we have the bandwidth to take on. Here is an example:
A few weeks ago, I received just over 100 submissions. Of those, I had phone calls with two writers that I was interested in representing. These two queries stood out above all the rest. This scenario – number-wise – is typical in our industry and showcases how rejection percentages fall on the high side just because of the number of submissions and how much we can actually take on.
If you have dealt with rejections, I just want to encourage you to keep going! Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 144 times and is now a household name. The key is never giving up. Have faith in yourself and your manuscript and press on!