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The Top 10 Mistakes Authors Make When Querying

Top 10 Mistakes When Querying

Guest post by author Phoebe A. Lee. Twitter: @writersdayjobs, @PhoebeALee


So you’ve finished that manuscript you’ve been working on for years, and now you’re ready to query. Great! Before you fire off those amazing query letters, don’t do some of these things that could jeopardize your bright, new writing career.

Here are the top 10 mistakes to avoid when querying:

1. Not personalizing query letters

Sure, you’re supposed to send multiple query letters to multiple agents. Agents expect that. But where querying writers go wrong is when they send out the exact same query letter to different agents. 

Different agents have different needs and different interests. One way you could make a good impression through your query letter is by showing the agent that you’ve done your homework. Show them that you know who they are, what they’re looking for, and why your manuscript would be a good fit.

In your query letter make sure to personalize it to each agent if you can by congratulating them on a recent deal or mentioning a client whose work you like in the introductory paragraph."

"And close the query letter by saying, 'I see that your normal turnaround time for a reply to queries is xx weeks, so I’ll follow up then if I haven’t heard from you by then.' That will lessen your anxiety. Then wait."

"If you haven’t heard back from your first group of agents in a month, send queries to the next 10 agents. And so on. Move forward so you don’t get angsty about your previous actions.” 

– Laurie McLean, Partner at Fuse Literary Agency and Director of San Francisco Writers Conference 

“'Dear sir/madam' is a big mistake in 2020. Since you’re not Xeroxing copies of physical queries to mail out anymore, make sure to personalize your e-mails to the agent you hope to work with.

– Noah Ballard, Agent at Curtis Brown

2. Querying the wrong agent for your book

Your book is just so good that any agent would love to have it, right? Wrong. Make sure to query agents that handle the genre you’re writing. Agents that handle specific genres are familiar with that market, and most likely already have good relationships with editors and publishers of that genre.

They will know best how to better position and sell your genre-specific manuscript, and get the best deal out of it, than an agent who has never represented that genre before.

3. Not following the submission policy

Different agencies have different submission policies. Some have an online submissions portal. Some prefer email. Some require a complete synopsis. Some don’t. Some agencies don’t want you to submit to multiple agents within their agency. 

Each agency is unique and has different requirements for submitting to them. So, make sure you follow their guidelines, or risk a swift rejection

4. Grandiose bragging

Don’t claim to be the next Tolkien or J.K. Rowling, or that you’ve written the next Game of Thrones. No one actually knows if they’ve written the next great literary hit or pop culture phenomenon.

Besides, it’s only going to set the agent’s expectations way high up, and if the manuscript doesn’t deliver — well, it’s a long fall down.

5. “Gimmicky” query letters

Some writers try to get creative with their query letters in hopes of catching an agent’s eye, like asking a series of rhetorical questions, or writing the letter in the voice of a character in their book. This only makes it confusing for the agent, when they just want to know what your book is all about.

Sometimes writers write queries in the voice of a character from the book. That’s an odd first impression, especially since you want to seem as business savvy as possible. (I’m not going to reach out to publishers in the voice of a character.)” 

– Noah Ballard, Agent at Curtis Brown

6. Typos or grammatical errors

As a writer, it’s important to show that you can write well. So make sure to proofread and double check for any errors.

And make sure you have spelled the agent’s name correctly, or that you haven’t typed a completely different name. (Oops!)

7. Being rude

This seems a given, but you’d be surprised. The road to getting published is long and filled with soul-crushing rejection. Understandably, writers can get frustrated. But don’t take out that frustration on an agent — someone you could potentially work with in the future.

the worst mistake a writer can make—arguing with the agent or calling the agent names in your reply. You have no idea how unhinged some writers can get when their frustration with rejection mounts and they start 'sharing' their disbelief that the agent does not appreciate their brilliance."

"This never works out for the writer. Calling the agent names or saying things like, 'You probably rejected J.K. Rowling and look how that worked out for you,' just makes agents never want to handle your work."

"It’s best to ignore the rejection and move forward. It’s a process, like many other things in life.” 

– Laurie McLean, Partner at Fuse Literary Agency and Director of San Francisco Writers Conference 

Believe it or not, agents are not out to get you. They get hundreds of queries and manuscripts to wade through in a week. They have a lot of work to do and not much time to do it. So just do the best you can and keep working on your craft!

I’ve been reading queries for 16 years. And I always cut writers some slack with their queries. Usually writers are taking on this challenge for the first time in their publishing journey. It’s like hitting the brick wall of the business of publishing after spending a lot of time enjoyably learning about the craft of writing."

"Writing a query is not like writing a book at all—reducing your novel’s plot and theme and characters to a paragraph or two. So, I am understanding and nothing really bothers me anymore. I’ve seen it all.” 

- Laurie McLean, Partner at Fuse Literary Agency and Director of San Francisco Writers Conference 

8. Queries that are too long or too short

Query letters have certain conventions. It’s a sales tool meant to entice the agent to read your manuscript. In just a few sentences, you should be able to convey your book’s premise and hook. Find out more how to write a query letter here.

9. Not understanding your genre

Sure, some books could fall into more than one genre. But for the sake of querying, pick one. Chances are, your book would fall into one genre more than the other.

Genres also have their own conventions. For example, a 100,000 word middle grade book is outside the norm (for a reason—middle grade readers just won’t read a 100,000 page book). Make sure you read many books in your genre and understand it well.

10. Querying too soon

Or worse, querying when the manuscript isn’t finished yet. If an agent happens to like your pitch, they could request your full manuscript. If you tell them that it isn’t ready yet, not only would they be disappointed, they could lose interest.

Make sure that you’ve finished writing and editing. Have it in the best shape possible for the best chance at success.

Some final sage advice from the agents:

Go to querytracker.netagentquery.com or submittable.com. These are agent search engines and they will help you hone in on the right agents for considering your work."

"Once you’ve put in your variables and compiled a list of agents seeking the kind of book you’ve written, research each agent by visiting their agency website and following them on social media."

"(It’s okay to lurk. You don’t have to engage. One week following an agent on Twitter will show you their personality and their work style so you can determine if they’d be a good fit for you.)"

"Then prioritize your list by groups of 10 agents. Tier one, two, three, and so on. When you’ve perfected your query (make sure someone else edits it for typos and clarity), send it to your top 10 list.

- Laurie McLean, Partner at Fuse Literary Agency and Director of San Francisco Writers Conference 

Research the agents thoroughly before submitting, be patient and deliberate, and don’t hesitate to throw out your query and try again if people aren’t responding to you. Failure is part of the process. If you get antsy with the speed of responses, turn your energy to a new writing project in the interim.” 

– Noah Ballard, Agent at Curtis Brown

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