I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s got to be if we're going to listen. Many of us writers are still trying to make our debut. We've written our books out of passion, rather than obligation to a creative writing degree. Quite simply, many of us are simple folk who dream of seeing our hard work, our literary sweat and tears, our home-schooled writing craft bear publishable fruit. We came into this game as amateurs.
But amateurs don't become published authors.
That doesn’t mean that home-schooled writers (such as myself) can never break into the ranks of the published. It just means we have to work all the harder to school our brains to the business side of writing…because the query letter is our final exam.
And as with all final exams, there is the risk of failure.
Your query must speak for both you and your book, a single shot to garner a second, deeper glance at your work. One thing is for certain: if your query appears to be the work of an amateur, it gets a rejection. End of story.
Here are five query mistakes that will make you look like an amateur. These mistakes may keep you from making the grade—and that final, big step towards publication.
1) QUERYING MORE THAN ONE BOOK A query is a pitch for a single product. It’s not a peek at your entire collection of unpublished manuscripts. I’m not an agent, but I imagine agents would have a list of opportunities and publishers and editors constantly circulating in their heads. As they read queries, they scan their internal list of possible markets and decide whether or not each book fits their current connections. Your first line—containing genre and word count—helps them sort your book against their outlets. If they think they can pitch the book, the query makes the first cut.
Pitching more than one book messes with that flow. Small wonder why this reason shows up on a lot of agents’ pet peeves lists. It also pegs you as an amateur because who writes a dozen books and doesn’t publish any of them? A professional would have either sold them or kept quiet about them until they were ready to sell.
2) QUERY IS TOO LONG A rambling query tells the recipient that there’s a solid chance your book rambles, too. You’ve probably spent twice as long editing as you did writing, so don’t let your query give the wrong impression. A query letter template is the perfect place to start—it will make sure you include all the requisite info about your product and yourself.
If this is your first query, follow the template. (See this classic QTB post here for a great example.) Unless you are touched by the hands of the writing gods, a template will suffice. You don’t need to be brilliantly unique; you need to be concise and professional. A query needs to tell everything the agent wants to know at a glance. Remember--they are professional skimmers. Be a professional author who helps the process instead of hinders it.
One page query. Intro, pitch, bio, thanks. That’s it. No conversations, no anecdotes, no bribes. Short and sweet is all you need to sell it.
3) BLANKET QUERIES Imagine: your dream agent receives hundreds of queries a day. You want yours to stand out, right? You want your book to be THE ONE that an agent cannot turn down. Why wouldn’t you give an agent the same consideration?
Don’t start with “Dear Agent.” You know how much you hate getting form rejections that begin “Dear Author”, so don’t inspire an immediate reciprocal response. Don’t query every agent in the company. If an agent gets a query that might be a better fit for one of their partners, they’ll pass it on because no one wants the Next Big Thing to get away. And don’t send one email to a slew of cc’d agents. If an agent doesn’t deserve their own query, your query doesn’t deserve individual consideration.
A professional author will send an individualized query to a single agent because ultimately, that’s who goes into a contract: one agent, one author.
4) NOT FOLLOWING GUIDELINES Every agent has guidelines. What they want in a book. What they want in their submission. How they want it sent. Don’t assume that one query package fits all because it doesn’t. If you want a particular agent to look at your work, show them what they want—no more, no less. Only an amateur thinks they don’t need to play by the rules. Are rules annoying? Sure. But they are in place for a reason.
A hallmark of professionalism is the query that shows you’ve read the guidelines and put effort into following them. Would you want to work with someone who thinks they are above the rules? Me neither.
5) NOT BEING READY And by ready, I meant completely ready.
Is the book ready? Is it finished? If not, DON’T QUERY. Remember that queries are marketing tools—and if you don’t have a product ready for market, you’d better not waste the salesman's time.
A query isn’t a cotillion. It doesn’t announce you and your nearly-complete wonder to the world. It’s not a proclamation that says Here I am, get ready for #mindblown. A query says I have a book, this is what it’s about. Can you sell it for me? Nothing about a query screams amateur louder than the realization that the author doesn’t even know what a query is for.
Not only that, is your query ready? If not, tweak it. Critique it. Run it by the other writers in the QT forum. And for the love of all that’s holy, proofread it.
And still not only that, are you ready? Because if an agent says yes, you’d better be. Everything changes. You don’t want to be the guy in his pajamas typing and fooling around on Twitter. You want to be the professional author, ready to debut.
A query letter tells an agent that you have a great book that’s ready for the market. It also tells the agent that you are a professional author who’s ready to promote it. Those are the two things that an agent is looking for—a product to sell and the professional client behind it.
Are there other mistakes? Goodness, yes. However, a slip-up may be overlooked if you present yourself and your work in the most professional way possible. A great book with a pro behind it won’t be passed over for the sake of a mere infraction. A great book with an amateur might be because, despite a great product, an agent wants to work with someone who is willing to make themselves easy and professional to work with.
And it’s important to remember that even when you present you and yourself in the most professional manner, you may still get a form rejection or three. It’s not you. It’s them.
And it’s okay, because you want a champion to say yes to your query. You want an agent that is the perfect match for your book and for you. Taking care to stand out from the amateurs will make sure that you avoid those amateurish first impression rejections.
If an agent or and editor is going to say no, make them say no for all the right reasons. Being an absolute professional makes it harder for them to say it.
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