One of my most frequently asked questions (right after “Do you really need all that ice cream?”) is how far I will read through a query letter before I decide if it will be a rejection. The truth is, I will almost always read through the entire query, but I usually have a good idea if I’m going to be leaning towards seeing more or passing on a project.
I know how hard it can be to write a query or pitch (it’s not my favorite thing to do either!), and I’m not necessarily looking to be blown away by just the query alone. In all my years of working in publishing, I can think of exactly one author that wrote such a perfect query letter that we were ready to offer representation on the spot. For everyone else, I’m just looking to get to know more about you, your work, and where it might fit in the market. Here’s some common missteps that will pull me out of your query, and make me wonder if we’re going to be the best match, before I even get to your manuscript.
- The use of clichéd statements or overly familiar phrases – If you’re using any language that I’ve seen or heard before, it’s going to make me question if your story is that original, and if your narrative voice is strong enough to stand out.
- Rhetorical questions – It’s a common query technique, but I find it can be ineffective for a couple of reasons. The first is that most agents are, by nature, argumentative, and my initial instinct is usually to poke holes in whatever theory is being advanced by the author. The second is that rhetorical questions often feel like a shortcut to inject drama into a query (e.g. “Will Mr. X be able to survive on Planet Y?”), but they don’t really have any substance behind them. The answer tends to be the most obvious (Yes, Mr. X will survive, or else it would be a really short book), and I’d much rather you tell me what happens in your book than making me guess.
- Using students/children as a test audience – This shows up most frequently with picture book queries, and it’s supposed to demonstrate the wide appeal of the project (“These kids loved it, so every kid in America will love it too!”). The issue is that kids are really attuned to knowing when adults want them to respond in a certain way, and while I’m sure they did love your book, that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a universal reaction (unless you’re planning on personally reading your book out loud to everyone that buys it).
- Saying “There’s nothing like this in the market” – While I’m always looking for something that I haven’t seen before, this particular phrase can pull me out of a query. It makes me think of my former boss, Shelly Fogelman, who would counter with “perhaps there’s a good reason for that.” You can be original and fresh without overselling your work.
- Addressing the query to anyone but me – I will admit that this is a little egotistical (and I won’t hold it too much against you if you use an alternate spelling of my first name, even if the others are clearly second-rate), but using generic titles (e.g. Sir, To Whom It May Concern, Editor) show that you’re taking a shotgun approach to querying, and that you may not be ready yet for the trade market.
- Quoting generic rejection comments or feedback from paid critiques – From my 10 years in publishing, I’ve sent out and received countless rejections, so I have a pretty good sense of when critical feedback is legit, and when it’s window dressing. I’m also wary of putting too much stock in comments from a paid critique, as it’s not quite the same thing as an unvarnished appraisal of your work. It can also be a little unsettling to hear why other people have already passed on a project (even if they had some good things to say about it!), so I would avoid these altogether.
- Using broad comp titles – If you really do write the next Harry Potter meets Twilight, I’d love to see it. Otherwise, using the biggest books that you know in a query won’t give me too much of a sense as to where your work will fit, or how you see yourself as an author.
- Using dated comp titles – Especially for children’s books, I’m looking to see a recently published title (e.g. within the last 5 years) as one of your comps, to demonstrate that you know the current market (and not just the books that you liked when you were a child many years ago).
- Complaining about the state of children’s publishing – This will often come up in YA, with authors wanting to be appear to be friendly (e.g. “Aren’t you glad I’m not sending you another vampire/wizard/Dystopian book?) or expressing dismay that there’s too much commercial junk being published, and not enough “good books.” This can be oft-putting because I may know some of the editors or agents that worked on the books being disparaged (children’s publishing is a small sandbox, compared to the adult world), and it also makes me wonder how our relationship will go (if you’re already angry and upset before we’re working together).