So I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.
For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The only good news in this situation is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.
Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The only good news in this situation is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.
Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid screwing this essential task up.
1. Don’t miss basic facts.
Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, get sure of your facts. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.
2. Keep it simple, stupid.
The average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work, and process, and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Aim for terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.
3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here.
Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. Just. Be. Nice.
If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.
5. Grammar check.
If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.
6. Follow the damn rules.
Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.
7. Understand the process.
Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.
8. Now is not the time to show off.
Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.
Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a screwed up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.
9. 8. Whose counting. I’m not, but I’m getting ready to query an agent and I’ll be through this a few more times as I work to make it right.