The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents

Generally, I try to spare you overly lengthy blog posts. Most writers work from home and already have enough temptation to procrastinate from our craft with lame excuses such as folding laundry or taking the cat to the vet. This post is worth a sit-down. That is, if you’re serious about writing an excellent query letter for your manuscript.

Written by upcoming author JM Tohlin–whose novel The Great Lenore will be in stores Summer 2011–interviewed 50 agents about mistakes writers make when pitching a book.

The tips he has collected are invaluable. As Tohline comments, “You’ve (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.”

He also recommends visits to Janet Reid’s Query Shark page, and to Rachelle Gardner. “Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. Study, learn, and practice! You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.”

Ready to be impressed? Here are the superb agents who contributed to this post:

Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Stephany Evans * and those who requested to remain anonymous.

In JM Tohline’s words, here are the mistakes these agents mentioned most often:

Mentioned 3x
“Go to my website for a sample of my work…”
“Find my query attached…”
Querying before your manuscript is ready

Note: “Before your manuscript is ready” does not mean “before the first draft is finished.” It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

As Donald Maass put it: “Granted, it’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.

Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: “Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice.

Mentioned 4x
Talking about the book’s sequel, or…
…pitching more than one book at a time
Writing a query that lacks confidence

Mentioned 5x
Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread

Mentioned 9x
Queries addressed to “Dear Agent” (or anything similar!

Mentioned 10x
Vague query letters!

Mentioned 11x
Queries with more than one agent listed in the “To” field

Mentioned 14x
Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
…that have no clue what the agent’s submission guidelines are

And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you’ll ever make on an agent. Don’t slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.

Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a “Dear Agent” salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let’s be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email,I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn’t seem too much to ask.” Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: “We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it’s important to customize queries so they address us by name.

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff:It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I’d be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously.

Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the “multiple agents in the subject line” problem:We like to feel special!

Sean McCarthy even took this one step further:I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I’ve worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention.

After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.

Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.

Bree Ogden’s email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:

1. If a writer isn’t going to research the right agents for their project, that’s really mainly hurting them, but at least don’t publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, “I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…” It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you’re not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.

2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.

3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author’s key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.

One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:
The answer to your question is an easy one.
The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.

I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.

Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.

Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.

In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, “Do your homework!

Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don’t post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said,Don’t try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It’s great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we’ll only do that IF you’ve intrigued us with your knock-out query!” On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: “If you’re asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them.

Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!

Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the “What Not To Do In A Query” section of the lecture she gives at writers’ conferences…. Continue to read this post in its entirety for more excellent, thought-provoking advice, including nine less-obvious mistakes contributed by agent Liv Blumer.

You can  find Mr. Tohline on Twitter @JMTohline. Learn more about him and his new book The Great Lenore here.

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7 Comments

Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, Freelance Writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?

7 responses to “The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make When Querying Literary Agents | the written word -- Topsy.com

  2. Fantastic info, I’m so guilty of some of the above mentioned mistakes.

    • Isn’t this a helpful post? Without Tohline’s advice, it’s easy to fall into any of these pesky habits! Let me know when you get a positive response from your next (updated!) query!

  3. Thanks for putting together this agent feedback all in one spot. Our dos and don’t list just expanded!

  4. Brilliant post — goodness, I am going to add your site to my reader right now! Thank you for compiling all of this feedback in one place.

  5. aaa

    I think the admin of this site is in fact working hard in favor of his site, since here every information is quality based stuff.

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