Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Marks of an Amateur: The Query Letter

I loved Alicia's list of red flags in manuscripts that make us think the writer might be not quite ready yet. Her list focused on the actual manuscripts, and I thought it might make sense to do a companion list for query letters.

1. Dropping a Stranger's Name/Botching a Personal Referral

"Annie Author suggested I send this to you." You know, sometimes we will ask Annie Author if she actually made this referral. Sometimes Annie Author is downright puzzled that her name is being bandied about by random strangers, and that might just get you a rejection. It may very well be that you met Annie in line for lunch at a conference, and she said you should look into submitting to her publisher. But that's not quite the same as a personal referral.

The absolute best way to handle a personal referral is to get Annie Author to send me a quick email right around the time that you sub your work. Also, a good rule of thumb is to assume that your published friends will do less for you than you would like them to do. This is because a) you probably want too much, and b) when you ask an author for a referral, they're likely to give you the nice polite answer.

You're safe to assume that when I ask Annie Author if she referred you, her answer will be somewhat muted and self-protective. "Yes, I know her. I see her at chapter meetings a few times a year. She seems nice." This endorsement might seem lukewarm to you, but at least nobody is stabbing you in the back. That happens, too. "She asked me if she could use my name. Awkward! I couldn't exactly say no." Or, the dreaded, "Yes, I know her. She told me I was committing career suicide by writing erotic romance. Did she actually use my name?"

2. Asking for Representation Instead of Publication

"Hello, I hope you will consider representing my book, The Pregnant Billionaire Sheikh's Matchmaking Virgin."

Nope. I won't consider that. I understand that you may have drafted a form query when seeking an agent, but it's not appropriate to use the same form letter when submitting directly to publishers. You do understand the difference between an agent and a publisher, right?

3. Issuing Demands

"Here's my plan. You publish this in December so we can get lots of holiday sales."
(Great plan. Good luck with that.)

"If I don't hear from you by Friday, I'll sell it to someone else."
(Okay. ::shrug:: Good luck with that.)

"My marketing plan requires you to publish this in X formats."
(Heh. You think your marketing plan leads our distribution? Good luck with that.)

Does this sound cruel? I think we often go to great lengths to accommodate our authors. I even consult with them sometimes about their preferences for release dates and similar decisions. (Sometimes. When I have that flexibility and have a reason for exercising it. It's not always possible.) But there is a wide world of difference between talking to a contracted author about whether March or April suits her better, and accepting a slush sub from an author who thinks they have rights over the entire corporate calendar.

4. Providing Cover Art

I won't say this is an auto-rejection. Does that surprise you? We've let several author make their own covers, and we've been dazzled by the results. Creative people are often cross-functional. Think about how many writers you know who are also pastry chefs, guitar players, avid scrapbookers, seamstresses, and so on. Why shouldn't a writer also be a graphic designer?

But here's the catch. Your art had better be good, and it had better fit in with our house style. Covers are a very tricky business. We often reject covers or ask for changes to various elements, and those are covers provided by artists who've worked with us for years. This isn't because we're capricious, but because the cover is hoo-damn important, one of the most powerful selling tools we've got.

If you want to do your own cover art, my advice is that you first establish your relationship with the publisher. Get them to buy your manuscript. Show them you're capable of taking constructive criticism. Demonstrate that you understand house style. And then, if you can deliver a strong cover, we might consider it.

In other words, don't submit your proposed cover with your manuscript. Wait until later.

5. Never, Never, Never Send a "Hurry! Act Now!" Letter

Do you really want me to equate your query letter with junk mail? 'Nuff said.

6. Selling Yourself Short

I can't tell you how many queries include some variation of this statement:
I might not be Hemingway, but I hope you'll give me a chance.

Okay, first of all, know your audience. "Not Hemingway" might actually be a selling point rather than a detraction. Alicia will remember this -- we were once at a conference together, God knows when, but I think it was in Indianapolis. The speaker was trying to make a point about using simple, clear, direct words. This was a romance conference, keep in mind. Romance insiders enjoy poking fun at Hemingway and speculating on just how tiny his penis must have been if it required that much overcompensation. I mean, really, think about it. Hemingway is sort of the opposite of romance.

So the poor speaker, a very nice man who deserved better treatment, said something about how magnificent Hemingway was because he only had 3500 words in his vocabulary. And the entire room erupted in sighs, groans, eyerolls, titters, and muttered comments about how that explains a few things. The speaker was shocked. He couldn't believe that an entire roomful of people would have a laugh at the expense of St. Ernest. (Required FTC Disclaimer: I have not been compensated in any way for stating my opinion -- perhaps we should say suspicion -- that Hemingway had a tiny penis. If it turns out that he had a cock like a yule log, his publishers should not be fined for my deceptive statement.)

In any case, if you name a famous author, you do so without knowing what I think of that author. And my opinion might surprise you. Even if our opinions coincide perfectly, don't let false modesty get in your way. You send me your work because you want my opinion on its publishability. Don't invite me to form a negative opinion before I've opened the file.

7. Overselling Yourself

"My daughter thinks this is every bit as good as Stephenie Meyer's books."
(Cool. Is your daughter going to publish it, then?)

"This book is going to make us both rich."
(Your lips to god's ears. Sure, lightning can strike. And Dr. Emmett Brown can even predict where and when. The rest of us have to rely on P&Ls with past performance indicators, and if you're a new author, your indicator is not going to be Dan Brown.)

There are thousands of reasons why you shouldn't boast in a query letter, and I suspect those reasons are obvious. Your book might be the biggest breakthrough in romance since The Flame and the Flower, but you're not the one who gets to decide that. The marketplace does.

8. Using Rhetorical Questions as Hooks.

"Did you ever wonder what the world would be like if trees developed the ability to speak and walk, and they conquered the world?"
Um, no. Can't say I have.

Hucksters use this kind of Q&A format to try to build bonds with their audience, which they can then exploit to make a sale. One of the keys to this selling technique is picking a question with a predictable and controllable answer. Have you ever worn clothes? Have you ever smelled food cooking? Have you ever seen dirt? Why, yes, I have! However did you know? Then boy, do I have a product for you!

This techniques simply doesn't translate neatly to fiction queries. It's hard to build that common bond by referencing something unique like warlord trees, on the one hand. And on the other, if you do reference something common enough to build a bond, you're in danger of losing what makes your book unique. (Do you long for a story with a happy ending?)

It's a hard technique for a query letter, and you're better off avoiding it.

These are a few of the things we see over and over in query letters that make us doubt the readiness of the author. I'm sure there are more! Alicia, you have anything to add to the list?



Jordan said...


Side question on the cover art issue. I'm not a cover designer and I'm not interested in designing my own covers. However, I did make mock up covers to put on my site (even though up until the moment I made them, I thought the idea was completely cheesy and amateurish!). Does this confuse publishers or ring any warning bells? Should I take them down when I send out my submissions?

(Without the images, the page of manuscript descriptions is just a big block of text that screams "don't read this!" Because, hey, it's the Internet.)

Edittorrent said...

Theresa, I'd say that a query letter addressed to another editor (at another house) -- well, I've actually done that myself, and realize now that it's just about inevitable when those of us who don't know right from left and thus are in a permanent state of confusion try to submit to two publishers at the same time.

So I might not take offense, but I don't doubt most editors would, not having my Lamentable History.

Always make up the submission packet for an editor independently. When that is done and sealed and mailed, then do another submission packet. No worries then. Well, not too many worries. Misspelling the editor's name is a no-no. Also calling HER Mr.


Edittorrent said...

Oh, and TMI is another of those marks of amateurs. Certainly if this is a novel about a drug abuser, you might mention that you have been in rehab, as that might add to your credibility (please evaluate the cost-benefit of letting me know you had a drug problem...). But if it's not directly and obviously related to the story material, don't mention anything personal at all.

And -- not to be rude, but most editors could probably get into Mensa if they wanted to, so that membership really isn't something you probably need to brag about. You think I'm kidding? I've gotten several queries that proclaim the author is a Mensa member, and though it's not an automatic reject, it always makes me question their confidence.

I had a boss (who didn't need a membership card to demonstrate his brilliance) who joined Mensa to meet women (he called it "the intellectual meat market"). He told me sadly that all the women there were too smart to have anything to do with him.

Anyway, only put in the personal info which is really relevant-- your profession if it connects to the story matter (you're a nurse, and this is a medical thriller), your membership in directly related trade organizations (you're writing horror, and you belong to the HSA)-- those might not help much, but they're not going to detract.


Donna Gambale said...

Really useful post... but my favorite part was the FTC Disclaimer, though. Incredible.

Riley Murphy said...

Hmmm? I was thinking about sending this one off. What do you think? Straight rejection?

To the person who reads this submissive:

Hello, I am a recently recovered heroine attic who has delusions of becoming the next Dr. Ruth. Several of the renowned therapists who read my Manurescript told me how brilliant a conception it was. I don’t like to drop names, but Dr Phil told me I could because he feels my new wave approach to heeling the sexy self within a soberly mind set was awesome.
Having been a long standing MENSA member and a triple A card holder for more than two years (once I got my license back after the DUI) I think I have plenty to contribute to the literacy profession. Did I mention that I was a hooker for several eras? Where I sponged up tons of experience to depart to the world? Were I learned many new technicalities that help a reel women hang onto her man? Secrets beyond the regular delights of the tantra?
There is so much more I could say about my work but I wanted to keep it short so that you can enjoy the pleasure of this intercourse yourselfs. My work is intitled: ‘Seven steps to haven without taking the Lord’s name in vein’ subtitled: An attic’s story of rededication to her cause one bed at a time.

Murphy, who is still laughing her ass off over the yule log comment – Christmas around my house won’t be the same again. Thanks Theresa! :D As an aside? I’m almost feeling sorry for the FTC. Yup, apparently no one told them not to piss Theresa off. Sucks to be them.:)

Edittorrent said...


I do enjoy my First Amendment rights.


Andrew Rosenberg said...

I actually think Murphy's query would work.
BTW it's not Manurescript, it's Manurscripped.

It's all well and good to tell us what not to do, but please for goddess sake tell us what works!!! Stop withholding this secret from the massless!!!!

Riley Murphy said...

@ Theresa:
I never would have guessed. Well, maybe the long pointless dissertation on the sidebar might have tipped me off - but thanks for clarifying.;)

You've got balls to question a MENSA member and triple A card holder’s spelling. Sheesh! I’m disappointed too - if you were going to correct anything it should have been the MENSA to MENSES - much funnier. Snap!


Sam said...

My mature response to this post: Excellent advice, and thankyou for posting it.

My immature response to this post: "YULE LOG" LOL!

Anonymous said...

The post and the follow-up comments gave me a chuckle. Thanks.

Laura Hamby said...

"You're going to love this tender love story set in the fourteenth century that involves a pilot from the future who mysteriously vanished in the Bermuda Triangle, and reappears in Canada, in the year 1451, where he falls in love with a Mayan woman."

That was one of my pet peeves back when I was an e-publisher editor... blurbs about the story, which in itself is fine... as long as the FACTS ARE RIGHT.

em said...

Theresa, ROTFLMAO!

Murph, a hooker for several eras? You don't look that old. Dang, did you mean instead of a AAA member, you're a member of AARP? LOL! Thanks for the laugh.:)

Anonymous said...

Why are you so angry, edittorent?

Edittorrent said...

Because no one spells our name right. :)

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Em,
Have you forgotten the red pumps and the DD detail? You and Leona were on that, if I recall. I have to admit the AARP comment? That was a good one.:D

@Anonymous 9:50
I hate to point out this needed correction, but it might clear up some confusion.:) It's not edittorent - it's editTORRENT.


Riley Murphy said...

Crap - I wasn't fast enough!

Unknown said...

Theresa, this was a good one!:)

Murphy, LOL on your query! I also think it would work. As for the correction, I get it. Dah! Until you spelled it out like that I always thought it was edit-to-rent.
Thanks for the insight.:)

Edittorrent said...

Nope. Edit torrent, mashed together into one word. It's meant to be a play on bittorrent.

See, it's like this. A bit torrent is a pool of available data, and you can capture a stream of that for yourself. Or something like that. Non-techie person here.

So our thinking was, we spend all day marinating in this vast pool of edit juice. Might as well grab pieces of it and stream it onto a blog.

Or maybe we picked that name for another reason. I can't remember anymore.

But I do remember that the decision was made at Panera with lovely hot beverages and delicious snacks. It must be lunchtime!


Edittorrent said...

lol@Iapetus, but in my defense, I told you the right way to work a personal referral and the right time to approach the cover art question.

Are there other specifics we can address? I am happy to get deeper into this topic, but sometimes I fear the topic of query letters have been flogged into, well, slush.

Edittorrent said...

That last comment @Iapetus was from me, Theresa.

And this is still me, Theresa, @Anon, suggesting that sometimes humor is salty.

Genella deGrey said...

I wish all disclaimers made me giggle - and I don't care how immature that makes me!

Riley Murphy said...

@ Theresa: Wow, really? I liked my explanation better.:D


Anonymous said...

While I love the advice, I couldn't help but wonder why romance insiders denigrate Hemingway? You actually inspired me to blog about it (I'd be oh-so honored if you'd grace me with your thoughts on the matter over here).

That said, the yule log comment made me snort scotch through my sinuses, which stings something fierce, let me tell you.

Glad I discovered your blog, ladies!

Edittorrent said...

Simon, in the throwdown of great American modernist writers, there's Hemingway agin Faulkner, and no contest-- Faulkner got emotion. Spilled over with it.

We likes us some emotion. :)


Anonymous said...


I'm thinking you mean explicit emotion, since it's there in Hemingway, just not examined closely in the prose.

But you're right about Faulkner. Good god, but you're right!



Jami Gold said...


Is that you on the Finalist List for Nathan Bransford's blog? Holy cow! :)

For anyone that didn't hear, Nathan (agent extraordinaire) ran a 4-day-long blog entry contest for first paragraphs. 2,600 entries later, Nathan narrowed the list down to 10 Finalists.

Since we've been having discussions about first paragraphs, I just thought I'd mention that everyone should go check out the Finalist entries and see some of the really good ones.

Jami G.

Anonymous said...

Why, yes, ma'am, it is indeed. I'm bouncing off the walls right now!

I do wish I'd let the paragraph sit for a day or so before submitting it, 'cause I want to go back and edit it right now. Still, I'll take a finalist slot (cue studied understatement).

My apologies, editors, for this tiny hijack of your comment thread.

Sylvia said...

Well done Simon!

Diane said...

Great tips..... thanks! :O)