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?