The adage says, “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” For writers, that first impression often gets made not in person but in writing with a query letter. In that document, which is sent to a literary agent (and sometimes to a small publisher) if you are looking for a traditional publisher for your book, the person “meeting you” for the first time can’t see how you look or behave, but he or she can tell a lot about you. In fact, agents can decide pretty quickly if they want to work with you. In this case that means whether or not they want to become your business partner and represent you and your work to publishing houses.
Verna Dreisbach, an agent at Dreisbach Literary Management as well as a writer and educator, today tells us what agents “see” when they read query letters and find a variety of errors. This post offers you a unique opportunity to sit in an agents chair and look at your query through her eyes. Sit up and take note!
What Query Letter Errors Mean to an Agent
By Verna Dreisbach
Getting a traditional publishing contract has become increasingly competitive, which makes getting a contract more difficult to achieve. Many publishers that once accepted unsolicited manuscripts have now changed their submission policies to accept only agented work only. There are still publishers who do accept unagented work, but it is still necessary to write that dreaded query letter.
So, how do you get noticed amongst the hundreds and thousands of other writers who don’t want to go the self-publishing route? You do your research, treat this as a business and act professional. This will show in a query letter. If you don’t, an editor or an agent can spot the resulting issues almost immediately.
Here are some of the most common errors aspiring authors make in query letters and how they translates in agents’ eyes.
- Queries addressed without personalization – Dear Sir/ Madam, Dear Literary Agent, To Whom it May Concern, and any number of variations of this theme. This also includes sending out the query letter as a mass mailing. Personally, I read no further. If the writer hasn’t taken the time to personally address the letter, than I figure they don’t know who they are querying, haven’t done the research to know whether I’m accepting queries or what genres I accept, isn’t a professional, and doesn’t want to be published bad enough.
- Queries written in a way to capture an agent’s attention, such as ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, the entire letter is underlined, or an is used. I will not read a query letter with these mistakes. Visually, an agent can tell a lot without even reading a single word. Not only is this difficult to read, but it’s beyond annoying. I already need reading glasses. I was done with lined paper in high school, and when I see all capital letters, it reminds me of the days we hand-wrote our police reports. (I used to be a police officer.) Also, if the query looks like an obvious generic form letter, or it was a cut and paste job with various fonts and sizes, then I’m unimpressed from the very beginning. Get our attention and stand out from the crowd with your writing ability, not by visually harassing us.
- Queries from writers who lack a basic understanding of the business – novelists whose work is either too short/too long/not finished, or non-fiction authors who don’t know their competition and haven’t completed a book proposal. Especially with the number of resources available to writers via the Internet, blogs, magazines, and conferences, there’s really no reason why a writer cannot become educated about this business. Agents typically don’t have the time to educate a writer, and most new writers typically have a high degree of unrealistic expectations that’s not easily dispelled. Query letters are the perfect place to determine whether or not the author has any knowledge of the industry. Word count is, by far, the easiest way to rule out a query. On a regular basis, I receive queries for novels that are 35k words or 150k-300k words in length. Really. I also received queries from “experts” who only have an “idea” about a book, still need to write it and want me, the agent, to help them through the entire process. Of course, they always tell me that they have a best seller on their hands. Many new writers don’t know the agent’s role in the industry and mistakenly assume we are editors. It is not uncommon to receive replies from writers who comment, “I never said I was good at writing” or “The manuscript is finished, but it needs liposuction!” We are not editors. Let me repeat. We are not editors. We expect the final, edited, perfected, re-edited product. Period.
- Queries (and samples of work) that show you aren’t ready or are too eager to get published. Fiction has to be finished before querying agents, and if an agent asks for a book proposal for a non-fiction project, it better be complete and thorough, otherwise there really isn’t any point in querying an agent or an editor. Over 95 percent of my fiction rejections are because a writer hasn’t taken the time to develop their writing style and storytelling. They read as beginning drafts. I pass on slightly less non-fiction than fiction, but the majority of those have to do with lack of preparation or an understanding of the market. The book proposal is really a business plan for the author and for the product (the book). The writer has to know the market, the competition for both the book and the expert, and have established contacts and credibility (platform) to be able to sell the book. For some reason, numerous non-fiction authors don’t want to write a proposal and they will only send me sample chapters from the book (even though I requested a proposal – as if they’d convince me otherwise). I need the book proposal to determine whether or not I can sell it, the acquisition editor needs the book proposal to convince editorial to acquire it, and the marketing and sales team needs it to know how to sell it to the public and to the bookstores. Don’t take this step lightly. We really, really mean it.
- Queries (or replies to our correspondence) that show you are difficult to work with. Agents want authors who are easy to work with. We, in turn, are passing these authors off to an editor at a publishing company, and we have to make a good impression as well. Our reputation rests on this. Remember this before you shoot off some crazy or rude letter when an agent says “no” to your query letter. I’ve had authors write that they “know this letter is likely disturbing you” or “I’m not going away until you’ve explained why you didn’t want to represent me.” Others obnoxiously state, “Go ahead. Reject my submission. Frankly, I could care less.” Unfortunately, this type of correspondence is quite common and it rules out ever being able to query that agent again in the future. As I writer, I hope that you have more than one project, one book, in the making. Maybe that agent didn’t like your first project, but the second one could resonate more to their liking. Keep the door and your options open. Be a professional. In nearly all of my classes, I stress the importance of professionalism. This is a business, and we are professionals. Study the business, do your best work and be polite and considerate. Not much to ask for. If writers use this as their guide, they’ll do well and that’s how to stand out in a crowd. We’ll appreciate it, truly.
Remember to take the process seriously and treat the publishing industry like any other business. Realize that every agent and editor hopes to read a query letter, or take an in-person pitch at a conference, and be amazed and inspired by what we’ve read or heard. We desperately want to find something to share with the world and to know that in some way, we helped in the author’s success. The entire experience becomes a partnership and we have to choose our partners with great care. It’s like a marriage – we could be together for a very long time. I consider the experience extremely rewarding – to be a part of an author’s journey and to have a job where someone tells me that I’ve helped make their dreams come true…it doesn’t get much better than that.
About the Author
Verna Dreisbach, of Dreisbach Literary Management, is an agent, writer and educator. Verna is the founder and president of Capitol City Young Writers, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education and inspiration of aspiring young writers in junior high and high school. She graduated Magna Cum Laude from Sacramento State University with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. She has a taught publishing and writing courses through the University of California Davis Extension and is currently teaching college level English courses in Sacramento, CA. She is the editor of Why We Ride: Women Writers on the Horses in their Lives, published by Seal Press. Through her agency, Verna represents both fiction and non-fiction authors with a particular interest in books with a political, economic or social context. She represents a variety of fiction including commercial, literary and young adult. With over 13 years as a police officer, Verna also has a genuine interest in the genres of mystery, thriller and true crime. She does not represent fantasy, sci-fi, horror, screenplay, Christian or children’s books. Verna is an AAR Member.