Friday, November 16, 2007

Query Notions

I opened my mail this morning and there they were, a dozen five-page queries through which I had to dig to find something—anything—that would tell me what the senders were trying to say. I just needed a thread, some essence possibly, of what, if anything at all, these queries were trying to communicate to me.

Are you guilty of writing novella-sized query letters? Communication is key, and, as a communicator, you fail to cross the first major threshold if you cannot describe your book or novel in one sentence. If you cannot, then may I suggest the possibility that you might not know what you’ve written. Think about it this way: If an editor phoned and asked what your book was about, could you tell her in less than one minute? You really shouldn’t need any more time than that—if you really understand what you’ve written.

As a literary agent, I must have confidence that I can sell what I represent. Therefore, I must be convinced that what a writer has produced is a great and salable read before I’m able to persuade anyone else. If you cannot convince me, if your message is so deeply hidden within tons of verbiage, how would you expect me to convince an editor that you have written the new next great novel or that your non-fiction holds the answers that readers have been searching for? Your query’s job is just that. It must do what you would have to do if you had to explain your book, verbally, to a harried editor who can give you only one minute before her next meeting. One shot is all you get here so you don’t want to blow it. You are, after all, a writer and great writing is your medium. Let that show through in your query letter.

Another thing: There’s a return of the trend of writers sending untargeted submissions to everyone on earth, and I know this because I can see all the e-mail addresses of the other recipients in the CC: line. Also, I am getting tons of queries that address me as TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. My spam filter catches these and it irritates the hell of me to have to go in there to delete them, so you don’t win any points if I find your query there. There’s a proper way to query an agent—then there’s the lazy spammer’s way.

Next—and I’ve said this before—if your book is over 110,000 words, don’t query me on it. I just received a query from a writer who stated that his PROFESSIONALLY EDITED book weighed in over 150,000 words. . . If this happens to you, before sending me a query letter, first ask for a refund from your professional editor. He or she should know better.

Also, if an agency’s Web site says their agents prefer email queries, you leave a bad impression if you ignore their instruction and send your query via snail mail. Maybe I’m being presumptuous here because I assume that everyone reads our Web site before they query. If you didn’t, then you haven’t done your research and therefore are not ready to be represented. Since I have confidence that professional writers are the only ones who need the services of a literary agent, if you send me a query via regular mail, then I have wonder how professional you are or how serious you are about the profession. Different agents take this stuff different ways. Some may take your willingness to ignore their guidelines as a sign that you’re stubborn, while others may think it means you are lacking good judgment or organizational skills. Either way it goes, it is still not going to impress anyone. I have to follow the same rules in many aspects of my life, not just publishing, and I know it gets tedious. However, it’s important.

Finally, what’s with the 8.5x11 envelopes (or larger) containing a one page query letter? You don’t lose points with agents who accept snail mail queries if your letter has wrinkles in it. I know some agents who are picky, but not that picky.


Patrick McNamara said...

Ten years ago the trend was reversed; most agents would rather have postal queries than e-mail so it's understandable for writers to make that mistake, especially the ones who haven't figured out computers and the Internet yet. I think there are a few agents who prefer postal mail but even when sending multiple queries one should make an effort to determine what the agent wants.

Anonymous said...

I've been in publishing for twenty years, and while I agree that every agency should enforce its own guidelines, please make the distinction for the good folks who read this blog that these are YOUR guidelines and not the opinion of every agent on the planet.

And I don't know how they do things down there in Sickerville, NJ, but as far as I know good writing trumps everything.

Cocaine Princess said...

Is it possible for a literary agent to reject a query letter because he/she simply has no interest in the writer's genre or do they keep an open mind? I thank you for taking the time to read this. May you find your light.
Cocaine Princess

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


We reject for many reasons, one of which can be that we don't represent the writer's genre. It's not a matter of open mind, it's more a matter of can we sell a particular project. So, even if we see a project and fall in love with it, we also have to consider marketability--always. It's not not far to the writer, or to us, to take a risk on a project without a good chance of success.

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

You had me smiling all the way through this. :D

I can't wait for the next time I'm ready for the agent challenge.


Anonymous said...

You have a very long-winded blog. How about one sentence stating what you want.
There's no need to pontificate, just bullet the main points. That makes it easier than having to edit out personal biases.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


Thanks for your comment, as it brings up an important point. Looking at every agent or publisher Web site just to get the lowdown on how to submit your work or get representation is not, in our opinion, the best way to go about the process. Too many writers try to "get published" as opposed to "sell books." These are two totally different mindsets, and having one over the other can mean the difference between success as an author or frustration as someone who wants to be a writer.

The purpose of our blog is to give writers an opportunity to get to know us because we believe that is just as important as any short tips we can provide about how to get published. There are dozens of sites out there that already provide that information.

This is not the place you should come to find out what we are looking for, although we do mention it here sometimes. Our standard practice is to post that information on our main site where it is easy to find. If you want one-sentence statements about what we want, go to There you'll find short descriptions of what each agent is taking at this time.

Lost & Confused said...

I want to thank you for the post. I now realize that there is a difference between getting published and selling books and since an agent wants to be able to sell your book, that should be what you present. Like I said thanks for the information, because I now have a better understanding of how to sell my first work as opposed to just getting it published.

Corey Burns said...

I am a lawyer. I do mostly public defense work in a small Nebraska town. I am trying to write a work of fiction loosley based on my experiences. I am afraid people will just think I am trying to be Grisham. I am not, I just happen to have the same life-experience. Will this hurt me?
Secondly: How many words do you want in a query? Do you want the whole book, or the first few chapters? Should I send something in before I am finished and hope for feed-back to start the editing process and change course in the work?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Mr. Burns,

The general mantra is, "Write what you know" and that sounds good to someone in an exciting career. But it's more than that. Yes, your main character can be a lawyer but do you want him or her in a romance, a love story, a suspense novel, a historical, a literary novel, a science fiction, a fantasy, a mystery, or what? Here's where the rub comes in and here's what separates those who get published from those who don't. A comparison to Grisham is probably inevitable on some level, but if you focus on a different angle of the book besides the main character's profession and the legal setting, your book might be marketable. Also, the tone, mood, and voice of a work can set it apart. There are several books that have been published that have writers as main characters, but each author has found a different way to bring that character to life, so it is definitely possible.

Of course, being able to write very well always wins the day, but knowing where to write comes in second. If you know where to write you can tailor your book to an area that's hot and gain a footing in that genre.

As for how many words we want in a query, make it short--one page. There's a good example of what we want in a query on our blog at

Right now we are looking at queries only and will request a sample if the project is something we might be able to sell. We only look at completed projects, so if you aren't finished, you should only query agents who review unfinished works, though there aren't many out there.

Finally, you really shouldn't rely on agent feedback to help you edit your work. You need to be able to do that. Editorial advice from editors and agents can vary greatly, so you need to know what your goal for your book is, or no one's feedback will mean anything. Also, you might end up with five different opinions of what to do with the work, which will only be frustrating. Hope this helps.

Bethany said...

This might be a little too late to respond to this posting but I'm giving it a shot anyway. I just want to say that I'm glad that you have made this blog. I view your comments as constructive criticism and really take in what your saying. As an unpublished writer I am constanyly doing research while I am writting. I want my book to be the best it can be before submitting it to anyone. I also like having the knowledge of whats going to go on with my book once I do submit my query. Reading your blog has given me a lot of insight on what I need to do and should be doing in the future. Thank you so much.


Chris said...

Thank you and "not thank you." First, thank you for spelling out what you are looking for. Your query examples were incredibly helpful, and I have saved myself some embarrassment! My novel is about twice the length you are looking for (so the time reading saved me however long it takes to get a rejection).

"Not thank you" in that your reference back to the Wylie-Merrick homepage only directs us here for submission requirements. I agree with Anonymous that the required information is very diffuse and not easily found.