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.