5 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Query Letter

RejectionBy Kathryn Lilley, TKZ

Before there is an Agent and a Publishing Deal, there is every writer’s dreaded obstacle and Final Wall: the Query Letter. Here is  a list of the top five reasons a query letter is rejected by an agent.

1. Perilous Protocol

Manners and professionalism count. Your query letter will be met with an instant “No” if it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of query letter protocol.

What is “protocol”?

It almost goes without saying, protocol requires you to pay close attention to an agent’s posted Submission Guidelines. Here are some links to excellent discussions about some other how-to basics of crafting a query letter.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters That  Get Manuscript Requests, by agent Jane Friedman.

How to Write a Query Letter by agent Rachelle Gardner.

Query Shark (a site where where you can post your query letter for review, discussion, and critique)

2. Misses and Misdirection

This point sounds obvious, but you must send your query letter to an agent who represents your manuscript’s genre. Do your homework. Research which agents are actively seeking new manuscripts in your chosen genre. (Genre-blending works are frequently problematic here–if you can’t pinpoint which genre your story belongs in, it makes it that much harder to attract an agent).image

3. “Good”, But Not Good Enough

The Truth: Agents aren’t looking for good writing. They’re looking for great writing. They’re looking for compelling, fresh writing that sizzles. “Good” (AKA amateur) writing simply won’t cut it in the current marketplace. So before you submit your query letter, make sure your writing meets that mark. You have to be brutally honest when judging the merits of your own writing. Compare your first chapter to some best sellers in your genre, and then ask yourself: am I there yet?

4 First Line Fails

No matter how well crafted your query letter is, you can lose an agent’s interest with a clunker first line in your story sample. For great discussions about crafting an effective first line, see the following links:

Finding The Right Door To Enter Your Story by PJ (Kris) Parrish

But First…. By Joe Moore

5 Spelling, Grammar, and Punctuation, Oh My!

It hurts me to say this, but many query letters fail due to the sender’s lack of paying attention to the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and paragraph formatting.


How about you? Can you share your do’s and dont’s about writing an effective query letter?

21 thoughts on “5 Mistakes That Will Kill Your Query Letter

  1. Keep it short, to the point, no gimmicks, and spell the agent’s name right. Don’t send one query letter and cc a bunch of agents at the same time.

  2. A great query should always begin, “Dear Sir or Madam” to make sure it can be read by anyone in the office.

    Next, never lead with your story summary. Provide at least two, single-spaced pages about your life journey to this point, and end that section by assuring the agent you will become the “next” somebody–Lee Child, James Patterson, Kim Kardashian, etc.

    Always include the line, “This book is sure to become the next Hollywood blockbuster!” (Note: Exclamation points are essential! Use as many as possible!)

    Finally, end your query this way: “Time is of the essence on this project, so I will expect to hear from you within two weeks!”

    Send the exact same letter to 120 agents simultaneously and then sit back and wait for the offers to roll in!

  3. I should have added, make sure you’ve FINISHED your book before sending out queries. I learned that the hard way, although not specifically in context of querying. I met with a Big 6 (back when there were 6) editor at a conference for one of those “Meet with an editor to discuss your story” sessions. She asked me to send her the rest of the manuscript, but it wasn’t finished. I scrambled to finish it, and sent it in. (It was rejected and deemed too “commercial” for her, whatever that meant). From then on, I never submitted anything to anyone in the industry until it was fully baked.

  4. Don’t regurgitate plot. A query letter is like a Hollywood script pitch. You need to tantalize and capsulize. It is like writing great back copy for your book, two or three paragraphs that capture the essence of your book, SUM UP its main arc, and make the agent want to ask for more.

    Be honest about yourself. Don’t exaggerate your experience. Mention background only if it enhances your credibility for writing this book. ie: you are writing a cozy about a chef on a luxury yacht and have actually done this for a living; worked as a reporter if your setting is newspaper biz. But if you have any fiction creds (ie published short stories, won a real award) mention it.

    Don’t try to tell the agent that your book is the next “Gone Girl” meets “Fight Club” or whatever. You should mention that you are submitting a “psychological thriller” for consideration but don’t try to tell the agent how to sell it.

    • I wonder if writers who have been published before should mention that when querying about something new? I’ve heard horror stories about past sales numbers dooming a writer’s future prospects. I’ve heard that some people have gone so far as to adopt a new pseudonym when starting out again. It’s almost as if publishers would prefer betting the house on a complete unknown, hoping for a blockbuster, rather than go with a known entity.

      • That’s interesting Kathryn (and great list BTW) – but hopefully an agent would prefer to know that you’ve been published before – they can then advise if you need to ‘rebrand’ yourself based on past sales. I’m pretty sure an agent would see through any attempt to pretend to be a ‘new author’ for them at least. Also to add to the list, if you are published or have had an agent before (but aren’t happy) don’t query a new agent unless you’ve split with the old one. That’s considered bad form. I always think you can’t go too far wrong if you’re courteous and professional and treat the query/agent process as if it was a job interview (which it is, on both sides really).

          • Speaking from experience…
            About a year ago, I began to talk to agents about new representation and of course was honest with them about past sales etc. They need to know this because it affects their sales strategy. Some agents advises me a new pen name might be needed. Others said, “are you crazy? Use your current name!” I found the “old school” agents were more of the former and the other agents were more attuned to the new realities of the hybrid market place. I still don’t have an agent…and didn’t have one for negotiating my latest contract. Still will probably link up again but am in no hurry right now.

  5. Great stuff, Kathryn. A thought, though… when you say agents aren’t looking for good writing, they’re looking for great writing (absolutely true, by the way), it sort of opens an issue that isn’t here, and should be.

    Agents aren’t looking for good stories, for more of the same stories, the next Grishamesque stories… they are looking for great stories. Good is a commodity, it’s everywhere. Fresh stories that are also powerful and provocative stories, written with fresh and powerful writing voices… that’s rare. This impolite truth is too seldom spoken, the naïve take-away being that stories matter less then writing, which just isn’t true. Not just good, but great writing gets rejected all the time, every day, because the story is “fine” but doesn’t cause the agent to jump out of their plushy chair and yell “yes!” That’s really what it takes these days.

    • And I’ll add one more item to that, Larry. They are REALLY looking for great writers who can REPEAT, who are not one-hit wonders, who can deliver more (let’s face it) money-making fiction. I’ve heard more than once of the debut novelist who took five years and “a lot of love” to deliver a manuscript that nabbed a three-book deal, then got tied up in knots trying to do book 2, but was unable to connect to the Muse, and eventually got dropped…career over….because the writer did not think in terms of craft, productivity, and professionalism.

    • The writing AND story need to be compelling, good point to add, Larry. Even if it’s a story that’s been told before, one has to find a new way to tell it. I remember many years ago, Stephen King pronounced the death of vampire stories, and then along came Anne Rice and TWILIGHT. Reports of the death of vampire stories were definitely premature.

  6. The comments here were almost as good as the post! It’s fun “listening” you the seasoned writers discussing the pros and cons of agents, the way to attract an agent or editor to your work and their own experiences.

    Thank you very much for the post and for sharing these comments.

  7. I have followed all the guidelines, have even bought books on how to query agents. It’s my belief that if the agent feels they can’t sell your book to a high-paying publisher, they won’t take it.

    Sign me fed up and doing fine with a small publisher.

    • You bring up an important but under-reported aspect of publishing today–the role of small publishers. I’m curious to learn how much market share they account for, and what kind of experiences authors are having in terms of being published via a small publisher. Thanks for commenting, Lorelei!

      • Kathryn, I was with another small publisher who wasn’t very good at getting my books noticed. Although he takes $50/book for the work he does on each one, as well as some sort of advert. it’s well worth it in sales on ebooks.

  8. I know people still want agents and, if so, such letters are still necessary, but… sigh. The world is a much better place when you take your career into your hands, straight to the reader.

    Writing query letters used to be a necessary chore. Now, not so much.

    But if you do want an agent, this is very good advice on how to make that letter sing.

    • Thanks, Rob! I know others disagree, but I think there’s still some value in getting published the old-fashioned way, at least at the beginning. I have repeatedly watched colleagues submit manuscripts that weren’t publishable in terms of quality. Getting a “no” from the gatekeepers forced them to keep at it until they got better. It’s hard to develop an ear for judging one’s own work in terms of its quality. ( And family, friends and critique colleagues will seldom tell you the truth when it’s bad. ) Sometimes an agent is the first professional-level, honest feedback a pre published writer encounters; that input can be valuable, even when it’s delivered in the form of a terse “Not for us.”

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