Ten Marks of a Poor Query Letter

Every writer faces the climb that is writing his or her book. However, once that hard work is done, there are other steep mountains on the horizon. Those might include: finding a literary agent, signing with a reputable publisher, building an online presence, marketing your book, doing interviews about the book, creating a social media following, and much more.

If you’ve just finished your great American novel, your manifesto about business negotiation, or your nonfiction self-help book about improving self-esteem—and if you have a manuscript sitting on your hard drive ready for the world to read—it's probably time to master the art of the query letter.

Your query letter makes your first impression for you, whether you’re reaching out to Literary Agents, Publishers, Publicists, Marketers, or other potential partners in the long journey of publishing your book.

Most literary agents, book editors, and publishing pros are so busy, sprinting from one meeting to the next, working up offers for books they want to acquire, or reading through the manuscripts for the books they’ve already signed, that they have very little time to read from the so-called “slush pile” of query letters and submissions.

This is why your query letter is so important.

Your query can set you apart from the rest—and get your manuscript read by a good literary agent or book editor. Once your query letter opens the door, then it’s up to your book concept and writing ability to close the deal. But what if you have a great book concept and a thrilling manuscript, but you can’t seem to get it read?

After years working in publishing as a book editor first, then as publisher at multiple houses and imprints, and now as a literary agent, I've seen more queries than I can count. In this short post I’ve listed out ten marks of a poor query letter. My hope is to share a few tips about what really, really doesn’t work and somehow, along the way, demystify the query process overall.

Even now, I spend a part of every week, as a matter of discipline and practice, reading through the queries we receive at The Bindery. And I’ve seen all kinds of bad, and all kinds of good.

First, a minor caveat: The "guidelines" that follow are not hard and fast rules, and that’s because for every rule that someone has tried to codify, someone else can point to the exception. If you want to break one of these marks below, that’s fine with me.

So now then: I believe that the following ten things will NOT help your query letter stand out in any way and are best avoided.

10. Describe Your Future Relationship with the Recipient. Don't do it. I recommend not predicting a future that may or may not occur. Lines of description such as: "We will have many years of successful partnership publishing my books," or “You are the perfect fit to represent my novel, and when they make it into a movie we’ll both get very rich.” These lines come off as odd, presumptuous, and incredibly naïve. Sentences of this nature show up far too often in query letters and make me (and other agents, editors, and publishers) want to delete your e-mail. Sorry.

9. Crazy Fonts & Colors (or packaging). I am not especially fond of seeing strange fonts, colors, or “creative” spacing arrangements in either e-mails or hard copies of query letters. Pick a simple font, writer your letter, and let your words do the talking. Keep it simple. I once received a book proposal in a box that had been duct-taped so many times I couldn't see the box itself anymore, someone had hand scrawled the address in Sharpie, and the manuscript inside looked well-read as if it had been sent out before. Try to take a little care to present your work with a semblance of professionalism.

8. Leave Out Biographical Information. This may be just a pet peeve of mine, but I want to know who wrote the manuscript or book concept. This is particularly important for nonfiction proposals, however, I would like to know about novelists too. At worst, give me a couple lines about yourself, your experience, and your writing history. Some people disparage themselves and that doesn’t help either: “I have no writing experience to speak of, but I wrote this novel.” Show a little confidence, that’s okay.

7. Astounding (& ridiculous) Claims. Confidence is one thing but making outlandish predictions about your book doesn’t help your chances of getting read: "My book will become a New York Times bestseller." This is actually more difficult than you might realize, especially these days.  “Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, my novel will become a publishing phenomenon,” or "This story will leave you breathless." I would recommend that you let your work speak for itself.

6. "I just completed a 7-book series.” I’ve gotten letters very similar to this: “The first four manuscripts of my epic series are complete and have been edited—so they’re ready for review and attached to this e-mail. Book 5 will be ready in a few weeks." This kind of statement signals a bit of naivete about the process, and frankly, is overwhelming to read for an agent, editor, or a publisher. A red flag goes up. I hate to say this, but no one cares about books 2-5, if book one isn’t a stunning read. At the query stage of the process the first book is all that matters. Stop writing book six, and go polish book one again.

A related concern would be overabundant word count: “I just completed my 500,000-word book of history and its ready for you to read!” It takes agents and editors long enough to read 90,000 words—are you sure you’ve edited your masterpiece down to its essence?

5. A Query About Something Other Than Your Book. If I were you, I would refrain from writing about how you wrote the book, where you wrote the book, why you wrote it, or the detailed history of how you named each of the characters. Write succinctly about the plot of your novel, or the concept of your nonfiction masterwork—tell me what the book is about in as few words as possible. A brief overview of you and what gives you the credibility to write this book, is important too. But that’s two paragraphs. Maybe three. Shorter queries are best, so focus the few words you have to get someone’s attention quickly.

Once again, as a caveat, I’ll say here that I’ve read a number incredibly clever queries that do none of these things. Some queries are so creative and different that they will get attention no matter what—but that doesn’t always result in an offer—so go off this script if you must.

4. “I’ve Published Two Books. Friends, this may sound a little bit harsh, but I don't like checking Amazon to find out that your “published” books are self-published books on Amazon Create Space. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing! Many fantastic authors are getting their start this way. However, you should be as clear as possible up front that your previous books were self-published.

3. Incredibly short queries. Incredibly long queries.

2. Major Grammatical Problems. We read all of the query letters we get at The Bindery. But sometimes, we don’t need to read the manuscript itself because the letter is a disaster. Once I read three or four sentences and I’m tripping over errors hot and fast, I shouldn’t have to tell you: I'm done reading. Take your time and write a short, simple letter free of major errors. This demonstrates that you can do the same in the manuscript for your book.

1. Wrong Name or Publishing Category. This is perhaps the easiest thing to mess up in a query letter, because believe me, I know that writers are sending out dozens of queries at one time—and considering the odds, I don’t blame them. However, if you spell an editor or agent’s name wrong, or leave in the name of the previous person you queried, well then, he or she might simply dismiss your query altogether. Also, check the publishing categories of the agents you query. If they’re actively seeking books like yours, great. If your book falls outside of that category, don’t expect a response. For example, if the editor specializes in Science Fiction, don’t send him a query about a Nonfiction Self-Help book about improving self-esteem.

Friends, these are some of my top query issues for today. I'm sure there will be others tomorrow.

From this post, I hope it’s clear: A simple, clean query letter with a short description of your book, and a short description of who you are, is best. That might be 2-4 paragraphs at most. Don’t overcomplicate it if at all possible.

The fact of the matter is that a dynamite query letter can get your brilliant manuscript read, and perhaps even a book deal. I wish you the best of luck in that endeavor.

Until next time!