Querying Agents and Publishers
During my career as a literary manager for screenwriters and a publisher for novelists, I’ve read thousands of queries and listened to hundreds of in-person pitches. From that vast number of hopefuls, I’ve requested perhaps 10% of their queries. When the completed screenplay or novel arrives, I hope just as strongly as the writer does that I’ll like it and, even more importantly, that I think others will like it as well, which would inspire me to accept the project.
But what typically happens is that the writing doesn’t fulfill the promise of the query and so, of the 10% of material requested, between 1%-2% becomes a new client.
It may sound harsh, but the truth is that consumers are just as particular. Anyone who has scanned through Amazon reviews knows the truth of this statement.
So, how do you hedge your bets and ensure that your query rises to the 10% of those requested? (And, if it is requested, it’s your job to follow through with some damned good writing.)
Five Mistakes To Avoid When Querying Agents and Publishers
One way to make your query the gateway to agents and publishers reading more of your material is to avoid these five mistakes that shout amateur status:
1. You’ve never read anything like this
As much as agents want to find the next big thing, they also need to appeal to the greater interests of consumers. If you tell an agent, “You’ve never read this before,” chances are they might think there’s a reason for that. Perhaps nobody wants to read it? Your job is to create a book that sits in a popular genre, but has unique qualities with characters who live in interesting towns, hold jobs that haven’t been written about, and face unusual problems.That’s how you land an agent. Find a popular topic, but turn it on its side.
2. Giving too much information
There’s a delicate balance between enticing someone to read your project and giving away too much of the plot. When it comes to queries, often times you need to apply the less is more rule. Remember that a query is not the same as a synopsis. You want to hook the reader right away with an unusual plot. Then, your job is to close your query with some of your credentials that prove you have the writing chops to finish what you started.
3. “Shouting” at your reader
Words in bold, capital letters, exclamation marks. Call me sensitive, but when I see a letter or email written with these characteristics, I feel like the writer is shouting at me. Be respectful above everything else. Agents receive so many queries each day, you want to hedge your bets that yours will be read by following simple rules of acceptable behavior. This also includes saying thank you for their consideration at the end of your letter.
And please, if you do get a rejection, don’t write back and threaten the agent or tell them they’ve made the biggest mistake of their career. Chances are when you cool off, you’ll realize that one day you might want to pitch them something new, and making an enemy with insults isn’t the way to endear yourself to an agent.
4. Pitching something they don’t represent
I hate serial killers. I haven’t actually met someone who says, “Gee, I love serial killers and would like to invite one to dinner.” What I mean is that it’s fairly well documented that I don’t consider plots revolving around killers. Take the time to review the agent’s requirements or research if they have a blog. You can also turn to the Writers Market for agent listings that include their individual preferences.
5. Cut the B.S.
By this I mean, don’t inflate your own self-worth by listing numerous awards you’ve won from organizations that aren’t well-known or touting your position in the top 1,000 of a contest as something of value. If an author presents me with a mediocre story and tells me they’ve placed in the top percentile of an unknown contest versus a story that is a must-read by an author who admits to not having any experience in the industry, I’ll go with the latter. Experience comes with doing. We all get it eventually. I’d rather bet on a writer who spends their time writing rather than the one who is busy entering contests.
A Few More Querying Tips
Agents are like readers. They tend to like certain styles of books, and although they don’t want to publish a copycat book because it may take sales away from the first book, they will publish a book that is a good companion to the rest of their list. Know who you are pitching and what they like. Read about the agent and above all else,customize your query to them.
Don’t use a form query letter that implies you’ve read the agent’s requirements. Case in point, I recently received a query that stated, “Because of your interest in sci-fi projects, I’m sending you…” Wait. Hold on. Did I ever say I was interested in sci-fi projects? I happen to know that those words have not come out of my mouth.
Querying is a time consuming process, but what’s worse then spending lots of time is wasting it.
If you’re going to query agents or publishers, take the time to do your research and make sure you put as much effort into your query as you do your book. After all, your query is the first indication of your writing.