by Anne R. Allen
Having a popular blog has helped me feel a lot of empathy with agents and publishers. That's because Ruth and I get a ton of queries, too.
Most of ours are from authors or publicists who want a blog tour promotion, guest blog spot, or a book review. Some want us to give critiques or edit their work. We also hear from people who want us to advertise products, websites and software or display their infographics.
And there's that guy from Grammarly who writes to me regularly to tell me I could be a successful writer if I just learned a little grammar. And the blog "gurus" who want us to pay money to get readers for our pathetic little blog.
Thing is: we don't do blog tours or book reviews or editing. We also don't provide advertising, free or otherwise. And strangely enough, we're not eager to do business with people who insult us.
These are what I call self-rejecting queries.
It does no good to ask somebody for something they do not provide.
It's like going to a pet store when you want to buy a computer mouse: you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
And making yourself look pretty silly.
Here's the most important thing to remember: publishing is a business. As is all Internet commerce.
A query is a job interview. Give it 100% or don't do it. Picture the real person behind the company, blog, or agency you're querying, and talk about what's of interest to them.
Whoever is reading the query is looking for a reason to reject you so they can move quickly through the inbox. Don't give them one.
Do a little homework, be respectful, and you can avoid most of these pitfalls. We were all newbies once, and some of these are typical newbie mistakes. But if you educate yourself and practice empathy, you can avoid them.
Top Ten Ways to Write Self-Rejecting Queries
10) Send a query via anything but email (or snail, in some more conservative pockets of the world.)
Do not send a Twitter or FB DM or @message pitching your book to agents, editors, bloggers or readers. Unless it's in a specific Twitter challenge set up by an agency or blog.
Twitter events like March 11th's #Pitmad Twitter query session are an exception, but make sure you stay within the time period and follow the rules to the letter. And don't send the Tweet via Direct Message. Send it in a regular Tweet.
DMs are intimate and come across as disrespectful if you don't have a prior relationship. I talked about that last month in my post on How NOT to Sell Books.
Book bloggers are especially annoyed by tweeted queries. Book review blogs are hard work, and the reviewers deserve the respect due to any other professional.
Disrespectful queries self-reject.
9) Skip the Proofreading
The e-query is a great boon to authors. No more double envelopes and return postage and trips to the Post Office with those expensive manuscript boxes.
But the e-age can lull us into a false sense of informality. An e-query is just as formal and official as a paper query and needs to be composed with just as much care.
Remember to watch out for your headers. I remember working for weeks on a query and then sending it off to my potential dream agent with a whopping typo in the header (misspelling my own title.)
Rejection came within minutes. Yup. I'd self-rejected.
8) Advertise your failures
Agent Alex Glass reminds authors to "Avoid a sentence such as 'This is my third (or fourth, or fifth, or sixth) unpublished novel, so I am clearly very dedicated and hardworking'…"
No: you've clearly failed a lot.
Everybody fails—that's how we learn. But we need to keep the failures quiet in a query.
I feel the same if somebody queries me saying: "Nobody is buying my books so you have to help me by giving me a guest spot."
My first thought is going to be that maybe your books aren't selling because they're as unprofessional as your query. If so, you will lose us subscribers and reduce our stats.
We always get fewer hits on guest blogposts. I don't know why, but I think it's like the substitute teacher syndrome. People come here expecting stuff from Ruth and me and when they get a substitute, no matter how great, they seem to feel disappointed. So a guest spot is something of a gift. We have to choose guests very carefully. Regular commenters on the blog get priority.
Writers who tell us they are no good at drawing an audience are rejecting themselves.
A query should be one page. At most. Anything more is a glaring advertisement of your lack of self-editing skills.
The query is your vehicle. Make sure it's streamlined and modern looking. This means it's short, hooky, and has lots of white space. Would you hire a car mechanic who showed up in a clunker bellowing smoke?
Most agents these days want a synopsis that is one page as well. They want it to read like book jacket copy—only with the ending included. Anything else is old fashioned and gets skipped. Don't write a long synopsis unless it's specifically requested. Here's my post on how to write a synopsis. And here's a great one from Jane Friedman.
Yes, I know you've taken all those creative writing classes that tell you it's all about your talent and passion and descriptive writing ability.
But a query uses a different kind of writing skills—skills you're going to need whether you publish traditionally or not. Every author needs to know how to write good blurbs, hooks, and product descriptions these days.
Learn those skills before you query.
And if you want a guest blogspot, show you have the writing chops to carry it off. If you write one big hunk of text in your query, you show you don't get 21st century writing.
Thus auto-rejecting yourself.
6) Forget the hook
It doesn't matter if you're querying a newbie blogger asking for a review or pitching your screenplay to Steven Spielberg, you always need a HOOK. Make what you have on offer enticing.
A simple formula for a novel hook is "When X happens, X must do X to X/otherwise X happens". It's a one or two sentence overview of the plot that needs to be dynamic and show what's at stake. For a more literary work, you might want to state the theme or setting and whatever makes it unique.
For a blogpost or nonfiction book, the hook only needs to answer the questions: why this book/post? Why now? Why you?
I wish I'd kept the query the Canadian "queen of comedy" Melodie Campbell sent asking to guest post two years ago. It had me laughing out loud. She pitched a post on how to write humor with humor. She had me hooked in two lines.
Yes, I know it's hard. But we all need to work on our skills as "hookers". Here's a good simple piece on writing a hook from agent Natalie Lakosil of the Bradford Literary Agency.
Don't tell me you read my blog regularly and then say you know how much I like to review Bigfoot erotica. It's an auto-delete.
Agents feel the same way. Don't say "I met you at the Southeast Montana Paranormal Romance Writers Conference-and-Gun Show" if you weren't there. Maybe the agent was scheduled but cancelled at the last minute. Maybe there were only four people in her workshop.
And if you say "I love your client's work," at least read the "look inside" of a few of the titles. If you say "I see you rep Zorian Q. Weatherbottom, so I know you'll love my work" make sure you know what Zorian Q. Weatherbottom writes.
If it turns out Mr. Weatherbottom writes Christian end-times thrillers, you've just self-rejected your steamy vampire/werewolf M/M romance.
4) Act arrogant
You want to sell your story or blogpost, not brag about yourself.
I don't get very far into a query that starts with "I'm a bigshot. Here are all the fabulous things I've done…" and then goes on for paragraph after paragraph of "I'm so special". I don't care if you're Shonda Rhimes. If you don't tell me why you've contacted me and what you have on offer, I'm going to delete.
And here's a secret: people who really are bigshots do not have to tell people who they are. When Anne Rice contacted me to talk about cyberbullying, her name in the address was more than enough to make me ignore everything else in the inbox and jump to open it.
And even if you're not that famous, just one or two major achievements are much more impressive than three pages listing every prize you've won since you got the trophy for good penmanship in third grade. That "lady doth protest too much" thing kicks in sooner than you think.
Here's how agent Shira Hoffman put it:
"I dislike it when a query letter focuses too much on the author’s bio and doesn’t tell me what the book is about. Make sure you include essential story details."
3) Don't bother to do your research
Agents say the number one reason for rejections is that most writers query them with books in genres they do not represent.
Reviewers say the number one reason for rejections is that most authors query them with books in genres they don't review.
Our number one reason for rejections is that most writers query us with posts on non-writing-related subjects.
See a pattern here?
I realize everybody starts as a beginner. I don't mean to make fun of novices.
But anybody can visit a website or blog. And read it. It's not hard. It just means taking the time to be polite.
And not look like a doofus.
You'll also want to learn about the industry you want to join. The best way to get general info about publishing is is read a few current books on the industry, like, ahem, HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE (get it cheap below.)
If you want an agent, then read agent blogs, especially in your genre. The #AskAgent hashtag on Twitter is also a great resource for up-to-date agent info.
There are three fantastic websites for agent-seekers that are must-reads: AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and QueryShark. If you write YA, check Literary Rambles, too.
AgentQuery.com has a searchable database. You can go there and put in the genre you write and choose the agents who are open to queries.
But don't stop there. Visit the agent's website. If the agent says "I don't rep paranormal romance or Young Adult," believe her. Even though she may have sold the genre three years ago and several of her clients write in that genre, it's counterproductive to send her your teen vampire romance now. She is not going to be so blown away by your brilliance that she's going to "make an exception."
If she says she doesn't rep that genre, she means she doesn't know any editors who are buying that genre right now. She probably can't even sell the books of her existing clients who write in that genre. Genres have fashions, and what's hot one month can be untouchable the next. Even if you have the storytelling skills of J.K. Rowling, that agent will not be able to sell your book..
People who query asking me to review a book—no matter the genre—are just wasting their time and mine. This is not a book review blog. It's not what we do. A quick glance around tells you that and it's clearly stated on our CONTACT US page.
These things happen because the queryiers think their time is more valuable than the person they are querying, so they don't bother to research. Not a good way to start a business relationship.
2) Ignore guidelines
NEVER ever query an agent or publisher or blogger without reading the guidelines—the ones on their actual current website, not in a library copy of some book on agents from 10 years ago.
Oh yeah, and then you have to FOLLOW the guidelines. I don't know how many times I have heard authors say "this agent says she wants a one-page synopsis, double spaced, but I have a book (published in 1987) that says a synopsis should be at least 7 pages, so that's what I sent."
You just self-rejected.
I don't care if the agent says she wants the synopsis written in Sanskrit. Just go to Google Translate and do it.
If you don't like her guidelines, don't query her. But otherwise, you're only wasting electrons.
1) Amateurish antics
If you query in the voice of your character, write a synopsis from the point of view of her cat, or handwrite your query on a heart-shaped piece of pink watered silk, you will get noticed, but not in a good way.
Even if your antics are wildly clever, this is like wearing an evening gown to a job interview. You are advertising yourself as an amateur who doesn't know how things are done in the business.
Listen to the agents:
"Queries are business letters. Agenting is business. Publishing is business. I try to be nice and friendly and funny and all, but the bottom line is that I expect those with whom I work to be professional and take what they’re doing seriously.
—Linda Epstein (Jennifer De Chiara Literary)"
"Treat [a] query as a job interview. Be professional. Be concise.
—Nicole Resciniti (The Seymour Agency)
Most writers (and a lot of Internet marketers) overestimate the value of raw "talent". If you're a clueless amateur, an egotist, or a pain in the patoot, nobody will want to work with you even if you have the talent of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Jane Austen all rolled into one.
So don't reject yourself before you even hit "send." Learn to write a professional query, whether it's to an agent, an editor, or a lowly blogger like me. Show respect. It opens an amazing number of doors.
For more great quotes from agents about queries, check out Chuck Sambuchino's blogpost Literary Agents Sound Off.
And for a comprehensive survey of what agents don't want to see in queries, read J.M. Tohline's 2010 blogpost The Biggest Mistakes Authors Make in Querying Agents.
For more on queries, here's Nathan Bransford's classic post on how to write a query.
How about you, Scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were first querying? As bloggers, do you get outrageously inappropriate queries? What's the worst query you ever saw?
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Golden Quill Awards Writing Contest
: Flash, Poetry, and Short fiction categories. Entry fee $20 for stories and poetry, $15 for flash fiction.
The theme is TRANSFORMATION. Deadline July 15.
MARK TWAIN HUMOR CONTEST Entry fees: $12
Young Author or $22 Adult.
7,000 words (or fewer) of any original work of humor writing. Submissions must be in English. Submissions are not required to be in the style of Mark Twain or about Mark Twain. 1st Prize: $1,000 (Adult), $600 (Young Author). Other cash prizes! Deadline July 10, 2015
Saturday Evening Post Great American Fiction Contest. Entry fee $10.
Your story should in some way touch upon the publication’s mission: Celebrating America — past, present, and future. Think Norman Rockwell. No profanity or graphic sex. Any genre. No previously published stories, but they can have appeared on your blog. Between 1,500 and 5,000 words. Deadline July 1, 2015
Writer's Village International Short Fiction Contest
Prizes totalling $3200! And every entrant gets a critique. (which makes this a great deal.) Any genre of fiction up to 3000 words. Entry fee $24. Deadline June 30th.
WOW Spring Flash Fiction Contest: Fee $10, or $20 with critique.
PULP LITERATURE'S The Hummingbird Prize for Flash Fiction $10-$15 ENTRY FEE.
Winner published in Winter 2016. First Prize: $300 (Runner up: $75). For unpublished short fiction up to 1,000 words in length. Contest Opens May 1, 2015 and closes June 15, 2015.
Ink & Insights 2015
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pricey for a contest, but a fantastic deal for a critique. Each submission is read by four judges who score 18 areas of your novel. This looks like a great opportunity! Over $5,000 cash and prizes
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The critique is a fantastic deal. These quarterly contests are judged by an agent. 750 words. First prize is $350 plus a $500 publishing package, publication and an interview. 20 prizes in all. Enter early. They only take the first 300 entries. Deadline May 31.
Writer's Digest Writing Compeition.
This is their biggie. First prize is $5000 plus your photo on the cover of Writer's Digest
. Entry fees are a little pricey at $25 for a story, $15 for a poem but there are lots of big prizes. Categories for many genres of fiction, Creative nonfic, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Early Bird deadline May 4th.
The Vestal Review
is looking for FLASH FICTION. Submissions are accepted February-May for the Vestal Review
, the oldest journal devoted exclusively to flash fiction. 500 words or less. Humor is a plus. Pays $$ plus copies.
WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS SHORT STORY CONTEST NO FEE!
Open to emerging diverse writers from all diverse backgrounds (including, but not limited to, LGBT, people of color, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural and religious minorities) who have not been published in BOOK format in any genre. The winner receives US $1,000 and publication in the “Stories For All Of Us” anthology to be published by Random House. Opens April 27--Deadline May 8.
Labels: Agent rejection, AgentQuery, How to get your book rejected, how to get your book reviewed, How to Query, How to Query a Blogger, Literary Rambles, QueryTracker