Sunday, March 10, 2013

The #1 Reason for #QueryFails—How to Avoid Automatic Rejection from a Reviewer, Agent, Editor or Blogger

Whether you’re a freelance journalist trying to place an article, a novelist looking for literary representation, or an indie author seeking reviews and/or guest post gigs, every writer needs to learn to write a smart, short, compelling query letter. (And no, it can't be a Tweet or personal message on Facebook. Please.)

A query only needs three paragraphs:

1) A statement of why you’re contacting this particular editor/agent/blogger and what you’re offering.
2) A three-to-four sentence synopsis presenting the book, blogpost or article,
3) A quick mention of your most notable qualifications.

Then close with a nice thank you.

That’s it.

Sounds easy. But it’s way hard. Believe me, I know. It’s tearing-out-hair hard. Banging-head-on-desk hard. Especially writing the dreaded synopsis. If you need help in the daunting task of writing your pitch, we can offer some in our post on Hooks, Loglines and Pitches.

But you know what isn’t hard?

Visiting the agent/editor/blogger’s website before you write the query.

And yet this is the number one reason queries are rejected.
  • Agents say their most common reason for rejecting a manuscript is that it’s not in a genre they represent. You can avoid this by reading the bio on their agency website and looking for key phrases like, "genres I represent."
  • Book reviewers say their most common reason for not reviewing a book is it’s not in a genre they read. The genres they review will be stated on the blog.
  • Magazine editors say the most common reasons for passing on an article or proposal are 1) the article is not compatible with the content of the magazine or 2) They ran a similar article recently. You used to have to buy issues of the magazine to see what kind of things they buy and find out about recent article topics. Now you can find sample articles and a table of contentsor maybe even the whole magazineonline.
  • The major reason I personally turn down an author or publicist asking me to review a book on my blog is: I DON’T HAVE A BOOK REVIEW BLOG. Um, look around. How many book reviews do you see? 
  • I also don’t take on a prospective guest blogger who’s a beginning writer who offers to “write on the subject of your choice: free of charge.” Why? The answer is on our “Contact Us” page.
One click. Thirty seconds. Probably quicker than cutting and pasting my email address into that mass query. And think of all the wear and tear on your psyche you’ll save by cutting down on those rejections.

Seriously, it usually takes less than half a minute’s visit to a website or blog to find out if you should be querying or not.

Looking for a review of your inspirational YA romance? If all the book covers on the site have naked male chests on them, you're probably not going to get a review here. And you wouldn't like the review if they wrote one.

Looking for an agent to rep your occult horror novel? If there's a "Scripture quote of the day" in the sidebar and the agents' clients are all published by Christian publishers like Thomas A. Nelson and Zondervan, you're going to be wasting your time.

A few moments more and you can click on the “about me” or “submission guidelines” page and get exciting information like “what I’m looking for” from an agent and see that part where she says “If I ever see another vampire romance, I’m going to drive a stake through my own heart.”

See how much heartbreak an author can save herself with a couple of clicks?

Querying somebody in business isn’t that different from asking somebody on a date (in principle—not in style, please. Always remember a query is a business letter. Candy and flowers may get you noticed, but not in the way you want.)

Most important: the letter needs to be about what you can offer THE OTHER PERSON, not about your own needs.

Which of the following emails do you think would be more likely to land this guy a date?

“Hey there, human being with lady parts (cc half the human race) — 

I’m a five foot ten inch hetero male with brown eyes and hair. I have a degree in English lit from State. Well, almost. I didn’t finish because of the expulsion thing, but the hazing accident at DKE house totally wasn’t my fault. 

I really need a girlfriend. I haven’t got laid in almost a year, because most women are such bitches they won’t give you the time of day. I don't have a car, but I keep very fit riding my bicycle every day, so NO FATTIES! 

But you probably don’t want to go out with me because I live in my mom’s basement and I only work part time as a bike messenger. But I have a much tighter butt than George Clooney, who is just an old guy and totally overrated. 

Please write back by midnight tonight or I’ll kill myself. 

Very Truly Yours,
Desperate Dan”

Or this one?

“Hi Marci—

Fun talking to you in the line at Starbucks yesterday. (I’m Dan, the guy with the dorky bike helmet.)  You sure know a lot about bike trails in the Bay Area. Just as you were rushing to get back to work, you mentioned you did a bike tour of Canada last summer.  I’m planning one myself and sure would like to talk with you about your trip.

Would you like to meet up at Starbucks again next week? I’ll buy your Venti half-caf soy latte!

Hope to see you soon—

The first one is all about Dan and his needs. The second one pays attention to Marci—it mentions her interests (and even her coffee order) and why she is a person he wants to get to know. Notice he didn’t shower her with meaningless over-the-top compliments. He asks to meet her for coffee because of what she has to say, not just because he so desperately wants to get an agent a book review laid.

Like Marci, agents, editors and bloggers usually on the run and wildly busy—and fulfilling your needs isn’t in their job description.

If you want a relationship with somebody—whether it's personal or business—you have to show you're a person who's pleasant to be around and respects others. No matter how fantastic your book, content or gluteus maximus, if you treat everybody as interchangeable ciphers, they’re not going to want to work with you.

And you know what? You don’t have to stand in the same line at Starbucks to get to know agents, editors and bloggers these days.

Back in the olden days when I started querying, you had to go to conferences and buy big expensive books like Writers’ Market or Jeff Herman’s Guide every year just to get a few agents' names—and the books were always out of date by the time they went to print.

Now, through the magic of the Interwebz, all that info is available to you—up-to-date and absolutely free—at the proverbial click of a mouse.

So why do so many people fail to use it?

I think some writers are using publicity agencies. A lot of the generic queries I get sound the same, so one place may be churning out a lot of similar generic crapola.

It should be obvious how counter-productive it is to hire somebody to alienate bloggers for you. Blogging is a social medium. Be social. Read book bloggers in your genre regularly. You get big pluses if they recognize you as a regular commenter.

Even though this blog usually has well-known authors and industry professionals as guests, and we've hosted literary icons and movie stars, we'll consider a guest post from a newbie if 1) the topic is unique and useful to our readers and 2) the query comes from a regular commenter. But I have to reject 90% of queries I get. Why? 90% of queriers haven't read this blog. All they know is we have great stats and lots of eyeballs looking in, so WE can do a lot for THEM. But they don't think about what they can do for us or our readers.

Agent-querying services are even worse. Any agent's assistant will pass on a mass query without reading it. When they see that “Dear Mr. or Ms. Esteemed Agent-Person” salutation, they can’t hit the delete button fast enough. Your money has been wasted.

But your book is brilliant! Exquisitely written!! You’re the next Dan Brown/JK Rowling/Hugh Howey rolled into one!!! Plus you have an MFA!!!!

Thing is: the quality of your book doesn’t matter—any more than Desperate Dan’s tight butt—if nobody sees it. If you turn people off from the get-go, nobody sees your fabulous qualities or reads that brilliant, heart-stopping synopsis you’ve been honing for months.

And for those of you who are looking for reviews from book bloggers, I’ll repeat below the wonderful tips we got last year from book review blogger Danielle Smith of There’s a Book.

I need to add that Danielle is no longer a just a book reviewer. As of this week, she has become a literary agent! Yes, Danielle is now an agent repping children's books at the powerhouse new agency Foreword Literary. She’s zoomed from book blogger to assistant to agent in a matter of months—Yes, book bloggers ARE the new gatekeepers. So treat them right!

Congrats to Danielle, Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, Gordon Wornock, and Foreword Literary Agency founder Laurie McLean on their exciting new venture.

You can read Laurie McLean's predictions for the world of publishing in 2013 in our archives. She didn’t tell us then that future would include an exciting new agency with a cutting-edge outlook and traditional publishing deal-making skills, but this development does fit into her forward-looking predictions.

Some tips on Approaching Book Review Bloggers

How do you find the right book bloggers to query?

The best way is to check similar books in your genre—especially those that have been recently released. Do a search for those titles with the word “review” and read as many reviews as you can. Make a list of the reviewers you like and read their review policies.

Yes, there are lists of reviewers out there. I’m suggesting this instead of relying on lists because reviewers get their calendars filled up fast and change policies often. Using a prepared list can lure you into mass querying. So if you do use a list, remember you still need to visit each blog before querying. You’ll get better results and make fewer enemies.

  • Keep queries short and intriguing. 
  • Don’t take it personally if they turn you down. Reading takes a lot of time and most of them are swamped. 
  • Understand the review is for the READER, not the writer, so negative reviews happen. 
  • If you get a less than stellar review, mourn in private and move on. NEVER respond to a negative review.
 Danielle Smith's Guidelines for Authors Seeking Reviews
  • Make sure you address the blogger by name
  • Include a two to four sentence synopsis—no longer
  • Keep personal information to a minimum. And don’t guilt-trip.
  • Attach an image of the book cover
  • For children's books, give the age range of the intended audience
  • Include the page count (for print books)
  • Provide the publication date
  • Don’t ask for a review outside the blogger’s genre
  • Don’t query if you don’t have a website or a blog. (That screams “unprofessional” to a blogger.)

In other words, treat the book blogger like a professional and she will reciprocate. And for goodness sake: VISIT THE BLOG!!

What about you, scriveners? Have you made this mistake in your query history? (I’m not going to pretend I’m innocent. I cringe at my old queries. I finally burned them all in a big bonfire last year.) What’s the dumbest query mistake you ever made? 

BLOG NEWS: Next week's guest post is from Boomer Lit author Michael Murphy. "So You Want to Use Song Lyrics in Your Novel? 5 Steps to Getting Rights to Lyrics." This is essential information Michael learned when writing his Woodstock novel, Goodbye Emily. Do NOT publish a book using song lyrics without reading this. You can end up owing thousands to the copyright owners.


1) BiblioPublishing is looking for submissions of out-of-print or new books for publication through their small press. This 25-year-old press (formerly called The Educational Publisher) is branching out from educational books to other nonfiction and selected fiction. They're especially looking for self-help and sci-fi. They provide cover design, formatting and distribution, but ask your ms. be pre-edited. They publish in print as well as all ebook formats

2) Interested in having your short fiction recorded for a weekly podcast?There’s no pay, but it’s fantastic publicity if your story is accepted by SMOKE AND MIRRORS. They broadcast about three stories a week. Spooky, dark tales preferred. No previous publication necessary. They judge on the story alone.

3) Cash prizes for flash fiction. The San Luis Obispo NIGHTWRITERS are holding their annual 500-word story contest. Anybody from anywhere in the world is welcome to enter. Prizes are $200, $150 and $75. This is a fantastic organization that boasts a number of bestselling authors among their members, including Jay Asher, Jeff Carlson, and moi. (Well, some sell better than others :-) ) Deadline is March 31st.

4) Ploughshares Emerging Writers Contest. The prestigious literary journal Ploughshares runs a number of contests during the year. Winning or placing looks really good in a query. Plus there's a cash prize of $1000 in each category. This one is limited to writers who have not yet published. They're looking for poems and literary stories of up to 6000 words. Deadline is April 2.

5) FREE BOOK: Sherwood, Ltd, Anne's hilarious Camilla Randall mystery set in Merrie Olde England, is FREE for your Kindle, Nook, iPad or any other e-reading device for a few more weeks. You can pick it up here.


  1. Excellent post! I liked your analogy with the date letters - quite humorous!

  2. I've found book review blogs for my publisher. Some never respond but most will send me a mailing address to forward. Never included the cover art before, as I know some people delete emails with attachments right away.
    I have guest post guidelines on my blog, but it's amazing how many emails I get from people who don't read them.

  3. Great advice as always, Anne, not only informative but I love the chuckles I get along the way. I'll keep sending away my queries, but will take your advice and cut my pitch to 3-4 sentences. Hopefully I'll get to write you soon with some good news there! (Literary fiction: onward!)

  4. Anne—No wonder Desperate Dan hasn't gotten laid in a year! lol You've created a perfect example of everything NOT to do.

    Your advice is, as always, excellent. So much of it comes down to basic common sense and good manners. Amazing how those two elements seem to be in such short supply.

    I get requests, not even polite ones, from writers who more or less act like they expect me to review their books. Like you, I'm not a reviewer. Don't they notice?

    And don't they notice I can be quite snarky. Doesn't that make them think they might not be exactly thrilled with a review even if I did write one????

  5. But doing that summary of the novel is not all the simple either. I think that's also where a lot of writers fail. I used to do query critiques, and we'd see backstory and explanations or world building, but nothing about what the story was actually about. The writer would rush back to fix and do the exactly the same thing again, rephrased.

  6. Sherry--Thanks. I had fun with Desperate Dan's letter. Especially the remark about George Clooney. So many newbie queriers think it's OK to compare themselves to the superstars.

    Alex--You have great guest post guidelines. They inspired me to put some on our "contact us" page.

    Christine--Getting that pitch whittled down really helps sell the book, if you can do it.

    Ruth--I have no doubt we're getting the same letters. It's tough to figure out how people can be so clueless. That's why I figure they're coming from some scam outfit that just mass queries a million bloggers.

    Linda--Absolutely. As I said above: writing that 3-4 line synopsis is head-bangingly hard. We do have a post on how to write those. Just put "Hooks, Loglines and Pitches" in the search window. I should put the link in the body of the post. I'll do that right now. But no matter how good the pitch, if you send it to the wrong agent, you'll get rejected.

  7. Good tips and common sense, but a lot of people want a shortcut. That clutters it up for those of us who do visit the various sites to read up on the requirements.

    In addition, the use of superlatives has gone OTT. If everything is great, fantastic and the best thing you've ever read, the eyes start to glaze over. This is the first thing that turns me off in reading reviews. I've noticed that it's quite common in certain genres, which I won't name.

    Excellent post.

  8. Thank you so much Anne! What a fantastic and timely post. It's difficult to write that succinct of a query and it doesn't always guarantee success, but it will no doubt improve your chances of getting noticed. (Not to mention giving me more time to get to even more queries in a day.)

    And yes! Please please please visit the review and/or agents website! I can't begin to tell you how many times I've turned someone away simply because they don't match my genres at all. Think of all the time they could be devoting to finding the right reviewer/agent!

    Thank you so much for all of your support Anne!

  9. Thank you for this fun, interesting and helpful article.

  10. Thanks for the tips on queries. I'm working on mine now.

    And so true people need to check submission guidelines. At Literary Rambles, we spotlight agents in the children's publishing field. Sometimes people don't read and send me queries like I'm an agent.

    Good to know about the new agency. It sounds cool.

  11. Thanks for another entertaining post. You are so good at giving us the info we always need with a laugh we can always use.

  12. HI, Anne, and a wonderful post as always. One thing that works for me is this: Once I find reviewers in my writing area, LGBT, and ones who have reviewed my e books in the past, I often send out queries to them when a new book comes out. I direct them to my website that lists a short synopsis and also an excerpt. Just something I carried over from my days of submitting to literary journals. After I find someone who publishes/reviews what I write, I stick with them. So far, so good.
    Keep up the great posts, Anne. Paul

  13. I've contacted a few book reviewers, but never had any luck. I did all the things you suggested, but no one ever responded so I just gave up. A lot of book reviewers won't review self-published authors. So now I rely on the luck of the Irish and whoever reads my book and has something to say about it. Sometimes they're not kind, but you have to take what you can get.

  14. D. G--That is the best comment ever!! You're such a genius!!! Seriously, I hear you. I get so tired of those comments. Shortcuts are the problem. People think they're taking a shortcut by mass querying, but actually they're taking a road in the opposite direction.

    1st Daughter (aka Danielle) I'm so jazzed for all of you. I think this agency is going to be in the vanguard of 21st century publishing. Congrats! And thanks again for the great tips.

    Leanne--Thanks for stopping by!

    Natalie--I had to cut it for space, but originally I gave Literary Rambles a mention. You have such a useful site. Interviews and profiles of many, many agents. Not all rep children's books exclusively, so it's always worth a visit to your site before querying.

    Christine--It's always a little iffy to put humor on the Web. So many people just don't get it. I suppose I'll probably get a few angry tweets from dateless guys named Dan...sigh.

    Paul--Great tip. Once somebody likes your style, they'll probably appreciate a free copy of your latest book. Even if they don't review it, that spreads good will.

    Anne--That's the biggest problem, definitely: most reviewers won't touch self-or small-press pubbed books. And the few that do review indies don't want small-publisher books. I have a very hard time finding reviewers. That's part of the reason I'm so appalled at the number of requests I get to review other people's books.

    There may be a dearth of bloggers in your field, too. Regency readers tend not to be that tech-oriented.

  15. Anne, although we can learn from trial and error ... it's so much better to come here and learn the painless way :)

    Thanks for another informative posts and for providing links each week. Good to know some of this is working for your readers :)

  16. What a great article. I'm bookmarking it. I always love your posts.

  17. Wait, is that why I had a hard time getting dates in college? Anne, you and Ruth are supposed to be the literary sorceresses, not the mind-penetrating relationship counselors. :)

    Thanks as always for another well-written post. I have not gotten to the point of writing a query for anything yet, but as far as guests posts on someone else’s blog go, I have tried establishing at least a nodding familiarity with the bloggers I admire. If I ever send a query, I’d like them to have some clue of who I am, what I’m about, and what they can reasonably expect from me. That will not always be possible, but I would hope the work collaboration can be more of a partnership than a casual encounter, to borrow your dating analogy.

    Also, thanks again for the slow blog movement. I’ve switched to posting once a week, have an editorial calendar laid out for the next few months, and I have you to thank for not feeling guilty about my approach. Now I can hold down a full-time job, keep up a couple blogs, and have plenty of time to actually work on my novella. You guys print the kind of material that keeps on giving here. Excellent work!

  18. Excellent post, Anne. I'm amazed at how many people can find the email address to submit a book for review to my blog, yet don't read or follow the instructions on the submission page. If they can't get those basic things right when they're so easy to find, why would I think them capable of writing a book I'd want to read?

  19. Florence--LOL. As I say, I make mistakes so you don't have to...

    Connie--Thanks for all your support.

    Joe "Literary Sorceresses" I like that. :-) Maybe we should put it in the header...? Yes, it's all about establishing relationships. That's what the professional marketers don't seem to get: social media is SOCIAL. I'm so glad you've joined the Slow Bloggers. It's not for everybody. People who want to establish themselves primarily as blogger rather than novelists need to blog more often, but most of us do just fine with a slow blog.

    Big Al--Thanks so much for stopping by! We're honored to have a visit from such a prominent book reviewer. Yeah--I can't figure out how they get our email addresses and manage to avoid getting any idea of what the blog is about. It sure doesn't impress me with their observation abilities--which are kind of important in a writer.

  20. This is an extremely important post -- and excellent, of course. I don't understand why someone wouldn't do the research before they start querying. I believe a majority of writers spend a lot of time making their manuscript as fabulous as possible, so why not take at least a good amount of time to research literary agents or book bloggers? It can only help you. Even when I'm not querying, I keep up to date with literary agents I'm interested on through twitter, Publisher's Marketplace, and their blogs (since most have blogs or at least an agency blog). It's extremely helpful, because I know who is open to querying and who has changed their preferred genres -- plus, I can get a feel for what is going on in the literary world.

    And congratulation, Danielle, on Foreword Agency! I heard about the agency opening on Publisher's Marketplace. There are a lot of talented agents there :)

  21. Fab post, as usual. Thank you for that advice about searching for reviews of similar books. When I go through the lists that are out there I wind up so bleary-eyed after visiting blog after blog that is not the right fit that I wind up sending out nothing.

  22. Hi Anne,
    Great post and some very insightful advice. One would hope much of it is common sense, however, life experience does help with that. I had my wrist soundly slapped by an agent who was the unfortunate recipient of my first ever query letter. I made the grave error of comparing myself to Elizabeth Gilbert! One can dream, right?

    I've done a few blog tours now, create my own lists and haven't used the same one twice. I have pulled from lists created by others but, you're absolutely right about not doing an email blast to a list created by someone else. Many of the reviewers not only didn't review my genre, but weren't even accepting submissions because of a back log. Your message to 'do your homework' is right on.

    Love your blog! Thanks for the great content and resources.


  23. Kim--It sounds as if you're doing a great job of "homework." Subscribing to the Publishers Lunch newsletter from Publishers Marketplace is a great way to learn about the industry. And it's FREE! Everything changes so fast, and PL is one of the best ways to keep current.

    Alicia--I had the same experience. I thought those lists were a gold mine until I realized that most reviewers get a full schedule within months of hanging out their shingle. Then they're just annoyed when they hear from you. Especially if you're indie.

    Anne--At least you compared yourself to a current bestseller. I'm afraid I compared myself to a classic literary icon. I'm too embarrassed to say which one. :-) And reviewers change their preferences too often for the lists to be that useful. When I met Danielle, she read chick lit. She moved into YA, then children's. Now she only reps chapter books and picture books. Only way to know is to visit her blog.

  24. I can't imagine how I've never come across this blog before. Thanks for the insightful advice on this post, and the links. I'm now a follower, and will be a regular reader.

  25. Anne, I cracked up over "It should be obvious how counter-productive it is to hire somebody to alienate bloggers for you." and Ruth's comment about being kind of snarky. I guess a version of Ruth is what you deserve if you are not doing your homework before querying bloggers. I am in the middle of a course on how to do a blog tour so I am so glad I read this before I queried everyone on the YA list.

    I do have one question, but only if you have time to answer: In Ya fantasy, there are 2 kinds of book. Romantic 'Twilight' aimed at girls and then 'Harry Potter' aimed at everyone. Mine is aimed at the 'Harry Potter' crowd. (although the storyline is nothing like HP) How do I convey this in an instant without comparing to 'Harry Potter'?

  26. Aaah, this is JUST the post I needed right now - thank you very much Anne! :D

  27. Informative and funny, I always enjoy your posts!

    My biggest blunder in queries? Not aiming so much at the wrong person as saying TOO MUCH! I find it very hard to be concise and to transmit the idea of a 250 page book in 2 lines...

    As Tolstoy said about Anna Karenina: if I had to explain it, I'd throw the whole book at you! Yes, but he was Tolstoy and could afford not to worry.

    Alas, us poor 21st century writers, we can't!

  28. Damyanti--I'm so glad you found us. Welcome!

    Karen--Blog tours are best if you plan them yourself so it sounds as if you're learning some important stuff.

    As far as YA fantasy, I think Twilight is more paranormal romance, so if you say 'YA fantasy' that should be pretty clear. Fantasy is usually going to have wizards in alternative worlds, while paranormal will have vampires, shapeshifters etc inhabiting the "real" world. Also, It's not terrible to mention the world of Hogworts. Just don't say you're a better writer than JKR. :-)

    Charley--Glad to be of help. I hope you can get some reviews!

    Claude--Alas, we Boomers who grew up in the era of being paid by the word have trouble with the brevity thing. Distilling a story to its essence can strip if of subtlety and charm. But we gotta do it anyway. :-(

  29. Hi Anne,
    As usual your post was chock full of goodies for me to follow up on.
    Love the date letters. My husband's name is Dan. Phew! Good thing that wasn't him.

  30. This was such an awesome blog post that I had to share it with my blog readers.
    It was well written and fascinating. A great reminder for me as I begin querying. :)

  31. It's reassuring to find out what I'm doing right, and also what I can improve on. Thanks so much for sharing your advice! :)

  32. Tracy--I have a nephew named Dan, so I trust he won't think it's about him. :-) I only used that name because "Desperate George" didn't have the same ring to it.

    Karen--Thanks so much for giving me a shout out on your blog!

    JC--Isn't it nice to find out you're doing something right? It's so much easier to get to "know" agents and reviewers than it used to be.

  33. As a blogger, there's nothing more annoying than an email that says 'Dear Blogger'. My name is very easy to find on my blog.

    I am a marketing professional as well as a writer and i do publicity for people in all sorts of industries. I think there can be benefits to publicists going out to get book reviews on blogs but you need to choose the right one.

    A publicist should have a relationship with book bloggers, authors and be a regular commenter on both types of blogs.

  34. Jet--Oooh yeah. "Dear Blogger, as the owner of Anne R. Allen's Blog, we'd like to make you an offer, Blogger..." Um, no I don't want to do business with a moron, thanks. I gets so many of those. I guess they must be done by robots.

    I did NOT mean to put down publicists. Just the useless ones. A good publicist has relationships with reviewers and bloggers and those connections can make a huge difference in a career.

  35. Great post and very timely for me, as I'm gearing up to promo my debut romance novella. I'll definitely take these tips when approaching potential reviewers and seeking opportunities for guest blog slots.


  36. Dana--I think a lot of authors don't realize a book reviewer needs to be queried the same way as an agent. (And here we thought our query days were over :-)) Good luck with your launch!


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