One of my first real jobs was working for a bank, taking phone calls.
I’ll never forget it. Some of the kindest people you know can be downright vicious when they call their bank. Trust me. I’ve been called names that can’t be repeated on an HBO mini-series. But almost every call begins and ends the same way—someone thought they had more money in their account than they did, and they realized after doing the math that they were wrong. We’d backtrack to the last time they knew their balance, then I’d ask them to pull out a calculator and (out loud, with me) confirm if every transaction was one they’d made. The end result, of course, was almost invariably that the balance was correct.
Because you can’t invent your way out of numbers. Sometimes, you might figure out why you misunderstood the numbers, sure. But you can’t make them say something other than what they’re saying.
Sometimes, creative problem solving doesn’t work.
Now, we’ve all been there. Every single person I know who is responsible with their money was almost invariably, at one point in time, irresponsible with it. Or on the rarest of occasions, they watched someone be irresponsible with it. And that often taught them a valuable lesson.
So let me be the first to tell you (if no one has already) that querying is a lot like managing your bank account balance. It’s a pragmatic problem that requires a practical solution, rather than a creative one. But the first time you learn about querying, your brain won’t like this. It will want to find a creative solution, because art is creative, and writing is an art form. And your brain will be half right. Writing is creative. It is an art form. But queries? They’re more like resumes or CVs than they are like writing.
Hand over the glitter, the construction paper and the creative half of your brain, and let’s talk about seven common query letter strategies that are terrible, no good, very bad ideas, so you can learn from those who’ve made these mistakes.
7 Common Query Letter Strategies That Don't Work
1. The rules of querying obviously apply to everyone else, but I’m going to break them because ______.
When we first hear about this whole query game, we often hear about staggering numbers. Some agencies receive 50-100 queries a day. We immediately see a problem of volume, and want our query to stand out. And we, of course, immediately start developing creative solutions. First and foremost, we consider “changing” the process, or bending the rules. We see agents want a query that is 3 paragraphs long, or under 250 words, or that includes the genre or says something about why we wrote the book, and we think “to heck with all of that! If I do that, I’ll just be like all those other jokers! Hand me my glitter pen, Sadie!” (That’s my dog, for the record).
But this is bad. You see, an agent already knows you’re creative. And if they don’t, they only need to look at those brilliant shiny pages to realize that you are. These pesky rules are not hoops. These are term paper guidelines. These are resume/CV standards. These are interview rules. Walking into an interview in a bunny costume will definitely make you stand out, but not in the way you hoped. So read the rules carefully and follow them even more carefully. Because how accurately you accomplish this task will speak well of your capacity in the future to respond to your editors with some semblance of professionalism. Think of it more as a trust building exercise, or an introduction to an investor/business partner.
2. I bet I’ll be more marketable if I tell the agent how many people loved my book (or include a headshot)!
Set down the camera, friend! When’s the last time you picked up a book, looked at the author photo, and thought, “Yep, this is the book I want to buy”? I’m guessing never. I certainly haven’t.
The purpose of your query is the same as the purpose of the back of a book. You fill it with words that describe the first act or the first 50 or 100 pages of your novel because you’re trying to entice an agent into reading the pages. Keeping this in mind, it will not read exactly like back-cover copy. Because your audience is very specific (agents). A card trick works for most people, but perhaps not for a magician. A rhetorical question might get your friends or your parents intrigued, but an agent likely will see right through the ruse. This is a specific sales pitch for a specific audience. It has its own rules.
The purpose of your query is to tell the agent as specifically as possible about the events that transpire in your book, not who loved it or what your beta readers thought or how it breaks all the boundaries of genre and language and history itself will be changed. That means sharing the triggering event, the main character, the choice they have to make, and what they have to lose (stakes) if they mess it all up. Queries need to tell an agent what the book is about.
3. I know the agent asks for 10 pages in the body of the email, but I’ll send the first 200 because they won’t be able to put it down.
Go back to number one and remember, they’re perfectly capable of asking for more. Now, most agents are not counting the number of pages exactly. So if the end of your chapter rounds out on page 11 or 12, you’re probably safe to include 11 or 12 pages. But don’t include 20 or 30 and expect an agent (who reads a LOT of books) to not notice. Trust the process. Follow the guidelines.
4. I hear confidence is a plus. I’ll let them know how my book is destined to be a NYT bestseller.
Sure, confidence is great. But there’s confidence, and there’s the next best thing since air. You don’t need to make big claims, because the purpose of your query is not to prove how amazing you are. The purpose is to tell an agent what the book is about. Every agent on the planet wants desperately for all of their clients to have NYT Bestselling novels. And that’s their role, to fight for that book and get the best deal possible with the best terms and the best marketing and the right placement with the right publisher so that hopefully you both can buy separate (yet adjoining) private islands. But let’s get to that when we get to that. Right now, an agent just wants to hear about your book. As a general rule of thumb, don’t talk about marriage on a first date, and don’t talk about hitting the NYT list on your first email.
5. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to send my query en masse to 100 agents with the click of a button? I hear blind-cc is a thing! I will do that!
It would be! In fact, it’d almost be too easy! But unfortunately, much like finding a job, the hope is that you apply for jobs that you are qualified for, can do well, and have researched at least a little bit. And sending emails to a hundred people all at once that have the same generic “Dear Agent” is going to be about as effective as photocopying a McDonald’s application and mailing it to every fast food and restaurant chain across the globe.
Easy is not always good. Sending mass emails is creative problem solving, but remember, this part of the process is not the time for creative problem solving. Personalize your email. Address it to the correct person. Add maybe a sentence showing you know who you’re talking to and why you’re querying them. It may feel a little like lip-service but the point here is proving you at least spent 10 seconds googling the agent before blindly sending the email.
6. I’ll write my query as if I am the main character.
I bet it’s worked for someone, somewhere, at some point in history. But taking a task that’s already incredibly difficult (summarizing 50-100 pages of your novel in 250 words or less, while telling all the core components of the story AND maintaining an engaging voice—aka making the agent want to read the book), is hard enough without added stipulations. And no, that’s not a challenge. You’re decreasing your odds by doing this, and writer, my friend, you are not the first… and won’t be the last.
This would be like getting called down to the floor at a basketball game and asked to take a shot from half court for a million dollar prize… but just before shooting, you tear off a piece of your shirt and blindfold yourself. Because style points… right?
7. I’ve got it. I’ll query, then quickly tell the agent I’ve got an offer for representation! It may be a lie, but they’ll never know!
Let me just point out that beginning any relationship on the basis of lies is a really great way to end any relationship very quickly. This does happen, and agents are very wise to it. Because it’s not all that hard to figure out. The moral issues aside, this tactic is unlikely to work in your favor. Let me play it out for you so you can see how it’ll cause you to shoot yourself in both feet.
Agent: “Wow, congratulations on the offer! Who is offering?”
Author: “Oh, umm. I’d prefer not to say. Confidentiality and stuff.”
Agent, who smells something funny: “Oh! Ok. Well I think I’ll withdraw myself from consideration. Good luck with your new agent!”
Three Months Later: That’s weird, that author with an offer didn’t take it... And here they are querying me again… well then.
Agent: “Wow, congratulations on the offer! Who is offering?”
Author: “Umm… Jerry Springfield! Yes! Jerry is offering!”
Agent: “Oh that’s awesome! I get drinks with Jerry every Friday! He’s a great agent! I’ll need some time to think on this”
Agent: Sends email to Jerry asking if he’s offering you a contract. No? That’s strange.
Yup. It’s a bad idea. A royally bad idea. And it’s a great way to ensure that you’ll never be represented by that agent, and possibly other agents as well.
Writing a good query is incredibly difficult. I should know. I’ve read a whole lot of them, and even knowing how it works on the other side of the fence, having seen the process in action, it still takes me about fifteen or twenty drafts to come close to what I want to say. And that’s with following the rules.
So if you’re in this camp, if you’ve thought of some of these strategies above and wondered about them, even in passing, I want you to trust me when I tell you that these are creative solutions to pragmatic problems. And when you consider them rationally, in the light of day, when you do the math, you will find that these completely original ideas perhaps do not hold water as effectively as you thought they did.
Querying is a hard road. But you will set yourself apart simply by following the rules and doing it well.
You can do it, writer! I know you can!