Following the Rules: Queries
Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
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You’ve seen a number of agent blogs and agent twitters talking about query tips and #queryfail. Agent websites are filled with instructions on how and how-not to query. Nearly every writer’s conference offers a session or two on queries and pitching.
It’s enough to make a writer go apoplectic.
If someone had unlimited time and decided to collect all the tips and all the rules from every tweet, blog and website, I’m guessing those tips could fill a book. Or two. And interestingly enough, I’ll bet every single rule will be contradicted a number of times.
So what’s a writer to do?
Here are my own common sense generic rules for queries:
- If you want to increase your chances of getting that all-important proposal request from your target agent, read the guidelines on his/her website and follow them. This falls into the “do no harm” category.
- If, on the other hand, you are sending to scores of agents and you don’t want to take the time to individualize the queries and the protocol to meet the agency guidelines, just realize that you may be hurting your chances on a percentage of these. It may be worth the trade-off to you.
- If you decide to use a query service, just be aware that all those queries are formatted the same and they strip you of any distinctiveness. We can spot them at first glance. Again, it can lower your odds.
- Let your query style match the voice of your book. It you write humor, let the query show this. If it is academic, the query needs to reflect that.
- Try not to be annoying. For instance, opening with a rhetorical question has become cringe-worthy to those of us who read queries.
- The things that are important, aside from telling us what the story or book is about, are whether you’ve been referred and if you’ve published successfully previously (especially if you have a strong readership or fabulous sales numbers). For me, hearing that you’ve self-published is usually a negative.
Just do the best you can to craft a query that makes it difficult for the agent to say “no thanks.” And let your e-query be only one of many methods you’re pursuing to get an agent or a publishing contract. You also need to:
- Meet editors and agents in person at writer’s conferences
- Submit directly to those publishers still open to unagented queries
- Enter contests judged by agents and editors
- Continue to connect with published writers who may make introductions
Would I “disqualify” an otherwise excellent query because it did not follow our guidelines? Of course not. Agents are in the business of trying to find bright new talent. The guidelines are just our way of trying to get the info we think we need in order to ferret out the exciting stuff in the most efficient way.
Now it’s your turn: What makes you crazy about this process? Do you find the rules confusing? What has worked for you? Any advice?