#QueryFail: TMI

Wendy Lawton

Blogger:  Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office

Weather: Warm and sunny

In the comments yesterday I mentioned how important it is for me to know something about the author in the query. When I agree to represent a new client I am representing that writer for a whole career, not just one book. I need to know who you are and what you’ve done. That said, however, it is important not to give TMI (too much information). Keep it succinct. Again, pique my interest. If you’ve been referred by one of my clients be sure to mention it.

What is TMI? Let me give you a few real-life examples– carefully redacted so as not to identify the writer.

Besides the book I have published (not a good publisher I ended up getting, I was young in the industry without much knowledge or business experience) . . .

Don’t denigrate another agent or publisher in your query letter. There’s enough time later to do a post-mortem of a failed book or a troubled agent/author relationship, but when you are just meeting someone it comes off as judgmental, blaming, and whiny. Your assessment may very well be true but you need a deeper relationship to risk the way it sounds.

As you can see from the following material, my wife and I are desperate. Our bankruptcy is in Federal Appeals Court (headed for the Supreme Court?), and our attorney, [name of attorney] aware of my intellectual property [name of manuscript] has advised me to offer it on the open market. Perhaps you can help.

Mentioning your financial need could well be the death knell for a query, no matter how wonderful the book. This industry moves slowly and a potential agent knows that, like any new business, it will take a number of years for an author to break even. A client who is financially strapped tends to write too fast out of desperation and make terrible decisions out of need that harm a long term career plan.

My name is [Jane Doe], I am a 41 year old divorced mom, (former victim of emotional and verbal abuse) dental hygienist, lecturer, home sex toy party sales person and author. My X husband lost his job 1 week after our “D” was final.  After years of hearing you’re nothing, how wrong he was.

Ignoring the sex toy sales job (way, way TMI), an agent is looking for a professional. It’s sad, but too much drama tends to get in the way of a writing career. Yes, we all have stuff in our past, but we need to have worked through that  before we take up pen to share universal truths through story. Even if you haven’t quite worked through your personal angst, don’t share it in a query. If you are writing a book in which your personal experiences form the basis of your expertise then that’s a different issue. Just be sure to be professional and emotionally detached in a query.

I am a new writer and have never, ever submitted any work to any agent or publisher.  But I had prayed about writing a worthwhile book and an idea just popped into my head one day.  I have been working on that idea for 2 months now and am planning on completing it by the fall. It is an excellent idea…straight from the mind of God Himself and I am humbled He gave it to me, of all people!

Anyone who knows me knows I believe God sometimes does inspire us but do not put it in a query. It’s one of those things you should silently ponder in your heart. As soon as you claim it in order to sell a book it makes it seem trite. A couple of other things from this query: a writer of only two months should not be querying agents. It’s time to begin studying the market, learning the craft and getting to know other writers. And do not denigrate yourself in your query like saying “me, of all people.” Writing a query letter is like applying for a job. You have to believe in yourself or you will never make it in this crazy industry.

As for marketing the story, I was hoping that would be your expertise; otherwise, if I had enough money, I would publish it myself.   I would make it a paperback, so it would be more affordable to parents with young children.  It would have glossy pages, so their sticky fingers wouldn’t ruin the book.  The book should be at least an 8-1/2 by 11 or larger, so it is visually appealing to the boys and girls and with large type so they can read along to some extent.  To add interactive play with the book, you could sell it with a stuffed toy that is accompanied with outfits.

If an agent asks for marketing ideas for a query do your homework. (Most agents do not want this in a query. Save it for the proposal.) Though most agents do help some with marketing ideas that is not our expertise. Also, by saying that if she had money she’d self-publish, it makes it appear that traditional publishing is this author’s last choice. And, above all, do not give directions for designing the book. That would even be presumptuous of an agent to say to a publisher.

I read only one book, when I was 6 years old, and it was 12 pages long. I went to the kindergarten, and read them my first and last book. Sure, I had to read when I went to school, and at work, but I would skim through everything and look for the most important things in the book, or in any manual. I have paid the consequences in my life, by not reading anyone’s books in my life. I am telling you the truth; I haven’t even read an entire magazine before!

This one was too sad. I think we can all read between the lines and see that this potential author must have a learning disability which does not in itself disqualify someone from being a writer. I represent a bestselling author who suffered from dyslexia in school. What does disqualify someone is if they don’t read. Even if one is reading-challenged, there are tried-and-true methods that can be employed to overcome it. It is imperative to read widely in your category or your genre. If you are not a reader, you cannot be a writer.

These are just a few examples. Have you ever wondered if you might be giving too much information?

14 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. Wow, if these folks are spilling this much info in their query letter, can you imagine what they’d be like to talk to? I’m thinking the personal info included should pertain to writing credits and qualifications. If you can snag an agent’s interest there’s plenty of time to voice concerns or be funny later.

  2. Wendy,

    I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts this week. I plan on linking them to my blog post, if that is all right with you, and discuss your information filled website.

    I was wondering if you should include magazine publications in your query letter? I’ve heard yes you should to show you are getting published and I’ve heard no because it doesn’t relate to the publication of a book.



  3. Entertaining and educational! Great post!

  4. Teri Dawn Smith says:

    Wow. Again. It’s hard for me to fathom that agents really get such query letters! Oh, the delete button is so easy.

    A quick question: When sending a query to Books & Such (as per your web instructions) are we ever targeting a specific agent? For instance, how would we seek representation from you or Janet specifically? Is there a place to mention this?

  5. Bethany says:

    Again, it’s pretty shocking to read these. I think I always assume agents are receiving professional, well-formulated queries and that mine must stand out among thousands of others who also did research and spent months perfecting their letter. O_O

  6. Yvette Bagert says:


    I wish I would have found your site months ago!! That being said, I can’t tell you how much your blog has helped me with minor issues. In my many months of internet agent searchs and CW&I finds, I have come to learn that each agent request their own guidelines for sending a query letter. I try to follow each one carefully and have gotten a few responses. Out of those few, maybe a couple of agents have taken the time to express why I was not accepted. Both saying my story was not one they would typically handle. (No problem–keep trying!!) Hopefully, it is not the way my query was written (only my thoughts), but the agent being truthful saying my story doesn’t fit their agency.

    Point being, I am hoping my query is suitable to each agent as no one has said differently. I try to make each one “Exclusive”, hence, the period of sitting on pins and needles!!

    I wish I would have found you a long time ago! I would have tried to send you a query for my story. (Just might do that soon!) Until then, I will continue to read your blog. Ya’ll are really a welcome site!! Keep up the blogging!

  7. Wendy,
    I love this post. However, the personal information is the part that really stumps me in queries. I have no publishing credits, no MFA, etc. And I know this less of an issue in fiction than non, but I hear such conflicting things: Nathan Bransford says mention it’s your first book and move on. Other agents say never mention it’s your first book. What’s your take on this issue? Do you have any prefences?
    Thanks for the great series this week!

  8. Having examples such as these are so edifying. The most difficult feedback is getting none at all.

    In my world of marketing, each of these queries suffer from what we call a lack of “you” phrasing. They are all in the form of “me” phrasing. It may seem harsh, but nobody really cares about “me” in the world of business (of which the publishing industry is a certified club member).

    When writing a job application, business proposal, or in this case a query letter to an agent, what is important is having a clear understanding of who the prospect is and what their needs are. Agents wear a different hat than we do, but they are on the same gerbil wheel as us in trying to make ends meet (i.e. make profitable decisions), using their time wisely and striving at being excellent at what they do.

    The only thing relevent about ourselves and our writing in our book queries and proposals is how our project will benefit the person receiving the letter. To accomplish this you must:

    * Research your prospect (Know exactly who and what they are looking for).
    * Make sure you’re filling a specific need of theirs
    * Decide what specific ways your book serves their need
    * Communicate powerfully focusing exclusively on how the benefits of your book fill their needs.

    With every sentence of your query you must ask, “Why will this convince my prospect I’m the answer?” If you’re not very confident it will, hit the delete button.

  9. Wendy Lawton says:

    Great comments. I find some of the best advice of all on blogs comes from the wisdom found in the comments.
    For those of you who asked what to tell about the author when the writing experience is slim: Just do your best. I don’t know if there’s a right and wrong way to do things. I wouldn’t mind hearing that an author has been writing for a number of years but this is the first book being shopped to agents.
    I also like when an author makes a connection, like “I met you at such and such conference,” or “I’m friends with [name of client] and like what I’ve heard from her.” (I will know this is not a formal recommendation– just a connection.) It doesn’t hurt to tell us you read the blog either– we begin to recognize name of those who comment and though it’s still about the book, it’s another nice connection. A community thing.

  10. Wendy Lawton says:

    Teri, when you are querying us at Books & Such you can put the agent’s name in the subject line (Query for Wendy Lawton) or in the body of the letter. Michelle gets these first and parcels them out.

    And thank you for checking out our guidelines. You are already ahead of 90% of those querying. 🙂

  11. patriciazell says:

    Thanks for the tips. I’m almost done writing my book on my blog (mostly thanks to Michael Hyatt’s blog posts and comments) and will soon be writing my proposal and looking for an agent. I’ve learned so much by reading and participating in blogs by agents and publishers. Your series on queries is coming at an opportune time for me. Thank you! 🙂

  12. Wendy,
    Many thanks for this series on queries as I’ve been working on a query letter to Etta Wilson through your agency. You’ve answered most of my questions. The only problem I see is that now you’ll be inundated with so many great queries, mine will be lost! 🙂

  13. Thank you so very much Wendy! I love when agents take the time to spell out things like this – standards for the industry and personal preferences. I wonder if blogging agents get more information suited to their prefences than agents who just have a submissions page on their site. A question I’m sure that probably can’t be easily measured. Great series!

  14. Cat Woods says:


    I’m adding one more thanks to the pile. The way you present this information is informative and illustrative. It leaves nothing to our imaginations. It’s pretty easy to misread the directive to not include too much information. It’s something else entirely when we can see first hand what that means.