Writers – Don’t Try This at Home

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Sometimes my inbox turns up the most interesting things. For example, this query I received:

→ It showed over a dozen agents’ email addresses in the “to” line.

→ It was addressed to “Dear Sir/Madam.” (I don’t answer to either.)

→ It was not even remotely related to “Christian worldview” which is our agency’s specialty.

→ It didn’t include the elements required in a query letter as explained in the Books & Such submission guidelines.

→ Best of all, the letter stated that that the writer believed I was “exactly the right agent” for the project—apparently all the other agents on the list fit this description too.

→ And just to make things interesting, the book was pitched as a novel but was only 35,000 words… a novella, for which the market is really tough for a debut writer.

rejectedMany agents would simply delete this query, unanswered. I chose to respond briefly, saying that I couldn’t consider the query, but asked the writer to read agent submission guidelines to better determine who might be a fit for the project.

If you want agents to spend time reading and considering your query, you would be smart to:
(1) research the agency
(2) address it to the agent’s name, and
(3) not let your “to” line show other addressees

Does that sound reasonable?

Have you had any interesting adventures in querying?



Here’s how to make sure a literary agent doesn’t respond to your query. (Click to Tweet.)

Hint: Most literary agents don’t respond to “Sir/Madam.” (Click to Tweet.)


24 Responses

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  1. Ah, so my query DID arrive! (Brief pause while I hurriedly retool my current query strategy.)
    * Aside from the usual completely contradictory feedback (craft is great/craft needs help…story is too dark/story is too pollyannish…premise is original/premise is derivative), I haven’t had too many drama with queries.
    * Well, except for the agent who said that if I ever queried him again he’d come to my house and beat me senseless.
    * Seriously, every query I’ve ever sent has been written to the agency in question, after doing as much research as possible, and I do read the guidelines.
    * I can’t imagine taking liberties at this point, because what’s showcased is not only my writing but my willingness to be cooperative…which will be sorely tested when the demands for edits come in. Portraying myself as as something of an ‘entitled special case’ does not seem to be a strategically intelligent move.

  2. Looking for an agent is like looking for a job. One size doesn’t fit all.
    * Back in the very olden days when I worked in Chicago, I would sort through the responses to our blind ads in the Tribune, making three stacks: probably, possibly and you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me. The one-sizers were so common that I once got through a dozen resumes before I realized that the paper sent us the responses to someone else’s ad.
    * At the time, I blamed the invention of the copy machine–it was easy to waste someone else’s time without investing much of one’s own time.

  3. Becky McCoy says:

    I sent my first query last night! Ahh!

    *As much as I’d like to sign with an agent, I’d be just as happy with some constructive criticism, but I know these agents are busy people.
    *Any advice for those of us just starting out?

  4. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    The fact that you gave a brief response was a miracle!

    Thanks Rachelle.

  5. NLBHorton says:


  6. I find that one of the biggest challenges in query-writing is imbuing the very different literary form of a query with a voice similar to that which is found in my fiction.
    * This may not necessarily be a good goal; I have been told that while my voice is both appealing and distinctive, it’s also archaic, and therefore perhaps unsuited for a modern audience.
    * But that aside, I would love to hear how others approach this; is it a natural transition for most, or is there a formal and formulaic intentionality involved? Or do you metaphorically throw some salt over the left shoulder and not worry about it?

    • i was lucky as i queried my first choice agent and once he signed me i didn’t have to worry about it.

      but what i tried to do in my query and in that initial first call was be myself. sometimes it is hard to get personality across in email but i wanted to be as natural and rachel as possible. the books and the voice of the books i write my fluctuate, but i think the agent needs to get a sense of the person they will be signing on.

      i think there is more room for a sense of the fictional voice in a proposal but in the query email itself— from my SUPER limited experience— i think it was great that my agent got a sense of me. of my personality. and therein we found a good fit.

      my writing voice and tone change with each manuscript i have submitted to my agent— but i am just always me 🙂

  7. Not finding out the agency requirements is a glaring sign that someone doesn’t take direction well. It also shows a flaming lack of manners.

  8. You know, Rachelle, I wonder if this person would even notice your rejection with that approach. Which says a lot. Then, on the obviously unlikely chance that you were to have shown interest, I can only laugh at thinking about his response then. The author/agent “courting” process only begins with the query. How are you to expect future communication with this author to be.
    * Rushing through the query process is like pushing your way through the 10-items-only line at the grocery story with an entire cart full of groceries on the busiest shopping day. Everyone sees you’re breaking the rules. No one likes it. And, chances are, you’ll be sent back.
    * I am no expert in querying. Still pretty new to the game, so no amazing insights to offer. Knowing that I’m fresh to the scene, I take extra careful steps to prepare my correspondences and materials. I’ve learned in this business (with the exception of a looming deadline) it’s best to go slow, edit/revise, get critiques, edit/revise, read aloud, then go down the agent’s requirements one more time before hitting “send.” Then you pray. 🙂

  9. It was very kind of you to respond at all.

  10. Is it true that your response began, “Dear Sir/Madam?”
    Reminds me of what we used to tell the kids. “If all else fails, read the instructions.” I suspect that you (and most other agents) have some great stories to tell. Too bad that most of them can’t be shared.

  11. Rachelle, the fact that you even responded is a kindness, in light of the unknowing (perhaps, ignorance?) of the query-er. I hope that person takes your advice and uses it.
    *I can’t say that I have any querying tales that top this one. 😉

  12. An approach like that emphasizes how different people are. I can’t imagine breaching querying etiquette so flagrantly — in fact, panic sets in every time I hover my finger over the ‘send’ key. What if I’ve overlooked something important?

  13. It kills me, really, to see how many writers ignore submission guidelines, or don’t research agents. They often think, well, this is so good I don’t need to pay attention to that stuff. Um, wrong. Great post, Rachelle.

  14. Nancy DS says:

    Although it’s been 8 years since I moved to a different state and left my position as a magazine editor, the queries just keep coming! Some folks even raise the suck-up quotient with care packages and requests that I do a story on the sender’s chosen subject (that never worked). I ignore or return those. My favorites, though, are the resumes and letters of application. I do enjoy responding in Old English prose, with a tip or two about pulling one’s head out of one’s arse (aers) and finding a more recent issue of “Writer’s Market.”

  15. Jared says:

    At the minimum, I try to do my due diligence as a professional. Make sure the agent is open to unsolicited queries and reps my genre, and make sure I’ve followed their specific submission guidelines.

    Usually I try to do more than the minimum, though. Read through their blog, read some of their twitter feed, check their MSWL (if they have one), look through the list of authors they represent to see if I’ve read any of their work. I try to find at least one or two personalized things I can mention in the query letter aside from the very basics of addressing it to the right person. I can’t say for certain if it’s actually helped at all (as I’m still in the query process) but I figure it certainly can’t hurt.

  16. Sheila King says:

    I wish I could find more agents who work with middle grade works. I have a completed MG that I am querying to secular agencies just because there is an almost total absence of kid lit Christian agents.

  17. Your blogs are very useful. They kind of make the whole Query Process less scary and gives it an insight of a science. There is a Method. A writer doesn’t have to flip hands in the air. They have to set a goal and be systematic about it. Your blogs help towards that goal.

  18. John Wells says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some wannabes would collect phone numbers from the directory of literary agents and put them on a robot-call device. In this age of “multitasking” (i.e., the art of mediocracy in several jobs instead of focusing on a single stab at excellency), we take our eye off the target of writing the “great American novel.” It seems to me that it’s not possible to write a knock’emdead query for a lousy book, all of which is not to stress the importance of the query. Glad I’m not an literary agent, and I have little interest in attending the Columbia Publishing Course.