Here at the Talcott Notch Literary Agency, where I’ve been agent now for more than five years now, we receive thousands and thousands of queries a year. Most are “serviceable” (to use a term thrown around by the editorial types in The Only Living Boy in New York, a film set in the world of New York publishing). But few are remarkable; we only request material from around 1 in 200 queries. Here are some reasons why queries miss the mark. (Note: These eight caveats are all based on real query letters; all names have been changed to protect the clueless.)

1. You got my name wrong

As in Dear Paul, Dear Pamela, Dear Mr. Munier, etc. This speaks to your professionalism, your eye for detail, and your ability to win friends and influence people.

2. The query is a part of an obvious mail merge

I know because the salutation reads Dear Sir or Madam, or Dear Paula Munier, or Dear Agent. This means you don’t know me from Adam Chromy or Adam Schear or Adam Eaglin. And you don’t know anything about my editorial sensibility, my current clients, what I’ve sold, and/or what I’m looking to represent.

3. There are certain indications that mark you as an amateur

For example, a recent query letter I received began: “I’ve written a 27,000-word fiction novel for all ages that is part romance, part mystery.” Can you name the four things wrong with that sentence?

4. You have not cut and pasted the first 10 pages of your story into the query email

This requirement was clearly outlined in our submission guidelines on our website. Instead you have sent me, unsolicited, one of the following:

    • an attached pdf of your full manuscript
    • a link to your website where I can read your manuscript(s)
    • random chapters of your work-in-progress
    • no pages of your story at all

5. Your query does a great job of pitching any or all of the following:

(None of which I represent)

    • erotica
    • poetry
    • paranormal romance
    • picture books

6. Your query letter is less of a pitch and more of a synopsis

A long, beat-by-beat synopsis of your entire story. All those dense paragraphs are daunting….

7. You have cut and pasted your first 10 pages into the query email …

But they total more than 6,000 words (rather than the standard 2500 words) written in long blocks of prose and not a single line of dialogue. Again, too daunting.

8. You tell me this right up front:

That your work is literary and much better than anything else out there but that you don’t trust the editors, publishers, booksellers, and yes, agents, who populate the publishing world to value art over commerce.

I know, I know, you think I exaggerate, but I do not. All of the above examples come from queries received just in the past two weeks.

Forewarned is forearmed.

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