6 Common Query Letter Mistakes to Avoid

Self-publishing is becoming a behemoth in its own right next to traditional publishing, but it’s not right for every writer. If you go the traditional route, the journey to get your book into readers’ hands starts with a great query letter. To make your letter shine, avoid these common query letter mistakes.

query letter envelope tacked to colorful wall

Leaving too much mystery

A query letter generates a certain level of intrigue in the agent or publisher. It makes them curious and compels them to read more. But one of the query letter mistakes many writers make is to go too far into ambiguity. They don’t fully explain the plot or fail to clarify the end of the story. This sometimes happens because the writers are afraid the agent or publisher will steal their ideas. As a result, agents and publishers might not understand the goal or message of the book. If they don’t understand what point a writer is trying to make or the themes that are present, the book will seem riskier to proceed with.

Leaving out specific market data

Many authors getting into traditional publishing for the first time believe that, if they explain their book premise, the query letter is good enough. But the query letter does more than explain the book premise. It also shows how the book premise fits into current market demands and who the buyers are going to be. So, do your homework. Clarify your genre, word count, reader persona, comparable titles, and any data that shows growth around similar books. If you do this research well, you’ll have a much better sense of how you should market your book and how it realistically might perform.

Bragging too much (or too little) about yourself

When an agent or publisher offers a contract for a book, they’re not just accepting the book. They also are accepting a working relationship with the author. So, they want to understand both the writer’s credentials and their personality. Aim for humble truthfulness. If you’ve won the Nobel Prize, say so. But don’t start talking about how you can guarantee sales or how it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with you. If you don’t have any writing credits at all, don’t count yourself out. Naming affiliations or people you’ve worked with still can show you’re qualified to produce your book.

Making assumptions about offers, interests, or manuscript wish list flexibility

An agent or publisher should politely respond whenever possible. (It’s often not due to the volume of submissions.) But the agent or publisher is under no obligation whatsoever to respond to a writer or make an offer. So, although it’s good to believe in your book and writing ability, don’t include comments that make demands of any kind (e.g., “I’ll give you four weeks to respond…”).

In the same way, stay objective when you look at online biographies for agents and publishers you’d like to work with. Just because the agent has lots of tattoos and dyed hair doesn’t mean they can’t be interested in the history of Bach or a sensitive romance.

Lastly, don’t assume you’ll be the exception to their manuscript wish list. Find an agent or publisher who specifically says they want books like yours. Don’t try to push your book on an agent it’s not a good match for.

Repeating yourself or being disorganized

Most query letters start with a hook intro paragraph that draws the agent or publisher in. The subsequent paragraphs go into greater depth about the scope of the book and agent fit, the market and comparable titles, and how to contact the author and get more materials. I don’t necessarily believe that this information has to always appear in this order. I’ve read of agents who prefer to see an author credentials before the writer explains their book. But however you write your letter, make sure you’re not repeating or misplacing any information. This is a red flag to the agent or publisher that your ideas in the manuscript might similarly be jumbled and need a lot of work to organize and smooth out.

Not properly handling your materials

Most agents and publishers these days are very specific about how they want to see sample pages. They normally specify how much they want to read and how to format and deliver it on their websites on the submissions page. Don’t send 30 pages if they only want to see 10. Similarly, don’t include a link or attachment in the query email when they’re clear they want the content in the body of the message. Spell out exactly what you’re sending and that the delivery connects to their submission requirements.

A query letter is part pitch, part job interview. So, as a general rule, you have to sell yourself and your understanding of your product. Yet, you need to avoid coming across as egostistical or unprepared. If you double check that you’ve avoid all of the query letter mistakes above, you should be in a good position to have an agent consider your submission seriously.

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