The 5 Most Common Query Letter Mistakes…and 5 Query Letter "Do's"

from the Broadway musical Spring Awakening

from the Broadway musical Spring Awakening

It's September 2nd, kids are going back to school, and it's time to start thinking about submitting the novel/picture book/biography/uncategorizable work of greatness you've been working on all summer.  Without further ado, here is a list of things to pay attention to in your query.

The 5 Query Letter Mistakes Editors See Most Often:

1)   The person you are querying doesn’t edit/agent/publish your genre of book.  When I was publisher of Egmont USA, which specializes in fiction for ages 7 up, fifty percent of the queries we received were for picture books and nonfiction.  Do your research! A good place to start is agents' and publishers' websites.

Gratuitous picture of Bella and Edward

Gratuitous picture of Bella and Edward

2)   You compare your work to a very hot title of the moment.  Don’t call your book “the next Harry Potter” “the next Twilight” “the next Wimpy Kid,” or “the next Hunger Games.”  That’s just not meaningful to a publisher. Give us a more realistic title to compare it to, perhaps even a book you admire that we publish.

3)   Your letter is longer than a page. This is a query letter, and if you can’t tell us about your book succinctly, it makes us think your book won’t be succinct either.

4)   You say readers will love your book because you’ve given to your children/students and they loved it.  If you are a teacher and know why your book is needed (it fills a hole in the curriculum, it helps children learn to count by tens, etc.) that’s useful for an editor to know.  If it’s simply a hit when you read it aloud to children around you, well, we’ve found that actually doesn’t tell us much about the book’s potential success.

Richard Gere giving 'em the ol' Razzle Dazzle

Richard Gere giving 'em the ol' Razzle Dazzle

5)   You try to be really clever or dazzling with your opening sentence. Those “I was walking down the street when a man riding an elephant shouted ‘get this manuscript to Elizabeth Law!’” openers just get in the way of us reading what your book is about and for whom it’s intended—which is a lot of what we do want from a query letter.

5 Things That Will Help Your Query Succeed:

Love this book, and it's set in my hometown.

Love this book, and it's set in my hometown.

1)   If you’re querying an agent or an editor, and you admire an author they represent or edit, say so.  “I am querying the Stuart Krichevsky Agency because I love the work of Sebastian Junger and aspire to his level of nonfiction writing” is acceptable and welcome.

2)   Tell us your writing credentials . . . “I have published articles and stories for children and adults in Crow Toes QuarterlyKiki MagazineSix7*8thBird Watcher’s Digest, Lighthouse Digest, and Tennis View Magazine, among others. I have also won awards for my children’s and adult writing in six national contests.”

3)   . . . and about famous/influential people who will support your book. “My wife is a writer for AP and can get us coverage,” "I'm a past president of the NCTE," and “Our neighbor Jamie Lee Curtis has promised to feature the book on her blog” are very useful for a publisher to learn.

4)   Sure, if you have a strong social media presence, let us know.  Your publisher will be inquiring into what kind of social media following you have anyway.  (But by the way, if social media is torture for you, don’t worry. There are lots of ways to sell a book.)

5)   Know your market! Your editor/agent will have to slot your book into a niche that’s out there, so it helps if you can do that for them, being careful, again, not to compare it to the megahit of the moment. “My book aims for the Sarah Dessen fan” or “It has the old-fashioned feel of The Penderwicks series” are examples that work.

Daniel Radcliffe and the cast of How to Succeed in Business Wiithout Really Trying

Daniel Radcliffe and the cast of How to Succeed in Business Wiithout Really Trying

Above all, just tell us a little bit about your book, and, as I said above, whom it’s for, what other title(s) it may be like, and if you’ve published.  That’s all we need to know to get us interested.  Good luck!