Literary agents are constantly reading. Reading our clients’ manuscripts, reading Publishers Weekly, reading reviews, reading Twitter, reading other books, and what you care about most, reading queries. I’m always hoping to find something that makes me so excited I offer representation before I even finish reading the full manuscript (it happens!), but more often than not, I finish the query and send an email that says essentially “thank you but no thank you.” So, what makes me say no thank you? Well, all kinds of things.
- After reading the query, I have no idea what the book is about. It may be that a writer spent their query telling me about them instead of the story, or that they told me how to feel about the manuscript instead of what the plot is. Or the query may just be confusing or poorly organized. But if a writer can’t tell me what his book is about, how will I be able to explain it to editors?
- The query, and pages, were fine, good even, but not enticing enough to make me want to hear more of the story.
- The query is enticing, but the pages don’t live up to that promise. Cool concept, with poor or so-so execution. Sometimes the most disappointing.
- Writer didn’t follow my submission guidelines and didn’t include their first 20 pages.
- Writer is querying me with something I don’t represent.
- It’s a screenplay.
- The writing is riddled with errors, whether factual, typographical, spelling, grammatical, etc. If you’ve only ever heard a word pronounced and never seen it in print, go to http://www.merriam-webster.com/ and look it up. Or ask a nerdy, spelling-bee-loving friend. If the word is foreign, there are resources there too. Google is your friend. Please edit and proofread your manuscript–AND YOUR QUERY–before you hit send. You only have one chance to make a first impression.
- The details are all wrong. What do I mean? A character living in that city wouldn’t wear those clothes or eat in that restaurant or drive a car or shop in that store, for example. A character in that age range wouldn’t use that slang, because it’s gone out of fashion, but an older writer writing a younger character uses it for them. If you’re not sure if you’re capturing a city’s vibe or a character’s age or ethnicity or race or sexuality or profession or WHATEVER, get a beta writer. Get a sensitivity reader. Get a critique partner, or two, or three. Or write your own voice.
- Writer doesn’t know their genre. Their comparison titles make no sense, their word count is way too short or too long, they miscategorize it, etc.
- The book starts in the wrong place.
- I hate the characters.
- The query is offensive or antagonistic or creepy. A rarity, but not unheard of. Please don’t comment on an agent’s physical appearance in a query, or write a query from your serial killer protagonist’s point of view.
- Writer has queried me before with the same book, which I already passed on. Unless I ask to see it again, or say I’d be open to seeing it again, I probably don’t want to.
- I’m addressed by the wrong name, or my name is misspelled, or I’m called “To whom it may concern”. I understand it’s submitted widely-AND SHOULD BE–but again, proofread before hitting send. You had to spell my name correctly in the email address, right? I do not reject for this reason alone. But it doesn’t help.
- It’s too much like something I already represent.
- It’s off-trend, too much like something the market is glutted with and editors don’t want anymore.
- It’s a better fit for a colleague. (I’ll usually say so in that case.)
- It’s just not my taste. Publishing is subjective.
I have so much respect for anyone who sits down and writes a book. And puts themself out there to try to find an agent/editor/publisher/readership for it. It’s not for the faint of heart.
What makes me say yes? Great characters and strong plotting. A unique concept or hook. An emotional connection. Laughter is good, tears are better, nostalgia is a nice bonus. Pacing that makes me whip through the pages but doesn’t give away the ending too soon. It’s like that book or movie or show that I love but new and fresh and exciting. Stay the course, writers!