Mistakes Writers Make in their Queries

The pile of unsolicited proposal, queries, and manuscripts (both email and physical mail) is an unending source of delight and frustration.

Delight when an amazing idea from an amazing writer arrives like a special holiday gift.

Unfortunately that doesn’t happen as often as I would like. Instead there is a litany of things authors do time and again. If writers would treat their query or book proposal like a job application I think much of the trouble would go away. If I were to apply for a job at Microsoft I would take great pains to make sure the application was perfect. If they said “Put it on red paper,” I wouldn’t put it on green paper….and then complain how hard it is to find red paper and ask if they could make an exception.

With that in mind I’d like to list a few things that have crossed my desk in recent months.

Things That Have Been Written or Done:

“Please go to my web site to read my sample chapters.” (Sorry I can’t go on a treasure hunt.)

“Read my “The Hindu Way to a Better Sex Life Quiz Book.” (You didn’t read about what our agency represents, did you?)

Paste the first 50 pages, single spaced, into the body of your email. (Just…no.)

Please remember to use paragraph breaks. (A story that lacks paragraphs is unreadable.)

Misspell my last name. (I’m used to the occasional “Laub” instead of “Laube” but to address the letter and the accompanying envelope with: “Dear Mr. Steve White” …?)

Please remember to give us a way to reach you. (No SASE? No address on the cover letter or envelope? No email address? Or give us an invalid email address – which happens at least once a month)

Declare how much money you want to get for this book. (This is from a letter I received, “…the fact that this book will be able to sell for a multi million-dollar amount, around the world.”)

Declare “I’m not interested in the money, I just believe in my book.” (I understand, I really do. But please don’t say it. Think about how an agent or a publisher makes a living? Someone is interested in the money.)

Declare “If you get me a million dollars I’ll give you a bigger cut of the deal.” (It doesn’t work that way.)

Declare “This book will be printed in a 7” x 9” hardcover with deckled edges at 386 pages and retail for $15.99.” (The publisher will determine the trim size, binding, page count after typesetting, and the selling price. Let the publisher develop their own vision for the book.)

Please do not send an attachment using the file format from Pages or WordPerfect or OpenOffice. (The standard in all of publishing is Microsoft Word. If you don’t own it, your software can still “save-as” in Word. That is what you should send. We usually won’t take the time to convert a file to read your document.)

Declare in your letter “I read that you represent xyz.” When have never represented xyz. (Your generic letter just made you look lazy.)

Request “I know you don’t represent ABC kind of books according to your guidelines, but after you read mine you will make an exception.” (Thank you for reading the guidelines, truly. But, no thank you.)

Please don’t get mad if we say “no thanks.” This was sent to my assistant after we sent a rejection letter. “Please tell Steve Laube for me that I wouldn’t let him do my book if he begged me.”

Please don’t insist that I sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before you’ll show me your idea. (Another agency is a better fit for you.)

Those are just a few of things that arrive in our office or in the inbox. It should encourage you to simply be professional and present your work in its best light.

 

24 Responses to Mistakes Writers Make in their Queries

  1. J S Rogers March 7, 2016 at 5:13 am #

    The nicest rejection letter I ever received came from your agency. Thank you for that. I’m working on the suggestions.

  2. Niki Slovacek March 7, 2016 at 6:30 am #

    My biggest fear (after rejection) is getting to query wrong.
    I have looked over the guidelines many times, as has my husband.

    We look at it like its a pitch, or branding of sorts for my book. I wouldn’t show up for a job interview in sweats with my hair disheveled.

    At least we can all learn from there mistakes.

    • Niki Slovacek March 7, 2016 at 6:32 am #

      And then, after you post a comment, you realize auto correct has ruined your life again. ROFL

      • Jeanne Takenaka March 7, 2016 at 7:29 am #

        Niki, Autocorrect is my nemesis!!!! From changing the names in email “To” fields to correcting words to inappropriate substitutes . . . It is NOT my friend. 😉

      • Deb March 7, 2016 at 9:24 am #

        LOL. Nice catch though 🙂

    • Steve Laube March 7, 2016 at 10:02 am #

      Nicki,

      Their, they’re, there. It’s okay… (!!!?!!!)

      Please don’t fixate on making the letter perfect. It is a simple “hello, this is what I’m proposing” type of thing.

      If the letter isn’t perfect we still keep reading.

      The majority of inquiries are just fine. It is the outrageous that get used as examples… or, as stated in the post above, sometimes there are things that appear over and over that are easy to eliminate if the writer only knew how annoying it is.

  3. Jeanne Takenaka March 7, 2016 at 7:30 am #

    These posts always interest me. Some of the queries you have received leave me shaking my head. Others just make me laugh. Maybe not the best response. 😉

    I am curious . . . what is the most important part of a query letter to you?

    • Steve Laube March 7, 2016 at 9:56 am #

      Jeanne,

      Good question. I don’t have a favorite “part”… it is the whole that matters. I see the title, the concept, the professional way in which the cover letter is written.

      I can often determine from that initial letter whether the rest of the reading experience will be worth the time.

      I have been surprised when the letter is poorly done but the manuscript is brilliant. That is why we never stop at the opening letter.

      Steve

  4. Linda S. Glaz March 7, 2016 at 7:43 am #

    Laughing, laughing, and laughing some more. I especially like the “go to my website”. That’s priceless, time consuming, irritating, any number of things! Thanks for the great post!

  5. Robin Bayne March 7, 2016 at 8:00 am #

    Years ago I published a small press lit-mag, and for some reason writers thought I was a man. That wasn’t too hard to get past, but irritating.

    The more interesting submissions were envelopes full of poetic verses….written on folded up origami designs. I opened more than one envelope to a spray of paper animal cut-outs….

  6. Rachel Malcolm March 7, 2016 at 8:19 am #

    Wow, the secret life of an agent. I can imagine the inward groan as you sit down to read queries!

    • Steve Laube March 7, 2016 at 9:53 am #

      I can add another to the list…

      Please use spell check.

      This came in a recent query…I’ve left all the errors untouched:

      “…books i written an not have to o tell publishing so i can het go through a good publishing house so it will sell setter.”

      • Katie Powner March 7, 2016 at 10:28 am #

        Oh my goodness gracious, that is atrocious.

      • Jeanne Takenaka March 7, 2016 at 11:11 am #

        Yikes! Perhaps this is one time (one of the very few) when autocorrect should have been used. 😉

  7. Katie Powner March 7, 2016 at 9:44 am #

    I’m 99.9% sure I’ve never done any of those things. On the 0.01% chance I have, due to some unfortunate lapse in judgment, I sincerely apologize to all agents everywhere.

    P.S. Our family has a really good friend named Steve White. I’ll let him know he has mail waiting for him. 🙂

  8. Tammy Fish March 7, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    Thanks for the examples, Steve. Often I hear of editors and agents frustrated by their queries. Without any quantification as to their concerns, I tremble and stuff my manuscript back into the drawer. Reading actual blunders encouraged me to try again. I can understand your exasperation.

    Recently, you remarked about all of the unsolicited manuscripts on your desk. Are you still open to unsolicited proposals?

    • Steve Laube March 7, 2016 at 10:28 am #

      Tammy,

      I never like to say “no” unless I’ve seen it. But have to say “no” 99.9% of the time.

      Our door is always open to unsolicited proposals and that will never change.

  9. Linda Riggs Mayfield March 7, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    Steve,
    The attention to submission details you’re encouraging applies to many kinds of writing in addition to the ones you mentioned: applying for acceptance, applying for a scholarship, applying for a grant, writing class and course papers, writing a letter to the editor, and writing dissertations. Even if a careful author receives a “No” response for publication, s/he has demonstrated and practiced an important life skill and left a perception of professionalism. I think both of those have value, and the time it took to propose appropriately wasn’t wasted.

  10. Sharyn Kopf March 7, 2016 at 12:29 pm #

    I can imagine how frustrating this must be for you, Steve, but it’s very entertaining for the rest of us.

    Years ago, I worked for an international organization that had a publishing branch. One of my jobs was being the first set of eyes on submitted manuscripts. My favorite mistake was, “I didn’t write this, God did. I know because the words just flowed out!”

    Sadly, I never read anything I felt comfortable putting God’s name on as co-author. . . .

  11. Charles Franklin March 7, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

    Steve,

    I appreciate the effort your agency puts forth to ensure that authors know your preferences. Your blogs on query letters and proposals have been invaluable as I prepare to submit my work.

    For everyone else, if you are considering submission to the Steve Laube Agency, try to go to a conference that one of the agents are attending. I had the privilege of meeting with Steve for 15 minutes and I learned a great deal! He also gave a class at this conference and listening to him helped me understand his outlook on stories and made me more comfortable as I prepare my query.

  12. Stephen W. Hiemstra March 7, 2016 at 7:27 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this article. The advice sounds simple, but I was experiencing flashbacks as I read.

  13. Bob Laurie March 8, 2016 at 7:24 am #

    I read yesterdays blog about mistakes writers make when submitting a query letter. As I read it, I wondered why I never received a response to my query letter sent back in December. Oddly the response came in the mail the same day. Coincidence? The response was a rejection. I have learned in recent years that coincidence is not just a odd chance of something happening, especially when it involves your hopes and dreams. I believe it’s God speaking.
    All that being said, I smiled when I received the rejection. I never wrote a book before, but I had an idea for a story and followed through. The story is really good, but the writing was really bad. I know that now because I hired an editor and have been working with him for three months on editing the manuscript. I’ve learned so much. Now when I read my book (even the twentieth time) I’m elated that my story has come to life. This rejection coincidentally came with instructions (the blog). I’ll review your detailed instructions when submitting query letters in the future. More importantly I’ll edit and re-edit until I feel that wonderful feeling of crafting a story that lives and breaths. This has been an amazing journey.

  14. Mary Hagen March 8, 2016 at 5:17 pm #

    I can say I don’t think I’ve made the mistakes mentioned.

  15. Becky Cortino August 12, 2016 at 7:17 am #

    Wow… Amazing, Steve! I’m stunned at errors that could have been avoided by researching industry practices, and your agency, prior to hitting the submit button. It seems thoughtfully crafting a query letter after completing a book project or polishing a submission, should flow from there. I imagine being inundated with queries frequently missing the mark is frustrating. Thank you for the positive feedback you and your agency provide.

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