10 Common Querying Mistakes

Fall is approaching, and it’s one of the busiest querying seasons. A lot of writers spend their summers finishing up manuscripts and the query inbox for agents gets a little crazy as the weather cools down. With that in mind, below are ten extremely common querying mistakes—and why you need to avoid them. 

Mistake #1: Focusing on theme instead of plot. It’s super fantastic that you want your book to achieve something, that there’s a lesson or emotion you want readers to understand or feel. But that won’t help me sell your book. I want to know what happens in your book. Having a high concept plot (and making that clear in your query letter) will take you far in the publishing world. (Not sure what “high concept” means? My co-agent Carly Watters has a great blog post on the topic.) 

Mistake #2: Not trying to hook the reader. The sole purpose of your query letter is to make the recipient want to read your book. That’s it. Your pitch should leave some questions unanswered so that I need to read the manuscript. Queries with strong hooks and interesting manuscript titles capture my attention. 

Mistake #3: Pitching more than one project. Your query letter should focus on one project, even if you’ve written a few. Keep things simple and pitch your best work. 

Mistake #4: Writing too much. Super long query letters make me tired. I read queries in batches, and when I come across a query letter that requires minutes to read instead of seconds (it’s true, most agents only spend a few seconds reading per query), it’s automatically annoying. There’s no firm guideline for query letter length, but try to write an email that doesn’t require any scrolling. It should only be two or three paragraphs, and I should be able to see it all on one screen. 

Mistake #5: Complaining about other books. I’m not sure why anyone thinks this is a good idea, but a good chunk of query letters start off by complaining about the books that have been published. Whether it’s a specific trend or an entire category/genre, these complaints are not the best first impression. Just don’t do this. Focus on your work and forget about the rest. 

Mistake #6: Not including an author bio. The agent-author relationship is an important one. Agents take on new clients that they want to work with. You need to make a good first impression—not just your book. Even if you’ve never been published before, you should include something about yourself in the query letter. Tell us who will we be working with in the near future. 

Mistake #7: Using questions in the pitch. “Have you ever wondered what NYC would look like after the apocalypse?” No, I haven’t. “If you could have one super power, what would it be?” Answering questions out loud to myself isn’t going to make me want to read your book… Avoid using questions in your pitch because it rarely works to your advantage. 

Mistake #8: The formatting is horrible. I strongly advise sending a copy of your query letter to yourself before submitting it to agents. Make sure your email system isn’t messing up the colours, fonts, and spacing. I’ve seen some dreadful formatting—some queries have been so poor that it was impossible for me to read it on my screen! If you’re copying and pasting your query letter from a word processing program, there’s a good chance the formatting is going to change somewhere along the line. Strip all the formatting before copying and pasting (if you know how to do this) or type your query letter directly into the email. 

Mistake #9: Relying too much on comparison titles. A lot of writers stress out about choosing the right comparative titles for a query letter. These aren’t always necessary. If nothing comes to mind right away, don’t worry about it. Most of the time when I come across comp titles, I haven’t even read the book mentioned—so the comp means absolutely nothing to me. I wrote a post all about using comp titles effectively in query letters, so read that if you want to read more of my thoughts on the topic. 

Mistake #10: Not following submission guidelines. I say this all the time, but I’m going to say it again because it’s so true: If you follow submission guidelines, you will be in the top 10% of submissions. It’s a ridiculous truth to acknowledge, because following agency submission guidelines should be the simplest step of sending a query letter, but the majority of queries miss the mark. If an agency doesn’t want sample pages, then don’t send sample pages. If an agency doesn’t accept attachments, then don’t send attachments. Easy.