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the biggest mistake writers make when querying literary agents

[If you are wondering how to write a query letter, this post will help you quite a bit - as you approach literary agents. If you're serious about becoming a better writer and getting published, you should also check out the help! for aspiring authors page when you finish reading this post. And of course: keep writing, keep reading, and best of luck!]

Dear Aspiring Authors,

Brew a pot of coffee. Pull up a chair. Heck, grab a notebook and a pen – it couldn't hurt. Make yourself comfortable. You might be here for a while as you learn how to write a query letter.

This could be one of the most important things you'll ever read along your journey to publication. An exaggeration? You tell me…

A few weeks ago, I emailed about 100 literary agents, asking them a simple question: What is the single biggest mistake writers make when querying you?

Most of the responses began the same way: 'Only one? How about several!'

Over 50 agents found the time to respond, and I have compiled their thoughts for you within this post.

Yes, reading this will take up a bit of your time (20-30 minutes, to give you a fair projection), but…how important is the success of your novel to you? You've (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing, and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.

Agents are your gateway to eventual literary success.

Give your manuscript the chance it deserves! – learn how to write a query letter that catches an agent's eye.

As far as I know, this is the most comprehensive list of answers to this question (“What are the biggest mistakes writers make when querying?”), but by no means does this list tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about queries. By reading this post, you will learn every common mistake to avoid, and along the way you will pick up several pointers from various agents of things that will make your query stand out; but don’t quit here! Visit Janet Reid’s Query Shark page. Dip into the query-writing insight of Rachelle Gardner. Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. (And read the followup post to this one - The Best Query Letters Do What? - in which many of these same agents provide thoughts on the positive things you can do in your query letter.) Study, learn, and practice!

You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.

Before we go any further, I would like to pause and thank the agents who contributed to this post:

Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Sophia Seidner * Stephany Evans * and those of you who requested that you remain anonymous…

Thank you for pitching in and helping each writer who reads this edge closer to their dream…while also (hopefully) making your life ever-so-slightly easier.

I hope your pen is full of ink, Dear Writer. Class begins now…

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

For starters, here are the mistakes mentioned most often:

Mentioned 3x
      "Go to my website for a sample of my work…"
      "Find my query attached…"
      Querying before your manuscript is ready

Note: "Before your manuscript is ready" does not mean "before the first draft is finished." It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript to sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

As Donald Maass put it: "Granted, it's difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they're not really done."

Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: "Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice."

Mentioned 4x
      Talking about the book's sequel, or…
      …pitching more than one book at a time
      Writing a query that lacks confidence

Mentioned 5x
      Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
      Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread

Mentioned 9x
      Queries addressed to "Dear Agent" (or anything similar!)

Mentioned 10x
      Vague query letters!

Mentioned 11x
      Queries with more than one agent listed in the "To" field

Mentioned 14x
      Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
      …that have no clue what the agent's submission guidelines are

And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you'll ever make on an agent. Don't slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.

Let's take you to the bottom of that pot of coffee…

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

We'll begin with a video. This was sent to me by one agent who wished to have this portion of her email remain anonymous:

She introduced the video as such: "Here's something that deserves mentioning on your blog. It's making the rounds among NYC editors and agents and details just about every naive misconception a beginning author might have."

Enjoy. And learn.

Video by David Kazzie

Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a "Dear Agent" salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let's be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email, "I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn't seem too much to ask." Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: "We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it's important to customize queries so they address us by name.

More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff: "It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren't addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn't taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I'd be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously."

Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the "multiple agents in the subject line" problem: "We like to feel special!"

Sean McCarthy even took this one step further: "I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I've worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention."

After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.

Bree Ogden's email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:

1. If a writer isn't going to research the right agents for their project, that's really mainly hurting them, but at least don't publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, "I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…" It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you're not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.

2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.

3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author's key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:

The answer to your question is an easy one.

The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.

I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don't think I'd apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.

Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.

Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.

In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, "Do your homework!"

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don't post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said, "Don't try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It's great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we'll only do that IF you've intrigued us with your knock-out query!" On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: "If you're asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them."

Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!

Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the "What Not To Do In A Query" section of the lecture she gives at writers' conferences.

Here are some of the most useful tidbits from her email [organized by headings, followed by examples of the mistakes made under each heading]:


My passion for writing, though encouraged since I was young, has had to wait for my patience levels to grow. I love writing and currently have twenty-six titles underway.

I have two manuscripts, "Max and Lady", a non-fiction about my two Cairn terriers, and "Famous Personalities with Sports Backgrounds", about John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, and 98 others, I can send samples.

Brian DeFiore expounded on this theme with this important bit of insight: "The goal of a query is to get an agent to ask to see ONE manuscript/proposal that will convince him of your talent. After he's drawn in, he will want to hear about what else you're working on. Not before."


Dear Ms. Zimmermann,
I am seeking representation for my recently completely 90,000 word women's fiction novel, The Wilde Side.

I’m Carl Brooke and I been writing for a writing for a while now.

There’s nothing worse than the loss of your first love and that feeling stays with you forever. No matter what that person has done to you, it doesn’t change.

This 102,000 page novel centers on two teenaged girls…

A million dollar idea that can't be passed up has now landed in your hands.

I am sure you get hundreds of submissions, but I assure you that you won’t have read anything like this before, it will really be worth your time.

Accompanying thoughts on this area came from Lucy Carson, who put it like this: "The biggest mistake that writers make when querying is to confuse a confident self-pitch with outright arrogance. When a writer names his/her creative influences, it should never be suggested that this writer is *comparing* their work to the named influence. For example, don't ever say, ‘I'm the next Margaret Atwood.’ But a strong statement along similar lines might be, ‘Like Margaret Atwood, my work explores issues of gender and sexuality.’ There's a compelling way to present yourself without crossing over into red-flag narcissism."

Another example of sour-tasting overconfidence was provided by Pam Ahearn: "This will be a bestseller and make you very rich." Let's start with getting the agent to read 5 pages before you start thinking about the fortune you’re going to help them make!

I'm a twenty year old philosophy major at Vassar College who's recently invested in a box in case this whole writer-philosopher business doesn't pan out right away.

I am submitting this query letter towards presenting my idea for a book I have written in draft, for consideration for your Agency to represent me in seeking publication of my work. The work is completed and ready for pre-reading and editing.

Another agent (who wished to remain anonymous) added to this thought with the following: "The biggest mistake is to start out in a self-deprecating way, such as, ‘I know how hard it is to break into publishing and I don't want to waste your time, but if you'd take pity on poor little me it would be the best thing that ever happened to me.’

That author has already wasted my time by not getting straight to the point. It also smacks of insecurity and latent passive-aggressivity. Not somebody I want anything to do with.

And, of course…


Don’t send query with too formal or too informal of a salutation. You are asking an agent to stake their income and reputation on you – why on earth some people don’t see the need to address someone by name is beyond me. Take the time to get the name right. And the GENDER!

Here are a few examples of common mistakes:

Dear Sirs:

Hiya Helen!

Attn: Agent

Mr. Zimmermann,

Dear Lieutenant Zimmermann:

Helen Zimmermann Literary Agency

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

Yes. People seriously address letters like this. As one agent (who asked to remain anonymous) said: "Don't be cutesy or 'clever.' "

In fact, that agent had a number of excellent tidbits that expounded upon the issues already mentioned, and that also presented some new things to think about:

Put something about your query in the subject line other than "query." When you get 50 a day, you are more likely to look at those that give you some indication in the subject line as to what they are about.

Do not make grammatical or spelling errors.

Don't be vague. Provide as much information as possible including information about yourself and any and all background you may have writing or that is relevant to the proposed book.

But, don't go on and on…please.

Don't pretend that you are writing specifically to that agent because blah blah blah unless it is really true and actually relevant.

Don't tell us which celebrities should play what characters in the movie version of your book.

Don't tell us you are working on a sequel!

If you are going to submit your novel which is really your memoir in disguise (the "memnovel" or "menovel") be honest about it.

Don't submit a query for your self-indulgent, no-one-gives-a-shit memoir unless you can write like Philip Roth, you are a celebrity, or you have an exceptional story to tell. Having a mental illness, recovering from an addiction, having a dysfunctional family, living a mildly interesting life are not exceptional.

This was one of my favorite emails. I'm sure she requested that I keep her contribution anonymous because of the brutally honest tone of her response; but…come on, Dear Writer: If you received 50 letters a day that made the same mistakes over and over, you'd be feeling brutally honest also!

Think about that – 50 query letters a day! Now, think about what you have to do to stand out from among the flood pouring into their inbox. That's why you're reading this. And if you're still reading this, and if the coffee pot is becoming ever-emptier, congratulations! You're on the right path.

This same agent added a second email, which was just as useful:

A couple more and for beyond the query stage:

Do not put copyright year and your name on your manuscript. It's goofy.

Be careful about the tone of your query. The tone alone can lead to a quick delete. If you come across as entitled, or overly pleased with yourself for instance. If you tell us with too much confidence the kind of stuff we're supposed to be telling you, that's annoying.

Get a backbone and learn how to deal with constructive criticism. Would you rather agents sugar-coat everything and not tell you the truth?

And if you get to the stage where an agent actually reads your entire manuscript (and spends hours doing so) and sends you a thoughtful rejection with some helpful feedback, the least you can do is write back to thank them.

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

Speaking of anonymous contributions that were extremely useful, here is one that I have often seen agents complain about, but that only one mentioned:

Leading with a question, like: "Have you ever wondered what it would be like…"

This might not be "the biggest mistake" most writers make, but it's usually an automatic delete! If it's the first approach that pops into your head, it's probably the first approach that pops into the heads of most writers. Don't blend in with everyone else; stand out from the pack!

Rachel Dowen – in addition to mentioning those writers who send queries without researching what an agent represents, and who furthermore send queries that are unedited (and really, how much time does it take to make sure your query is free from errors! – as she said, "I understand a lot of people think of email as a more informal type of communication, but an email query is a vital business communication and should not be treated lightly") – also talked about standing out from the crowd of emails waiting in her inbox: Because agents get so many queries and can only read a few projects out of the hundreds we are forced to choose between every week, it's important that your story distinguish itself from other offerings in the market. If you describe your book in vague and general terms, we won't have a reason to request it. If you're thinking 'this sounds like a successful formula' when you present your plot and characters, stop and rethink how you can present it as less formulaic.

As for further thoughts on vagueness, Michelle Wolfson had this to say: I think the biggest mistake people make is not telling me what their book is about. They give an overview of the book in flowery writing that really doesn't say much, or they talk about the genre or the main characters etc., but they never tell me what the book is actually about and there's no way for me to judge whether or not I'm going to be interested in the story. Tell me who the main character is, what conflict s/he faces and what's at stake. You'd be surprised how many people don't do this.

You see that? Story! Characters! Not "This book is going to sell, like, a million copies." Not "This is the plot." Make the agent want to read your story!

[learn more about landing an agent and getting published]

Amy Boggs put it beautifully in her reply:

The biggest mistake that queriers make is not following our submission guidelines, but that's a boring one because presumably anyone clever enough to check out blog posts about querying would be clever enough to know to look at an agent's website before querying.

So the biggest mistake folks who follow guidelines make is talking too much about things that aren't their story. Sometimes queriers do this by talking more about themselves than about their story (note: I represent fiction only; things are different in the non-fiction realm). Others have long, disconnected lists that really ought to be cut or woven together with the description of the story (a list of settings/countries, a bullet-point list of characters, a list of themes summed up into abstract nouns ("It's about Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love!")). Some just end up running down the events that occur rather than telling me what the plot arc at the heart of the story is. The bulk of a query should consist of 1) the main character, 2) what happens to complicate their life, 3) what goals they now have in response to that complication, and 4) the main obstacle between them and their goal. That is the cake of the query; everything else is just frosting and sprinkles.

Pause, Dear Writer. Go back. Read Amy’s thoughts again. You want to know what to put in a query? That’s what you should put in a query…

One of the worst ways in which a writer can end up giving “cutesy sprinkles” instead of giving “cake” was presented by Richard Curtis:


As in The DaVinci Code Meets Genesis.

As in Crime and Punishment Meets The Shining.

As in Buffy Meets Dracula.

Send me a Meets and you're deleted.

Now, you might wonder how to make your query stand out without being cute or clever (or, as Marietta Zacker said, "free of gimmicks"). How about this: Good writing. Pretty simple, really.

Any good writer knows the importance of "showing" rather than "telling" in their writing, but how about extending that to a query letter?

Here are Daniel Lazar's thoughts on querying: I think the best query letters are specific and evocative – not loaded down with too much boring detail, but just enough detail (little touches of description or turns of phrase) that show the letter is crafted by a real writer. For example, instead of saying "Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, is a quirky kid," you could say "Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, likes ketchup on his Frosted Flakes and never wears matching socks." Ok – I'm not much of a writer, admittedly, but the point is "quirky" was just a nebulous description in the first example; but in the second example, you can instantly get a visual on this kid in just one line – and that's the kind of query letter that makes me think the book will be as evocative as the letter.

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

In fact, Heather Mitchell said that it all comes down to the writing. And after all, that makes sense – no? "It all comes down to the writing. An agent's first peek at the quality of the writing comes from the query letter. You would be amazed at the number of authors who write long, drawn out, messy queries. A query letter should be a tease – a taste for more to come. Don't give it all away on the first date, and please, show up clean and polished."

Here are some excellent, less-obvious mistakes contributed by Liv Blumer:

1. Don't whine.
2. Cut to the chase, i.e. don't spend a paragraph of your letter telling me how busy I am, cut directly to the description of your book.
3. If you are writing about yourself, be sure that your story has a strong thread of universality. Readers care more about how your story applies to them than they do about you.
4. Recognize that not everyone who writes should be published. Many people should write for themselves only.
5. If you are not a seasoned writer, be economical with your prose.
6. Do not nag or pester. It's a dead giveaway that you will be a difficult client.
7. If you are incarcerated, tell me what you are in for.
8. Don't tell me you know someone close to me, if you don't. I get too many letters that begin with "I am writing at the suggestion of X", and I've never heard of "X".
9. Don't send more than a letter. If you can't "pitch" it effectively in a letter, I probably can't either.
10. And don't tell me what you plan to do to support your book once you have a contract. Start now with the blog, the public speaking, the networking. Publishers want to see that you are already expert in your subject. I can't judge the effectiveness of what you plan to do, only of what you have done.

Of course, not everyone has the same ideas when it comes to query letter mistakes.

Russell Galen provided the following:

Here is one that particularly galls me: "I found you on"

I'm repelled by the idea of being sought and found on some kind of database. Here's what I want to hear instead:

"I admire your client ____. I did some digging to find out who his or her agent was. This led me to your web site. Based on what you say there, I thought you might be interested in my manuscript. Let me tell you about it…."

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

Here's another one that might be a mistake to some, and that might not be a mistake to others – this one from Danielle Svetcov:

A big red flag is sharing the mss word-count in the first two lines of the query. I don't care how long the book is; what I immediately want to know is if the writer knows how to tell a story and hold me to my chair. Generalizations about the length, and even subject-matter, author's qualifications, setting, etc. tend to kill drama, at least for me.

At the same time, Laney Becker included "Failing to include approximate word count" as one of the biggest mistakes writers make when approaching her.

This is why it is so important to take the time to research each agent. Find out what they represent. Find out what they like. Find out what they say about query letters! Send a query their way, and tomorrow start working on a new agent. Get to know this new agent. Find out their likes and dislikes. Send a query letter to them. And so on.

The good news is: If you're avoiding most of the mistakes listed above, you're probably avoiding the following mistakes.

If you're not avoiding the following mistakes…may God have mercy on your soul.

Kate McKean listed "Responding to rejections with rude emails or begging for a second chance" as one of the biggest mistakes writers make, and Stephany Evans followed this same path:

There really isn't one "biggest." So I'll just give you one: replying to a rejection with a request for more input – "Why is this not right for you?" "Aside from the fact that you aren't interested, was this a good letter?" "How can I improve my pitch?" "Can you recommend someone else?" Most agents are too busy to engage in a conversation like this with an author they are passing on. There are only so many minutes in the hour and we've got dozens of emails to reply to, all sorts of work to do for our clients, meetings and lunches to attend, as well as reading (which mostly is done out of the office, at home, while traveling, on our weekends and 'vacations').

Don't get yourself blacklisted! There are always other doors, as long as you don't close them all yourself.

Sheree Bykofsky contributed the following:

The biggest mistake is using bad grammar in the first sentence. Well, the biggest mistake actually would be walking into the agent's office with a query letter that uses bad grammar in the first sentence. That's my final answer.

Please grasp this: You never call an agent, and you never, NEVER go into an agent's office. Ever.

And finally (I hope I don't have to tell you this, but…), you never do this either (courtesy of Helen Breitwieser) –

A guy once Googled me and used my younger sister's name and my high school in a query letter, as in, "imagine your sister (insert name here) was found dead in the trunk of a car in the parking lot of (insert high school here)" then he wrote, "now that I have your attention." Bad idea.

The Great Lenore, great literature, best books, jm tohline

The coffee pot is empty. Your butt hurts from sitting so long. And now, you know all the bad ideas.

Dear Writer, avoid these bad ideas. Write a query letter that will stand out from the slush pile, and that will provide you with open doors. The road is long and the footing is slippery, but the checkpoints are worth the work.

Keep doing what you're doing, and soon you'll be sharing drinks with your agent and laughing at the mistakes other writers are making.

Until then,

Keep writing.
Keep reading.
Keep learning.

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  1. If there's a LIKE button on this post, I'd click it. If there's a LOVE button on this post, I'd click it several times.

    Seriously. I love this post.

    Consider this post bookmarked.

    Thanks JM!

  2. i linked to this post on my own blog today, and stole one of the quotes - with credit to you, of course. ;)

    this is excellent information. i hope writers in search of agents will bookmark it.

  3. Thank you very much for taking the time to compile this information!

  4. Wow! How awesome of you to put this together, and equally awesome of the busy agents to respond to you.

    To me, this stuff seems so basic. Every time I read the agent's pet peeves, I am amazed writers do this stuff! I mean, really! It's not that hard, unless you choose to make it so...

    Happy to connect with you. Someone I follow on Twitter RTd this. Now I'm your new follower! :)

  5. Dude, this post is a work of art. Thanks for gathering this critical information!

  6. Thanks so much. Wonderful research, definitely appreciated. (And yes, I took notes!)

  7. Well, the tea pot was empty. I imagine that counts. :)

    Thanks for the great post!

  8. Fantastic post! Thank you for sharing. I flipped over to my query on a couple of occassions to make sure I did not commit the unpardonable sins. Thanks.

  9. The video is hilarious, and the post is stupendous! I'm off to retweet on Twitter. ;-)

  10. Fantastic post. Thanks for taking the time to interview and construct this little gem! And thanks to all the agents who responded!

  11. Wow. I am guilty of one or two of these transgressions. Thank you for the insight.

  12. This is fantastic. Thanks for taking the time to put this together. I'm off to share it with all my writer-friends.

  13. Well...Usually I try to respond to each comment individually, but I think this one might get away from me pretty quickly.

    So let me lay a base by saying:

    To each of you who is dropping in with a "Thank you," I say this:

    "You're welcome! And thank you for stopping by, for sharing this post with your friends, and for taking the time to make the whole publishing machine run more smoothly."

    This post was longer than I had intended it to be, but there was too much good stuff to start leaving things out. If you made it this far in the post, you're definitely on the right track!

  14. I saw this post on a message board and just think it's great. This really distills a lot of info that new writers need to know about the querying process, and I'm bookmarking it to share with writers who ask me about agents.

  15. JM, this is a fantastic piece of work - one of the best I've seen for new writers anywhere.

    And I thank you for including my video as part of it!

  16. Post is bookmarked. This is one I'll definitely be printing so I can read it thoroughly, highlighting and underlining as I go. Thanks for taking the time to put such a valuable resource together.

  17. Just a note: The link to Rachelle Gardner is broken.

    And, of course, thanks for putting this all together.

  18. Andrew - It appears both Rachelle Gardner's and the Query Shark's links weren't working. Got them fixed. Thanks for the heads up!

  19. Agents sure spend a lot of time complaining about query letters. It would be nice to know if they have opinions about the actual books sent to them, but I guess that's asking too much.

  20. Cary - When agents receive a couple hundred letters each week...and when their current clients are their priority, they have to form their opinions of the books sent to them off of query letters alone. Complain about the system all you want, but it's in place for a reason: It works. Without such a time-efficient system, no new writers would stand a chance.

  21. @Cary, i echo what JM said, and I've gotten more rejection letters than i care to count. remember, the query letter is the agent's first exposure to your writing.

  22. jm - Not a complaint, just an observation. I've observed that the literary agent business isn't exactly growing, and perhaps should change practices to regain its footing before becoming obsolete. I'd like to think that the 40-plus agents who didn't reply to your email take their profession more seriously than those that did.

  23. Cary - If you look down the list, you'll see that some of these are among the most respected literary agents in the world. Many agents don't see queries until 2 or 3 months down the road, which explains why some did not have a chance to answer. My caution to you: Throw your weight against the system at your own peril.

  24. Excellent post. Thank you. This is like a writer's guidebook or bible. Will definitely bookmark and share.

  25. Dear Blogger,

    I'm writing to let you know how amused and edified I was by your recent blog post.

    You're clearly a Blogger of refined taste, wit, and wisdom, so I think you'd be perfect for helping me realize this brilliant book idea I have that's going to make both of us stinking rich. Think of it as STEPHENIE MEYER meets STEPHEN KING, mix in a little J.K. ROWLING meets JAMES PATTERSON, and top it off with a cover (which I've already designed; please see attached file) that's just begging for an OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB sticker.

    For more info, please visit my awesome web site, where I use LARGE, EXOTIC FONTS and ANIMATED GIFS to convey the GRAVITY and PATHOS of my work.

    Brilliant Unpublished Author

    P.S. Even if you're going to reject me (which would be a HUGE MISTAKE...seriously, think Princess Di rejecting the paparazzi HUGE), please respond personally and let me know why. I'm a Busy Author and I don't have time to wait for your intern to press the FORM REJECTION button in between fetching you croissants and goblets of fresh baby's blood. Thank you.

  26. Great post. I'll definitely be passing this one along!

  27. Awesome, awesome list! Passing this one along, and I'll definitely include it in this month's newsletter at Write It Sideways.

  28. Just a little thank you for taking all the time and effort first to gather then to present all this invaluable advice to writers out there. Great contribution.

  29. ...was lured over from Anne's blog, and I owe her a Christmas card for it:)

    best post I've read in quite some time...will be bookmarking it. Thanks so much!

  30. Hi,

    Lot of effort gone into this, and worthwile reading, and I'm itching to say: "I told you so" - to myself as uch as others. ;)


  31. THis was awesome info. THanks so much for taking the time to research and post.

  32. Amazing. Well done sir and thanks to all you agents for your willingness to share. This is the kind of thing that I wish I had always known, but sometimes is better learned the hard way.

  33. Thank you. A lot of time must have gone into putting this together. It was very helpful.

  34. Thank you so much for compiling this. I know it must have been very time consuming but please know it's appreciated.

  35. Thank you! This was very helpful. I really appreciate you taking the time to put all of this together.

  36. You're my hero. Thanks for this wealth of information.

  37. One of the most informative posts I've read in a long time.

    Thank you good sir and well done.

  38. JM, you have provided a most valuable service here and I thank you for doing a lot of groundwork for aspiring writers seeking publication.

  39. This was very helpful and challenging! Thank you!

  40. Unless you are a celebrity, agents do not want to talk to you anyway. Most first time authors should avoid agents and query a small publisher directly.

  41. Walter - I disagree with you there. True, it's tough to land an agent without publishing experience, but it's worth the effort. After all, there are certainly some indie presses that are just as competent and incredible as the major houses (presses such as Atticus Books), but not all indie presses are created equal.

    Furthermore, I landed a terrific AAR agent two years ago, and after we (somewhat-amicably...long story) parted ways, I had another 27 agents request a partial or full of The Great Lenore. I ended up signing on with Atticus before many of those agents returned with a final decision - having decided that they were a perfect fit for me - but the response in and of itself proves that, if you have good material and take the right approach, agents are thrilled to hop on board.

  42. I have to disagree with Walter as well - admittedly I had the sweetener of a smallish publisher having requested the manuscript, but agents _are_ interested in new writers. They just have to be very picky, because each new client adds substantially to their workload. Also one agent's "meh" is another agent's "OMG! I adore this!" - they are fiction lovers just like the rest of us, and they have individual tastes and biases.

    I can only add: do query with only one book, but be prepared for the agent to ask about sequels/follow-ups if they like your work. But it needs to be something in the same genre, because they want you to build a readership, not scatter your titles across every department in the bookstore!

  43. Thank you for the excellent advice you have provided us here.

  44. I looked up Danielle Svetcov's page at her agency, and nowhere in there does she mention that she is turned off by the absolutely standard practice of identifying your work by title, category, and word count before launching into your pitch.

    On the other hand, she does have an MFA, so I guess that's enough of warning. :D

    I would encourage writers to produce plain, simple query letters that contain the basic facts and a few lines of pitch that both makes your work identifiable and sparks a desire to read more. And that's all you need to do. Worrying about the idiosyncrasies of individual agents will just make you crazy.

  45. I'm in the happy position of now having an agent, but it took a long time. I did research all the not to do things and ended up have some really constructive feedback from several excellent and generous agents, but they didn't then take me on. I believe this was at the time a combination of my writing not being ready to be published and also the ever present Market forces. My point is you can do everything right and even then it takes time. Something also for aspiring authors to realise. Getting the above checklist right is the smallest step along the way. Caroline Dunford

  46. This post mastered being both informative and entertaining. It was well worth the sore butt from sitting so long!

    Thank you for taking the time to contact those agents and compile their answers. Your efforts are greatly appreciated!

  47. Great post. If you don't mind I'll link to it from my blog -- I'm currently studying novel writing in the UK and slowly getting towards the point where I'll be sending out the letters, although I have had some contact with agents already through the courses I've done.

  48. Don't want to rain on the parade, but I queried a major agent about a type of book they didn't represent, that was unwritten, not even started, and would be the first of a series, and not only got their attention but have just sold the first book - now written - for a six figure multi-book sum to Transworld, thanks to that agent.

    Sometimes having mega-confidence works well.

    But, ahem, lots of times it doesn't. Behind that success story is ten years of not even getting agents to read my submissions, so maybe there's a strong element of luck at work here.

    Good luck to everyone still querying!

  49. Mike - Definitely, feel free to link to it!

    Jane - I don't think you're raining on anyone's parade. This is simply the advice of agents, to writers. Each writer can choose to follow or not follow the advice. If you choose not to follow, who knows what will happen!

  50. Wow, this post is rich with information! It's good for us to keep each of these complaints in mind when prepping our submissions package. Thank you!

  51. Such a wealth of information in one post. I love the cartoon! Thank you so much for all your time and research to compile this and share. I'll look forward to your book this summer.
    Thanks again.

  52. I've been querying for a while and I take the time to look up the guidelines, to check for typos, to personalize, to not brag or run myself down, to make sure my query letter is about 250 words--and when agents respond at all it's generally something like "I don't feel that I'm the most appropriate agent for your work."

    It's difficult to figure out what I should do differently in order to make progress.

  53. Excellent! Thank you for this post. I think (due to tons of research), that I knew much of this information, but it's great to really here it "out of the horse's mouth". Great post.

  54. The more I read about agents, the more they turn me off. Unfortunately, I guess they're a necessary evil in getting published. One thing that constantly bothers me is the amount of complaining agents do (more so than the writers themselves). If they're so unhappy with unsolicited queries, why accept them at all. I never understood this about agents. It's like ordering a bad menu item at a restaurant and complaining each time you order it.

  55. Anonymous - Imagine this: You are an agent with a full client list, but you still want to give writers a chance (after all...that's what these agents are doing by accepting unsolicited query letters, right? - giving writers a chance). You get several hundred query letters each week...and most of them say the exact same things in the exact same ways. You know that you are only going to take on one or two new clients - at the most - this entire year, but you still spend hundreds of unpaid hours each writers a chance.

    And yet, some people still want to complain about agents and the fact that they're "mean" or they're "jaded" or they "don't give everyone a chance." Really? I don't think most writers could switch places with most agents and remain as gracious or handle the agenting tasks with as much tact and aplomb as the agents who contributed to this post.

    Most of the complaints about agents come from people who, quite frankly, are not very good writers yet. The only thing a writer can do is keep working, keep improving, and keep trying. No one knows who will and will not make it, but one thing I do know: Agents are working tirelessly and thanklessly to give a shot to the thousands of unpublished writers who approach the pen and pad with nothing but a dream. Rather than throwing complaints toward agents, writers would do better to figure out what they are doing wrong themselves...and to learn how to fix it.

  56. Dear JM,

    Congrats on your book publication. I am disappointed by the tone of your comments here. As a writer yourself, I'm surprised you seem always to side with the agents and not show more sympathy for writers. I know plenty of great writers who don't have agents if only because their work isn't commercially viable. Agents are looking to make money not necessarily publish great art. I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. But I think it's dangerous to think of agents as the ultimate arbiters of good writing.

  57. Anonymous - I don't have an agent myself, and neither do I believe agents are the arbiters of good writing. But I also don't think that Writers and Agents are enemies from opposite sides of the writing world, or that you have to side with one group or the other. Both sides are working toward the same thing, and the sooner a writer realizes this the better off they will be.

  58. I get it that we aren't supposed to be clever or cutesy, and I want to know if writing something I think is pertinent to describing my background and funny is acceptable?

    Thank you for putting together this summary of the agents' comments. It's a piece of gold.

  59. Thanks so much for taking the time to put this together!

  60. Wow, This is awesome. Thank you for putting this together. It looks like it took a lot of time and effort!

  61. Nice one. It's a guide for people with no common sense. I get these kind of queries on a daily basis, too.
    I work for a website called Authors on Show and hit the delete-button more often than I want to.

  62. Thank you for all the effort and extremely constructive advice! Fantastic.

    I'm nowhere near needing it though, and might never be, but I couldn't watch the whole of that video, because to be honest, even I found it presumptuous to the point of being insulting.

    And... um... I didn't really need the cheerleading for reading all of a long blogpost. My highly trained (at sitting at the computer for long hours) butt feels a twinge of condescension!

    Having said that, though, again, thank you very much. I think that advice can apply to more than query letters too.

  63. Of course agents are looking to make money! This is, er, how they make their living! Some do take on smaller books they love and know won't make much, but only someone with a fat trust fund could do this all the time.

    And, no, you don't need to "be" anyone or "know" anyone to get an agent, even a top agent (I know, because I did, although it did astound me). You need a sound query letter and a good manuscript, and you need to query agents right for your work.

    I was surprised so many agents did not want writers to mention sequels - in my query I did ("I’ve outlined a multi-book story arc and workshopped part of a sequel with [famous author].")

    But sometimes, as others have pointed out, you can break the rules.

  64. In my search for an agent I found one thing frustrating when I was researching an agent or agency. I would carefully look over their wants and what they don't rep, but that wasn't always clear. 'No genre fiction' to me, if I'm to take it literally, means nothing that isn't literary. No mystery, romance, SF, fantasy, thriller, suspense, chick-lit, women's, historical, action/adventure, cozy... And what does that particular agent mean by thriller? I've seen that label put on so many varieties of books I have no idea what a real thriller is.

    What does contemporary mean? Commercial? These terms are so vague that sometimes I took a chance and sent off a query.

  65. I have taken a chance too, simply because I had such great respect for that agent. I may know they hate vampires, but beings other elements of my novel do get listed as something they seek, I may give it a shot if I really felt strongly about them. It has not worked, but if I did not take the chance, would I always have that thought nagging me with a maybe?

    If someone takes the chance and hears no, no harm in the attempt. Provided I have done some research, I see no reason to mark them off the list only because in 2005 they said they don't like fangs. Let the pro mark themselves off my list rather than taking it upon myself to say what will or will not strike them today.

    I am not saying send cook books to someone who only represents Romance, but if your book is about say....Romantic meals with tips on how to make hubby's heart throb for your apple crumb me the possible is always......Possible.

    I don't understand why No thank you makes so many people crazy. I have two fresh no thank yous in my box now. They were polite and kind. (yes, I have had THOSE strange, disgusted form letters on purple memeograph) But so what. I didn't want that guy. Thank goodness he thought I was Grendal.

    As far as, This is my list..

    contemporary -- set in the last 50 years or the next 50.

    Commercial -- Written for those adults of a 5th grade reading level or below. (no big words, high concept plot) You should have a ten word plot or less. A cheerleader who kills vampires. Girl meets boy and he makes her somebody special. Dog and family are friends, dog dies.

    Thriller - stuff blows up. Guns are everywhere and why is somebody I don't know trying to kill me. If bad guy is so brilliant, why doesen't he have a gov. job or write books about stalking people! If there is no stalker and the plane is not crashing for three chapters, it is not a thriller. Thriller must have fire...gun fire, flash fire, bomb fire, hell fire, or crash with fire.

    Chick-lit - men are stupid but we want them in under 75,000 words.

    Women's A) cancer, sad sappy brave me, how i survived my husbands....
    B) we are smarter stronger faster and make humans....go away useless boys.
    C)I fell in love with me and I want to tell you all about it.

    Romance ---- he's tall, something will throb. He's a jerk, but she thinks he hot. They wear fun costumes but can't be together the moment they have smooched....the rest of the book builds up to the actual smut. The smut is hot and she was right about what a special soul he was because after he smutted her.....he was a better dude forever.

    Suspense -- Monster shuffle....who is the it Mommy or the creepy neighbor....nope....bwaaahhaaa its me!

    No Genre fiction..... This new job isn't paying so great and I am going to night school to get my real estate license. If I happen to be an agent after I sell your book, I don't want you to think I want another one, if you don't win something. If your already a best seller and want to ditch the guy who did all the work to get you started....hey give me a call.

    Paranormal - ghosts, angels, vampires

    Fantasy -- elves, fairy, dwarves and tortured Knights on a quest.

    Urban romance -- big city hunky dunky.

    Paranormal romance - hunky dunky with dead stuff, feathered stuff and big eyed human girl....(this is my special friend,,,,hehe)

    See its really easy to define vague terms. No is much

  66. My Dear Jordan,

    First of all, thank you. This a comprehensive yet entertaining post on query letters! You've just saved this lady from spending hours scouring the internet for the priceless pointers you've listed above. I dig everything that you posted. My only question now is whether it's possible to see prime examples of excellent query letters in full?

    I'm a stickler for formatting things correctly and really trying to do it right the first time. That being said, if there's somewhere I can go to look at great specimens, I'd really appreciate the tip.

    Thanks again and keep up the great work,

    Paige K

  67. Paige - That's a good question...

    The best bet, as far as I know, would be to Google "Query Shark" and click on the first link that shows up. On this page, Janet Reid helps writers perfect their query letters - in the end of each person's journey, you see what SHE says is a good query.

    I know that there are also writer's forums where people can post and critique queries, but Janet's page is probably the best place to go for the opinions of an actual agent.

    There are probably other places as well, but that's what I know.

  68. This is a great post, JM! Thank you for gathering up the list of pitfalls, so that I know what to avoid in the future.

  69. William K. ProchazkaJanuary 6, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    That 'freaking' video was so 'freaking' funny. I think I actually quit being a writer while watching it... Of course, once it ended, I got my head back in gear and said, "Cartoons will not sway your dreams...but, Cartoons will...make you smarter." -William K. Prochazka

  70. Bookmarked! This is literally the most helpful thing I've ever read about querying! Thank you for posting.

  71. You have successfully taken the highlights of blogs, agent advice, and writer's forums, and packed them into one neat package much like those vacuum-sucked storage bags.

    After reading, this blog, I will follow your tweets, and am going straight over to Janet Reid's place to learn how to condense a 76,000-word YA novel into less than 300 words for a winning query letter.

    Thank you (smilie icon here)

  72. Such a great post. Much of it strikes me as common sense, but it's nice to get various agents opinions on their biggest turn-offs. Thanks for all the time you put into compiling-- and writing-- this helpful post.

  73. Looks like it's buyers market :)

    Must be nice to be able to be this picky. Just like being the only girl in a town full of horny young men. She can reject you for having one ear bigger than the other.

    I think I am in the wrong business, I should become an agent so I pick and choose from the eager suitors.

    Sorry, I couldn't help it, but I am really sick of reading all these reasons for your pooping on writers' hard work.

  74. Anonymous - The good thing is, you can self-publish and avoid agents altogether. Once a few people read your work, they're bound to spread the word! Success: guaranteed.

  75. Let's call a spade a spade, you guys are leeching off other people's work. Just look at your job as mining for gold. You should not make fun of every stone that doesn't turn out to be gold. Just dig and hope that you will strike gold. And when you do, go to the church and thank God for being able to afford a luxury lifestyle without having to be talented.:)

  76. absolutely fabulous! thank you for all your work in compiling this awesomeness. :)

  77. Thanks for this. Enjoyable and fascinating, as well as helpful!

  78. Great work, Mr. Tohline. Cold sense. Useful. Thank you.

  79. Thank you for writing this; I'm underage right now but I plan to make a living with my books and want to start looking for an agent as soon as I'm eighteen so I can start getting to work on publishing immediatly (I've already been writing for years) and this really helped me, I'm surprised at some of the obvious mistakes people make and I'm relieved that, in my many nights of pondering how to write a query, not one of these dread mistakes ever crossed my mind, thank you again

  80. Great post! I love to hear advice straight from the source.

    I guess I'm on the right path, I see. Oh, the hurdles I'm going to face!

  81. I hope this isn't an overstatement to declare this post on queries has saved MY LIFE - which consists of writing. As a novice writer, I'm apprecaitive of any information I find that proves helpful and this valuable information with great sources is just amazing. Much thanks.

  82. Jordan, I'm so impressed with this that I've placed a link to it on my website and my blog. It's the sort of thing all writers should be aware of. Many thanks for your time in making the query and producing your analysis of the responses.

  83. No one knows when their novel is done. Novels are not sold on whether or not they are done or not done. NOvels are sold on ideas, and on trends, and lastly, on the pure story telling talents of the writer. There is not any writer alive who hasnt published a book and said, about at least one of them, that he or she could have written more, or should have cut this out. Other than the "its not done" meme, this list is helpful. You dont know when its done. Neither does an agent. Remember, these are the same people who rejected Harry Potter a hundred times. So take their advice on that one with a grain of salt. Glad to see it was actually the LEAST mentioned. And oh, LOVED that Youtube vid. HILARIOUS!!!

  84. Thanks for sharing 50 agents' honest responses on what writers should not do. Your post provides insight and a resource, which I'm sharing with Redwood Writers, a branch of the California Writers Club. My WordPress ID doesn't seem to work on Blogger so I'm leaving my web address -

    There is a fine resource for writers in Diane Holmes and Pitch University at

  85. Some may think the video was far-fetched, but there are a number of "writers" out there who nail the comparison. I ran into one at a recent party. I tried to persuade this would-be novelist that his book might make the best seller list (which he adamantly said it would) only on the occasion that he actually sat down to write it. He then asked if I were interested in being a ghostwriter. Sound familiar? I feverishly searched the room for my husband, then courteously excused myself, making a sure but steady path to the door.

  86. If you have room for yet another 'thanks for posting this', I'd like to throw mine in and add:

    This post is not only helpful to newbie writers in telling them what they shouldnt' do, it is also reassuring to those of us newbie writers who have learned not to commit these grievous erros and that we're on the right track.

    As a writer trying to get his first novel published (completed over a year ago, critiqued and revised 7 times since then) who is currently trying to get an agent to respond to his query with a request for a full or partial, I read this blog post with baited breath, terrified I would find I had committed one of the common mistakes in the queries I sent out 2 weeks ago.

    Thankfully, I finished my pot of coffee and your post with a sigh of relief. I have learned something about this business.

    Thanks again!

  87. Excellent! Thank you.

    I finished a draft of my novel last month. Revisions were underway before sending to readers I trust to give me gut-wrenching honest opinions; yet, I shelved it for another month to come back with a fresher perspective. Some writers get too much in a hurry to get published. I just go to work on another project to keep feeding the lake.

    I also enjoyed "How Do We Know When It's Time to Quit Being a Writer?" your guest column at

    Writing is like breathing for me, I need words like I need oxygen. Quitting is never an option.

    Write on!

  88. Bookmarked. This is such an amazing blog post. Amazing.

  89. Dear JM,

    Through this entire post and the comments following, I was thinking only one thing: "There but for the grace of God go I."

    Every single one of the mistakes cited by the agents you interviewed sounds like something I could have committed at one point or another of my development as a writer. Thankfully, I never got around to querying an agent in those early years!

    Thank you for sharing this. And to all the agents out there, you deserve a lot more appreciation than disgruntled writers will ever offer.

  90. I have not committed one of those errors! But, I have not sent a query to an agent....yet. Thanks so much for this post. I am printing it for future use, because I will be querying, after I "make sure my manuscript is ready."
    Love your blog!

  91. Thank you very much for this insight! It's incredibly helpful.

  92. Well, interesting, but it doesn't shed a good light on agents. From their comments, they seem to be rude and snobbish. Don't tell me about the 40 emails they get every day, and how busy their life is. Nothing exceptional there. You are rude because this is who you are.

  93. Very well-researched, in-depth look at agents, their likes / dislikes and the methods one should employ to expect results from querying. Good job, JM.

  94. Although the information in this post is much-needed, I cannot help but leave with a bad feeling in my stomach. The agent/book industry reminds me of the radio industry (in which, I spent 20 years of my life). In the radio industry, the jock is looked down upon. Even though he/she is the star in front of the MIC, the jock is viewed as expendable. The literary industry appears to follow suit, in that, the agent is above the creator. (In my best slave-to-slave voice)Make sho you don't upset massa/agent, cause you gonna get a beten fo sho. Wow, I hope that's not the case. If so, I guess the best you can hope for is to create a big enough platform so you can attract the best help for your project, and in turn, be treated with a modicum of respect. Thanks for the post.

  95. Seems like there's a lot of narcissistic agents in denial of their coming elimination via e-publishing. They can join the ranks of the tens of thousands of newspaper editors all looking to write novels, since they were bounced. All e-novels of course.

  96. Loved the post. Very useful. I believe you have made 1000 agents' lives easier by sharing the avoidable 'mistakes' commonly found in query letters. You'll also contribute to making 1000 novice writers into agented authors with the info you provided. Thanks!

  97. This is a great read, but it's a little confusing to get contradictory advice. One of the agents you quoted said never to lead with the word count, and yet there are web sites that say you SHOULD state the word count in the first few lines because some publishers will reject the novel right away if it's not in the right word count range. And that web site gives several examples of successful queries where they state the word count up front. :P

    I guess it just goes to show that agents come in all kinds too. It's gonna be hard to please everyone...

  98. Good post.
    Thanks for taking the time to put it together.

  99. I've only sent out 5 query letters so far because I am going through and doing my homework, but this was still insightful, well written, and a help to new authors. I got several laughs, but at the same time it has helped me to improve (I hope anyway), so thank you for taking the time to ask agents about this and compile their answers. Thanks also to the agents who responded.

  100. AcroNymfoSparrowJuly 20, 2011 at 9:00 PM

    Good advice. You will have spared many writers much time and disappointment.Also a great insight into the wannabe-authors' world. I self-publish my manuscripts on PrintOnDemand websites, as They are mailed to you as a 'real' book and its a good way to have a critical look at your own stuff. It's much better than reading from a character-less manuscript, or doing a final edit on a computer. And if you fail to get an agent or a publisher, at least you have a copy in your personal library. And with the cost of ink nowadays, it's cheaper than printing out manuscripts. In Australia, by law you have to deposit such a book with the National and your own State library. From this, you get registered online and in my case quite a few sales and some reviews from online purchasers. My book recently got taken in on iTunes. Bloggers might like to try this. If the reviews are genuine and from unbiased sources, authors can attach these in their efforts to get an agent/publisher. It's good that there are people like you who make the effort to help out.

  101. Why do agents always come across as finicky, prissy dills . . .?

    Aren't there any normal people out there?

    For example, why would you worry about someone including a word count, for goodness sake.

  102. Nice. Took notes--though my query letter is finished. (actually got a R from a sympathetic Agent-thanking me for my "professional" query and personalized note)
    Everyday I query...I look for more was to improve it.
    The querying does take time. I think I'll know all the agents in NYC by name, before this is over. Thanks for post. :)

  103. Thank you so much for this invaluable information. If only I'd found this site a little sooner--more specifically, 2 hours sooner--my query would still be on the drawing and I'd be finishing my non-fiction book. Yep, this first-timer screwed up. I researched how to write a query letter and even read as many samples as I could find. After editing my query down to one page--this took 2 weeks--I was surprisingly pleased with the final draft. Then I began researching agents and agencies. I mailed the query earlier today, before finding this 'what not to do list.'

  104. I can see I've made a couple of mistakes, although I try and find an agent's web site and check them out to see what they're looking for. I hope agents aren't so busy checking out all the grammar that they fail to see real talent, and fail to see honest hearted people trying to make a dream come true!!! But thank you for the info and the time you've taken to put it all together. There are a few things I'll change in my future approaches to contacting agents.

  105. Thank you very much for taking the time to write this information. I will keep researching and digging about the do's and not-t-do's, but your information really helped.

  106. Thanks so much for this post! It's directly affected my query letters.

    I had a question though. You only had a couple notes about word-count. I have a three line introduction about general genre and aim of my novel before I describe it in which I have the word count. Assuming I decide to keep it there, do agents/publishers want to just know the word processor raw count? I've seen different ways to calculate looking online, and depending on formula, it can swing several thousand words!

    Word count has caused me the most anxiety since while I'm very happy with all the darlings I've managed to murder and my ultimate word count, I know 156,000 raw count could create obstacles (formulas like 25 lines/page x 250 words per page puts me at around 122K).

    Thank you!

  107. This was very helpful. Thank you.

  108. This was not only informative, but inspiring!
    Bravo to this website!

  109. Pardon me if I missed it, but does the hard copy manuscript accompany the query letter?

  110. In the query, can I bulletize my points about the book or does it strictly have to be in prose?? A lot of people find this helpful (prospective employers, etc.)

  111. This just goes to show that agents think too highly of themselves. Sure, we writers need them if we want to be published, but they are not gods. Some of them really show their asses when they write such nasty things. What's the harm in being nice?

  112. Great post. Thanks for sharing this knowledge with us especially new writers. I read on Writer's Digest Book to put the word count and yet some agents do not want them. Quite confusing!

  113. Great post. And can I just say, regarding sending agents something which is not in their list of preferred types of projects: I once queried Russell Galen, knowing more or less that my work didn't fall within his parameters but thinking he might pass it to one of the other agents in his group. Why? Because I'd heard he was a nice guy and mainly, because he represents the estate of one of my favorite authors. I put that in the letter.
    I got one of the friendliest notes (a rejection, but still) back within about 24 hours. Personable, friendly, and just all round nice. I sure wish I wrote science fiction, just so I could submit to him again.

  114. Wonderful and succinct, discussion of what to avoid doing and how to enhance your query letter to make the process more effective for today's writer!

  115. Thank you for taking your time to write this! It is extremely helpful and absolutely down to earth, which most authors really need!

    I could not imagine being an agent for a moment. I fear mentioning being a writer to anyone, knowing the minute I do I'm going to hear all about their writing in college, if I could have a look, and where they should send their work. It must be twice as bad being an actual agent.

    Do you mind if I post a link to this article on my blog? It's great information!

  116. Great compilation, bookmarked with thanks. On the word length issue, I have found that recognized agents in Australia won't consider fiction works over 150,000 words. Mine is twice that length (about the length of a Dan Brown novel). I may have to look outside Australia for an agent. They also don't seem to like giving a name that you can address a submission letter to.

  117. Wow!! No wonder I've already been rejected twice lol!! Yeah I'm pretty much guilty of most of them.Thank you soooooo much!

  118. This post is simply a godsend. There is so much information here that I'll be sure to revisit it several times.

  119. I must say, it has taken the wind from my sails. Everyone is different, understandably, but now I fear, since not seeing a reply from JM since 2011, maybe he's not listening either. Secrets, compassion, love, despair, willingness; they all seem a bit redondant to me at this point, not to mention intrigue, suspense, humor. I do find helpfullness in your post, and encouragement from you, but at the same time, even with research on agents/agencies, it's always a chance I will take. I have to believe that somewhere out there, big or small, there will be someone; having a good day, see my query, and find it appealing. By the way, you didn't mention if one should sent a manuscript along with the query, or is that a huge faux pas as well?

  120. That piece to Ms. If I got a letter like that, I'd be tempted to call the police and get a restraining order.

    As for word count, one agent said no to it in the first few lines, and another wants it. I have mine in the last sentence of my query. If an agent is interested enough to get that far, then they'll see it. This seems to be a good compromise.

    I'm relieved to have avoided every single one of the mistakes listed above. This lives me some hope.

  121. It is amazing how self-righteous a parasitical occupation can become. There were writers before there were agents. It's a bit like complaining about people trying for a job to which they might not be entirely suited.

    This is informative and interesting, but it's also graceless and charmless, and tells us something about how astonishingly self-entitled people who make their living from other people's talents can be. "Oh, I'm so busy and important, and the writer hasn't bothered to find out my name. Oh, ME. Off to another busy lunch."

  122. JM, I have entered the query phase of my journey. My book is a memoir about my previous mental illness and what was experienced. But I do have the talent for written expression and not just "informing." My main question is: 1. I heard that dysfunction and real life stories are more in demand than novels and fiction. Is this not true? 2. I may be misinformed or talking "old school" but I was told a few chapters and such could be included at the query phase. Is this not true, or is it not true when emailing queries? Is it still done when querying by U.S. mail, and is the U.S. mail a good route to take? One more: When an agent requests you manuscript, do they generally like it to be a PDF or a hardcopy?

  123. Thanks, Mr. Tohline,

    Read your article immediately after emailing a query I felt good about. Forget about emptying the coffee pot... I think I'll just bash my head in with it. (Don't mind me. I'm a writer and tend to use violent imagery. I don't actually drink coffee.)


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  126. “I love books, by the way, way more than movies. Movies tell you what to think. A good book lets you choose a few thoughts for yourself. Movies show you the pink house. A good book tells you there's a pink house and lets you paint some of the finishing touches, maybe choose the roof style,park your own car out front. My imagination has always topped anything a movie could come up with. Case in point, those darned Harry Potter movies. That was so not what that part-Veela-chick, Fleur Delacour, looked like.”

  127. Great advice, some of it seems a bit basic, but good solid advice none the less, thankyou for taking the time to put it together. I am in the final 3 months of my first manuscript and so I read this sort of stuff with interest. I appreciate the nightmare that must be an agents in-tray, and that dealing with some of these letters must be tiresome, but may I remind agents that that is part of the job. Don't be so short sighted as to turn down potential talent because the author has put the word count in the second sentence, or even (although I take the point) missed a spelling error. Remember agents, I almost certainly will not write your next big seller, but you definatley wont write it!

  128. Thank you so much for posting this! It has helped tremendously in my preparations for sending out a query letter. I hope that any and all aspiring writer gets to see this before sending their query letters in.

  129. Boy, these self-dealing scum really are a bunch of spoiled, petulant douchebags, aren't they? It'd be very interesting to audit several writers and published authors about what their pet peeves are regarding responses THEY get from literary agents but politics forbids telling the truth at all costs, especially among those who already have agents. The fact is, literary agents are parasites who simply capitalize on other peoples' hard work. And now, with media consolidation, the resultant layoffs, etc, agents and publishers alike now expect the author to act less like an author with deadlines and more like a Fuller Brush salesman so they can save money, time and effort. Yet, in exchange for that extra publicity work in setting up and using a marketing platform, we're still getting the same, crappy 7% on paperbacks and 10% for hardcovers. Some pet peeves I have with agent responses is when they 1) begin their form rejection with "Dear Crawford." You want authors to kowtow to you and stroke your ego? Start by using prefixes. 2) Since you chose to pursue this career and hang your own little agent shingle, you should not get to cherry-pick who gets a response and who doesn't. You can devote up to 66% or even more to your job. We do this in our spare time. You get 350 or more submissions a week and can't take the time to even send a form letter? Boo hoo. Hire unpaid interns. Hire more assistants. Take on more agents. There's no excuse for this hypocritical, double-standard bullshit. 3) Stop sending people form rejections when they plainly do not deserve it. I've been sending out query letters to agents since the mid 90s and out of all the pissings and moans I read here, I am not guilty of a single one of them yet I still get treated like the rabble who mass outside the moat like the first four weeks of every fucking season of AMERICAN IDOL. I do not kiss ass, I do not send out Dear Agent letters, I do not brag about how brilliant my books are, I don't mention sequels. I don't do any of that.

  130. (Part 2, since this shitty algorithm plainly doesn't know how to count to 4096).

    Yet despite sending out perfectly spelled, perfectly punctuated, perfectly formatted cover letters addressing each agent, after having done my homework, after having perfectly observed their individual submission guidelines, I still get dismissed not even by these rude, disrespectful, arrogant agents but THEIR FLUNKIES. Your flunkies? Seriously? Agents are unnecessary evils inflicted on writers a generation ago when publishers fired many of their editors and decided they didn't feel like wading through their own slush piles. So these lazy, arrogant fucks passed the job of weeding out the wheat from the chaff to other arrogant fucks (that would be literary agents). In return, they said, we'll make sure not one of them crosses the drawbridge without one of you and you can set your own price. They all decided on 15% and that was that. Now these haughty SOBs are slamming their doors in our faces and sniffing on their websites they will not take on any new clients except through referral and invitation only (IOW, the Old Boy Network). This violates the collusive agreement between themselves and publishers to which I'd alluded above. More and more we're hearing, "You can't get a publishing contract without an agent" then when you do your one-legged Curly Howard pivot agents tell you, "You can't get one of us without a publishing history." And no one gives a shit about this absurd Catch-22 position into which they're placing us. Now they have the gall to snuffle and sniff with contempt when someone mentions an industry that'd arisen from this dysfunctional business model created by them. I'm speaking, of course, of self-publication, which directly arose through not only the technology now available but also hordes of unpublished authors who were treated like dog shit all these years by scumbag literary agents. Bottom line, you do not need a literary agent. Anyone who tells you otherwise ought to be bombarded to death with all the millions of unsold copies of Sarah Palin's ghost-written books.

  131. shit all these years by scumbag literary agents. Bottom line, you do not need a literary agent. Anyone who tells you otherwise ought to be bombarded to death with all the millions of unsold copies of Sarah Palin's ghost-written books.

  132. shit all these years by scumbag literary agents. Bottom line, you do not need a literary agent. Anyone who tells you otherwise ought to be bombarded to death with all the millions of unsold copies of Sarah Palin's ghost-written books.
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