Why Did I Get a “No”? – The Dos and Don’ts of Query Letter Writing

Today’s guest post is by Trident Media Group literary agent Mark Gottlieb.

As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I often have to explain the elements of a good query letter to new clients. This post is intended as a description of what goes into a good query letter, for new authors unfamiliar with what literary agents and editors are looking for in a query letter intended the book-publishing world.

For a writer who might be currently querying literary agents, or even contemplating that process, this might be helpful reading. Considering the high rejection rate in the book-publishing industry for writers trying to become debut authors, this article will, hopefully, be enlightening for the countless writers who are experiencing rejection due to a poorly constructed query letter.

A lot of authors dread writing query letters. I know many authors who can write a novel in a matter of months but who could endlessly spend years toiling over writing a query letter. My advice to authors along the querying process is to really nail the writing of that query letter.

A query letter that reads well is usually a good indication to the literary agent that the manuscript will similarly read well, inclining the literary agent to request a manuscript. Often the query letter can go on to become the publisher’s jacket copy, were the publisher to acquire the manuscript via the literary agent.

The Dos

A good query letter is up front in one-to-two sentences what the book is about in hook or elevator-pitch fashion (it should mention the title, lend a sense of genre, and contain one-to-three competitive/comparative titles that were best sellers or award-winners, published within the last few years). If the author has pre-publication blurbs, those can appear before those first two sentences.

Next is a couple of body paragraphs detailing some of the plot details without too many spoilers, and in that space the literary merits of the manuscript can be mentioned.

The last paragraph is usually reserved for a short author bio, mentioning relevant writing experience/credentials, and a link to an author site or social media page(s) can be included there.

An extremely well-written query letter will stand out. Bonus points for a query letter that carries a lot of author credentials, such as awards, nominations, best-seller status, writer group/workshop participation, successful publications in literary magazines/anthologies, and especially advance praise from other authors of note.

Personally, I find that the best time to query literary agents is the spring or summer, as things start to slow down in publishing during those seasons. In fall, everyone is just getting back from their summer vacations and settling in. A lot of professors on sabbatical and summer break are getting back at that time and flooding us with queries.

Check Each Agency’s Guidelines First

Only if the query letter is strong will a literary agent usually go on to request sample pages or a full manuscript, unless their policy on their site is for an author to include a sample with the query.

Reading the submission policies of the literary agency on their website is important. For instance, many sites ask that an author query only one literary agent at a time at a given literary agency. Some literary agents pass a project along to another agent if it isn’t for them, but only when it is good. Usually when it is a pass, it is one on behalf of the entire agency. If an author wants to query us again, we ask that they wait thirty days. That will afford them time to revise their manuscript.

Not including the word count and genre in a query letter is not a red flag since upon receiving the manuscript, the agent can determine the page length and word count. Upon receiving the query, they can determine the genre. It helps to know these two things though. A manuscript should not exceed 120,000 words.

Writers often toil over how many characters should be mentioned in a query letter. Only the primary characters should be mentioned, or just the protagonist and antagonist. I often see authors getting stuck on their book title or character names before they get to write their query letters. As this is often changed so authors shouldn’t dwell on it.

A well-written query letter will usually result in my request for a manuscript to read and consider. Seeing good writing in a query letter is more often than not a strong indication that the manuscript will also be well written. That is why I always tell authors to think of their query letter as their storefront, since it’s everyone’s first impression of a book.

Again, oftentimes, the copy from the query letter will find its way into an agent’s pitch or onto the jacket copy of a publisher’s book, so the query letter is an essential starting place.

The Don’ts

I would caution authors against too much personalization in a query letter since literary agents in our industry have their egos stroked enough. I don’t need authors to say, “I really like your work,” or, “My book is a good fit for you because it’s like XYZ book you represented.”

Literary agents already know writers are approaching other agents as well. I for one am not one for idle chatter and small talk when it comes to chitchat in a query letter.

When agents request manuscripts, authors should be wary about requests for an exclusive—meaning the author may not send the manuscript to other literary agents while the agent queried is reviewing the submission. Literary agents often sit on their projects for months.

I don’t ask for exclusives. If there’s a project that interests me, I try to read it in two or three days or at least within a week. If I take a manuscript home and stay up all night reading it and call the author the next day, it shows I’m competitive. I care about this project and wanted to get ahead of everyone else.

Submit to agents who are building their lists. Writers who submit to a chairman, CEO, executive president, or VP of a literary agency are going to find that the higher-ups only take on a new author if he or she is a New York Times best seller or major award-winner.

Even if said senior executive publishing agent likes a query, they are going to pass it on to someone else more junior in the publishing agency. It’s better to take the time to research the book agents and figure out for yourself who would be best for your manuscript.

Mistakes to Avoid

Apart from the act of querying, there are many mistakes that I’ve seen in query letters, but I will name just a few that would absolutely deter me from requesting a manuscript from an author:

  • Submitting queries for novellas, short-story collections, poetry, or textbooks will usually turn a literary agent off, as most literary agents do not represent such things. Publishers tend not to buy from literary agents in those areas in the first place.
  • Word count is also very important. Traditional book length is 80-120K, and commercial fiction tends to be in the 80-90K-word range. Going outside of normal book length will not produce good results for an author querying a literary agent for a shot at going into major trade publishing.
  • Writing within struggling genres such as cozy mysteries, erotica, or urban fantasy is also another way to turn a literary agent off in the querying process. We tend to be weary of that at Trident Media Group.

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen in query letters is an author who writes to me about what sounds like an amazing manuscript, but when I request it I’m told the manuscript is either in idea state only or not fully written. That doesn’t help me at all, as fiction can really only be evaluated on a full manuscript.

The other common mistake I see is authors tending to write excessively long query letters in which they have a tendency to include the entire synopsis and sometimes even the first chapter or so of a manuscript. I can see how this sort of mistake might happen, as authors, by nature, are storytellers, but the query letter should be concise and fit on one page.

A typo or a misplaced comma will not shoot down the entire query letter, but it is still considered poor form.

Beginning in book publishing means much more than just having written an amazing manuscript. This post ought to help most any writer new to book publishing navigate some of the pitfalls of our quirky industry.

What positive or negative responses have you gotten from literary agents you’ve submitted queries to? Any insights you want to share?

Mark Gottlieb began his agenting career with Penguin’s VP. Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. He was EA to Trident’s chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among literary agents on publishersmarketplace.com in overall deals and other categories.

For a free in-depth resource on how to write a great query letter, click HERE!

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  1. Thanks, Mark!

    The following phrases in this post caught my attention.

    “this might be helpful reading”

    “this article will, hopefully, be enlightening”

    “This post ought to help”

    They don’t exude confidence, but I appreciate the solid advice.

  2. Mark – thank you for the excellent article! It happens to be very timely for me. One thing I noted is that one piece of your advice: “a couple of body paragraphs detailing some of the plot details without too many spoilers”. This seems to be opposite of other articles I’ve read recently which stipulate that you should include a succinct but complete summary of the work with no vagueness about how it ends. Frankly, I like your advice more. Thinking of the paragraph as a jacket teaser rather than a simple summary is much more fun and creative (at least for me). I am thinking the different advice is just based on the preference of the agent. If you have any other feedback on this, I’d love to hear it. Thanks again for sharing your wisdom with the hopeful masses!

  3. Thank you for this honest info Mark! Thus far I had been told word count being light was a big problem… I hadn’t seen or read anything about it being detrimental if it was more than 120k words! My current manuscript is 158k, and alas, it’s also Urban Fantasy… perhaps now is just not the time for this story to succeed in such a market…. (sigh)
    But I would rather know for certain than continue tirelessly spinning my wheels on something that’s not going to catch on.
    Thank you. I am very appreciative.

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