Thanks to Twitter, I discovered the tumblr site SlushPile Hell where a grumpy literary agent posts some excerpts of query letters he received along with some sharp snark. I feel a little guilty reading them and being amused, but it’s hard to resist.
However, something can be learned by looking over these excerpts from unfortunate query letters, and mistakes can be avoided. I had the good fortune to know a couple of people in the publishing business that I could ask about querying. They helped me by shooting down some ideas that could have landed me on a list of unfortunate queries.
In my inexperienced view, an agent looks for three things in a query: a manuscript she wants to work with, a manuscript she thinks will sell, and an author she can work with. Obviously, the query should try to sell the manuscript, but it should also tell the agent that the author is professional and competent in his or her approach to writing and the business of publishing. This is a business partnership and people want their business partners to be professional.
So here is my take on the lessons behind the snark on a few choice examples from Slushpile Hell. Some of these are extreme examples, but they illustrate a point.
Lesson: Always address your query to the agent by name. If you have the agent’s email address, then you should have his or her name. Not using it tells the agent you are lazy. Why would an agent want to sign up a lazy author?
Lesson: Don’t insult the agent by implying that he or she will try to steal your manuscript. If you do your research and find a legitimate agent, this is not a concern. Why would an agent want to work with an author who doesn’t trust him?
Lesson: Don’t talk about other agents you’ve queried. Talk briefly about why you want her to represent you, not why you don’t want someone else. It’s more professional.
Lesson: Always follow submission guidelines. Violating them shows a lack of respect or that you expect to be treated like a diva and that’s definitely not something an agent is looking for in a business partner.
Lesson: You are tying to sell your manuscript and yourself, don’t hurt your cause. I’m not saying that you should lie if you feel your manuscript isn’t good enough. If you feel like your manuscript isn’t ready, then you need to work on it more before querying.
Lesson: Endorsements from sources the agent doesn’t know don’t mean anything. Does it sound professional if you say your Mom likes it? Unless it is something the agent would recognize, don’t mention endorsements.
Lesson: A query is a business letter, keep it business-like and to the point. Remember that you are trying to portray yourself as a professional. Agents go through hundreds, even thousands, of queries and appreciate keeping it to the point.
Lesson: I’ve read agent blogs where the rhetorical question format is greatly bemoaned, but I’ve never read one that mentioned liking it. Don’t try to get gimmicky with your query. You want to look professional and gimmicks won’t help you with that.
Lesson: Never tell the agent how she will feel about your manuscript. An agent is a professional in the publishing business and probably won’t appreciate being told how to feel about it.
Lesson: Proofread. Have other people proofread it too.
Snark can teach. Has a snarky website taught you anything?