Your Queries Say a Lot About You

Over the last year, I’ve given you numerous examples of things not to say in a query letter. One of the most unhelpful things you can say in your query is something like, “my book will win the Nobel prize” or “it’s bound to be a blockbuster bestseller.” Or even the more restrained, “This book will sell millions.” I often read letters that say something like, “It’s REALLY good!”

Recently blog reader Gwen Stewart asked, “If you read past the adjective-laden queries to the sample pages, how far from accurate are the big claims? Do the writers show some natural talent that’s perhaps a bit oversold?”

For me, the answer might be irrelevant. Once they’ve over-sold themselves in the query, I’m less likely to want to work with them. Why?

When a writer oversells themselves in the letter, it gives me an idea of their expectations. If their expectation is the Nobel prize, and this is their first book and I work hard to get them a nice little 25k advance with a medium sized publisher… they’ll be unhappy. If their expectations aren’t met, it’s somehow going to be my fault. If they’re thinking “blockbuster bestseller” and their book does anything less than #1 on the NYT list, they’re going to be unhappy. (See my post, Manage Your Expectations.) Then they’ll probably fire me and start telling everyone that I’m a terrible agent.

Each author and book I decide to represent means I’m signing up for a long-term relationship. Some things, including unrealistic expectations, show me that this person may be difficult for me to work with in a long-term situation.

Over-confidence and inflated egos are generally difficult to work with in any environment, as you probably know. I’m much more comfortable with a dose of humility. Allow the agent or editor to discover your greatness for themselves. When I’m approaching publishers with a project, I work hard not to oversell. I craft my words so the reader can’t help but notice the book’s potential all on their own. Won’t they feel great when they own the thrill of discovery? If I hyped it up, they’d be on the defensive rather than open-minded.

This is an important part of crafting a query. Let your words SHOW the editor or agent the greatness of your project, don’t try to TELL them how great it is. I guarantee it’s a much more effective approach.
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!

39 Comments

  1. Kirti on April 12, 2009 at 2:36 PM

    >Wow…VERY helpful advice…thanks



  2. Saoirse Redgrave on April 10, 2009 at 1:27 PM

    >Rachelle,

    Your posts are very insightful and useful to those of us on the other side of the business. I agree with you that the partnership you forge with a client is a key to building successful relationships with publishers, too. The ways a writer expresses their goals and themselves provide valuable clues about their personality.

    As important as it is for an author to “sell the book” or “sell the idea” to an agent or publisher through a query, it is still necessary the author seems rational and informed. And yes, as authors, we MUST have a work that is marketable while we work on making ourselves marketable, too.

    The person behind the work IS important; I agree wholeheartedly.

    We are a package–author and manuscript (especially now that technology makes authors even more accessible to the public).

    And we need to keep in mind that as authors we bear a great amount of the responsibility when it comes to marketing our books, too… Recently I’ve heard lots of authors say “writing’s the easy part.” ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Keep up the great work, Rachelle!
    ~Saoirse
    PS–$25K for a newbie? I’m pretty darn thrilled with 10K… ๐Ÿ˜€



  3. Writing Mom on April 10, 2009 at 12:13 PM

    >Another example of bad writing advice… I was told NEVER to write a manuscript for a book that hasn’t already been sold. The person said “Writing for free is a waste of your time… focus on selling the proposal. After you’ve sold the proposal, then write the book.”

    So my first query was sent out for a book that was only half-written!

    Now I know that publishers won’t buy unfinished manuscripts from unpublished authors. While what he said might be true of non-fiction (and I suspect that it is), he was speaking at a major fiction writer’s conference, and should have known better.



  4. L Violet on April 10, 2009 at 11:39 AM

    >It’s true: there’s a lot of bad, bad, very bad advice out there for writers of fiction and query letters. I cringe, remembering the queries I sent out for my first novel. I myself am not particularly immature or hard to work with, but boy, was that query letter immature. I didn’t make the same mistakes you’ve discussed here, but I found plenty of others.

    After another two years of reading about queries, I’m better informed. (Plus the topic has gotten immensely popular in the meantime!) I have to say, though, that the query is still a completely mysterious beast, defying rules, logic, and gravity. That’s partly because different agents like different things in a query–as well as different things in a book, of course. And, being human, an agent might love a query on Tuesday that she would have autorejected on Monday.



  5. Writing Mom on April 10, 2009 at 9:06 AM

    >Hi there… stopping over from Nathan Bransford’s blog to make two comments:

    1. Don’t be too hard on the poor novice query writers! There are lots of sources that tell us, when composing a query, to “sell the book,” “promote it,” “talk it up,” etc. So, for someone who is inexperienced, perhaps even very young (like a college student), they might mistakenly take that to mean that they need to praise it in terms that may sound silly to an agent, but are heartfelt to them. Often these swaggers are attempts to overcome deep insecurities about their writing and inexperience.

    2. I literally had heart palpitations when I read this sentence: “…a nice little 25k advance with a medium sized publisher… “

    I had no idea, you could get as much as $25K for a book, even with a huge publisher. I had heard somewhere that the average income for writers was $3K per year. So I never even dreamed that someone could get that much just for an advance, unless they were well-established.

    I am taking deep, slow breaths now….



  6. Anonymous on April 9, 2009 at 8:53 PM

    >And showing a serious lack of knowledge of the the literary world….the Nobel prize is given for a body of work, not a single book, like the Pulitzer.



  7. Anonymous on April 9, 2009 at 8:37 PM

    >”They’re” not their. Evil typos of doom.



  8. Anonymous on April 9, 2009 at 8:34 PM

    >For you forging a partnership is key, but not for all necessarily. (*Although your approach is actually a beneficial quality to have because you’ll have better communication with the client. ๐Ÿ™‚ Kudos. )

    There are two extremes agents (*or anyone in business, not just agents*) might fall into, the first deals with the person who is genuinely agreeable, but their work product is poor or shoddy, while the other is the type might be a bit of a jerk, but their writing is phenomenal. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe what your grievance appears to be writers whose work product is not good and their personality is poor. (* A double wammie. )

    (wammie being a technical term. ๐Ÿ˜‰ *)

    Pardon the sidebar, but I kind of wanted to illustrate my point with a story.
    You’re a biblical scholar, so you’ll appreciate this one. (*New Testament*) This is one of my favorite stories btw, so any chance to tell it is always a plus.
    There is a scripture passage where there were two brothers and their father told them to go out into the field and do some work. The first one said, “Sure dad I’ll go right out and do that.” BUT he didn’t do it. The second son went “forget you. I’ll do whatever I want and I sure DON’T want to do your work.” but after some time he relented that he had been harsh with his dad. He doesn’t tell his dad that he’s going to do it, but goes into the field and completes the work. Words do matter, but actions solidify the words and if they don’t line up they mean nothing.
    I kind of wish that querying was based more on the pages and less on the cover letter, though because querying without pages is like going to a sports agent and having to describe how you’d play.
    Having said that writers should know better than to say ridiculous statements they couldn’t possibly back up even if they were a great writer. I will definitely give you that.

    So in the same way there are writers out there that may seem like sourpusses, ego maniacs, eccentrics, but their work product does come from the heart and if you peal back the layers you might be surprised as to who the person is.
    Sometimes a person’s personality may get in the way of your working relationship which obviously is a detriment to the business relationship (*this WOULD be something worth passing on a MS*), but I think both writers and agents should look at the personality of the one their dealing with while respecting the fact that quality of performance does matter. Striking a balance is key.

    That’s all I was saying. I meant no offense. Really. ๐Ÿ™‚
    It was a cool topic.

    I thought they’d say pulitzer instead of nobel though. ๐Ÿ˜‰ That’s a rather loony claim.



  9. jimnduncan on April 9, 2009 at 7:28 PM

    >You have to wonder where writers are getting their advice when they put in stupid crap like that in their query. I find it hard to believe that there are that many writers out there who truly believe their work is nobel prize worthy or will certainly be a best-seller. I hear about queries like this a lot, so I know they aren’t super rare. Being positive and confident about your writing is one thing, but to make such claims does indeed make one sound like an ego-maniac, arrogant, a blowhard, or just plain ignorant when it comes to how to best present one’s self. As Rachelle said, it’s not just about the writing. Agents have to work with the writer, and who wants to work with someone like that? I certainly wouldn’t. I don’t even try to make any claims about my writing in the query. Either the agent will like my writing and think the story is intriguing or they won’t. No amount of advertising about the writer thinks about their novel is going to change that. Rachelle’s advice is good. Follow it (for those of you who might actually think otherwise).



  10. Rachelle on April 9, 2009 at 5:33 PM

    >Anonymous:
    Since my job is to work alongside “the person producing the work,” I heartily disagree with your assertion that the person is irrelevant. The person is indeed quite relevant. Whether or not we are successful working together will partly depend on the quality of our relationship.

    I DO care who the writer is, just as the writer cares (or should care, in my opinion) who the agent is. We each need to find the partner with whom we think we can forge a productive partnership.

    Some agents may disagree; we all do things our own way. This is the way I look at it.



  11. Anonymous on April 9, 2009 at 5:07 PM

    >Very true, but I think writers should be judged on the merit of the work, not their marketing or technical writing abilities. If an agent enjoys the work then they ought to find some of their own buzz words to sell it.
    It’d be a lot more natural to just say, “Here’s the work, here’s the general audience, here’s some sample pages.” End of story.
    If you can’t figure out the plot of the book within the first chapter or so I’d venture a guess it isn’t well put together. The work is the work, the person producing the work is irrelevant.

    Good topic.



  12. The First Carol on April 9, 2009 at 4:57 PM

    >Most writers spend a lot of time in their heads, and although not as fulfilling as aligning expectations with reality, there is much to be said about living in the earth binding stage of writing careers.



  13. lynnrush on April 6, 2009 at 1:48 PM

    >Great post, Rachelle.

    I’ve enjoyed reading the comments too.

    Great question, Gwen. Glad you asked it and it’s answered.

    Nice stuff here!



  14. Sun Up on April 6, 2009 at 1:23 PM

    >This was filled with common sense and just plain old good advise. That’s the way I end to view things. If a person seems a bit over zealous and arrogant about their work, it’s good chance they’re going to be a bit of a headache to work with. And even if the person is just really excited and over zealous it’s STILL going to come off like they’re going to be a headache to work with.

    There’s nothing wrong with having confidence in your work. I have confidence that my manuscript will sell, I even have confidence that it’s something people will want to read to the very end–but rather than stating how ‘super duper awesome omgyurgonnabesorichifyouagentme’ that I or this book is–I’d rather have my work speak for itself.

    Less is more in this case…definitely.



  15. Krista Phillips on April 6, 2009 at 12:57 PM

    >Rachelle… I’m not sure if it helps, but I had the same “fear of being a stalker” too:-) I think I DID send mine three times (SO SO SORRY!). I got the auto response about a day after sending the first one, and four hours after sending the second.

    I was (and still am a tad…) afraid you’d think I was Miss rediculously impatient author turned stalker (which is funny because my MS has a stalker in it…) but really! I promise! I’m not! I really am normal.

    Oh, uh, but don’t ask me how I know the color of your house… your next door neighbor’s dog’s name, and the time you usually eat breakfast in the morning… *grin* just kidding:-)



  16. Ralene on April 6, 2009 at 12:35 PM

    >ROFL… I didn’t send THREE in 20 mins. I sent one, waited about a hour and a half, sent the other. Wanted to check before I sent the third. I did put the word query in both subject lines. But thanks for checking on it for me. I don’t want to be a stalker in real life…just on the blog. ๐Ÿ™‚

    LOL, Tim!



  17. Timothy Fish on April 6, 2009 at 12:30 PM

    >Let’s do lunch. Have your auto-responder contact my auto-responder.



  18. Rachelle on April 6, 2009 at 12:19 PM

    >Ralene,
    Technology isn’t perfect; the auto-responses may not be coming immediately. I’ll check on it.

    Yes, it IS crazy-stalkerish to send 3 queries in 20 minutes. Perhaps give it an hour or a day?

    Also, it doesn’t work if you haven’t followed our guidelines and put the word “query” in the subject line.



  19. T. Anne on April 6, 2009 at 12:19 PM

    >Show don’t tell, what great advice across the board for writers. thankx!



  20. Ralene on April 6, 2009 at 11:43 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle! Speaking of query letters, I had a question. I sent a query letter to the admin email this morning and the guidelines said that I should receive an immediate response. I waited over an hour and checked again, no response. So, following the guidelines, I sent another email with a different subject line. It’s been about 20 mins, again no response. Should I go ahead and try a third time from a different email address? (I just don’t want to seem crazy stalker-ish when you find three query letters from me. lol…)



  21. Litgirl01 on April 6, 2009 at 11:04 AM

    >Great advice! ๐Ÿ™‚



  22. Krista Phillips on April 6, 2009 at 10:06 AM

    >Hmmm, you're right, there are a lot of similarities, and you CAN oversell yourself on a job cover sheet too. (Like last year when we were hiring and someone sent me an electronic version… and changed the background in Word to pink… and used size 16 font…and told me all about her three children and how NO one could do her job better than she…) <—hiring managers version of queryfail. *grin*



  23. Lady Glamis on April 6, 2009 at 10:00 AM

    >Fantastic advice! Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚



  24. Rachelle on April 6, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    >Teri D. Smith —

    The advice is the same for those on the opposite end of the scale (i.e. those who have trouble selling themselves).

    Don’t feel like you have to say how great you are. Just write compellingly about your project.

    Isn’t it freeing to know you don’t have to come up with a list of adjectives to describe yourself and your project? Just tell us about your book, in a way that lets us see clearly what it is. That should pose no problem at all, even for those who don’t feel comfortable putting themselves out there.



  25. Teri D. Smith on April 6, 2009 at 9:28 AM

    >Thanks for the great article. I think I struggle more with putting out a part of me to an agent or editor at all. What was I thinking that anyone would read this?

    Any suggestions for those of us on the opposite end of the scale?

    Teri D. Smith



  26. Gwen Stewart on April 6, 2009 at 8:52 AM

    >Your explanation makes perfect sense, Rachelle. Bluster and bragging in a query probably raises so many cautions for an agent that the writing has to be divine to overcome the first (poor) impression.

    That’s exactly what a writer does not want. Perhaps writers need to adopt a version of the Hippocratic oath before hitting “send”: first, do no harm with this query. ๐Ÿ™‚



  27. Rachelle on April 6, 2009 at 8:20 AM

    >Krista,
    Yes, cover letters are a nice comparison for query letters, but I think they are more similar than different. In both, you cannot simply say, “hire me, I’m great.” The most effective resumes, cover letters, and query letters avoid useless adjectives and instead use nouns and verbs, much stronger language. You tell people what you’ve DONE, not simply describe how you see yourself. In a resume or cover letter you’d want to use words like managed, coordinated, built, designed, developed, supervised, sold. You SHOW the employer what you’ve done. Telling them how awesome you are holds no weight, they have to see it for themselves by your description of what you’ve done. It’s the same with a query letter. You tell about your book in the most compelling terms possible, which doesn’t include a lot of adjectives.



  28. Krista Phillips on April 6, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    >Maybe we’re mixing up a regular ole ‘i-need-a-job coverletter’ with a ‘please-represent-me coverletter.’

    When getting a job, the biggest advice you’ll here is “sell yourself”. A hiring manager isn’t going to have a lot of confidence in you if you don’t have confidence in yourself to knock it out of the part. You have let them know that you’re the BEST for the job, not just GOOD for the job. Mediocrity is not acceptable.

    But, I SO understand the difference in a agent/editor coverletter. You’re points make perfect sense, and, really, it’s a relief to me, because I’ve always HATED job resume’s, having to sit there and tell everyone how flippin awesome I am. It’s nice just to be real and say, “This is what I am, this is what I want, this is what I’ve written, I’d love to see if we could make a good partnership.”



  29. JuJu on April 6, 2009 at 7:25 AM

    >Once again showing, not telling, wins.



  30. Timothy Fish on April 6, 2009 at 7:10 AM

    >What?! My motherโ€™s opinion doesnโ€™t count? Granted, many aspiring authors have unrealistic expectations, but it would be unrealistic to expect otherwise. The general public doesnโ€™t see unsuccessful authors. However, I many of the statements in query letters are more out of frustration than anything else. Every author genuinely believes her work is good. The publishing industry not only doesnโ€™t agree, but doesnโ€™t bother to listen. And when people donโ€™t listen, people begin to yell, โ€œMy book is REALLY good!โ€



  31. Thea Rauth on April 6, 2009 at 7:06 AM

    >Excellent advice (that should be obvious), yet obviously is not (for some). ๐Ÿ™‚

    Humility is never a bad trait. Nobody feels good about rewarding the pompous, and pride most certainly, will always come before the fall.



  32. Sharon A. Lavy on April 6, 2009 at 6:56 AM

    >Wonderful post Rachelle.

    In fact I see a lot of agent rant people in here. The ones who are named anonymous. You’d think their mothers would have been more original.



  33. Chatty Kelly on April 6, 2009 at 6:32 AM

    >Hey – congrats on the award in you side bar (Writer’s Digest). Very cool.

    So the meek really will inherit the agent…I mean, uh, earth, huh?

    *grin*



  34. Lisa Jordan on April 6, 2009 at 6:27 AM

    >Oops, meant to say refuse to listen to…fingers worked faster than brain.



  35. Lisa Jordan on April 6, 2009 at 6:26 AM

    >I think some people self-inflate to mask their insecurities. But there are those who truly believe they are destined for greatness even though their manuscripts don’t show it. I believe those people have pride issues and refuse to the peons who can actually teach them something.



  36. Rachel Overton on April 6, 2009 at 6:20 AM

    >Hmmmm…there’s the old “show don’t tell” mantra again. Will we ever get it?! ๐Ÿ™‚



  37. Rod H on April 6, 2009 at 3:32 AM

    >Your approach is entirely reasonable.
    Someone with his/her sights on the Nobel Prize or ‘number one best seller’ spot is surely lacking in self-awareness, a quality helpful in writing fiction.



  38. NICOLA MORGAN on April 6, 2009 at 2:42 AM

    >Great post, Rachelle. If your readers would like a laugh, I recently ran a competition for the worst spoof query letter – results yesterday at http://need2bpublished.blogspot.com/2009/04/and-winner-is.html

    Am just about to link to your blog from mine. Keep up the good work.



  39. Kim Kasch on April 6, 2009 at 1:16 AM

    >Or what about saying, “My Mom loves it.” Or husband or kids…

    ๐Ÿ˜‰