June 7, 2020

10 Mistakes in Book Proposal Query Letters

You have finished your novel and now want to get a literary agent. After drafting your agent query letter or email, here’s a checklist of things you should NOT do.

Manuscript Evaluation

411: What they have in common is that you should not say or demonstrate that you are inexperienced, boring, or incapable of good writing.

1. Ignoring the submission guidelines.

You need to tailor your submission materials to each person whom you are querying. Some want things only by snail-mail others only by email; some with attachments and others with things only pasted into the email; and so on.

2. Not indicating what education, skills, or experiences you have that make you a credible author for this book.

3. Not giving sufficient information about your book.

Yes, your query letter should fit on about one page (whether typed or an email printout) and you should include the salutation and other parts of a formal letter–all of which eat up space. Make sure that the topic, voice, and genre are all clearly spelled out. Lead with your hook.

4. Soliciting a manuscript that doesn’t fit the addressee:

It’s the wrong name (or no name); this agent doesn’t represent the  genre of your manuscript; the manuscript doesn’t fit into this genre.

5. Offering to rewrite the manuscript–

or invite the agent to help you rewrite the manuscript–before the current draft is submitted and read. Agents and publisher’s editors read manuscripts with the thought that everything is plastic and can be remolded.

6. Telling your query reader that you cannot get along with people in the publishing industry.

When I worked as a publisher’s editor, I received countless queries that said in effect, “I had an agent who couldn’t sell this, so I’m trying this on my own.” Or, “I have an agent who has stopped sending out queries.”

7. Discussing money terms, television rights, movie deals, or how you plan to use the royalties.

This is a cart-before-the-horse problem. First you need to land a deal (or even an offer) for your manuscript.

8. Stating that you don’t want royalties (or want to assign them to some cause).

I know you mean to reduce the book’s costs. What this says to agents and publishers, however, is that you will not work hard to promote and sell your book. Why should you? The royalties are no longer an incentive.

9. Mentioning how much your family and friends love your novel or have encouraged you to get it published.

We hope, of course, that your family loves and supports you. Because that’s their job, their recommendation means little about the commercial value of your writing.

10. Hinting that your manuscript isn’t finished, needs a thorough rewrite, or causes you pain like the beating heart by Edgar Allan Poe.

Remember: You undertook your project on your own. Did anyone in the publishing industry insist–or even ask–you to work this into a full manuscript? Whatever suffering you are experiencing in your life, keep it to yourself. Pity (and especially self-pity) doesn’t sell proposals or copies of your book.

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