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The Worst Query Advice You’ve Gotten

I made a call out to authors to share with me the worst query advice they’ve ever received. I’m not posting this to simply laugh at people, but to show some of you how ahead of the game you really are and to hopefully teach a few that there’s no cheating the system. All it takes is a great blurb, let’s stick with that.

I’ve included my Top Ten here and want to thank you to all who shared.

1) Recently a writer confessed that she had spent a great deal of money booking a flight and hotel room so she could crash the Frankfurt Book Fair. A few of us tried to explain why this was not a very good idea, but she was adamant. Her reasoning: she hadn’t had much luck with pitch appointments in writers’ conferences, so she figured with so many agents and so few writers in attendance, she would have the advantage.

Jessica says: I’d have to agree with you. I’m not sure the amount spent is going to pay off for this writer. One thing to consider, is that a lot of the agents attending an event like Frankfurt are foreign rights agents and not all of them are necessarily building a list or looking for manuscripts. A lot of them work with manuscripts someone else has already bought (a publisher) or another agent is representing. Probably not enough bang for the buck on this one.

2) A surprising number of writers think the slush pile is where queries go to die, unless you can be original and unconventional enough to grab an agent’s attention. Suggested ways to stand out: be overly familiar so that the agent thinks she knows you; lie–mark unsolicited materials “requested” or give notice of an offer you haven’t received; if an agent only accepts email queries, send a snail mail query, and vice versa; hire someone to create a book trailer/book cover/postcard/app and send it to every agent you can find; self-publish your book so you can provide sales numbers; add glitter; send a pizza.

Jessica says: I’ll admit. I’m not a fan of the term “slush pile” since I do think it sounds like a place where manuscripts go to die. I also tend to think of it in terms of a publishing house and not an agency since most material sent to an agency is originally unsolicited (queries). The best way to stand out is to write a great blurb. While we can be a little forgetful, most agents know when they know someone. You know what I mean? That being said, I do love pizza 😉

3) Stalking. I kid you not, it is creepy how often I see this as a query recommendation on Facebook. And to make it worse, I know of at least two people who have gotten their agents this way. And not benign follow-you-on-Facebook stalking, either, but legit scary-type stalking. An acquaintance of mine is a literary agent, and more than once he’s had to take the long way from the office because some stalkery author person has tried to follow him home.

Jessica says: Yeah, just don’t do this. I would however love to know more about people who stalked their agents into representation. Did the agent even know she was being stalked?

4) Write the query from your character’s point of view.

Jessica says: I see this once in while and the problem is that its hard to get out of without sounding awkward. It also becomes confusing for the agent. Is this fiction? Nonfiction? Who is the author really? Sometimes it works, but I would say that’s rare.

5) Find the best paragraph of your entire manuscript and copy and paste it into your query as the opening paragraph, then go into your blurb.

Jessica says: This must be the newest trend in query advice because I’m seeing more and more of this. I’m not liking it. It always throws me off, especially since I want some sort of foundation for what I’m reading before I start reading. It’s like handing someone a book without any jacket blurb, telling her to read, and explaining later what the book is about. It’s hard to get into something without any context. Especially if your job is to make a judgement.

6) Format your query letter in html so it’ll hold the formatting.

Jessica says: Is this why I keep getting queries that don’t fit into the frame of my email and I have to scroll up and down and right and left just to read a sentence? If that’s the case, don’t do this. Otherwise, frankly, I don’t know the difference.

7) Put something in your bio that makes you sound like you connect to the current youth-based culture, even if the fact has nothing to do with writing or with your story.

Jessica says: You mean something like, “I am an avid Grand Theft Auto fan?” That’s ridiculous. It just sounds random and unfocused. I mean, if you’re a fan that’s fine, but I don’t need to know that.

8) Ignore requests for a synopsis.

Jessica says: Funny you should say that. I just finished reading a submission that didn’t include a synopsis and I probably stopped reading earlier because of it. Sometimes the synopsis refocuses me and allows me to see that the book seems to be going in the right direction so I’ll keep reading. It also makes an agent’s job easier.

9) Don’t bother with rockstar agents, go with hungrier, newer and needier people.

Jessica says: What the heck is a rockstar agent? Do pop stars count?

You never know when someone is hungrier so go wide. New agents are fantastic and are often really hungry, but if you really want to send to a rockstar, go ahead and hit her up too.

10) Lots of advice on how to gloss over book flaws you should know better about (200K MG? Don’t mention word count! etc.)

Jessica says: Believe it or not, agents are not idiots. We’ll figure it out. Remember, just because we request the book doesn’t mean we really have to read it, especially if we feel we were sold a lemon.

Bonus) Include a tea bag, so the agent can sit back, relax & have a cup of tea while they read.

Jessica says: This one was too good to skip, so you get a bonus bit of advice. I’m not a huge tea drinker and I’m really unlikely to drink tea that comes from a stranger, but if you can find a way to email over a tea bag I’ll be impressed.

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15 comments

  1. “but if you can find a way to email over a tea bag I’ll be impressed.”

    There’s a book in that.
    How about I lurk outside your office till you go home, then we can discuss it over pizza.

    Oh wait, you know me.
    Damn.

  2. “What the heck is a rockstar agent?” Haven’t you heard Janet sing? She gave us a few bars at the Bouchercon panel she moderated. 😉

    This was good (and fun). I’ve been reading agent advice for a few years now, and I think I get the message: The best way to stand out is write a great novel. That will always get you noticed.

  3. When sending snail mail queries was the thing, a well-meaning friend advised me to send a bottle of Cristal champagne to my ‘absolutely-must-impress’ agent, along with the query. I told her it wouldn’t work…

    It wouldn’t have worked, would it?

    1. It would have made me very, very happy. I’m not going to lie. And I might have felt obligated to give more real feedback on the material, but in the end that’s all I care about. The book. So don’t waste your money.

  4. I, too, was told once to query only “young, hungry” agents…and it was an agent who told me this. I tried this on my first round of queries and got a handful of bites and even landed a “young, hungry” agent. HOWEVER, this agent completely dropped the ball with my MS and we parted ways because of it. On my second round, i went for the “rock stars” (read: more established, experienced agents) and I’m so pleased to say that several of my top agent picks (a total of eight full so far) have requested the full MS! Including one who previously rejected my query during the first round! So, my advice is to query whomever u want and whomever u think would best represent u and your baby! It certainly worked for me. Now…just have to wait while they read…
    NOTE: This is not to say that there is anything wrong with “young, hungry” agents. I think they have their benefits. I’m simply sharing my personal experience.

  5. I can promise I won’t stalk you or your staff ( the ocean between us has nothing to do with it )

    On that note I’m not sure you’d want a pizza from me either and I only drink decaff tea.
    It’s a good job I only want to sub to Bookends for bookish things I have nothing else to offer you.

  6. In college, one of my writing professors proposed flying to New York and staying for a week, with a list of potential agencies, and personally hand delivering my inquiry and writing samples to ALL of them. Needless to say, I did not follow his advice (I later learned that all of his non-academic books had been self-published).

    1. I have a writer friend who did this (maybe he was in your class?).
      I said, “Did you get an agent?”
      He said, “No, but they were really nice.”

      Of course they were nice! They were terrified that the writer standing in front of them, dreams in hand, might go ballistic if they didn’t smile and let him think there was nothing wrong with doing this. I wish more writers would just research “how to write a good query,” or even “how to get a literary agent.”
      Google is your friend.

  7. And lest we forget — Say in your query that your book is on par with or better than a famous writer in your chosen genre. Not something like, “I believe fans of this author will enjoy my work.” but “My work is as good as or better than, King, Roberts, Rowling…” You get the idea. I can’t quite recall who said that to me.

  8. I recall reading something about experiments to electronically transport supplies to the International Space Station, but I don’t think it’s gotten to the point where writers can email tea bags (or gin) to agents.

    I was once in a writer’s group where the members were convinced the best way to open a query was with a vivid paragraph describing a dramatic moment in the writer’s life. The examples people shared were extremely catchy (one man wrote about machine gun fire blazing overhead as he huddled in a fox hole). The problem was, of course, these openings had nothing whatsoever to do with the actual manuscripts. In fact, no one in the group was even writing memoir.

    To my knowledge, none of the group members got far with this approach.

  9. CJ I see book/series adverts like that “if you love xyz then read abc” it’s always put me off, so I never look the books up.

    Then a few days a go I was playing on amazon and noticed a series I recognised but didn’t know why. Book 1 was a best seller the rest flops with reviews jumping from 1&2 to 5 star.
    Then I went on Facebook and there was the advert if you like xyz.
    Apparently it sells your first book, but readers don’t come back unless you can back it up.

  10. Christina, so you’ve tried that? Didn’t work? Natch *crossing it off list of crazy things to do to try to land an agent*

    Although sounds like stalking Janet is a two for one deal (stalk Janet stalking Jessica). Shame about the 22 hour flight and $1500 ticket or I bet that would have been a winner *grin*.

    Seriously, though, I’ve never heard of any of the “advice” you’ve listed, Jessica. And I thought I’d been offered some doozies over the years. Only thing to do is knuckle down and write an awesome book!

  11. I once provided a sweet bottle of Dewar’s to Janet…but this was already after she turned me down, BUT had provided invaluable insight on how to improve my query. Her advice was worth her weight in gold!

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