It’s Not You, It’s Your Query

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 31 2011

I know this is something we’ve discussed before on this blog, but after (holy crap!) almost five years of blogging, there are bound to be things we’ve discussed before.

Can I stop here for a minute to point out that this blog started in 2006. Where the heck did five years go?!

Okay, back to the query.

I was talking to an author recently who told me that she had been rejected by 120 agents on query alone. Not one had requested a partial. How does that happen? Here’s how. Your query isn’t strong enough.

To be honest, even the crappiest (apparently word of the day) book should be getting requests because a good query, like a good car salesman, can sell anything. If you aren’t getting any requests on 20 queries (that means at least one request for every 20 queries you send), you need to rewrite your query. It’s not working.

If you find that you can’t rewrite it, that you’re having a difficult time writing a really amazing query, then you need to look at your book. It’s likely not working.


42 responses to “It’s Not You, It’s Your Query”

  1. Avatar Loralie Hall says:

    This is a good reminder, and something I'm struggling with now. Though I'm nowhere near 120 rejections. But I'm impatient and keep rewriting the query just a few rejections (so I have four or five versions at this point). Maybe I can give it just a little more of a chance…

    Great insight, thank you ^_^

  2. I'd like to recommend AgentQuery Connect. The folks over there, myself included, have used it to spruce up our queries. And we're all more than willing to take a look at a burgeoning query letter. Just make sure that it's as good as you can get it on your own. And also bring your big boy/girl shoes and be prepared for some healthy and honest constructive crits (for free of course). We're a fun lot over there…and many of our members are successful authors who just want to help.

  3. Avatar Pia Newman says:

    Great post – I never thought of myself as a sales person when querying, though it’s obvious, really. This also made me reread your advice on resubmitting and requerying. 😉

    It’s tempting to damn the query after the first rejection, at least it was for me. I had to tell myself to cool it and keep waiting. Still, the rejections kept rolling in. I did a lot of research before writing that query, but also kept eyes and ears open for tips afterwards, and at one point realized it would never work. Too clichéd, too formulaic. I rewrote it and sent the new version out to the agents next on my list. Two weeks later, I had another idea that might make the query better, so I rewrote it again and went with that one from then on. Queries 2 and 3 each received a request for a partial. Me, the happy bunny.

    I think the key is practice and letting others, who don’t know anything about your book, read the query. They can tell you if they’re intrigued, confused or not interested enough after reading it once. AgentQuery Connect sounds perfect for that – thanks for the tip, Justin!

  4. Avatar Michelle de Rooy says:

    I agree. Writing the ms was the easy part compared with the query! I gave mine a massive overhaul this year, because, let's be honest, it was horrid; and received 4 requests from 7 sent. It's amazing what a difference a few changed sentences can make.

    Mind you, I'd still rather write a new ms than more queries! The hardest darn thing I think I've ever done.

    Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  5. Avatar Carolyn says:

    I actually really dug the query writing process. It was fun for me. I asked a lot of friends for help and didn't feel badly doing so – it's so short it's not a big favor, imo. Even though they'd never heard of a query letter before, they're smart people, and all of them gave me useful notes. By the time I was done with that process I had an effective query letter. Maybe not a brilliant one, but it did the job, and that's what counts!

  6. Avatar Fiamma says:

    Regardless of all the research I had done, I was not hearing my own voice in my query letter. To be honest, I am not sure if I do even now, which causes me to question and rewrite the darn thing every time I get a rejection. I think we writers put ourselves in a private hell with these, mine is very hot, but I am learning to appreciate the practice.

  7. Avatar JimmyReno says:

    I think this is yet another sign of how antiquated the traditional publishing route is becoming. If a great storyteller can't get noticed because they're not a good letter writer, there's a disconnect. It's like picking an electrician based on his plumbing skills. This is another example of an advantage of e-publishing. When you put the power into the hands of the writers and readers, the cream will rise to the top on its own, and a great book will be more noticed than a great letter.

  8. Avatar Rebecca Kiel says:

    This is a great rule of thumb. I have used this myself. I like that it keeps the responsibility on me which is empowering in making necessary changes.

  9. Avatar Buffra says:

    JimmyReno – I disagree. There will still HAVE to be some way for people to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were. Whether it's a blurb, a query, or a summary, and no matter what the medium — be it sky-writing, book, ebook, or blog — you have to be able to sell your story in shorthand. Full stop.

  10. Well said. When so many hours are put into designing a letter, it's sometimes hard to see the weaknesses.

    I agree with Justin above. Agentquery is an excellent source when it comes to critiquing a query letter. Sometimes it just takes a little persistence and flexibility to "get 'er done."

  11. Avatar Phil Hall says:

    I have 60 queries out…no takers. Revising my query as I went along (revision 3 is the current one), still didn't help. I'm trying Query Shark, but I wonder…since she received the query (albeit in a more primitive form) I wonder if she'll even choose to bite?

  12. I also have trouble showing voice in my query. I began querying for a book some time back, and the query really showed off the protag's voice. I did not get any requests on that, but I got one on a query that IMO does not show voice at all. I guess every agent has different tastes for what she wants in a query–more plot summary, less plot summary, more voice, more suspense, etc. Research helps in finding out what each agent is looking for, if sources are available (which is not always the case).

  13. Avatar ryan field says:

    I hate to just comment with good post. But it was a good post. A writer should be getting at least one slightly positive response out of every twenty queries they send. At the very least, fifty.

  14. Avatar Bohemienne says:

    I've tried to space out my query-sending, in part to soften the blow and then also to use the responses as a litmus test for my query. I cannot imagine firing off a hundred queries at once, unchanged! There are plenty of great forums where you can get honest feedback on what's just not working, as well.

  15. Avatar Annerb says:

    This is a very good point and something that I think a lot of writers should take to heart. Here is my question: If you do realize you need to rewrite, and you do, is there protocol or etiquette when sending it to an agent you already queried with the first query? Should you just not do it? I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

  16. Avatar JimmyReno says:

    Buffra – I agree that a blurb is important, and you need to be able to pitch your book. The query letter is supposed to be so much more than that, though, and it's become this giant strange animal that you have to tame in order to get someone to even give you a look. I just think it's a waste. How about this – a writer's name, the name of their book, a teaser paragraph, and then the first 5-10 pages? Most of the time you'll be able to separate the good from the bad after a few paragraphs of the writing, which takes about as long to read as a query letter.

  17. Avatar CPatLarge says:

    I would be careful depending on QueryShark. As much as can be learned from Ms. Ried, she has a very different view of what a query letter should be than many other agents I researched.

    And that's part of the problem, too. If agents are SO particular about what to include, and how, what chance does a writer have?

  18. Avatar jfaust says:


    I agree and from now on we'll stop writing cover copy for books. Instead you can go through the bookstore read the title, author name, look at the pretty cover and then read the first 5-10 pages of the book before making a decision to buy. As a new author, one with no audience, let's see how many books you sell.

    And yes, I couldn't avoid the snark on this one.


  19. Avatar Seleste says:

    As someone who's published at a few e-publishers, I need to point out a fallacy in Jimmy's argument. All of the stories I have out still had to be sent with a query. I'd be leery of an e-publisher that didn't want one.

  20. Queries… synopses… blurbs… gee, all my (least) favorite words!

    I make myself write at least three queries per month for freelance stuff, and I still suck at it. (I figure that if – WHEN – my existing gigs dry up or slow down, as always eventually happens, I will be extremely sorry that I let my query skills get rusty.) My success rate is "meh," and I aspire to get it much closer to "not bad."

    Feedback from industry professionals is invaluable. However, sometimes I also find it helpful to try out the query language on an outsider, preferably a skeptical SOB who hears sales pitches all the time. The feedback is usually quite painful, but it tends to be right on. And it gets results.

    The rolfing approach to queries, I guess.

  21. Avatar JimmyReno says:

    I agreed about the blurb, which is the same as the cover copy. I just still think that writing a story and writing a query/marketing letter are very different skills, and it pains me that they're judged the way they are. Unfortunately, that's the nature of the beast. And by the way, my attitude is in no way reflective of the fact that my query letter hasn't even gotten me a shadow of a response yet. (Also a bit snarky…)

  22. Avatar CPatLarge says:

    JHF: In defense of my writing group partner JimmyReno, that's not the point at all. I can write good cover copy, but I've been told by agents who are guarding those publication entryways that blurb copy does not a good query letter make.

    As I noted earlier, we're often stuck between very, very different agent expectations, looking for the magic formula. I'd rather spend all that creative energy on a new book than satisfying nebulous, ever-changing criteria.

  23. Avatar JimmyReno says:

    Queries to e-publish? Shoot. Guess I might as well hang it up then.

  24. Avatar Dara says:

    Makes perfect sense. I know I've done practice queries before and they've helped me realize some fundamental problems with my book.

  25. Avatar j. says:

    I send out my queries in cycles. If I am rejected by 10 agents, I tweak it. I really struggled for a long time with my queries. I finally happened upon a formula for my latest query that seems to finally work. I find writing novels a breeze compared to writing a one page pitch! It really has been the most agonizing part of the process for me.

  26. Excellent reminder as I start gearing up to query in a few months. Definitely going to bookmark this for that reminder to continue. Thanks!

  27. My WIP is still in the revision stage, but whenever I get stuck, I work on the query. I figure that creating a great query will force me to distill my WIP down to what it's really about, and it helps me focus on what's important in my revisions.

    I do have some problems figuring out how to structure the letter. I'm finding that a lot of the agents will post letters they liked on their sites. I'll try and customize my letter for each agent.

  28. JimmyReno: Try to think of it this way: If you can write a good novel, then you can write a good query letter–i.e. you're capable of it.

    You may not know how to do it yet, but that's a skill that can be learned.

    (Erm. If it helps, I run a query critique site called The Query Goblin. There are also sites like Evil Editor and Phoenix Sullivan that help writers with queries too.)

  29. Avatar JimmyReno says:

    Thanks jj. I'll check those out. I'm just frustrated by the query process right now, but I'll get over it and get back to work soon.

  30. The secret to a successful query is a kickass blurb that encompasses the conflict of your story in a brief paragraph or two. At the query stage, an editor or agent doesn't want to know your life history. They're only interested in what kind of story you've written. GMC in a nutshell–that's the big, elusive secret. At least, that's been my experience and I always had a high request rate.

  31. Avatar Josh Hoyt says:

    This a great test on how your query letter is being received. The important thing though is to make sure it is being checked over by a critique group so you don't waste those 20 potential bites to find out (:

  32. Avatar Stephsco says:

    This is helpful. I'm not that far itno the process yet, but I've started rough drafts of a query, which has in turn helped me tighten my story. If I can't pitch the story well enough, then I maybe my story needs defining, which was exactly the case.

  33. Avatar Victoria says:

    Actually, I confess I sent you an email with a question on how to handle a query when you have publisher interest. Yesterday I found the answer in the archives. Shame on me. Sorry about that.

    That's to your previous post, I've nwt got a pretty good idea of how to head up the query and the information I need to include. Thank you – this blog really is a wonderful resource. (Providing we use it… *eyeball roll at self*)

  34. Avatar Jean Reidy says:

    Amen, Jessica. A query written well should draw some positive response. Of course, you shouldn't advertise what you can't sell, so you do need to start with a strong story. But agents and editors will never see that strong story if they can't get beyond the query. Great post!

  35. Avatar Lorilye says:

    I have to agree with Jimmy that the process of procuring an agent is daunting. Let me say this also, some of us don't write short well. I can write a 150k word fantasy novel, but stumble over a one page query. It's not the same and you will be hard pressed to convince me otherwise. I do agree that if you continue to do the same thing repeatedly, you can't expect a different result, so rewrite the query and hope for a new reception.
    Jimmy, not all ePublishers require a query, some request only a short blurb and your basic information. Another advantage to ePub's is you don't need an agent to contact them.

  36. Avatar Amy says:

    I actually loved querying <> because it was fun. Granted, I was querying a humorous memoir so my voice was pretty snarky, but I kind of looked at it as a a game — how can I make people laugh and want to see more? And I connected with our very own Jessica within a month of sending out my first batch of queries.

    In every job and every type of work, you have to play the game. If you don't, you won't get a shot. Sort of like sending a resume — people hate doing resumes, but you have to do it to be considered. Queries are no different, in my mind. In both, you're selling yourself and your work.

  37. Avatar Nicole says:

    IT'S TRUE.

    I queried several agents, but no dice. I kept working my query and was indeed worrying that maybe the problem was my book. In fact, when Jessica sent me a rejection she told me that perhaps she would have requested material if the query were stronger. Pretty much the proof I needed.

    After one final re-write and another batch sent out – 2 requests in the space of 2 weeks.

    (…psst, hey, Jessica – you wanna take another look? ;D Hehe.)

  38. Avatar Donna Hole says:

    I'm not sure if I've sent out 20 queries in 5 years.

    Its so much harder writing the query than the nove 🙂

    Like a job interview, where you have to condense everything you know about a specific job (story) down to a 10 minute (2 minutes for the query) talk about yourself.



  39. Avatar Trisha says:

    120 rejections?!?! yikes, I would have taken the hint earlier than that.

  40. Avatar Bryce says:

    There are plenty of social outlets for good books to be sorted from bad books. Amazon reviews, goodreads, librarything, twitter, book review blogs… Yes, a self-published author will have to do a little work to get those first few reviews, but I believe that is easier than getting a query letter that matches an agent's personal style/mood that day.

  41. 120? Man, I'm having trouble with your 20 query rule. In my first set of 5 queries I got one request for a partial, so did a major overhaul of the query letter.

    Though to be honest, I still think the one request was a fluke. Against all advice, I like to include a paragraph towards the end of the query on why I selected this agent to query. In that case i referenced a fairly obscure (but successful) book the agent had repped & tied it into the audience for my book. I guess it showed I'd done my homework, and a lot of thinking about my audience.

    After my major revision on the query, I so far have one request for a full, so I count that as a good revision. Fingers crossed.

    And on the 'querying sucks' point, yes, it does. And yes, it's unfair that a book is judged on your skills at writing a pitch letter. However, that is always the case. As someone else mentioned, it's not that different from sending resumes to get a 'normal' job. Partly it's following expected trends/ guidelines. Partly it's finding what the person reading it wants to see. Mainly it's about selling yourself and your work. And even if you bypass the querying process completely and self-publish, it just means you have to sell to the public directly.

    So writing a great book is never enough. You still need to be able to sell it.

  42. After paying a visit to SlushPileHell, I feel very bad. Just bad. Just about every entry had some element that had been "recommended" somewhere for query writers. Fortunately, so far, none I've employed. I try queries that have been critiqued by published writers in similar fields and I get "not very interesting." Is the agent field that rife with cynicism?

    I SO want to sign this, yours truly, Amanda Hocking