Query Don’ts

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 15 2010

While reading through some queries I very quickly developed a list of things that turn me off immediately. The book might be great, but these are signs that it’s a relationship that just won’t work:

  • Don’t rant about how readers are no longer buying books in your particular genre because they all stink, but then tell me how you’re determined to change that. In case you’ve forgotten, I represent the authors you’ve just dissed.
  • Don’t go on and on about your shortcomings. I don’t care that you’ve never been published before, that you have no real writing history, or that this is your first book. Of course, now that it’s all I know about you, I care.
  • Don’t spend more time telling me every detail about how long it took you to write the book than you do telling me about the book itself. I don’t care, but now I worry that it will also take you six years to write your next book.
  • I will not sign any sort of confidentiality clause, especially when you won’t even tell me what I’m signing it about.
  • Don’t use the term “chick lit.” This term is dead and, at least at this time, is a turn-off to agents and editors.


27 responses to “Query Don’ts”

  1. Avatar RosieC says:

    A confidentiality clause? Really? What, do they think you'll like the story idea so much but not their pitch that you'll take the story elsewhere?

    I solemnly vow never to do any of these things.

  2. Amazing what people think up.
    I do have a question; if the term chick lit is a no-no then what do we call humorus woman's fiction?
    What is Janet Evanovitch's Stephanie Plum series catagorized as?

  3. Avatar Heidi Willis says:

    I'm surprised that using the term Chick Lit made the same list as these others. Wow! I think this just shows why writers feel they're walking on egg shells sending queries. What was acceptable two or three years ago is now a no-no.

    The rest made me laugh though. 🙂

  4. Avatar Alex Fayle says:

    In other words, act like a professional business owner with a product you'd like to sell. Art is a business just like any other – I can't imagine a bakery staying open long it it acted unprofessionally.

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I thought chick lit was dead too. Until I saw them classify three of my books as chick lit on a large website that sells digital books. They are still hawking the genre, whether we like it or not.

    (Posting anon so I don't look like I'm trying to sell books…have to be sooo careful these days 🙂

  6. The truly lovely thing here is that nothing anyone says is going to make the vast majority of these monkeys wise up.

    There is a tiny few who might, and welcome to our struggling ranks, but the rest are the Darwinian Delights that make million-to-one odds easier than it seems.

  7. It surprises me to always hear from agents what writers put in their queries–or worse yet the emails they send agents (i.e. your last post!)

    A confidentiality clause? NEVER heardof someone requesting an agent to sign one. I can't believe they asked you to sign one.

  8. Avatar Kate says:

    I can't imagine why anyone would do these things. I can't imagine spending six years writing a book and not researching how to sell it.

    Thank goodness I don't write chick lit!

    Thanks, Jessica (and team), for the time you put into this blog. It is definitely appreciated.

  9. Avatar S Spann says:

    The last couple weeks have really brought this lurker out of the closet…

    As others have already said, it's unlikely many of the offenders will learn from these posts, but their value is unquestioned for the rest of us. Even if we're not making these mistakes, it's helpful to remember (as someone said yesterday, I think) that we're not competing with the entire world … just the fraction-of-1% that share the portion of the Venn Diagram where professionalism overlaps with writing ability.

    That said…put me firmly in the column that's glad "Chick-lit" means arson in a hen house.

    With regard to what to call "the-genre-formerly-known-as-chick-lit" – call it what I've always called it ….


  10. S Spann–Agents are going to want more than that, though. At the very least, they want to know whether the fiction is literary or commercial.

    I don't write anything in the formerly-known-as-chick-lit genre, but my guess would be to go with "women's fiction" and mention it's humorous if that's really important.

  11. Avatar Jolene says:

    I am amazed all the time at what people put into their queries. Queries are not the place for a rant, an excuse or a personal story. Craziness.

  12. Avatar S Spann says:

    Absolutely true, Kristin. My comment was really intended as humorous rather than serious. I just never liked the term "chick lit," even though it probably did a decent job of distinguishing that genre from others in the marketplace.

    My sense of humor doesn't always come through all that well in text. Then again, I'm a lawyer, so arguably it doesn't come through all that well in person either.

  13. Avatar Leona says:

    Well, that's a relief. I never completely understood what chic lit was supposed to mean anyway LOL

  14. Avatar Nicole says:

    Ha. I'm working on perfecting a query right now (hmm, and it looks like I'd better hurry up and get it right if I want to submit!), but I'm so glad I'm not ridiculous to have done any of these things.

    Actually, whenever I see that sort of thing, I just gawk at the lack of common sense some people have.

  15. Avatar Sheila Cull says:

    Great. In the many queries I've sent and got rejected, I didn't say or imply any of those things. But the good news it that it makes me feel close to other writers because I know I'm not unique in the receiving of the rejections! Another awesome reason to be intially inspired enough by yours and Nathan Bransfords blog to join the conversation/s.

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I must admit I have commited one of these errors before. I have put in a query letter that this is my first book as I saw it in an example query on a different agent's site. An honest mistake.

    Either way, you can only learn from experience. So no worries, this monkey did wisen up.

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I wonder if Jennifer Weiner, Emily Giffin, and Sophie Kinsella know that chick lit is dead. Type that term into a search on Amazon and all of their new books come up.

  18. Avatar Katie says:

    Has chick lit as a genre died or has it been given a new name? What made the term go out of vogue?

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    So what, is it "Women's Fiction" now? "Humorous Women's Fiction"?

    Chick lit seems like an efficient way to describe that kind of book. Is the thought that the term is demeaning?

  20. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    Chick Lit as it was marketed 8 years or so ago is no longer selling. Back then, you'd see dozens of debut chick lit authors hitting the bookstore shelves every time you walked in. Now, you'll find very few books that the publisher labels as "chick lit" outside of the big bestselling names like Sophie Kinsella and Emily Giffin. They've reached a point where they've transcended the category. You'll find that the number of successful debut authors in a certain category is a much more accurate indicator of the health of a genre.

    There could be a number of reasons for the decline in sales: the market became glutted, the economy downturn, whatever. But the fact remains that the term "chick lit" is definitely a turn-off to editors and agents because of terrible sales track records. It has nothing to do with whether or not anyone thinks that name sounds demeaning. It's all about the bottom line.

    So when we are selling a manuscript that is similar in tone to chick lit, we call it humorous/fun/light women's fiction. Even that, however, can be a tough sell.

  21. Avatar J.V. Altharas says:

    I honestly love to see agents post about "Query Don'ts," so thank you for sharing this. As self conscious as I might be about writing a query and my lack of experience in doing so, it's nice to know that at least some of my competition is racing to the slush pile.

  22. Avatar wry wryter says:

    anon 10:20
    LOL about being soooo careful.

    I'm having to stifle my 'wry' lest it be taken the wrong way.

  23. I almost snorted at the confidentiality clause. Maybe we need to rename this lesson as Stupid Mistakes 101

  24. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The chick lit one is not going to be obvious to someone trying to break into writing. That isn't really fair.

    The others strike me as letters from losers. A query letter is similiar to a job interview. You are selling your book, not your history. No one is going to buy your book because of a blurb in it that said how you struggled to write it.

    Jessica: I take it that a proper query letter is 99% about the book you want to sell and maybe 1% about yourself?

  25. Avatar jfaust says:

    I'll admit the chick lit comment is different from the other comments, a different level of knowledge maybe, but if I didn't keep you all on your toes what fun would I be?

    This is not the first time on this blog that chick lit has been discussed and it's not the first time I've recommended that you not call your book chick lit, but humorous women's fiction. And, like Kim says, you cannot compare the writing of a debut author with that of any bestseller or anyone, for that matter, who started their career five, three or even two years ago. The market was different then. If I told you horror was dead or a tough sell would you tell me to look at Stephen King? I hope not.

    As for the classification at a bookstore or website. Well they can do anything they want, that doesn't mean the books that are labeled like that are selling particularly well. Listen, I'm trying to give advice here about how to approach agents and editors to limit the rejections you get. If you want to argue that I'm wrong go ahead. Just don't bother sending me your "chick lit."

    I LOVE the phrase "arson in a hen house" can I use that?

    Anon 8:03. What's not really fair about it? This is a business and if you want to break into the business learn the business. That's like saying someone applying for a Wall Street job didn't know that we were in a recession. This is how business works. If you don't want to take the time to understand a business and the market you will suffer for it.

    As for the rest–what Kim said.


  26. Avatar beth says:

    I just wanted to say that you totally just inspired my blog post today. https://bit.ly/a8N65L

    Because while I look at this NOW and think "what idiot would do this?!" I can still remember how crazy-desperate I was before my agent and publishing contract….

  27. Avatar S Spann says:

    "Arson in a hen house" is all yours, with my compliments.

    Honestly, it's the mental image that came to mind the first time I heard the phrase "chick lit" and it's never quite gone away. Glad to infect someone else with it.