So this is it: you’ve finished your novel after months or years of hard work. High on adrenaline and caffeine, you fire off a dozen query letters and wait to see which agent will be the first to call. Then. . . the rejections start to come in. One after another, your dream agents reply with (hopefully) polite variations of “no, thanks.” You decide agents are evil beasts and your book is doomed to languish on your desktop—another undiscovered masterpiece beaten down by the industry.
Hold on, this is no time to give up! Everyone knows that for most writers—including some really famous ones—success came eventually, not instantly. Consider that it may be your query, not your dream, that needs scrapping. Here are five common reasons agents say no to a query:
- You’re targeting the wrong agents. Use AgentQuery.com or Publishers Marketplace to make your wish list of agents who handle your genre. Getting that part right is crucial, but don’t stop there. Find up-to-the minute information on what each agent is looking for: on Twitter, Facebook, their agent blog, agency newsletter, etc. Yes, I’m saying that light cyberstalking is not only okay—it’s a must! If an agent just tweeted about being tired of dystopian, she’s probably not your best place to pitch the next Hunger Games. Similarly, you’ll be in a position to know which agents are asking for just the type of project you’ve got, and to impress them by mentioning their tweet or post.
- Query is unprofessional or unpolished. Agents want writers with personality, but that takes a back seat to professionalism. “Quirky” rarely gets you points here (examples: addressing the query to the agent’s dog, writing the query in rhyming verse—yes, I’ve seen both way too many times!). It’s great to come across friendly, but your query is a business letter and it needs to look like one: correct formatting, no spelling or punctuation errors. Most agents now accept queries only by email, a medium that is inherently less formal than printed letters. You can leave out the return and recipient address at the top, but resist being too chatty or informal with the rest.
- Query is wordy or convoluted. The number of queries most agents receive in a week is in the hundreds. So, reason number one for keeping your query concise is they simply don’t have time to scroll and scroll to get through your query. Reason number two is agents will assume that if your query is wordy, convoluted, or disorganized, your novel probably is, too. While this isn’t always true (believe me, I know it takes different skills to write a query than a novel), with that many submissions to consider, agents don’t have time to second-guess their first impressions.
- Query is vague or too brief. Just as too long won’t win you any points, the converse is also a problem. I see a lot of queries that go like this: “My novel is an action-packed story with characters you’ll fall in love with and a plot that keeps the pages turning.” But what the heck is it about? Who are these endearing characters? Yes, you have only a paragraph or two to hook the reader—so use them! Introduce your main characters and what they are up against without giving away the ending. Check out the back cover/flap copy of some of your favorite books to see how this is done.
- Story sounds unoriginal or like too many others the agent has seen. While it’s not a bad idea to compare your novel to highly successful ones on the market, the key is to also show what sets it apart from them. What’s special or unique about your characters, the world they inhabit, the challenges they face? This is particularly important if your story fits a recent trend; by the time a trend hits its peak, agents are buried in queries for the “next” Twilight/Percy Jackson/Fifty Shades of Grey. Being the tenth one he reads today will put you out of the running—unless you make an overdone concept sound fresh. It can be done—I see it all the time!
If you see some of these issues in your query, roll up your sleeves. Show the query to your critique group and ask them for advice—after all, they know your story almost as well as you, and they can see it objectively. You can also try submitting it to Query Shark. If you can afford to invest in a query critique, you’ll find reputable services at Writers Digest and Preditors & Editors.
The good news is that most agents are okay with seeing revised queries (you don’t need to mention it’s a revision, by the way), provided they are significantly different and better than your first try. Go for it!