How NOT to Query – Part 1

don't try this at home

***Warning – do not try this at home. Following the examples set forth herein may result in the end of your writing career. Proceed with caution.***

Now that I have my disclaimer out of the way, I have some advice for you would-be-published authors. Do not follow my example! I queried seventy-one agents. That’s 71 – as in almost 100, but not quite, but still a lot.  I received ZERO positive feedback! In fact, most of the time I received no feedback at all!

So, in the interest of public service, here is one of my query letters that crashed and burned!

Jodi Reamer, Esq.
c/o Mr. Alec Shane
Writer’s House
21 West 26th Street
New York, New York 10010

Dear Mr. Shane:

The armies of Heaven and Hell are recruiting for the Battle of Armageddon and high school senior Gabriel Reid is caught in the middle.  That’s the premise of my completed Young Adult novel entitled HELL HIGH.

HELL HIGH tells the story of Genevieve Jones, a mysterious and attractive high school senior who is aloof, friendless and as cold as a glacier.  That is until Gabriel Reid catches her eye by saving the life of a freshman being attacked by upperclassmen.  What Gabe doesn’t know is that Genevieve didn’t end up at Avery High by chance.  She was sent there to recruit for Heaven’s Army in an attempt to atone for her past sins.

Genevieve isn’t the only one recruiting though.  Realizing Genevieve has located and is training a promising young candidate, an elite recruiter for Hell’s Army seeks to recruit Gabe for his own ends.  The rival recruiter, Bishop, will stop at nothing to either have Gabe for Hell’s Army, or destroy him and the love he and Genevieve have found.

I work in a law firm by day and am an aspiring novelist by night.  My upbringing in a cult-like sect of Christianity affords me a unique perspective on Biblical themes which resulted in HELL HIGH being distinctive in its genre.  I currently live in Rochester, New York and possess two degrees, two dogs and one newly minted husband.

I am querying Ms. Reamer because of her success with other novels in this genre.  Below follows the first ten pages and little more (to the end of that chapter) of HELL HIGH pursuit to Ms. Reamer’s submission guidelines.  I look forward to an opportunity to share the entire manuscript with you both.

Thank you for your consideration.

What’s wrong with this you ask? Well, my guess would be everything. Feel free to comment and let me know! Needless to say, I’m working on a new query letter, that will hopefully be more successful than the one above!

I thought I would do a blog series on query letters since I’ve sent so many, and have read lots, and lots, (and lots and lots) of blog posts, articles and books on it (you would think all that research would have helped me – but alas – no luck).  So here is some advice on how NOT to query.  It’s kind of counter-intuitive, I know!

1) Lots of the articles, blog posts, websites, and general advice out there on querying literary agents is outdated!  I can’t tell you how many things I read that said, “never send parts of your manuscript unless asked for it.”  Well ladies and gents, this is just no longer the case.  Of the 71 query letters I sent, almost all of them were also sent with a sample from my manuscript (usually the first chapter or 10 pages).

2) Sending letters – like snail mail – went out a LONG ago!  Of the 71 agents I queried, only ONE had me send an actual letter via snail mail with a self-addressed, postage paid, return envelope.  Yes, I did receive a response from this agent.  No, it was not positive!

3) The best place to get reliable information on what information to put in your query letter and how much of your work to send with the query letter is on the agent’s website under the “Submissions” section.  Traditional wisdom (read: what everyone else said) was “Read the Submission section.  Re-read it.  Memorize it.  Love it.”  And I did!  I followed every guideline every agent put out.  Did following the guidelines work for me?  Nope!  Not at all.  Maybe playing by the rules doesn’t work.  Maybe it does.  Maybe my query letters were so bad, it didn’t matter that they contained the exact number of words requested, a synopsis when required, a biography when asked, etc.  Who knows!  I surely don’t.  But what I can tell you is that following the rules didn’t work for me.

4) Query those agents who represent other authors in your genre.  This makes sense.  Those agents who work in your genre are familiar with publishers in your genre.  They’re familiar with what’s selling in your genre.  They represent other authors in your genre.  Is this a good idea?  Yup.  Didi it work for me?  Nope!  Next time I do a round of query letters (after another round of edits to my manuscript), I’m going to reach out to some other fiction agents.  Not necessarily JUST those that deal with YA.  Why not?  The worst that will happen is they’ll say no (or ignore me completely) and I’ve gotten PLENTY of that from the YA agents!

5) Only query agents based in New York.  Yes – I read this.  No, I’m not making it up.  Yes I totally believed this (for a while).  I live in Rochester, NY.  New York City is close.  It’d be easier for me to fly in to meet with my agent if they were in NYC.  Right?  NYC is a good place to find bona fide agents because it is the headquarters of the publishing world.  Right?  Right?  Wrong!  Ever heard of Maggie Stiefvater?  She wrote the popular Shiver Trilogy.


Her agent is Laura Rennert, of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency based in California.  It took me MONTHS to figure out that good agents are based all over.  Does this make me naive?  Probably!  But most first time authors are naive, and hopefully someone out there will learn from my naivety – and have a good laugh at my expense in the meantime.

Maybe that’s the little bit of advice I can give you.  Laugh at yourself.  After all, someone else surely will be (insert picture Jodi Reamer’s assistant, Alec Shane, reading my query letter and laughing evilly at it as he hits the “delete” button and banishing it from his in-box forever).


5 thoughts on “How NOT to Query – Part 1

  1. There are some publishers that accept unsolicited queries, but they’re few and far between. I may make an effort to query the few I can find before sending out another round if agent queries. If you know of any publishers that accept unsolicited queries, please share!!!

  2. I did a workshop a couple of months ago, specifically looking at how to pitch to agents/publishers. The query letter was one of the items addressed. The pointers you’ve made in this blog post reflect what I was told, so good work figuring them out by yourself. Some writers unfortunately never do.

    Different agencies will want different things so I’m glad you looked up their submission guidelines. There’s no point sending your YA paranormal novel to an agent interested in historical romance!

    I would keep a template of your letter but tweak it so that it specifically addresses the agent you’re sending it to. It sounds like you did this, so great work. Try and find copies of successful letters to agents as a guide for you, this website has a number of examples (and articles):

    Also, if you do manage to get an agent, if your personalities/visions don’t mesh, walk away. It will be the hardest thing you might have to do but agents are supposed to be interested in developing your career while publishers can be approached randomly. There’s no point signing on with someone you have doubts about or can’t work with.

    Another tidbit I heard is that sometimes agents are only interested after you spark the interest of a publisher. Catch-22? You bet. Perhaps you could try approaching some small-press publishers to begin with and if they reply with interest, you’ve just gained credibility with agents (and can mention this interest in your letter).

    I’d wish you good luck but determined writers make their own fortune by keeping on trying, so all the best and don’t give up!

    • Thank you so much for the advice! What workshop did you attend? It sounds helpful!

      One of my fears is that after a long hard slog, I’ll finally land an agent I won’t bond with. I think it’s rare, but it happens. I hope to avoid it, because I’m scared I won’t have then mental fortitude to change agents after trying so hard to land one!

      • It was hosted by my local writer organisation. As for an agent, I genuinely believe you’ll be fine with whoever gets excited about representing you. It would have to be major personality clash do alarm bells of dodginess for you to reject them.

        Is there a reason you’re soliciting an agent first instead of going to a publisher directly? A lot of them look at unsolicited manuscripts nowadays. Even the big boys have special open submission days.

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