What not to do when Writing a Query Letter

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What not to do when Writing a Query Letter

By Deborah Herman

As a twenty year veteran literary agent I always need to remind myself that a new writer is a new writer. There are so many good resources for writers that some of the common errors that come up time and again in query letters should have gone the way of the typewriter. I live in the world of literary agents and publishing. It is easy for me to forget that not everyone knows the etiquette and protocols of an industry that may seem to keep people out, but that really just wants people to know how to get in. Agents and publishers are always looking for good material. Even though people lament that publishing is changing so rapidly, it is the delivery systems that are changing, not the processes of traditional publishing. Although it is similar for fiction we will focus on non-fiction for this explanation. You as the writer choose a subject, you write a book proposal if you do not want to write an entire manuscript, then you look for a literary agent. You look for the agent first because you know that you will gain better access to the publishing houses if you have an agent. That is how the game is still played. That is why you need to know what not to do.

Literary Agents are the first screen for the publishing houses. We build our reputations on choosing projects we know we can sell. We may take a chance on some long shots, but these projects must at least have something that piques our interest for us to spend time on it. Writers do not understand the behind the scenes of most literary agencies. We, the Jeff Herman Agency, are a boutique agency. This means that we do not have eager associate agents doing our screening and pitching. We do it ourselves. We, like most legitimate agencies receive commission for what we sell. We receive nothing for what we do not sell. So if we do not choose your work it may not be personal. This is truly business. You want us to invite you to the party from your query letter. You want us to request your work so we at least have more invested than through an anonymous submission. You know who you are and how wonderful your potential is but to us you are a complete stranger. Here are some things to avoid when writing to us:

1. Never start your letter with a derogatory comment about yourself. If you tell us you have been rejected by 10 agencies but know that we will be the ones to see how great you are we will not want to request your work. It is basic psychology. We all want what we think other people want.

2. Never start your letter with a derogatory comment about the literary agency. "I heard you used to be really something," is not going to win you any points. We have seen people do this. Use your mental gatekeeper.

3. Do not write so much fluff about the book that you forget to explain what the book is about. We don't care if you think it will be a bestseller. That is like a grandmother saying her grandchild is the cutest ever.

4. Do not write so much fluff about yourself that we do not see the relevance to why you are writing the book. And do not forget to tell us what the book is about.

5. Do not send us a query letter about a subject if you should have known we do not represent this kind of material. We are a non-fiction agency. If you were to read anything about us in the resources we provide through our website, books and in anything we ever write about ourselves we tell you that. You can find out that same information about any agency. Just look through the Agency profiles on www.WAENet.com to find out who represents what.

6. Do not forget to spell and grammar check your query. Some of us will overlook errors but many of us will not.

7. Do not rely on spell check and grammar check for your query or any document. There are nuances in the English language that you can't expect a computer to understand.

8. Do not write an exceedingly long letter. We are very busy people and prefer that you get right to the point.

9. Do not allow your letter to smell like smoke of any kind.

10. Do not forget to put your contact information on your letter including phone. Some of us still use it.

Deborah Herman is Editorial Director of
The Jeff Herman Agency, LLC and is
a co-founder of Writers, Agents and Editors Network

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