In the publishing industry, many badly-written queries are considered especially heinous, and they are probably the reason why you didn’t get published yet.
The dedicated people who reply to query letters are members of an exclusive elite squad known as literary agents.
These are their stories.
A big thanks to agents who take their time to tweet their queries. This series would not be possible without them.
Agent Analysis – Part 7 – Season 1 Final Episode
Previously on Query and Publish…
Navigate to posts in this series:
Part 6: Agent V
Agent U. Yes, U.
Agent U a literary agent that posted information about 201 queries on twitter over the last few years. I usually limit it to 200, but one of the tweets mentioned multiple queries.
She’s looking for Middle Grade, Young Adult and Romance (both contemporary and historical).
I analyzed 201 queries from agent U, and she requested partials from 9 of them, or 4.5%. For comparison:
Agent X requested 13.5% of her queries, agent Y requested 8%, agent Z requested 6.5% of his queries agent V requested 7.7% of her queries, and agent W requested 16% of her queries. Take this with a grain of salt: The agents may not have tweeted about all queries they received at that time.
Most queries were rejected because they didn’t follow query guidelines or because agent U disliked something about the story. See more details later regarding these two categories.
And here’s the same info as a pie chart:
Most of the time, agent U didn’t specify the genre – this usually happened when she rejected the query outright. After that, Young Adult leads the pack, followed by Middle Grade, Fantasy and Romance.
50 queries out of 201 (or 24.9%) were rejected because the queries didn’t follow the guidelines. Since so many fall in this category, I expanded it here:
It seems that authors often either forget to include the genre in the query, or they don’t know what they wrote. Both are bad.
Dorothy Grant has a blog post that helps you figure out what is the genre of your book. She says that if you don’t read in a genre, you’re probably not going to write in that genre either.
Yep. You read it right. Sometimes there is *no* query, just the pages and, in a few cases, the whole MS. In one query, the author just asked if she’d be interested in representing them. In another one, they asked for help to sell film rights. In yet another query, author was asking if she or he could actually query her, using the query e-mail address.
A query with no pages is an auto-reject for this agent. Note that a few agents only request the query and, sometimes, the synopsis. So do your homework; it varies from agent to agent.
Also, read the guidelines to understand how the agent wants those pages. Most agents want the pages in the body of the e-mail. No hyperlinks. Check Maria Lamba’s Query No-Nos here.
Salutation in a query is important. It shows you did your homework and you know who the agent is, and what they represent.
Many queries were rejected because they weren’t addressed to anyone in particular. Others were addressed to agents in different agencies. Ouch.
Dear Sir/Madam is also a big no-no.
Most agents don’t like attachments. Attachments may have viruses, or require software they don’t have (if browsing on the phone) or perhaps they don’t want to open another app.
Queries should focus on one book only. No agent that I know of accepts requests for multiple books. If your book is a series, query only the first one.
Most agents don’t want the full manuscript upfront. Read their site and their query guidelines.
No Word Count
The agent must know the word count of your novel, otherwise he or she probably won’t bother contacting you. Check my post on query rejections due to word count here.
Not 1st in Series
If you self-published, or already published the first book of your series somewhere else, odds are you won’t get an agent, unless you sold thousands of copies.
44 out of 201 queries were rejected because agent U didn’t like something in the story.
Now, readers, beware. This section can hurt your self-esteem. Dislikes, unlike other areas we can control, are usually personal, and I bet you’re going to read one or more comments that fit your manuscript to a tee. I know mine does. Shudders.
Still, agent U often reminds us that the industry is subjective.
- Query was not her cup of tea (x7) or just isn’t for her (x3)
- Not a 100% sold on premise.
- Didn’t love the premise.
- Hook wasn’t strong.
There isn’t much to do here. Either the agent likes your premise, or she doesn’t. It’s like dating: it takes some time until you find the right one.
Didn’t draw her in
- Didn’t connect with story.
- Didn’t get a sense of urgency from the opening paragraphs.
- Opening pages felt familiar and forced.
- Didn’t feel the atmosphere in the pages.
- Slow opening pages or pages seem to move too fast. It has to be just right.
- Not in love with the pages.
Voice can also be subjective. Maybe there’s an agent out there that prefers overdramatic voice or breaking the fourth wall. Okay, maybe not the overdramatic one.
- Voice never pulled her in.
- Didn’t connect with the voice – felt like she was being talked at.
- Didn’t care for the voice.
- Narrator is talking to the reader which distracts from the story.
- Voice felt a bit overdramatic.
- Voice doesn’t feel authentic for Middle Grade.
- Put off by the description in the query.
- Action began almost right away, so it was tough to get invested.
- Story doesn’t feel authentic.
- SF Dystopian: emotional impact lost because context wasn’t explained.
- Difficult to relate to main characters (SF).
- Wasn’t able to connect with characters.
- Didn’t care for the voice of the main character.
- Didn’t relate to the narrator.
Many agents have specific preferences for tense and person, although it’s not on their website. Check their blogs and the books they represent.
Agent U has the following dislikes:
- Third person and present tense.
- Voice changes from third to first.
Finally, she rejected one query because it was cliche, and another one solely because of suspension of disbelief.
22 queries out of 201 (10.9%) were rejected due to the query itself. The query is the your first impression to the agent and if you fail that, chances are your story is going to be rejected.
Agent U says that the query should be about your book, not about why you’re writing.
And the reasons she rejected due to the query were:
- Not enough story in the query:
- Didn’t say much about the story.
- Query was about what inspired the author, not the story. This is the most ironic show vs tell mistake you can make.
- Didn’t give a good sense of the plot or a clear picture about the story.
- Lots of background info but nothing about story.
- Too much story in the query:
- Too much information, more like a synopsis.
- Query contains a brief summary of the book.
- Confusing or vague query. Difficult to follow.
- Query written from the character’s POV.
- Query all over the place.
- Query in second person.
14 queries out of 201 (7%) were rejected because she didn’t like the writing.
- Too much dialogue (talking heads).
- First chapter is all dialogue.
- Hard-to-believe action.
- Third person present, switches to first in a few paragraphs.
- Query had choppy or jarring transitions. Weather today is fine. Check how to create good transition sentences here.
- Sample pages didn’t show much development.
- Repetitive writing, chapters, paragraphs, words, chapters, paragraphs, and ideas repeating.
- Accent in historical fiction was distracting – too over the top.
- Not much world building.
- Beginning felt rushed.
- POV changes a lot, sometimes in the first paragraphs, and it makes it hard to connect with characters.
11 queries out of 201 (5.5%) were considered telly. This is self-explanatory. She dislikes when there’s too much telling.
9 queries out of 201 (4.5%) were for books where the word count was too long. Unfortunately, for most queries she didn’t give a number.
- YA 160k+.
- 400k+ (unknown genre).
- MG word count could be 4 MG books.
One of the rejections mentioned an MG story that was way too long, and the pages were very Harry Potterish. It reminded me of this:
If you want more information about word count and rejections, check my post here.
9 queries out of 201 (4.5%) had pages that dumped too much information. This is similar to telling, but it’s its own category, and it’s usually a tool for world building that can quickly become overused.
Agent U says that info-dumping slows the pacing of the story.
- Heavy on description.
- Lots of exposition.
- Lots of backstory.
- Too much background info.
- Lots of details that don’t help move the pages forward.
8 queries out of 201 (4%) were for subjects that agent U believes are saturated. Note that this varies from agent to agent, so don’t just quit writing just yet.
- YA Paranormal that’s too much like other books on the market.
- Paranormal is a bit of a tough sell right now.
- Premise is too familiar/Premise isn’t fresh.
- Too similar to other books.
7 out of 201 (3.5%).
- First page begins in the middle of action, making it difficult to relate to MC.
- Pages start at the wrong place.
- Pages difficult to follow. Story all over the place.
- First pages confusing and cliche.
- Narrator talking to the reader makes for a confusing story, according to agent U.
7 queries out of 201 (3.5%) were for genres that agent U doesn’t represent at the moment, or never did. Research your agent before submitting your query.
Here are the genres that were rejected:
- Short stories.
- Political Thrillers.
- Literary Fiction.
- Chapter Book.
- Too Short: 5 out of 201 (2.5%).
- Too short for SF novel, low word count, word count short for YA and MG.
- Unlikable MC: 4 out of 201 (2%).
- Disingenuous or standoffish MC. Or just didn’t connect with MC.
- Wrong Genre: 2 out of 201 (1%).
- Writing doesn’t fit a Picture Book.
- Writing doesn’t feel Young Adult.
Agent U requested 9 queries out of 201 or 4.5% of the queries. This is the lowest in this series.
Most requests were in Middle Grade or Young Adult even though the agent has a soft spot for Historical Romance.
Agent U requests partials or fulls from queries with strong voice and interesting premise:
- Interesting premise and pages held her interest.
- She liked the voice.
- Sample pages had tension and gave a good sense of the setting.
- Pages kept her engaged.
- Intriguing query and strong voice in the pages.
- One Picture Book with no pages sent (i.e., didn’t follow query guidelines), but she wanted to see them.
- Interesting premise and pages “aren’t bad.”
Following the query guidelines, and improving your query letter will make you stand above the crowd. Still, it’s a tough business and odds are you’ll have more misses than hits.
To improve your query letter, try the Share Your Work forum at AbsoluteWrite.com. This forum has a password (you’ll find the password in the same linked page) which effectively blocks anything you post there from the search engines. So don’t be shy! This is technically part of the deep web, and you can start telling people in parties that you’ve been there.
Note: you must have 50 posts to be able to share it, and you can’t artificially increase your number by posting gibberish. Help other writers and improve your own letter. You must have thick skin, though, and remember that people are just trying to help you.
For more articles like this, check my query and publish series here.
I had a lot of fun writing this series, and it gave me an insight about the preferences of several different agents that I wouldn’t be able to have by just browsing their pages. However, the posts are starting to become repetitive, and there isn’t much to gain in continuing, at least not in this format.
Finally, I write blog posts because I like to have people reading them, and although I do get a spike during the first days, my other posts about writing tend to bring more folks. Also, unlike my writing posts, the Query & Publish series takes a lot more effort to create, and since I’m focusing on my first book and its sequel right now, I don’t have much time for them.
Saying that, it’s possible that I’ll write other posts in the series, perhaps in a different format that will bring more data, and more agents. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading!
The background image used in this post is from the Codex Manesse, a book of poetry made in Zurich around 1304-5.
- I’ve made a lot of assumptions about the tweets. Some of them didn’t have enough information, so this study is partially subjective.
- Some of the information here can be generalized to other agents, but not everything – especially the agent’s personal preferences. Research your agent before submitting.
I’m actively looking for agents and publishers for my book. More info here.
Default Disclaimer: I’m not a writer, I have a hard time paying attention to detail, I overuse adverbs, I start a lot of sentences with ‘I’, and I often confuse words that are similar. More importantly, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time, in which case I’ll deny I ever wrote it. Please let me know if you find something that is too embarrassing. This blog is riddled with typos and creative grammar problems, but it’s mine. Luckily, I can always blame my mistakes on the fact that English is not my first language. Or hackers.