Query Do's and Don'ts

It’s the day.


Not just another writing day, but the day. The day your heart nearly flies out of your chest as your trembling, keyboard-calloused fingers peck out the letters you’ve been waiting to write for months, or even years.


THE END


And, with joyous rapture, your book is finished! The work is done! You’re free!


Or are you?


For many of us authors, ‘The End’ is really ‘The Beginning’. The beginning of decisions like whether to self-publish or go traditional.


If you’re joining the overwhelming rank of thousands of authors around the globe looking for their shot at the ‘golden ticket’ that is a contract with one of the ‘Big Five’ (now ‘Big Four’) publishing houses or their subsidiaries, finishing your draft is also the beginning of a long-term process of querying.


As a pitch coach, I work with authors all year long on perfecting their pitches, and I want to encourage you that while the peak of the publishing Everest is hard to scale, it is possible, no matter how daunting it appears from the foot of it.


In 2021, nine of the authors I have coached landed agents, and then traditional publishing contracts. At the end of 2021, one of those authors went on to hit the #1 Amazon bestseller spot overall (not just a category) in Australia.


In this article, I’ve compiled the top Do’s and Don’t’s that helped these nine authors achieve their “Yes” from agents, which led to their publishing success. Let’s dive in!


Do have a completed manuscript, edited to the point you feel comfortable pitching it at (pro tip: it should not be your first draft).


While having a completed manuscript may seem like common sense, everyone’s definition of ‘completed’ is different.


It is true that publishers have editing teams who will handle your edits for you once they sign your book, but that doesn’t mean you should just fire off your ‘alpha copy’ to them. Even a self-edit with help from software can help take off the rough edges.


By the same token, don’t over-edit.


You should not be paying thousands of dollars for developmental, line, and copy editing (part of what a publisher will do for you) just to be able to pitch it.


Have a proofreader glance over it for the most glaring typos/grammatical errors if you must. Ask a professional developmental editor to beta read it and give you a broad-scale critique, if you’d like the piece of mind on your content.


Then, once you’ve knocked those rough edges off and filled any gaping holes, let it go.


Do use a reputable, vetted list of agents.


Whether you like Reedsy’s list of agents accepting submissions for 2022 here:

Don’t rely on Google searches to turn up agents. Chances are, you’ll be inundated with the ads of questionable ‘agencies’ and individuals who don’t plan to ‘represent’ you as much as they do to take your hard-earned money and leave you with rejections.


If you do take searching for and vetting agents into your own hands, be sure they have references you can confirm (and that those references are in your genre).


NEVER pay an agent out-of-pocket up-front. Experienced, reliable agents will get paid out of a portion of your signing bonuses, advances, and royalties (incentivizing them to ‘sell’ your book to a press).


Do query agents that represent your genre, and check carefully as to whether you’re pitching to a whole agency or just one person. If one person in an agency rejects you, for example, can you pitch to others in the same agency? That information should be on their submission FAQs in most cases.


Speaking of agent submissions:


Do read the submission guidelines and the agent’s “wish list”.


This is the #1 area where we as authors seem to miss the mark, and the results are multiple rejection-letters that crush our souls.


Give the agent what they want, and nothing extra. If they want chapter one, don’t send a prologue. If they want the first 1,000 words, don’t send 1,200. If they want the opening sentence, don’t send the opening paragraph, or the opening two sentences.


Everything on a requirements page is for a reason, and the first big set of cuts agents make are submissions that didn’t follow directions. Their thought process is ‘if they can’t even follow the submission instructions, when complicated stuff comes along are they going to follow those instructions?’.


I’ve seen pitches where the authors sent a Google Docs link instead of a MS Word document because they didn’t have a MS Office subscription. They were then rejected for submitting the wrong file type.

Another was rejected for sending a prologue, when the agent clearly stated they did not want any “front matter”, and “chapter one only”. Another author sent the wrong font size. And yet another e-mailed their file to the agent, instead of submitting it through the agency’s website submissions portal as requested.


All these example share one common thread – the need to know and understand the agent’s submission requirements and follow them to the letter. If something about their requirements doesn’t mesh with what you’re looking for, they may not be a good fit for you.


Do have a full query package prepared before starting to pitch. This should include:

  • Your query ‘letter’ (often e-mails, these days)

  • A full synopsis of the book

  • A ‘sample’ chapter (which will vary by agent)

  • The full manuscript

You don’t want to keep an interested agent waiting while you come up with (and then edit) the above information.


Don't send them information they did not ask for. If they only want 1-2 of the items above, only send those 1-2 things.


Do write your query letter like a professional business introduction e-mail.


Your query letter is more than just a ‘Hey! Look at my book! Look at it! LOOK AT IT!!’. It is the first step in what will (ideally) become a life-long relationship with a business professional.


This professional will sell your books to publishers for you, manage contracts for you, motivate you to meet deadlines so you both get paid, organize release events, and more. They have to have your back 100%. And that means they have to know you’ll be a good fit for them.


So start your e-mail cordially and professionally like you would any other business partner. The format many authors I have coached have found helpful are variations of the following


Example Query Letter


Dear (first name – avoid gendering by leaving off “Mr.”, “Ms.”, and “Mrs.”),


My name is XYZ ABC, and I am writing to your regarding the submissions request you posts for {genre/age range} novels.


[Insert Blurb Here]

  • Include ‘spoilers’/twists that make your story original from others like it, and make sure the main theme’s stakes are clear. There are no such things as ‘spoilers’ when it comes to agents—your are not hooking them on the plot itself, but on you as a writer; your ability to spin a tale in a way that will connect with their readers and drive sales.

  • Include whether or not this is a series, and (if so) how many volumes you have planned.

  • Only include comp titles if the agent explicitly asks for/requires them. If you do provide comparable titles, it’s vital for you to post what makes yours unique/necessary (otherwise, why do they need your book, if a successful one like it already exists)

End your query with a brief bio (it doesn’t need to be overly personal; it is essentially to explain what got you into writing and what you do when you’re not writing). Special awards you received for writing or mentions of a large social media platform with high engagement should also be leveraged at the end here.


Finally, do not forget to thank them for their consideration, and avoid the temptation to grovel. They aren’t doing you a favor. This is a business deal between two professionals, so keep it ‘business’ and assert a strong but genuinely appreciative ending. For example:


“Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there is anything else I can send. I appreciate your time and look forward to hearing from you!” or “I am happy to answer any questions you may have. Thank you for taking the time to read Title. I look forward to hearing from you!”


Note the need to leave the ball in their court here – “I look forward to hearing from you” is not as pushy as “I look forward to doing business with you”, which could come across as pushy/assumptive. You want to leave an impression that you are waiting to hear back from them without blatantly saying so, or being over-assertive.


Finally, do be sure to include the entire plotline in your synopsis (including ‘spoilers’ and all major twists, as well as the ending and aftermath in your summary).


Agents receive thousands of queries in open submission seasons. They do not have the time (or, frankly, the desire) to read every single person’s sample chapter or full book. If your query piques their interest, they’ll want the book at-a-glance (a ‘cliff-notes’ version, if you will) in the synopsis.


Then, if they like the plot presented in the synopsis, they will look to your sample chapter for your writing style and tone (things like point of view and tense choices, for example).


The #1 reason I’ve seen synopsis come back to authors have been ‘hooks’. The authors didn’t want to leave their ‘spoilers’ in the synopsis, and when the agent didn’t see what was special about the piece, they rejected it. Or the agent just didn’t have the time to go seek them out.


In a synopsis:

  • Ensure that the entire main theme is summarized in a reporting (non-narrative) style.

  • Include all main spoilers/twists outright, to show how they are original and unique.

  • If your book is in a series, include a paragraph at the end showing a brief overview of how the overall series ends.

  • Avoid dragging in named side-characters and minor sub-plots that are only in a couple chapters. Keep your main character(s) and antagonist(s) the focus of the synopsis.

  • Stay within the required word count. A synopsis is usually 1-2 pages (250-500 words) long.


If you’ve been pitching a while but haven’t been signed, don’t be discouraged! Once you’ve ensured that your pitch has met all the above tips, keep pitching, remembering that this is a long-game decisions.

You don’t need lots of agents, just ‘the’ agent. Think of querying agents as looking for your publishing spouse: it may take years to find them, but once you do, you’ve met your publishing soulmate for life, typically.


Querying can be daunting and hard, but it does not have to be discouraging. Other authors are going through it alongside you, so lean into the community to share tips and get some pick-me-ups after rejections. You can do this!


Be kind to yourself, be patient, and take this process one day at a time. I wish you the best of luck into turning your ‘The End’ into a marvelous beginning!


Meet Katherine D. Graham

Katherine D. Graham is the amazon bestselling author of The Vow That Twisted Fate and the Splitting Worlds Series. She is also a developmental editor, pitch coach, and Reedsy Reviewer from Tennessee in the United States.


When Katherine isn’t writing, she enjoys grilling out, reading, traveling, playing video games, and hanging out with her husband, two sons, and three cats.


Visit Katherine’s website: katherinedgraham.com or connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Bookbub, Goodreads, Amazon, and Reedsy.


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