Writer Tips: Query Letters Do’s and Don’ts…Well, Mostly Don’ts…

Okay. The first thing I’ll admit to is arrogance. Yes, I’ll own up to that particular attitude last year when I decided to start Seven Realms Publishing. “But, Kent, what kind of arrogance are you talking about?” you might be asking. Well, you see, I had a very jaded view of the publishing industry. After more than a year of scouring various publishing companies’ submissions guidelines, witnessing their apparent apathy and indifference to the plight of the struggling author, and becoming angrier and angrier with the increasing impossibility most writers find themselves when trying to get published…I felt that the publishing companies were being unnecessarily cruel. Uncaring. Only concerned with the “bottom line.”

Well, now I admit also that I might have rushed to a very rash judgment. After being an official publishing company for less than two months, Seven Realms has received nearly one hundred book submissions. It’s given me a better understanding of the process and an even greater sympathy for acquisitions editors and literary agents around the world. To them, I say “I’m sorry for judging you too harshly.”

Now, for you aspiring writers out there…to those who seem to get nothing but impersonal and trite rejection notes in their inbox…let me share with you my observations as to the most common mistakes (and growing source of migraines for me) that many authors make when sending out their submissions. You will find similar lists in other places throughout the web. But this is coming from someone who is very new to the industry and perhaps, in this instance, carry a bit more weight than one provided by a publisher who’s already seen it all.

  1. FOLLOW SUBMISSIONS GUIDELINES TO THE LETTER. I can’t stress enough how important this is. I can spot an author who hasn’t taken the time to review Seven Realms submission guidelines from a mile away. If they were at least decent enough to send a query (as opposed to a brief note as to why their book is the greatest since War and Peace and an attached full manuscript), it’s usually not formatted at all like we ask. Heck, many haven’t even taken the time to see what genres we publish. Seven Realms. Seven genres: action-adventure, mystery, romance, thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, contemporary paranormal, and Christian. So, why do we get submissions for literary fiction or chic lit or some that claim “it’s hard to classify what genre this book best falls into”? From now on, think of the submission guidelines are a sort of test…a test for the publisher to see whether you as the author are capable of following directions and advice. If you can’t follow the simplest of instructions, then the publisher can rightly assume that you won’t be the easiest person to deal with when the editing process comes around. 
  2. MAKE SURE YOUR QUERY LETTER AND SYNOPSIS CONVEYS WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT CONCISELY, BUT UNDERSTANDABLY. I can’t tell you how many queries I’ve received where I scratched my head after reading it and wondered what the heck the book is really about. Query letters and synopses are, by definition, supposed to be short. That means the author has to be very, very concise. Unfortunately, to fit everything they feel is essential into the brief summary of the book, the synopsis becomes so convoluted that it becomes impossible to follow. Let other people (who aren’t familiar with your book already) read your query before sending it out. See if they can understand it. Test them on what your book is about. If they get it, then more than likely, the publisher will too. Along the same lines, make sure your synopsis has a beginning, middle, and end. Don’t try to keep the ending secret from us. We’re not interested in the mystery you’ve developed for your novel…we’re concerned with whether the mystery is good enough for readers to shell out their hard earned dollars to buy it. So make sure you let the publisher know how your novel progresses without trying to be mysterious. It’s all about full disclosure.
  3. KNOW AND USE THE EDITOR’S NAME YOU ARE SENDING QUERY TO. As a writer, you hate getting a rejection email addressed to “Dear Author.” How do you think the editor feels when they get an email addressed to “To Whom It May Concern” or worse (especially if the editor is a female) “Dear Gentlemen.”  It’s an immediate sign of unprofessionalism and shows the editor that you didn’t even take the time to find out the name of the person they are speaking to. It’s not that hard to find out really. Many of the websites will tell you the specific person you need to contact to send your query. If they don’t, call or email the company and ask for a name. And remember…don’t be clever. Don’t be too familiar. Don’t use their first names unless they specifically say it’s okay. Mr. So-and-so. Ms. Whats-her-name. Courtesy may be hibernating, but it’s not necessarily dead. Be sure to use it.
  4. BE CONFIDENT, NOT CONCEITED. I love knowing that an author is confident in their work. What I don’t love is overconfidence that breeds arrogance in the query letters. Your book may be good…it may even be the next blockbuster that spawns movies, action figures, and lunchboxes. But if you carry yourself in your email like this, you will quickly be rejected. The reason…see tip #1…an arrogant attitude does not make for the most malleable of edit-friendly writers. When I edit a book, I want to work with an author that truly wants their work to be the best it can be. If you already think it is, then an edit is going to be hell on earth for all parties involved. No, check the arrogance at the door.

These are just a few of the things I’ve noticed in the many submissions we’ve received at Seven Realms so far. We know we will see many more mistakes and feux pas in the future. But friends, let me just say this…don’t let me see you make these mistakes. I have a heart for writers. I have a strong desire to see my writer friends succeed beyond their wildest dreams. And it all starts with that dreaded query submission. Make sure you take the time to do it right…you might not get another chance.

1 thought on “Writer Tips: Query Letters Do’s and Don’ts…Well, Mostly Don’ts…”

  1. Fantastic pointers. Good advice for life, not just for submitting a manuscript. But I think you are right, if an author doesn't take the time to follow the most basic of guidelines, it is likely to be a sign of problems to come. And no publisher wants to step onto that diving board!

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