Talking Books

The Annotated Query Letter from Hell

During the first year I was an editorial assistant, my friend Katy had to listen to me complain a lot about some of the painful query letters we received at work. She took all of my comments and wrote a letter from the immortal "Missy Snodgrass," which still makes me twitch every time I read it. Most of these mistakes are very, very basic -- the SCBWI, any book on publishing, or common sense should teach you not to make them. But for your reading pleasure, here's the annotated Query Letter from Hell:

Sheryl Cline (1)

Laura Geringer Books (2)

557 Broadway

New York, NY 10012


Dear Sheryl (3),


Thanx (4) for talking with me on the phone. When Art (5) said at that conference (6) that he would love to publish my book (7), I was very pleased (8). He said "Wizard Magick High" (9) would be great for you and earn lots of money (10). It's sort of like that book, "Harry Potter", written by a woman from England. Have you heard of her? (11) I want you to know that I would very happy to make any changes to my book, if you find anything you want to change. (12) I also have lots of ideas for toys and games and posters and things, and have plans for a whole series--a "Sweet Valley High with Wands" sort of thing. I'm currently working on the screenplay. (13) I'm sending along my book as an e-mail attachment (14), and I would be happy if you could get to it quickly. (15) 


Thanx again,


Missy Snodgrass  


P.S. Alot of other publishers are also reading it now (16), and if we could get the book published by my birthday next April, that would be magical. ;-) (17)


1. She misspelled my name. This isn't terminally damning if the proposal is good, but it's evidence of extreme sloppiness -- like showing up for a date in a mustard-stained shirt. Do your research.


2. She misidentified my publishing house. This happens often when writers have just come back from a conference and decide to mail-bomb all the presenters with the same manuscript or query letter. Like (1), not terminally damning, but it is deeply annoying because it tells me you're mail-bombing and you haven't really thought through whether this ms. is right for me.


3. She calls me by my first name (again misspelled). I am not a stuffy person, really, and I have absolutely no objection to someone calling me "Cheryl" when we meet in person -- "Ms. Klein" is my mother, after all. :-) But this is a professional letter, business correspondence, and in professional correspondence you show someone the respect of calling them by their last name until you become better acquainted.


4. "Thanks" spelled "Thanx." Again, this is business correspondence and not the place for cutesy colloquialisms.


5. No one calls Arthur "Art." No one. So this writer obviously doesn't know him as well as she thinks she's showing me she knows him. And again with the overfamiliarity.


6. "At that conference." Query letters aren't just professional letters -- they're also friendly introductions of the writer and the work, or, if you've met an editor at a conference, a chance to reestablish the acquaintance in order to move it forward. Editors can attend several conferences in a year, so it's thus very helpful if you can identify specifically where we met before or where you found my name.


7. "He would love to publish my book" -- again, this person thinks she's establishing her authority and familiarity with Arthur over me, the lowly editorial assistant. But as the lowly editorial assistant, I know Arthur would never say such a thing to a person he met for two minutes at a conference.


8. "I was very pleased." What annoys me about this is that a query letter should not be about you and how you feel as an author about your work. Of course you would be pleased if you received an offer to publish your book, and of course you should be proud of your work. But as of this point in the letter, I have no reason to care about you or your manuscript, and you should be working on making me care, not wasting my time telling me the obvious.  


9. "Wizard Magick High" -- oh lord. Another failure of research:  If an editor already has a book on their list set, say, in a school for wizards, s/he will be extremely unlikely to take on another one with the same basic plot, UNLESS the voice or point or magic or overall story is easily and demonstrably different from the first book (all the students in the school were dragons, for example, or they only practiced romantic magic, or it was written entirely in first-person plural voice because the story is really about the dangers of mass conformity, etc.).


10. "and earn lots of money" -- Of course we want our books to earn lots of money; that's how we keep our jobs, after all, and how the author earns a living. But this is not the way we at Arthur A. Levine Books talk about a manuscript, especially when we're first acquiring it; we talk about how much we love it and why we love it, and what in the manuscript makes us willing to read it at least five times in order to publish it (five times being the average, or perhaps minimum, number of times an editor will read a book before it's published). So again I suspect this person hasn't met Arthur at all, because that's not the way he talks about our books; and then I'm annoyed because this person is valuing the money she's going to make off the book (not at all guaranteed, even for a "Wizard Magick High") over the joy and quality of the book itself, and those values don't match mine.


11. "written by a woman from England" -- an actual line from an actual query letter, I kid you not.


I would also like to pause here and identify all the things the writer has NOT done in the query letter thus far: 

  • established the book's setting
  • provided a plot outline
  • conveyed any sense of the characters and why I should care about them
  • demonstrated her writing ability (except to annoy me)
  • revealed how her book differs from the nine hundred and ninety-nine other fantasy novels on bookstore shelves at this moment, and more specifically,
  • told us how her book differs from the fantasies already on our list, though this isn't a surprise as
  • she hasn't shown any specific interest in or familiarity with our imprint at all.

(Apologies to my readers -- I can hear myself getting a little cranky as I type the annotations here. This letter really annoys me.)


12. "I would be very willing to make any changes" -- Something so obvious it doesn't really need to be said, unless you're not willing to make changes, in which case I don't want to work with you. I am not an autocratic editor, and I will never force changes on a writer; but maybe one manuscript in ten thousand arrives on my desk already absolutely perfect, and if you're not open to constructive feedback, I don't want to waste my time.


13. tie-ins/series/screenplay -- Again, all signs that the writer is thinking about money more than the quality of his/her book.


14. an e-mail attachment -- Unless you're writing from overseas, you should send manuscripts in hard copy. It's a waste of the editor's time, paper, and toner to have to print out your manuscript, which makes it that much less likely that an editor *will* actually print out and read your manuscript with any speed.


15. "I would be happy if you could get to it quickly" -- Honey, I'd be happy about that too, but you have given me no reason to make you a high priority, so your odds are not good.


16. "Alot of other publishers are reading it now" -- I don't love simultaneous submissions, but they're a fact of an editor's life, and they actually make it easier for me to reject something because I know (a) the author hasn't thought specifically of me for this project and (b) if I don't like it, the chances are good that someone else might.


17. I once received a manuscript (handwritten on paper torn from a yellow legal pad) from a grandfather who asked to have the book fully illustrated and published for his grandchild before Christmas. This was in October. It did not happen. (For the record, it takes a year from when we receive final art for a picture book for the book to be published and arrive in stores.)


So that is the Query Letter from Hell. If you have committed these errors, do not be embarrassed; just go forth and sin no more. For more on queries and submissions, check out Finding a Publisher and Falling in Love elsewhere on this site.


And in the meantime, thanx for reading! :-)


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All material (c) 2005-2008 by Cheryl Klein. Questions, comments, and conversation welcomed at chavela_que at yahoo dot com.