LettersThink you’re ready to query an agent? Maybe you are—and maybe you’re not. (And that’s not something even your hairdresser knows for sure.) Here’s one thing you can take to the bank: you’ll be a lot closer to being ready if you brush up on these ten mistakes writers make when querying an agent.

Let’s start right off with Mistake Number One: Writers have made the query letter the true subject of their literary ambition. The Biggest Mistake of All is not having a great book to back up your query. Sure, the query is important, but your book is a lot more important. Enough said.

Mistake Number Two: Not having your manuscript ready when you send in your query. What does “ready” mean? It means you have written the first draft. You then allowed the manuscript to sit undisturbed for a month. Once you picked it up, you edited it multiple times—during which time you pounded your head against the wall so many times in your pursuit of the flawless manuscript that you began to bleed from the head. You handed it out to people to read—people other than your mother and your best friend and your Aunt Elsie’s bridge club. You looked at all the reader comments and tried not to run away and enter the Witness Protection Program. Once you recovered from reading the comments, you edited your book some more, removing about half the manuscript and fighting the temptation to throw the whole thing away. You took another break from it—this one longer than the first one. Maybe you went to Disneyland. You came back feeling rejuvenated and you edited it some more. You had some more people read it—different ones this time, but still not the usual suspects. You edited it some more. After all that, your manuscript might be ready for querying.

And I probably don’t even need to say this, but just in case, I will: Don’t query an agent and then start writing. Ever.

Addressing letterMistake Number Three: Addressing your letter to “Dear Agent” or “Whomever It May Concern.” One leading agent said, “I automatically discount queries that aren’t addressed to me personally.” Here’s a bonus tip: Don’t start your query out by saying you just wrote a novel. Ever.

Mistake Number Four: Being vague. This is your chance to hook the agent, so give enough detail to do that. One agent remarked, “Tell me who the main character is, what conflict s/he faces, and what’s at stake.”

Mistake Number Five: Saying your book will be a bestseller or that it would make a good movie. Um, it’s nice that you feel that way—and you probably should feel that way—but that’s a surefire way to turn off an agent. Here’s another bonus tip: never compare your book to Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code.

Mistake Number Six: Talking about the book’s sequel or pitching more than one book at a time. Your job right now is to get the agent interested in this book. This one book. Period.

Mistake Number Seven: Using family or friends as proof of your prowess. No agent on the face of the earth will care that your mother thinks your book is the best thing since ketchup or that Aunt Elsie gave it to all those bridge club gals and they all loved it.

Mistake Number Eight: Sending your picture. This sounds harsh, but it’s reality: as one agent put it, “We mostly just pass these pictures around the office and make fun of them, while wondering aloud why anyone would want to send a picture of herself and the boys down at Hooter’s.”

Colored papersMistake Number Nine: Using crazy colors (including colored paper), fonts, or features. Still another agent explained, “If I receive a manuscript in a box covered with duct tape with pages that are worn and used, I’ll quickly figure out that it’s been sent out—and rejected—before.” And while we’re mentioning boxes, never submit your manuscript in a pizza box. (Believe it or not, it has happened. The publisher for whom I worked received a manuscript in a pizza box stained with grease and sporting splatters of pizza sauce. I am not joking.)

Mistake Number Ten: Forgetting to proofread. A top agent said, “Once I get three, four, or five sentences in and the errors are coming hot and fast, I’m done reading.” 

Fasten Your Seatbelt, Because Here’s Your Bonus

I promised a bonus, and here it is—the five things you should do when querying an agent:

  • Do your homework. Find out what kinds of manuscripts that agent is looking for. How do you do that? They all have websites; search his or her name and pay attention to what you see. As agent commented, “If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don’t think I’d apply to Jiffy Lube.”
  • Include all the pertinent information the agent wants (again, that’s part of doing your homework, and it will also be listed on the agent’s website).
  • Create a great hook—something that makes the agent eager to find out more. You want to tell enough to make the agent really curious without including spoilers.
  • Fill in enough of the picture to intrigue the agent. In other words, make sure you bake the cake.
  • Detail is a fine line; be specific and evocative without too much detail. One agent pleaded, “Write the kind of query letter that makes me think the book will be as evocative as the letter.”

And here’s the REAL bonus: a list of some of the websites where you can find out all about agents:

  • www.writingexcuses.com/2011/07/24/writing-excuses-6-8-what-an-agent-does/—Podcast by Sarah Crowe, who reps Dan Wells and Robison Wells, explaining the role of an agent.
  • www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware—How to avoid being taken in by an unscrupulous agent.
  • querytracker.net has a free portion as well as a paid one. You can find agents for your genre, track to whom you do and don’t want to send, and see who reps which authors. (Did I mention that a great way to find an agent is to find out who reps your favorite authors in your genre?)
  • publishersmarketplace.com is a paid prescription that is worth its weight in gold; use it to see what book deals are forthcoming and who made them.
  • authonomy.com—An online forum where writers can upload manuscripts for free and get feedback from other writers, readers, and industry professionals. The site was developed by editors at HarperCollins, who have been known to make offers on some of the manuscripts if they like what they see.
  • http://aaronline.org—A website that lists agents who are members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR); in order to belong to the association, agents must meet competency requirements and abide by a code of practice that excludes many common abuses.
  • www.sfwa.org/other-resources/for-authors/writer-beware/agents/—Learn the warning signs of a questionable agent on the Literary Agents Page of Writer Beware.

If you’ve done everything suggested here, by golly, I think you’re ready. So cross your fingers (or whatever other good-luck gesture you do), hit the Send button, and get ready to become a published author!

(Photos: top, moonbridgebooks.com; addressing envelopes, Bizfluent; colored papers, pxhere)


"Kathy writes compellingly and swiftly, has an eye for detail, and possesses an uncanny sense for how to shape a story to make it pulsate with energy."
 —Taylor Halverson


"Kathy Jenkins has honed her editing skills with such precision and excellence that today she is viewed by many (including me) as the best editor on the planet. No matter how many times I have read and reworked a manuscript, Kathy improves my writing with meticulous care and good will."
 —Susan Easton Black


"Kathy has been so helpful to me in bringing my manuscripts to fruition, encouraging me to work diligently on my writing craft. She makes every author better in every way."
 —Ed J. Pinegar


"Kathy brings life in her writing, wisdom in her editing, and experience in her consulting; she has made me a better and more confident author."
 —Ganel-Lyn Condie