Ten Do’s and Don’ts of Query Letters

by Constance Renfrow
published in Community

The query letter is arguably the most important part of the manuscript submission process. It can either make an agent/editor quiver with excitement at the thought of opening your manuscript, or it can make your email a lovely little addition to their trash folder. So here are a few do-s and don’t-s for crafting a query letter an editor just can’t wait to read!

Don’t: Use old email servers

Do: Get modern

Yeah, okay, this is pedantic, but no matter what you’re submitting (a manuscript, a job application): get a Gmail account or something modern. None of the cool kids have used AOL or Yahoo or Hotmail in probably over a decade, and an old email address suggests that the author hasn’t managed to adapt to modern technology. As so much of modern marketing takes place over the Internet, you’ll need to demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of the Internet before any publicity team is going to trust you with a Twitter handle. Yes, this is absolutely about making assumptions—but you never want to give someone a chance to make such an assumption about you.

Don’t: Use a generic email title

Do: Make your email title stand out

As I’ve written before, generic email titles either get cropped short, or else they’re just not that interesting to look at. Which would you rather click on? “Fiction Submission” or “Explosive Action Thriller with Kickass Female Detective”?

Don’t: Lead with “To Whom it May Concern”

Do: Use someone’s name

Using something generic like “To whom it may concern” isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s not going to win you any points either. Even if all you have is a general submissions email address, lead with a name. I get all excited when a “slush pile” submission is addressed to me, and even one addressed to another editor will still get my attention. And if you can’t find a name, “Dear [name of company]” or “Dear Editor” still feel personalized enough. The worst, however, is when an author just leaps right into the pitch without so much as a hello; courtesy counts more than you’d think.

Don’t: Be vague

Do: Tell us how you know us!

Nothing makes me crankier than a submission that begins “I’m sending my YA novel to you because you like books like this.” “YOU DON’T KNOW ME!!!” I scream at my computer screen. “I’M UNIQUE!!” Instead, build a personal connection. How did you hear about the editor? Have you met representatives from the company before? Which books of theirs did you read and enjoy? Tell us about it. This leads into my next point . . .

Do: Flatter us

But don’t: Overdo it

Flattery will get you everywhere. After all, everyone loves a good ego boost—and people in creative industries probably more so than most (woo! stereotypes!).  So tell the editor what you like about their work or what drew you to them in particular. But don’t lay it on too thick. No one likes to feel like they’re being played. And editors are awfully good at close reading.

Don’t: Be arrogant  or sell yourself short

Do: Be realistic

These are two sides of the same very mistaken coin. There’s nothing worse than reading, “I am just the most talented and coolest and also the sexiest person in the world; all my friends tell me this book I’m going to win the Pulitzer and America’s Next Top Model. I’m doing you such a favor by even deigning to submit to you.” Actually, there is something worse; it’s getting an email that begins: “I don’t know why I’m sending this to. You probably get hundreds of better submissions a day. Maybe you should just delete this.” In either case, we’ll never know, because we’ve moved on to the next submission in our inbox. Just be polite and confident; let us come to our own conclusions about your work.

Don’t: Compare your book to the greats

Do: Mention a familiar title

Not every book can be Harry Potter, so don’t say your book is the next Prisoner of Azkaban. I get it; I really do. But comparing yourself to the greats smells an awful lot like arrogance and a complete lack of realistic expectations—especially if the company you’re querying has never had a bestseller before or has only limited resources. A better option would be to compare your work to a recent book that did well, but wasn’t an astronomical hit. Better yet, go with a book the company has already published—it shows you’ve done your research and it ticks the flattery box.

Don’t: Say there’s no book out there like yours

Do: Compare yourself to two or three contemporaries

As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a very strange myth out there that “comp titles” means “competition” or something, and that that is a terrible thing. Comp titles are just for comparison—to see how much a similar book sold, how it was marketed, what the audience liked and didn’t like. Find a couple of books that are similar enough-ish and list them—though you can say how yours differs. But don’t bash on your comp titles; that’s not very nice.

Don’t: Skimp on the information

Do: Give us the info we need

I firmly believe you should never give anyone a reason not to take you seriously, and ailing to provide all the information requested in the submission guidelines definitely provides an editor with a very good reason. I know it can take time and effort when you just want to share your novel with the world, but take the time to put together the comp titles and the marketing plan and your professional bio. It’s worth it. And going off of that . . .

Don’t: Listen to the advice of some rando on the Internet

Do: Follow the submission guidelines

Of course, I hope this advice proves useful to you in your search for an agent/publisher. But every company is different and some require very specific things. Don’t put my suggestions over your dream publisher’s submission guidelines!


Constance RenfrowConstance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and editor. She is the lead editor for Three Rooms Press and a freelance editor and writing coach atconstancerenfrow.com. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at the Merchant’s House Museum. A lover of nineteenth-century literature, she’s currently completing a three-volume governess novel, her first full-length work. Lastly, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie (Three Rooms Press, April 2016), now available for preorder!  Follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21 and/or @SongsOfMySelfie.

  • Anita

    Thanks for the great advice! Finding the comps is the most difficult for me–especially when I’m writing in a niche (non-fiction) where I’m pretty sure (I’ve looked and looked) there isn’t much out there and the only two close comps were bestsellers :/. How do I NOT look arrogant?

    • I completely get that struggle. Comp titles are hard! Have you tried using the “Customers who bought this (famous) book also bought . . .” feature? It can help introduce you to books you might not have heard of. Also Goodreads lists can be helpful. If you absolutely have to use a bestseller, I’d provide a bit of an explanation to go along with it, to show that you’ve done your research and also to show the ways in which your piece and the bestseller are both similar and different. I know it’s a challenge, but I hope this helps a little!

      • It does help! Thank you :). I’ll have to check out those two strategies.

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