how not to land an agent

At JacketFlap, a bunch of literary agents list the worst query lines they’ve received. These lists always seem a bit patronising but the examples are all recognisable. Part 3 is headed ‘Only include relevant, professional publishing credentials in your query’. That means you don’t write:

  • My credentials for writing this book include: A divine mandate to speak the word of God.
  • The best credentials I can share are the comments from my family and friends after they read my book.
  • Please Google my name for more information.
  • This isn’t my first published work, I have published 2 articles in G4S Pipeline Trade Publication.
  • I have been writing since I could hold a crayon, and before that I used finger paints.
  • I know 10 people who would buy this book right now!
  • This is not representative of my best work.
  • This is my first attempt at writing a fictional novel.
  • I read this to the high school English class that I teach and they all agreed it was wonderful.
  • I’m a real estate developer and you contacted me once in the past about a building or a home I had for sale at that time.
  • Four paragraphs about your former career as a technical writer. Not one sentence about plot of book.
  • The entire manuscript has been reviewed by both my writing mentor and a copyeditor and is ready for wide distribution.
  • The manuscript is complete. It is 320 pages in Font 10 with 178,313 words. It has 36 chapters. I am not a professional writer.
  • In a nutshell, I have no credentials.

Read the rest here.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I’d write a reponse article to this, if I had time, of all the mind-blowingly stupid, irrelevant and inappropriate, an quite frankly, offensive questions I’ve been asked by publishers and agents. The most interesting being: “We enjoyed the work you sent us, but are concerned about the politics of the novel. For cultural sensitivity reasons, can you please provide an author photo and a bio note including your cultural background.”

  2. It’s just odd how easily the ‘power people’ blunt the lead of the pencil that feeds them. Writers are writers, not marketers or publicists. I think there’s a lot to be said for a ‘we will read the first X pages’ policy with no bio or submission letter.

    The idea that a ‘dud’ submission letter could get a great work overlooked is absolutely insane. It would be an interesting exercise to get hold of the first submission letters of a cross-section of now-successful authors.

    Jeff, what is Overland’s policy? How much bearing do bio notes and submission letters have on your publication decisions, if any. Have ‘poor’ submission letters ever meant you haven’t read or considered a submission? Generally, have you found that ‘good’ submission letters accompany ‘good’ writing?

  3. It’s probably different for a literary journal than for a commercial publishing house. We’re able to read everything sent to us, so the submission letter doesn’t really change anything much. I mean, if you see from the bio note that they’ve been published all over the place, you might read them a bit sooner, just cos previous publication tends to be an indicator of competence but it’s pretty marginal. (The thing that really grates is if the cover letter somehow indicates that they’ve never read the damn journal — I hate that thing about people wanting to write but not wanting to read. Still, that’s another story … )
    So, from our point of view, submission letters just need to be practical documents. Like, we have received stories that don’t contain contact details, which is not very helpful; we need a one-line bio note for anything we publish. That’s one reason why we introduced a downloadable submission form, actually, just to make sure we got that info.
    The rest of it’s neither here nor there. I mean, if it’s a memoir, the bio probably matters a bit more, cos you want to know that the piece isn’t fraudulent. And if someone already has a reputation or a following, well, that matters a bit, too, cos we do need to sell copies of the journal, and it’s good if a writer can help us do that.
    But as I said we read everything, even if it’s got one of those fingernails-on-blackboard cutesy covering letters.
    For commercial publishers, I think it would probably matter a little more, since they’re under more financial pressure than we are and are less likely to devote staff time to a slush pile. So if there’s something you can put in your cover letter that will convince them that your manuscript is saleable, it’s probably worth doing. But only if there really is something — like if the MS has won some prize or you are really famous or something, it would be silly not to say that. But you can’t make that kind of stuff out of nothing, and so most of the time, I’d reckon it would just be about writing a straightforward businesslike letter, in the same way as you would for a job application or something similar.

  4. Sorry, that should have been, ” as possibly the greatest…” I must remember to use more modifiers.
    Is it true that submissions policies are deliberately written to be as confusing, time consuming and intimidating as possible in order to reduce the number of submissions? ‘Submit’ is such a perfect word for the process.

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