I started my career as an acquisitions editor and still deal with acquisitions. Through that experience, I can tell you there are a few things that will always make me stomp my feet and scream. In fact, I may even throw my hands up. Queries are a hard part of writing, but there are a few things you absolutely must get correct to avoid being sent the dreaded form rejection letter. While I’m not saying you’ll absolutely be accepted if you avoid these mistakes, your likelihood of acceptance is vastly higher.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
- Not following guidelines.
While a lot of writing has things that are wibbldy and wobldy and wishy-washy, query guidelines are not. We ask for specific things because they’re what we absolutely need to know, and we need that information as efficiently as possible. For example, if someone sent my company, Insomnia Publishing, an erotica novel to publish, I’d reject it without looking at the rest of the query. No offense to erotica (I have erotica writers I’m close to, and the genre’s dandy in my book–hurr, I made a pun), but we aren’t a romance/erotica publisher. We are only speculative fiction.
- Writing “fun” queries.
If you’re writing a query as the main character or trying to do something funky with fonts or images, please don’t. I know you’re desperately trying to stand out in my inbox. But making the background of your email lime green and your text fuchsia will cause me a migraine and net you a rejection out of hand. It does make you stand out, that’s for sure, but standing out doesn’t always mean good things.
Write me a query that’s honest, to the point, contains the information I need, and is polite and well-formatted. That will make you stand out. If you want to use a font that isn’t Times New Roman, Size 12 (that’s the industry standard), feel free to use other easy-to-read fonts like Garamond, Georgia, Cambria, etc. While I can’t speak for other editors (and if they list a font requirement in their guidelines use it), so long as it’s easy to read and standard, I won’t complain.
Unless you send me a query in Papyrus. Just. . . just don’t.
- Word counts outside of what we ask for.
This won’t be an immediate failure unless it’s dramatically outside our maximums and minimums. Our listed maximum is 120k words for high fantasy and historical novels. If your novel is 130k words, I won’t burn your query in effigy. If it’s 220k words, I will probably pour myself a glass of Moscato, pop some fruit in that, drink it, and send you a rejection.
While you can argue until you’re blue in the face that if writers like Stephen King and George R. R. Martin can do it, so can you, it doesn’t mean we can afford to take that risk at this point in time. The overheads are going to be outrageous. The cost to edit, format, and (assuming print) print and ship that is going to be horrendous. Unless you’re Stephen King magically sending me a query (Hi, Mr. King, I’ll accept anything you send me), you’re going to have to abide by what we can see as acceptable risk.
- You haven’t explained your genre well.
This part is hard, and I get that. But if you send me a book and describe it as a fantasy/historical/cyberpunk/paranormal/sci-fi/romance, I am probably going to go right back to the wine. In fact, just writing that makes me twitch a little. While it’s tempting to try and label your book as every genre it might cross over into, I really just need the main details.
If it’s a cyberpunk/fantasy? Great. I’m a Shadowrun fan. I can grok that. But when the genres don’t make sense together or you don’t explain it well, I’m just going to be confused and turn it down. I need to understand what I’m looking at immediately. If you can’t make that clear, your book is too complex and needs revision, or you don’t have a clear enough view to market it.
Part of this question about genre comes down to: who is the target market for this book? If I can’t pinpoint a target market of people who will want to buy this, I can’t sell it. If I can’t sell it, I don’t want to publish it.
- Your query is poorly-written.
If your query is full of grammatical errors and questionable word choice or excessively over-written, I am going to expect that of the book. We’re all human, and if you have a typo in there (like for some reason I write “youo” like 98% of the time I type “you”) it’s not going to break you. But if it’s written with heavily passive voice, purple prose, or an obvious and poor understanding of sentence construction, it tells me the book is going to be the same. Perfection isn’t necessary, but being solid and clear? Yeah, that’s a requirement.
- Your tone.
I’ve been in this industry long enough that most of the time I can identify a nightmare client from tone. I have received hundreds of “you’re just a literary hack who doesn’t understand my genius” responses over my decade working in the industry. I can recognize the author who is convinced that they are the embodiment of Tolkien or Heinlein. If you strike me as someone who will be an utter nightmare to edit, you’ll get a rejection.
I know that sounds harsh, but for every person who is too full of their own genius that they cannot understand why I’d want to change a single comma, there are dozens of brilliant, motivated authors eager to learn and improve and willing to work with an editor.
- Your marketing plan is disorganized or non-existent.
My company has recently started requiring marketing plans from our authors in the query. It doesn’t need to be huge, but it has to show that thought has been put into it and that you’re willing to do the work needed to make your book a success. This is because we have run into situations where authors refuse to market, cannot market, or have no plans whatsoever to market, and as a result they do nothing to help move books. While marketing is a complex subject for another blog, know that coming to the table with a plan with clear, actionable steps (even if it’s something as simple as: weekly blogs, engage on social media to grow readership, blog tours) will make you instantly more appealing.
While I have no problems helping our authors market and giving them all the tools I know of, I am not a publicist, nor does my company have the money to hire one. They’re expensive. And if we did hire one, it would be to work with us on some of our bigger titles, not every single one. (Much as larger companies only will have 2-3 major titles per quarter/period that their publicists focus on.) Marketing falls to authors a lot of the time, and there’s only so much we can do about it.
In reality, there’s also only so much I can do for an author. I cannot build an author page for you, make your Facebook author page and populate it with content, create an official author Twitter for you, or write your blog posts and develop your email list for you. Those are things I absolutely cannot do for you even if I wanted to. So go into it with a plan if you can, and do some study ahead of time to learn at least a little about what’s needed.
IngramSpark has a good checklist of how to handle a book release and what to do when, so I’ll leave the marketing conversation here and let you read that checklist to help you plan things out.
This is by no means a complete list of things that might turn an acquisition editor off, but it covers the big ones that come to mind when I think about queries. I know some of these may sound a little harsh, but try and remember that acquisitions editors often deal with hundreds of emails a day for larger companies. Our process is usually streamlined to be as efficient as possible and allow us to spend as little time as possible reading a query before making a decision on it.
I’ll be frank, too, I often make a decision on whether or not I want to read more of the story based on reading the query, the first paragraph or two, and then glancing at the synopsis. While I may read the whole two chapters we ask for if something grabs me (if it does, go you!), but I am operating purely on: “Does this fit? How much work would this take to publish? If we put in the work, will the author fulfill their end of the bargain?”
An author’s job doesn’t end when editing is over. In fact, it’s just beginning when you sign the contract because, beyond writing, you have editing and then marketing. It’s not all sunshine and roses to get an acceptance letter; you have to keep pushing if you want to be successful. If you don’t, nobody wins.
Also, as an aside, in case you were wondering, yes, the title of this does resemble a Princess Bride quote. Just know that Princess Bride quotes are always lurking. Waiting. Stalking me. And now you know my dreadful secret: if you think it might be a pun know that it probably is.
An author’s job doesn’t end when editing is over. In fact, it’s just beginning when you sign the contract because, beyond writing, you have editing and then marketing.E. Prybylski
E. Prybylski has been in the publishing industry as an editor since 2009, starting at Divertir Publishing and eventually partnering with her close friend Richard Belanger to begin Insomnia Publishing.
Ever since childhood, E. has been an avid reader and writer of fantasy. The first chapter book she remembers reading is The Hobbit, followed swiftly by most of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series. In high school, she perfected the skill of walking while reading without slamming into anyone. Mostly.
When she isn’t reading or writing, E. is an active member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and has a B.A. in European history from SNHU. In addition to her many historical pursuits, E. is a musician of multiple instruments, a cat mom, and a loving wife to her husband, J. E. also speaks out for the disability and chronic illness communities being a sufferer of chronic migraines and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.