Agent Questions Volume Twenty-Six: Common Mistakes and Automatic Rejections (Twitter Series #6)

What can I do/say that will get me an auto-rejection to my query? What other mistakes can I make in publishing?

These are normal questions for authors. The publishing world is such a mystery, it can feel like walking in a field of land mines. No one knows where to step. I believe once you understand the process of book publishing, you can be so much more effective at querying, selling, and launching your book. If that is the way you choose to go. If you are self-publishing there is still good advice here, but I am focusing on those who prefer to be traditionally published. I want to shed light on the publishing process to educate authors and remove their fear of the unknown.

When I thought about the things that bothered me as an agent receiving queries, I made a list:
(These were definitely not an auto-reject for me, but they certainly are for some agents who are busier or more selective than me.)

Don’t get my name wrong, or my agency. Make sure you personalize each email…with the correct information. Don’t send a mass email or carbon copy anyone when querying. Don’t query more than one agent per agency at the same time. In fact, don’t deviate from submission guidelines at all.

Don’t tell me how much I will love your submission. Agents want to make their own judgement based on your submission. Telling them they are going to to be blown away with your skillful work puts them off. They will read your sample, but do you really want the agent to read your work after you’ve just irritated them?

Don’t overdo your bio. Yes, they want to know who you are and relate to you. However, they only need to know about it if you have something in common. What they really want to know in your bio is whether you have any writing experience or not. Are you in a writing community? Have you published any short stories? Is this your sixth published book, or your third unpublished manuscript? These things make a difference and tell them more about you as a potential client.

Don’t send me what I don’t want. Meaning, don’t submit to agents who don’t take your genre. There are ways to find out what each agent is interested in and what they do NOT like. Try places like: their agency website, www.manuscriptwishlist.com, www.mswishlist.com, #MSWL, www.authorquery.com, www.querytracker.net. Through your research, you will also know which agents are closed to submissions- do not send to those who are closed, the queries will not be read.

Don’t sound like everyone else. Your book is special, make them see it. The entire reason for a query is to excite the agent about your concept. That’s it. They don’t need to hear more, and nothing less. It should take you about two or three paragraphs to introduce no more than three main characters and give us the stakes. Meaning, what will happen if your main character does not succeed in their mission? Why will we care if that happens? Agents are total strangers to you. It is your job to take those paragraphs and excite someone you’ve never met with your story idea. If you can do that, you will get them to read your sample with potential in mind.

Don’t be too creative. What I mean here is to stand out, but stand out in your writing. Don’t use crazy fonts, colors, all caps (except when first introducing a character), or write the query in the voice of your main character.

Don’t be politically incorrect. Enough said.

Don’t give me ultimatums. “Get back to me within two weeks if you want to take advantage of my book.” Yes, people do say these things. “Maybe we can help each other out…” Do not try to bribe or intimidate potential agents. You wouldn’t do any of these things in a job interview. Picture a query as your book baby’s interview. Be professional, be concise, don’t be rude.

Don’t send a query made entirely of rhetorical questions. What would you do if you woke up and the whole planet was on fire? Who would you run to if your entire family turned into zombies? Would you be able to make it through the jungle with your grandmother if you knew you were being hunted, but you didn’t know the killer? Sounds exciting, but use your writing chops to excite them rather than using questions. Some writers see that as cheating, or the lazy way to get the attention you seek.

Do NOT query if your novel is not finished. Just don’t. This is an auto-reject. Don’t send in first drafts or manuscripts that have not been read by anyone other than you. And your mom. I like your mom, but she may not be an editor. She might be, but she’s still your mom and you need a beta reader. What’s a beta? Someone, not your mom, who reads your manuscript and gives you constructive feedback. You need more than one because they may disagree. If they agree on something, it deserves consideration. You are the one who has to change it. Do not send a manuscript that’s not ready. Meaning, it needs to have seen several drafts, been read by others, been edited and polished. Your agent will give you edits, but they aren’t going to go rounds with you. Sometimes they give you the opportunity to revise and resubmit because they see the potential in your story. Ultimately, they are looking for work that is one revision away from being published. Don’t waste your time querying a book that isn’t ready.

Don’t send me something self-published unless it has made at least 5,000 sales in a year. Unless they have proven themselves to have a platform, publishers are not interested in self-published books. You haven’t proven that you have buyers, so they have no reason to believe if they publish you that you will do any better. Therefore, agents will generally auto-reject them without any sales information. Conversely, if you are querying a self-published book and you have decent sales information, make sure to include that with your query.

Don’t tell me you have a copyright. Everyone has a copyright. The minute you wrote your novel, it had a copyright. It is yours. If you are mentioning it to an agent, they read it as, “My work is already copyrighted, so don’t you go stealing it!” They take it as an offense. So don’t worry, your ideas are safe with agents. No one is going to steal your story. Most authors have more story ideas than they know what to do with. And no one is going to write it just like you. Finally, and I don’t mean to upset any authors here, but whatever you’ve written, it’s been done before. There is nothing new, original, or unique under the sun. Though we all want to believe it has to be because it came straight from our brains. Our brains are actually quite similar. That’s why we have so many things in common. I digress.

Don’t follow up unless I have missed a deadline. That is why many agents say to give them nine to twelve weeks to respond. It may take them that long or longer to get to your query, it may not. If your potential agent is going to conferences and taking pitches, those people often get priority because they paid to see the agent personally. But they can’t have authors trying to follow up before they get a chance to read their query. If it’s been 12 weeks with no response though, unless they have stated, “If you haven’t heard back in twelve months, it’s a no,” you are welcome to email and nudge them. Just say, “I queried you on (date) and I hadn’t heard from you, so I was wondering if you’d had a chance to read my submission?” Publishing is a formal business–be polite, be clear, and not too personal.

That’s it for querying. I have a few more “don’ts” for publishing in general:

Don’t forget your platform. Work on building your audience before you publish. In fact I would say to work on your marketing strategy while you wait to hear back on all your queries.

Don’t pay for programs to help you self-publish, programs to help you through querying…authors shouldn’t be paying anyone but maybe an editor. All the information you need is free on the internet. Will it take some work to find it? Yes. Try places like www.writersdigest.com Is it worth it to pay someone else? That’s up to you, but you’d better do your research on the people you hire. There are a lot of us out to help authors, but there are others who see dollar signs on your foreheads.

Don’t pay to publish through vanity publishers or pay for reviews. Keep your wallet tucked away. These people feed on hopeful, naive authors who just haven’t learned the process.

Don’t make your own cover. Unless you are a professional cover artist, of course. There are plenty of options out there. Your cover is the first thing that the reader sees. It is your cover that makes them read the blurb or pick it up in the bookstore to read the back. If your cover stinks, it doesn’t matter what your book is about. If you splurge on anything in your book writing business, do it on your cover. Don’t be stingy with your cover art.

Don’t skip the editor. You are going to want to send a polished book to your agent. If you need an editor, it is BEFORE you query. No matter how great your book is, you will look unprofessional if you have spelling and grammar errors in it– or in your bios and blurbs, as well. Grammarly is a free download that will help with spelling, grammar and usage mistakes.

Don’t stop writing. While you are marketing your published book, you need to be starting or continuing the next work.

Don’t stop learning about the publishing process. Bad publishers prey on unknowledgeable authors.

Don’t take rejection personally. So you weren’t in this agent’s top ten, but maybe you are in the next agent’s top five. It’s all about what that agent wants to see or if they believe they can sell your work.

Don’t forget to have a great book. If you can’t say, “I have a GREAT book!” and mean it, saying it out loud with a straight face to strangers, you’re not ready. I’m kidding here, but what I’m saying is that agents get tons of good books coming through that they have to reject because they aren’t there yet. Don’t just turn in a good book, make it great, and be proud enough of it to do all your research. Great books get published, they just have to find the right agent. Look at how many times history’s famous writers were turned down before they were accepted.

Don’t blindly sign any contracts. I hate to say to watch out for agents and publishers, but there are people who will take your money and run, so to speak. Research everything.

Don’t be afraid. If you don’t know it, look it up on Google or YouTube. Ask the nice people in the #WritingCommunity on Twitter, or an author forum on Facebook. Knowing the truth erases the fear.

Don’t ever quit.

I hope you found these helpful. If you have any more questions, feel free to ask and I will either answer or write a post on it. Thanks guys!

Keep writing!

~jenn

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