Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, September 8, 2008

Personalizing vs. Kissing Up

Thanks to everyone I met at the East of Eden Writer's Conference! I had a great time in scenic Salinas.

Also, don't forget that Anne & May are giving away 14 signed copies of THE MIRACLE GIRLS this week, so stop by their blog to enter.

Not sure what's in the proverbial waters, but I've been hearing from people lately that they are specifically choosing not to personalize a query letter because they don't like kissing up to agents.


Trust me, I know the query process is difficult to navigate and is frustrating, and the power imbalance between agent and querying author is not always a fun thing to deal with (at least, that is, until the tables are turned and you have multiple offers of representation and agents are groveling at your feet).

Perhaps the stress of the query process leads people to feel more sensitive to slights, real or perceived. Totally understand that. But anyone deliberately not personalizing is shooting their query in the foot, and then stomping on it and telling the query it was actually left in a bundle by the stork and its real parents are trolls from another planet.

Personalizing is not kissing up. Witness:

"I read your blog." Kiss-up-o-meter: 2/10. The judges note that the phrase does not imply any value judgment, and author could very well feel that the blog is a steaming pile of excrement. But at least it shows the agent that the author is doing their research.

"I noticed that you represented [insert author agent represents]." Kiss-up-o-meter: 1/10. Judges note that the author simply is demonstrating professionalism and research and may not even like said books.

For some reason I think there's an idea percolating out there that we agents want people to kiss our rings and tell us how great we are before we'll even look twice at a query. This is SO SO SO SO not the case. I'm as creeped out by excessive/inappropriate praise as the next agent, particularly when the praise has nothing to do with my job. However, personalizing is not kissing up. It's being professional. And if you're deliberately choosing not to take that path... well, you're sacrificing professionalism for excessive pride. Not a great exchange!

Now, I also should mention that if you are giving vague personalization (like "I see you represent X genre" or "I found you on Agent Query"), this doesn't really count as personalization because it could very easily be said about every agent you're querying. Be specific when you're personalizing.

For the record, I would never reject a query just because it was not personalized. But if you CAN personalize a query, don't shoot your query in the foot, stomp on it and tell it the query it was actually left in a bundle by the stork and its real parents are trolls from another planet by choosing not to. Personalize.


Madison said...

So, I'm working on a query to a particular agent, but right now I have no clue as to whether or not she has a blog or anything like that, so I can't personalize in that department. However, I have labored and stressed for this query to meet their standards (which was not easy). Does this count as personalization or does it just show that I paid attention to the guidelines?

Gwen said...

Well, now I'm wondering about what actual examples of personalisation would look like. How they would fit into the query as a whole, how they ought to flow with the rest of the query... for example, should ye olde personalisation statements go in the opening of the query, as part of a salutation? Should they go toward the end?

I am extremely detail-oriented so I can't help but want a play-by-play... ;)

Nathan Bransford said...


That counts as following guidelines. Personalization involves saying something specific about an agent that could not be said about anyone else. For instance, "I found your name on Agent Query" or "I understand you represent suspense" is not personalization. Personalization means mentioning something about the agent's clients, web presence, interviews... anything like that.


I prefer that the personalization goes at the beginning, to tip me off that I'm reading a personalized query. My eyes perk up.

Anonymous said...

so that's why you rejected me.

Nathan Bransford said...


I would never reject someone for failing to personalize a query. I'm just saying that it's one of the easiest things authors can do to give themselves a leg up.

Adaora A. said...

Hey Nathan, I have a quick question. I just took a professional writing class at my university today (first class of the term), and my prof said something which is completely opposite to what you've said here. She (a published author of fiction and non fiction) said that 'we writers must broaden our horizons to make a living in the small Canadian publishing buisness which we intend to be a part of." I never told her that I prefer to move back to US and join the US market, but I immediately thought of what you said some time ago. Remember how you said that writers should focus on one genre (crime fiction, romance, whatever), and not be all over the place. Well she said precisely the opposite! What do you make of it from your point of view? She says we must know - and write in - as many genres as possible to be able to feed ourself. I've been itching to ask your opinion on this matter all day. What do you reckon?

Nathan Bransford said...


Not sure I understand. It seems like she's talking about being published by a Canadian publisher rather than jumping genres? Was this a nationalistic thing? There are wonderful publishers (and agents) in Canada and it wouldn't preclude publication in the US.

Adaora A. said...

Sorry if you didn't understand mu question. What I meant was that she said that writers have to be able to write in as many genres as possible. But I remember you saying that writers should try not to be all over the place in terms of what they write. She mentioned Canadian market being smaller as one reason, but she also said it made you a better writer. I just wondered if you would agree with that or not. Thanks for being so fast in replying.

Madison said...

Thanks for clarifying that for me, Mr. Bransford!

Nathan Bransford said...


I think I'd disagree in general, although there are definitely authors that are able to genre hop -- perhaps this author is one of them. Genre hopping is possible, I just think it should be done in consultation with an agent, to make sure it's the right move.

Mark Terry said...

Dear Mr. (Fill-in-the-blank) Agent,
My last novel sold 4,000,000 copies in hardcover, was optioned by Steven Spielberg and touted by Oprah. My last agent keeled over dead of a heart attack in shock. I'm looking for a new agent. I'm looking for one who will kiss my ring or anything else I request.

Mr. Really Big Deal Writer

going nuts in print said...

For the past few months I have been working for/with a gentleman preparing a book in the hopes to go to print. I came across your blog and try to read it every day as it has become a great help to me. He is currently writing his query letter and your info has been quite helpful in keeping us on track. We have two books in the works one is short stories based on his life experiences and the other is a management book that he has used over the past 50 some odd years in the training of people and their organizations. Sometime this can be an exasperating feat as everyone wants something different. I come from the publishing industry...newspaper...totally different from this! I also came from the marketing ad advertising management side of it. However, I am learning a lot! I am looking to you for your contemporary and updated experiences in your field. also, know that you may be our first literary agent we try to pursue, although I am compiling agents currently for his choosing...

going nuts in print said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adaora A. said...

That's what I thought as well. I generally agreed greatly with you when you said your opinion originally. I couldn't help but wonder what you'd think about what my prof said. Thanks a lot for replying.

Dennis Cass said...


Nathan and your teacher are both right.

Your artistic development depends on your ability to think and create as broadly and fluidly as possible.

Your commercial development depends on your ability to sit still long enough in order to develop an audience and (delightfully) satisfy their expectations.

The key is to find the right tension between the two.

Oh, and to come up with a reference to The Hills that makes Nathan take notice.

Nathan Bransford said...

Well said, Dennis!

bryan russell said...


I think your prof is suggesting that when you start as a writer (ie. when you're learning how to write) then you should read and write in lots of genres, as this will help you develop a broad range of skills and understandings. It will also keep you from being too bound up in the tropes of a particular form. And I think she's also suggesting that if you want to be a self-supporting noveist, great... but maybe it wouldn't be wise to turn down those opportunities for professional book reviews, or the column at the paper, or articles or academic work. I think she's saying it's hard to make it as a writer, so the more you do the more chances you'll have.

So, as I read it from what you're saying, I don't think she's suggesting you should try to succeed by writing category romances, westerns and hard sci-fi novels all at the same time. Just that you should diversify and pursue a variety of opportunities wherever they arise. Like, um, teaching perahps... a pretty common practice for many working writers these days.

Anyway, that's my take on it. Slap me if I'm wrong (i probably deserve - if not for this, then something else).

My best.

SL said...

Adaora -

Canadian publishers are characteristically nationalistic. They'd prefer we stay within our own stomping grounds, so as to add depth and breadth to the well of Canadian literature. Unfortunately, realistically, the Canadian market tends to be slow and rather sparse. We almost have to be very versatile in order to survive here. A jack of all trades, if you will...

Would I be able to ask you where you took this course? I'm just curious to know, being a Canadian student myself...

Travis Erwin said...

My what a nice tie you have.

Travis Erwin said...

Oh wait, you already rejected me.

That tie is ugly as hell.

Something tells me you're not much of a tie guy anyway.

Adam Heine said...

For a lot of the agents I'm querying, I only have the following: (1) a profile from an agent database, (2) a brief bio on their website that has little or nothing to do with my story, and (3) a list of clients that I have never read and/or have nothing to do with my story.

In those cases, do I just say nothing at all in terms of personalization? Or is there more I can do?

Nathan Bransford said...


There's a lot to work with there, whether it's a biographical detail, or that you're aware of who their clients are. You don't have to have read an agent's books (although obviously that's a bonus) in order to personalize.

Adaora A. said...

Wow thanks everybody. It's great to hear your opinions.

@Dennis - That's brilliant. I really do understand that. You explain yourself very well.

@Bryan - No you don't have to slap yourself in the face. I understand you perfectly. You're understood. :)

@sl- Of course you can ask! I took it because I want to be published. I think you never stop learning and it's a wonderful thing to expand your knowledge. I go to a major university in Ontario, Canada. It's in Toronto.

I've just realized I've taken the post totally off topic. I did this singlehandedly! dip into the original topic (now that everyone's been so wonderful and replyed to me). I think you can make it clear how much you admire and would like to work with a certain agent without over doing it.

I definetly will be entering Anne & May's contest. Thanks for the heads up Nathan.

Julie Weathers said...

"I prefer that the personalization goes at the beginning, to tip me off that I'm reading a personalized query. My eyes perk up."

We had this discussion on Writer's Forum. Some people contended personalizing wasn't necessary or wanted. One, however, said after she started personalizing and putting it at the top of the query it did make a difference in the number of requests for partials.

It doesn't take more than a line or two to explain why this agent is suited to your work so why would you pass on another opportunity to make a favorable impression?

Nathan, I want to add another note of thanks. I was getting a query ready for Janet Reid's workshop in Surrey. I was zipping back and forth between your site and hers to make it reasonably coherent. It's really helpful to have the information so well organized here.

Natalie said...

I always feel so cheesy trying to personalize, but it's good to know that it does grab some attention. I'll stop feeling like I total nerd when I write those few lines now.

Julie Weathers said...

"I always feel so cheesy trying to personalize, but it's good to know that it does grab some attention. I'll stop feeling like I total nerd when I write those few lines now."

I do too, because I really don't like people to think I am fawning. However, I long ago learned it's good business to explain why you are contacting a certain agent. I think it immediately lets them know they aren't one of ninety queries that went out that morning from an alphabetical list. Maybe I'm wrong about that. I'm not an agent, after all.

Plus, seriously, a writer should be looking at the long term relationship and querying agents they think are best suited to them.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Wow. Someone's had a lot of caffeine this am. :-) Glad your week is off to such an energetic start, Nathan. I always appreciate your enthusiasm, expecially when it's dreary and rainy here.

Anonymous said...

it seems to me that the whole personalization thing, is like the proverbial ice breaker. It makes sense to let the agent know you know who the heck they are and what they're all about. At the end of the day, though...your query is going to rise to the occasion or fall and that has everything to do with what the rest of the query is about...mainly your hook. Make sure your blurb leaves the agent wanting to know more...cause I'm guessing he/she is gonna want to see more!
Just sayin!

Adam Heine said...

Thanks for the quick reply, Nathan. I guess my problem, then, is what do I say? I don't know how to mention that I am doing research without having it sound like I'm tossing in random information. ("I noticed you graduated from Brown University and have four children. That has nothing to do with my novel, but maybe you'd be interested anyway!").

Does that make sense? I think I'm with Gwen, I could use some examples of what you think are good personalizations in situations like this.

Anonymous said...

Some agents are easier to send personalized queries to than others... there are a few that look to be excellent agents, but there's relatively little information out there as far as interviews and such.

I've wished more than once that you represented my genre, Nathan, because I could personalize the heck out of that query... waxing philosophical over our shared aversion to rhetorical questions and telling you to feel free to hit me up on my home-boy phone :-)

For what it's worth, to those thinking it's wasted time - all of the partial and full requests I've gotten have been to agents whose queries were personalized... often with a direct reference to particular authors or works they've represented that I can compare and contrast to my own. Then again, there could be something in the sample pages or pitch that they liked, but it seems pretty coincidental that my rate of request is fairly decent on the personalized ones and not at all on the non-personalized ones.

anon because I'm still querying :-)

Anne said...

I don't personalize much because I feel like I'm wasting the agents time describing my reasons for querying them. I query agents who represent my genre. They already know this. Why would I say "I'm querying you b/c you represent. . ."? Am I missing the point?

I'm just having trouble here. Several agents I've queried haven't sold any books that I'm familiar with. How do I personalize to agents like that? I don't want to lie. I also don't want to "personalize" by telling the agent about him or herself. Any ideas?

Kiersten said...

Madison (and everyone else who says they don't have anything to personalize with)--google, google, google. Most agents out there have at least given an interview at one point in time. Not everyone provides a wealth of personalizable (new word!) information like Nathan, but you can almost always find something.

Scott said...

Personalizing isn't sucking up or cheesy or any of that--it's just writing a professional business letter. If you move into an uncomfortable sucking up position, you're probably doing it wrong anyway.

There's a big difference between "Good morning, Mrs. Cleaver. My that's a beautiful dress you're wearing. Is Wallace at home?" and "I read in an online report from the Whatsamatta U. Writing Conference that you are looking for fantasy novels for 'tween boys, so I want to tell you about my manuscript, "Tween Elves Kill The Dragons.'"

Other examples:

Dear Mr. Bransford,
Thank you for taking a few minutes in the hall at the Suchandsuch Symposium for Wannabe Writers to talk to me about what you like to see in a synopsis.

Dear Mrs. Bigwig,
I read in your blog that you are looking for poorly written manuscripts loaded with adverbs and adjectives and POV shifts to become the next big thing in the Toddler Romance market...

Those examples aren't sucking up. They just tell the person receiving the query why you are writing and that you've done at least the minimum amount of research required to be a pro.

If you haven't done at least the minimum amount of homework, you might be sending that toddler romance to somebody who only reps political nonfic comic books, in which case you've wasted the agent's time and, more importantly, your own.

Natalie said...

Scott, great examples, hehe.

Dave F. said...

I expect thousands of opinions and millions of words.

Dan said...

How's this for sucking up?

Dear Nathan,

Though we haven't met [yet], I have a strong suspicion we will once you begin using the court side Kings seats I've conveniently left for you at will call. You'll find sitting next to me almost as enjoyable as my space monkey stories.

Anthony said...

ever seen anything like this before, nathan?

Kasey Mackenzie said...

Hi Nathan. I'm a long-time lurker, and just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to write such informative posts!

Additionally, I just thought I'd chime in with a real-life example of personalization that I used successfully when I queried Nathan's Agency-mate, Ginger Clark (who I feel lucky enough to now call my agent). I nearly always opened my queries with a succint but (I like to consider) snappy hook and included the personalization in the last paragraph, but I think Nathan's advice to put it in the opening paragraph is a great idea, too.

At any rate, here's the personalization I used in this specific instance:

"[Title] is a standalone 80,000-word urban fantasy with strong romantic elements, although sequels could be developed if desired. It should appeal to fans of Kim Harrison, Patricia Briggs, and Jeaniene Frost, although nary a werewolf or vampire stalks its pages. I've seen you mention online that vampires especially have reached a saturation point in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and agree; one reason my supernatural creatures tend to have pulses and no allergies to stakes, sunlight, or silver."

I read several interviews with Ginger on-line, and had seen indications that vampires and werewolves had reached somewhat of a saturation point in other sources as well, so I think this particular paragraph did a good job of showing I had done both general research into the market, and specific research into Ginger's tastes.

At any rate, I also think I had better results with the queries I personalized over those I didn't, but that's not to say I didn't get requests on the non-personalized queries. The bottom line is how intriguing the hook and overall story come across in the query.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks for chiming in!

And it just goes to show: I don't talk about personalization for my health -- it really works!

But yes -- at the end of the day the hook and query (not to mention the manuscript itself) also has to stand up.

superwench83 said...

Regarding the mention of an agent's client in a query letter....I always thought this was a good thing to do, like everybody else here has said. But I recently went to a conference where the four agents in attendance critiqued query letters, and in my query, I did that--mentioned an author whom the agent represented. Three of the four agents on the panel said they didn't like that. "What's to say that the author has actually read that author? Are they just throwing names around? If so, that's kind of a turn-off." That's the sort of stuff they said. Kind of surprised me. And now I'm afraid to use an author's name in a query. Could this sort of thing actually backfire on an author if used in a query?

Nathan Bransford said...


Wow. I'm sure there are agents who disagree, but actually that's the first I've heard of agents who don't like personalized queries. Every agent has their peeves, but I think it's a good strategy.

Just goes to show that there's no such thing as a rule in this business.

Pamala Knight said...

Thanks for all the great advice Nathan.

For me, this latest blog post is particularly timely advice. I met an agent at RWA nationals outside of a pitch session (and in what I think was a funny circumstance) and she specifically asked me to personalize my query so that she would remember who I was. Because let's face it--as unforgettable as I think I might be, *wink, wink*, you agents meet loads of people and we all want something from you. I'm sure it gets hard to remember the hoardes.

So personalization is the way to go.

Scott said...

Because let's face it--as unforgettable as I think I might be, *wink, wink*, you agents meet loads of people and we all want something from you.

That's why you should always go to a conference without pants. You won't be forgotten so easily.

Dear Mr. Agently,
You might remember talking to me outside the conference hall at the Hopeless Wannabes conference. I was the guy without pants.

Blythe Winslow said...

I may be personalizing or kissing up here, but I'm just back from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and I've been to panel after panel on publishing and the business of writing. Here I just want to say thanks for a comprehensive and easy-to-navigate blog. For a literary fiction person, the business of writing can be frightening. You've cleared things up for me a bit. Thanks.

Marva said...

I see you haven't sold much and figured you needed clients, so here's my magnum opus.

Is that personal enough? Not for you Nathan, but there are some very secretive agents out there where you just can't find anything other than they rep your genre.

I do what I can to find similar works, authors repped who write similar to mine, or just say I'm following your policy of "When in doubt, then query me."

the Amateur Book Blogger said...

What's the kissing up rating on "thank you" emails / letters? I tend to err on the side of politeness - I genuinely appreciate when someone takes time to respond to a question / query personally, and if I have had email contact, send a brief email thank you note, written contact = written thank you. But I used to work in a world of high intensity email inboxes, and often I know, I didn't want yet another email in my inbox. What do agents in general think / expect? How much is too much?

Anonymous said...

I usually just go with something simple, like Dear [name]: "After reading your agency's web site,..."

or your entry in Jeff Herman's Guide, or your blog...just something to let them know how I heard of them. That's just good busniess.

Bija Andrew Wright said...

Amateur Book Blogger: That's been covered before, and NB mentions it here, in the context of follow-up questions. It seems that "thanks for rejection" emails are entirely optional, and make no difference whatsoever. Send one if you feel like it, don't if you don't, but neither will have any impact on the decision that's been made.

Lynne said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan
Thanks for the Query post. I think its the final boost I needed before contacting... um, you. lol

I've been sitting on my Query letter for too long, working on my novel for too long and it's high time I threw caution to the wind. Oops, there goes the caution....

I havent said so in the letter, but at the risk of sounding like a complete suck-up, thanks for all the great posts on Query Letters and finding agents. It really is a minefield out there and it can be daunting. To have so much information in one place, from someone who knows, is priceless.
Okay, that does sound like a complete kiss-up.. haha...

Anthony J Langford

Emily said...

This is really confusing, because you always say you want to know if a writer reads your blog, but then I read this on Colleen Lindsay's blog in August:

Often a writer wastes time and space and ends up with a bloated query by telling me things I really don't need to hear: I don't need to know where you found my name; I don't need to know that you like my blog (I mean, thanks; I appreciate the sentiment, but it really isn't relevant to your query); I don't need to hear that you've wanted to be a writer since you were in grade school; I don't need to hear that your writing can be compared to X, Y and Z writer (because, really? it probably can't be, and that's just going to annoy me). What I do need are three basic pieces of information that Kelly provides above: What genre does your book best fit into, what is the word count and what's your hook?

She's saying she doesn't care for personalization in the first paragraph. Since every agent wants something a little different, it's hard to keep up. I have a hard enough time trying to determine who wants a query only or a query with three, five or ten pages, or a query with 50 pages, email or snail, with or without a side of fries. Don't even get me started on the one, two or five-page synopses. Some agents want to know where your book will fit in the market and some say they get offended when writers try to discuss the market because that's their job, and we probably don't know what we're talking about anyway.

I'm glad you don't reject based on this point alone, because I have a hard time following all the directions. :)

serenity said...

How about this? I am going to personally hold you responsible if I lose the Anne & May contest because you sent them too many readers. (smiley face, jay-slash-kay, etc.)

Adam Heine said...

Emily: I'm totally with you. I swear I do my best in keeping up with what everybody wants, but the only thing that consistently matters is the story. I'm starting to think that it's better to drop everything that some-agents-like-and-some-don't. Just to be safe.

The synopses are the worst, though. Everyone will say whether or not they want a synopsis, but most don't say how long or what kind they want. I've seen 1-page, 2-pages, 3-pages, or no more than 10-pages; "whatever is required to convey the story" and "I just want to know how it ends"; "I don't care how badly it's written as long as it summarizes the story" and "your synopsis should be as interesting and exciting as the novel itself".

I've condensed mine to 1 page, relatively interesting (but not as much as the novel), and succinct-but-showing-the-end. Is it enough? It depends who I talk to.

Nathan Bransford said...


Yeah, I definitely see that there's a difference of opinion on this one. I will say that I have heard more agents say they prefer personalized queries than agents that don't, but it's one of those things where you just never know.

I wish we all had one set of rules, but that's that's not the case.

Mystery Robin said...

Yes, see, that's me. I sometimes want to tell the agent how much I love the books they represent, because I do query agents of authors whose books I love, but then I feel like I'm kissing up and they'll be disgusted - even if it's true!! Oh the trials of querying...

marye.ulrich said...

HI Nathan,

OK, you gave us examples of a one and two on the Kiss-up-o-meter, but what would a nine or ten look like?

Should the comments say something specific about the authors/books you represented? In _____ I liked the character development, story arc, surprise ending....

Thanks Nathan the smart, handsome, clever...

Shannon Ryan said...

Why not generic and kiss ass.

To whom it may concern:

I need you in my life. You complete me. You represent all that I hold dear.

Jude Hardin said...


How do you feel about referrals? I know some agents give them a lot of weight, others not so much.

Bella said...

Thanks for the candor, which may prove useful in finding a means out of the nadir slush.

So, you’re particularly interested in young adult fiction… now MY eyes just perked up!
Any additional tips?

Madeleine said...

I just received my first rejection email and am puzzled by the choice of words.
"We're sorry this project doesn't seem right for us - a matter of chemistry really."

Really, I was only surprised by the language - is it their chemistry with me or the pages I submitted?

Hoping for some insight.
Thanks so much.

ORION said...

dan,marye et al...
I can do that 9 or 10 kiss-up query
I'd like to show you my space monkey memoir. That knock on your door? That's the monkey I sent. And look at your window.
That's me waving.
I'm the one with uzi and Rambo sweat band.
It wasn't that hard to climb up your balcony.
Looking forward to hearing from you...

Chumplet said...

So... if I signed my query with the name Chumplet, that would be going a little too far, right?

Seriously, I think personalizing a query would be a great thing, especially if the writer has built casual relationships with agents through their blogs.

SinMac said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SinMac said...

I found one site that suggests something similar to this:
"This novel will appeal to readers of (insert names of two authors this agency handles here)."

The subtle implication is that you've researched who they handle and know your potential market.
Do you think this would be an effective addition?

A second question, if you will?
The guidelines of the first agent I plan to approach, include a list of works published to date,(though they do mention that they will consider unpublished writers). As I have nothing published yet, I debated how to approach this. In the draft version of my query I had included the following line, "Understanding that, as an unpublished writer, I’m presuming upon your kindness and valuable time; I can only thank you for the opportunity to do so. I look forward to your response."

I've been told by several people to remove the reference to being unpublished.
What is your take?

Your name comes up often on the FB group that posted this link, btw. I've learned a great deal since I began reading your blog. Any advice is appreciated. Thank you

SinMac said...

Please disregard the last comment. I found the answers in another of your blogs. :)

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