Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Holiday Repeat: Don't Fake a Personalized Query

Originally posted January 15, 2008

I'm on quite the query kick these days, and there are no signs of stopping the quermentum. Query power! Hop on board the query train! Put your queries in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care! I'll stop now.

One of the more hilarious things that people do in query letters (besides ones that are actually funny), is to try and fake me out by pretending they've read my client's books. Having read these books several times each at the minimum, trust me -- I know these books. I am not going to be fooled.

So when an author says they can tell how much X author appreciates my work on their behalf based on the acknowledgments in X book.... I'm going to know when I'm not actually in the acknowledgments for that book (yes, this happened).

I realize that these queriers mean well and are just trying to personalize, but they're really missing the whole point of personalization. The goal of personalization isn't to suck up to the agent and score cheap points, the goal is to show that you are a diligent, hard-working author who is familiar with the conventions of the industry, are abiding by them, and you have familiarized yourself with the agent as much as possible before you queried them. All of these latter qualities, it just so happens, are qualities that bode well for a successful author.

As much as some people think we agents just want people to suck up to us, it's really not true. We are just looking for authors who embody the qualities (hard work, diligence, attention to detail, familiarity with the publishing business) we see in other successful authors. Taking the easy way out and/or trying to fool an agent is not on the list of desirable qualities.

Now, don't get me wrong -- as nice as it would be, I don't expect everyone who queries me to read all of my clients' books and display a sweeping command of them in the query. There are people who read at least one, and I really do appreciate that and I take note of that kind of dedication, but it's not a guarantor. As much as I want to be the first person people query, I don't want to monopolize their time. So trust me. I'm not suggesting you write a book report in addition to a query.

But there is an art to personalization, and it's important to convey the qualities that an agent is looking for. Dedication and diligence are important, so if you query me I hope you'll do your homework, read "The Essentials" and sure, if you've read books by my clients, mention that. Just don't try and trick me.


nkrell said...

So, let me get this straight. If I mentioned in a query that I had lunch with Morton Freedgood and he told me how great you were as an agent, you might not believe me?

Laura Miller Edwards said...

My agent process: Love a book, think it vaguely represents my own work, query that writer's agent (after a careful review of the agent's query rules on their website).

I don't understand the blind query, or just querying someone because you think they'd be nice to work with-- that's part of the mix, but ultimately they have to be into what you write, and how can you even know that without having read something they represent?

Tina Lynn said...

I know, right? We should keep our suckage confined to this blog:D

Leona said...

I can't believe someone actually did that! I have a hard enough time writing a query as it is. I can't imagine putting something like that in!

T. Anne said...

Speaking of reading your clients books, I'm looking forward to The Secret Year!

I never mention books of the agents clients in my queries. I'm always afraid it's going to come across as me saying I'm just like them in some way.

Mira said...

You know what I like about this post? You're really nice about the whole thing. You understand why an author might do this, but strongly advise against it. And it really is funny that someone would think they could fake you out about.....well, you.

What I don't like about this post are two things. First, I looked up the definition for diligence to see if it fit me. Uh oh. That's all I'm going to say about that.

The other thing is I now have an almost irresitible desire to fake query you. I've been on the blog for a year, so I know all the stuff you've shared with us. I could easily personalize a query to you - for example, I'm thinking including the El Chaquito incident in your query would be a good way to go. But wouldn't it be funny if I sent you a query that made things up about you? Maybe no one else thinks that would be funny, but I find it hilarious.

Don't worry. I won't do it.

Good post - thanks.

Anonymous said...

"The goal of personalization isn't to suck up to the agent and score cheap points, the goal is to show that you are a diligent, hard-working author who is familiar with the conventions of the industry, are abiding by them, and you have familiarized yourself with the agent as much as possible before you queried them."

How does query "personalization" show that I'm a diligent, hard-working author? It shows nothing of my writing talent --just that I'm able to do a bit of research on the agent and read a few chapters from one of his/her client's books.

I like to think that agents look for talent and a great marketable story, not gladhanding, in the query letter.

At least that's what I'd be looking for . . .

Kristi said...

I don't understand why you'd have to fake it. If you're reading widely in the genre you write in -- which you should be doing IMO, then you already have a ready made list of agents who rep books similar to yours. I also keep track of newly agented writers through their blogs and see which agents they've signed with who rep what I write. To me, this is the easiest part of a query -- it's the rest of it that's giving me fits!

Leona said...

I keep hearing people say that they know which agents to query by the books they read. I've been reading voraciously since I was ten. I read everything. From Agathat Christie to Christine Feehan to history books. I never knew who an author's agent was by reading a book. How do you find this information out?

I accidently came across Nora Roberts' agent and didn't write it down and now I can't remember who it is. I knew little to noting about agents until I started getting serious about wanting to get published. I've spent the last two years reading everyting I can that I can afford on query letters and agents. I'm still learning.

I'd like to know how one can so quickly learn who an author's agent is by reading their books because it would save me oodles of time.

Myra, I think you're idea is funny but I'm glad you're not going through with it. LOL Just the same, I laughed.

Mira said...

Thanks Leona. :)

I'm not an expert about this, but I think alot of people get the information from Publisher's Marketplace. You have to subscribe, but it lists agents, recent deals, lots of information.

Also, like Kristi said, you can go to an author's blog. Sometimes they list who their agent is, or sometimes you can just ask them.

You can also find out by going to literary agency websites or agent blogs. They will list the authors they represent.

It is hard to find information sometimes! I queried an agent once, and for the life of me, I couldn't find a single piece of information about that person. So, I made things up. Ha - just kidding! No, I just didn't personalize very much.

Do you know about Nathan's forums? You could ask this question there. Maybe some people have some good suggestions.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Leona - we're in the same boat. What I have begun to do is look up different literary agencies I've gathered from a number of web sites and read the blurb about each agent at that agency. Agents tend to list the books they've represented, so this has been useful to me and likely would be for you, too. One thing I've noticed (in general) is that agents are like most of us: many of us read everything under the sun, and individual agents represent just about everything under the sun. Most agents will even specify what they're NOT looking to represent, and that further helps our cause.

jjshannon (Sharon)

Anonymous said...

Mira you quick-fingered devil! Your post beat my post to the punch. :)


Mira said...

jj - ah, but you included information I didn't, so my dastardly plan was foiled. :)

Good luck with your querying!

Leona said...

Thanks Myra :) I'm doing most of that, although I've been unable to subscribe to Publisher's Market place, but it seems that some people have an all seing crystal that gives them information.

When I started, I wanted an agent because I wanted them to deal with the business end of things so I could write. From being an insurance agent and a real estate agent ( I hated both jobs!) I realize the advantage to having someone trained in the field representing you.

I did not know what I didn't know so I didn't even know what questions to ask or where to go ask them. I do remember reading of Nathan's forums but that is a technological thing I haven't learned yet. I didn't even know how to set up a blog. I learned that this year.

One of the best things I learned though is that reading blogs can be a valuable fountain of information. I have my favorites. This is one of them, although I don't comment often anymore because I usually don't get on board until after there are 70+ comments :D

But thanks again for all the info. It helps a lot and maybe there is another newbie author out there who will glean this information and jumpstart the process.

Leona said...

Thanks jjshannon! LOL your the quick fingered devil now!

Thanks for the info, that was great. I need to start tracking agents like that. :)

It really helps to know other people are in my boat! Easier to row to shore when there are lots of people to help.

Stephanie said...

I tend not to add that kind of stuff into a query. I guess I try to keep mine short, simple, to the point.

Ink said...

Leona, the first and easiest place to check for such information is in the "acknowledgments" section in the book. Most writers will acknowledge their agents and say thanks for making them a shitload of money. Okay, they usually thank them for moral support and secretly think "Why didn't you get me a Rowling deal?"

Linnea said...

"author who is familiar with the conventions of the publishing industry"
Personally, I think that's expecting too much from a new writer. When I think back to the querying stage for my first novel I realize how ignorant I was of the business itself. It wasn't until I sold my novel that I became familiar with the publishing industry. I think it's the responsibility of an agent to teach the author about industry conventions.
As a conveyancing paralegal I didn't expect my clients to understand the real estate business. It was my job to teach them the ropes so they could make informed decisions about how to proceed. I don't think it's any different in the publishing industry. An agent knows the business, or should, and it's up to them to educate the novice IMO.

Ink said...

Anon 9:52,

Nathan's obviously not saying that's what he makes his determinations on. The personalization is just the cherry on top for those who want to go the extra mile. So if you're one of those who wants to go the extra mile, go the extra mile... don't cheat and try to find a shortcut.

You don't need a personalization. It's just a bonus, and if it's honest and good the agent will think more highly of you and be in a good mood when reading what you say about your story (which is a good thing).

But if all you say is...

Dear Mr. Smith,

(Rocking rocking rocking story paragraphs here)

My name is Joe and I appreciate your consdiration.

...then no agent will be upset. They won't say "Hey, they've sold no short stories and didn't personalize! It's going to be a bummer to reject this, as the story is freaking amazing!"

It's all about the proper perspective. And clearly it's better to skip the personalization rather than cheat and be deceitful. And best yet is to honestly personalize it if you can. A cherry never hurts. Well, it hurts a few agents, but they usually mention that in the their guidelines.

Ink said...

Okay, they might be upset if you spell "consideration" that way.

therese said...

Dear Nathan,
Mr. Churchill (author of "The World Crisis") was so impressed with my memoir, he recommended I query you.

I've been dead a few decades but you're so good with handling authors estates I'm sure you'll do good things for me. I believe the manuscript is still stored in a box, tied with a purple ribbon, in my granddaughters basement. Please find this and let my family know millions are on the way...

Happy New Year!

D. G. Hudson said...

Honesty seems to have been moved to the back burner in favor of 'self-promotion' in a lot of things. I've always believed you should stand behind what you write, or not put it into print.

Writing can be used as evidence, something that has not been negated by the internet. Lies are unprofessional, and may come back to bite you.

Rachel said...

The amazing part about your example is that the querier went to the trouble to find out that you did in fact represent X author (I assume) but then had to go crazy and make up the acknowledgments thing.

Why not just say "I'm a fan of X and readers who enjoyed X will also enjoy my book?" Too simple, I guess!

ryan field said...

I don't think I ever did this when I was querying agents ( I hope not, anyway). But there's actually one book on your list that I can't get out of my head, and it's been on my TBR list for a while, FRENCH BY HEART.

Marilyn Peake said...

Glad to hear that signs of diligence are important. So many of us work very hard to honestly follow the publishing industry, read agent blogs, and spend long hours writing and editing, it’s nice to know how much diligence and honesty are valued. :)

Ink said...

Lol, I'm still waiting for a writer to say "Nathan, I so loved Jacob Wonderbar that I thought I should send you my MG Science Fiction novel..."

Kristi said...

@Leona. Aside from blogs and Publishers Marketplace, there's a function on the Querytracker website (free by the way) where it says "Who Reps Whom." You just scroll to the author's name and it lists their agent. Hope that helps!

JDuncan said...

While personalization is nice, I think that just showing the basics of good querying is plenty. The query is a solicitation to go into business together. Here is what I have to offer. My research indicates that you would be a likely candidate to be interested in working with me. Are you interested? It's a business letter. You don't really have room or need to be personal, chatty, or express your wonderful wit and charm. I think it's too difficult to pull this off well, and in the end it really doesn't matter. What you have to offer does, which is your writing, your story.

My advice? Keep it simple, clean, to the point. Agents have to plow through so many of these, that the basic query: name, title, genre, word count, blurb, contact info, is all you actually need and all that matters. There's plenty of time for all the other personal bits if the agent is actually interested in your work. It's a business folks, treat it that way. Most agents will like you better for it. In my opinion at least.

Susan Quinn said...

Ink -
I wish I could query Nathan with my MG science fiction story! Maybe if I promised to turn over those pirated copies of Jacob Wonderbar I found on the internet . . .
It was a sad, sad day (for me) when Jacob Wonderbar came out of the closet. Sigh. Guess I'll have to find another agent to query in the New Year.

p.s. I think you can tell a lot of an agent's style or personality from their blog, but some simply don't have blogs, or they are mostly platforms for their clients (which is fine), so the personalization would seem to be limited to those agents that are pretty public with their information. I'm not very interested in stalking agents to find out what kind of cheese they like - and I'm hoping they aren't either! Supposed to be a professional relationship, right?

Josin L. McQuein said...

Over personalization always reads like the writer is trying to hard (at least to me).

I've never claimed to have read an agent's clients in a query, but I did accidentally send out a query without changing the salutation from the previous agent I sent it to. I felt like a total moron until I got a "failure" alert in my email because I'd messed up the agent's email address. Happiest mistake I've made in a while.

8cubed said...

I'd be happy if you just answered your emails

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

So if I can't use the I-read-your-client's-book-and-it's-great suckage, what kind of suckage *can* I use?
It's back to the drawing board for me then. Tut,tut! and double-triple-with-ice-cream-on-the-top tut.

Linnea said...

Reading clients' books is actually an excellent way to choose an agent. There are good agents and there are bad agents just like in any other profession. Using the "Inside the Book" feature on Amazon gives me a pretty good idea of the calibre of an agent.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Anon 9:52-- are you Gordon, the guy that got banned? You sound like him, taking a relatively helpful, FYI post and arguing with it.

Please, dear God, do whatever the hell you want. Be a beligerant ass, and see how far it gets you in this business. It's only common sense that agents like to be queried by people who at least know who they are and what they represent. And yes, being "diligent and hardworking" as a writer spills over into how you query, the two are related because they show a respect for the process. Accept that. Don't accept it. No one cares.

Nathan Bransford said...


Huh? I respond to everything. If you're waiting on a response to something sent during the holiday hold tight.

Sissy said...

I am so glad to have all this query advice, because I am finally getting to the point where I am writing a query and choosing where to send it. Thank you, thank you!

ParisBreakfasts said...

Nora Roberts; AGENT: Amy Berkower at Writers House
according to google...ahem

ParisBreakfasts said...

FRENCH BY HEART is perfectly delighful book. I wrote about it on my blog and ppl bought like crazy...

~Jamie said...

I can't believe I am about to admit this... I personalized LOTS of my queries. I did, I really did. But, sometimes I just didn't know a damn thing about the agent. And so I made my own little fake out personalization phrase. Oh yes, I did....

I read in a recent online interview that you enjoy teen fiction with a unique voice. I hope my manuscript falls in that category.

I know what you're thinking... I really do. You're thinking there's no way in Hades it worked, but ohhhh it did. It worked like a freakin' charm. Many of them even referenced the "articles" in their requests for partials and fulls.

So Nathan, I respectfully disagree... you can fake personalization--you just have to do it well. :)

Bob said...

I know you're a writer too. Except your book hasn't come out yet so your street creds on that are a bit tentative as 'author' because you really haven't experienced the entire process yet. You have a huge leg up by being in the business. Try to understand the perspective of a new author who knows nothing about the business.
I just call them as I see them and so do you. In reality, the role of agent as we see it now, is an endangered species. We all have to evolve. I don't disagree with any of your comments about authors not being assholes and not pretending, etc. etc. Richard Curtis, who I worked with, had his PIA rule: have a low pain in the ass factor as an author. I've gotten book deals because editors knew I would deliver on time, would never call them, and would listen when re-writes were needed.
But I think we need to hear more about what TO DO, rather than what NOT TO DO. The not to do people are going to do that stuff anyway, because they never read blogs like yours. Their fault. The people reading your blog want to know how to get better, to be more responsible and to be more professional.
I've taught writers for 20 years and sadly, 95% of them don't really want to learn. I want to focus on the 5%ers, a tenet of my Warrior Writer Program. Let's help them. They'll get it.
I think the amount of energy and time you put into your blog is great. It shows you care.
I go back to the challenge I put out six months ago and not a single agent responded to: what is your formal training program for authors you represent?
Do you have one? Is it codified? With your book coming out you have a leg up-- you understand the business. The newly pubbed author sitting in Boise is lost.

"author who is familiar with the conventions of the publishing industry"

How? Magic? Conferences? Osmosis? Yes, they all help, but we need to get professional about this and make it real.

We need to get smarter in this business. We need to train authors, just like every other business trains it's employees. Actually had an editor tell me they don't employ authors, they contract for the manuscript. But when things go south, they blame the author. And they can't send a 1099 to a manuscript.
We have to get smarter and more efficient. So let's all work together.

Nathan Bransford said...


The reason no agent has a step-by-step codified training program is that no two authors are alike and there is no one size fits all guide on how to be a published author. Some authors are good at pounding the pavement, some are great online, some have connections, some are plugged in with their niche audiences. The best all of those individual authors can do is to put their efforts where they will be most fruitful.

If promoting and successful publication were as simple as X, Y and Z I'd blog it for all to see. Unfortunately it's not that simple.

This blog is a mix of the what to do and the what not to do. Both are part of the learning process. And that's precisely how authors learn the conventions of the industry - through reading publishing blogs, attending conferences, and getting a sense of how things work.

I've blogged plenty on how I think the role of agents will and won't change. But the short version is that agents will negotiate with whomever is around in the new landscape, whether that's publishers, Amazon, Apple, whomever, and subrights are as important as ever. The publishing world is only getting more complicated. Even if traditional publishers disappear I don't think agents will.

Guinevere said...

I don't generally personalize a query at all. When I do, it's because I see a connection between the agent and my novel that I think is relevant (I find myself asking "Who cares?" a lot when I write queries, so this is infrequent).

But... I've also always heard the advice not to blind-query with magazines. Yet I've gotten some of my publication credits from flipping through the writer's guide (with a surprisingly high success rate). Some things, which technically inadvisable, do work for some writers some times.

Jen said...

Here's the thing, business is business and while no two CEO's, CFO's, Insurance Salesman, Car Salesman, Secretary, or Teacher are the same, they still have job training, and in some cases, a lot of it. As a very new author, who is trying to figure it all out, the learning curve is so high that by the time I've figured out one thing, it's too late.

I've been going to conferences since 2003. Sometimes 4 to 5 a year. I have been to RWA, MWA and ITW conferences. I have heard about as many "Don't do this and don't do that" as I can take. I'm not saying that it's not important to know what not to do, it's very important, but what about what I can do. There is a lot of focus on craft, and that is important, very important, but what happens after the sale? What happens during the sale? Publishing is going through some tough changes. Ebooks are coming on strong. How does that fit into my author plan?

While on the job training plays a huge role in learning ones job, there is very little on the job training when a writer transitions into being a published author. Being an author is more than being a good writer. Authors are small business owners who have to manage their careers which includes their editors and agents. Much of what we learn though is through other authors. Not that other authors don't know what they are doing, just that many of them are looking at me saying "I've been asking that question for the last ten books."

The last few conferences I have gone to, which I also spoke at, I looked down through the list of topics and most of the time there are very few topics that cover the necessary skill set to be a published author.

It's not that I'm not grateful for those who have told me the "don't" list. Lets start focusing on the "do" list.

reader said...

Bob --

Let's see, you are a published author and have taught writing for over 20 years and yet Nathan's posts (on his free, for all writers everywhere blog and forums) just somehow aren't meeting your needs. You wish he would "employ an author training program" of some kind for his authors because some guy in Boise doesn't know how to be one?

Are you insane?

If an aspiring author in anywhere USA doesn't know how to turn on his computer and align himself with free and plentious info on this and many other blogs then he's too stupid to be a writer in the first place. A training program for authors? Here's your training program -- stop thinking anyone in this business (much less an agent who doesn't represent you) should hold your hand through the process. Grow up. Get a set of balls. Do your own homework. Write something. Rewrite it a hundred times. Write something else. Learn. Understand. This is your dream, take responsibility for it instead of asking others to make you a writer.

Leona said...


I don't think they want someone not their agent to hold their hands. I think its more that people don't know what they need to know. I've been studying and learning. But it is more than that. Someone made a pointed remark about finding Nora Roberts on Google. I laughed. It made my point.

I'm not good at the techno end of things. I'm still learning about what's available and how to go about finding it.

Nathan is one of the most helpful agants online and I don't think any of us are poking a stick at him. Merely pointing out that its hard to learn something when you don't know the questions to ask.

How in the hell is a new author supposed to know the words "query letter" in regards to getting an agent? Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I wrote many good books. I'm a writer. Nowadays, that's not enough. You have to know how to access all the info any agent deems important and learn how to do it. It can be frustrating and hard because of elitist attitudes that people should "just know" what everything is.

I like the attitude of finding topics of what to do. I've seen it here. Nathan is a good site for newbie authors to learn from. It's finding his site that can be problematic. (I found it through Book Ends, which I found through a website, The Passionat Pen, looking for publishers. That was the extent of my knowledge when I started getting serious about getting published.)

So please, anyone who hears about someone who wants to write, steer them to places that have been mentioned here, as well as to blogs like this one rather than sticking noses in the air because someone didn't know that they needed to learn about query letters and the like in order to be a writer.

Thanks :D

reader said...

Leona -- go to this site or any other agent site -- Janet Reid, Kristin Nelson, BookEnds, Query Shark, and they will have on their sidebar links to other agents who blog. Click on those links and have a feast of information come at you.

Also, there are Frequently Asked Questions usually, on EVERY blogging agent's website. Click them. Read them.

You are new. That's fantastic. Welcome to Nathan's and good luck to you, seriously.

(The risk for every newer writer is to want an agent or publishing industry professional to explain things in detail to them PERSONALLY rather than to go to the FAQ.)

My initial comment was in reference to another poster, not you, whom, after being a published author and/or having access to endless amounts of information suggested it was NATHAN that just wasn't making it easy enough for would be authors. It's your own job to educate yourself.

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

Lol. I took down my posts because I don't think they actually related to the conversation.

That's pretty funny. I wonder how often I do that.

Jaime - I have to say I thought your post was.....what's the word? Alittle outrageous, but I enjoyed it. :)

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great post and as I will be jumping into the query waters soon, very helpful. Obviously, there are thousands of literary agents out there, but I have found that the more homework you do, the smaller the list gets. In fact, just taking away YA and MG reps narrows the field dramatically. Most agents are extemely good at letting authors know what they want and how they want it. It is up to the author to customize their query accordingly. Very helpful is the "Books I've Sold" section of an agent's blog /website. Sometimes, it seems like all the hard work is being done to give yourself "the least chance of failure" rather than "the best chance to succeed".

Triffany said...

I'm very happy that you're on a query kick. I'm in the process of polishing my non-fiction query so that I can submit it (sadly, from your homepage it doesn't look like you'll be interested)and I love all of the great information you're handing out day after day.

I'm new at this and soaking it all in.

Thank you, thank you!

Swifty said...

I dunno how to do the quote thing yet, so I will just say that is some good advice Sean Patrick R... I am currently revising my book (cutting word count like a gas powered machete)and will be jumping on the query bus with a one way ticket to DESIRE... I have found that reading literary agents blogs is my best way of keeping up to date on what they really like... They can be themselves in their blogs so it gives you a feel for their personality and if the two of you would possiby work well together... (toes crossed that they like your work first)...

Nice post, me likey!

dave malone said...

I love this. And it makes me chuckle because someone who looks a helluva lot like me recently had a copy of The Taking of Pelham 123 in his hot, crime fiction-writin' hands. Appreciate the good word--and all your query tips you continue to provide. Matsutake!

Holly said...

Look, Colt told Julia to tell Winston to tell Ellie to tell Ryder to tell Monica to tell Bill to tell Ramsey to tell Jamie to tell Juan that I should write to you, so, yanno...

Nathan Bransford said...



Holly said...

Nathan, ha ha ha, and yes, it took five minutes of research... now, back to my own grande stuff...

shonagonchan said...

Gosh, the fact that you said "quermentum" makes me want to get on this train myself and throw a few of my own neologisms your way.

I've just happily discovered your blog and already find it helpful, just the kick in the teeth that I need to get it right and send it off.

Back to research and revisions!

Related Posts with Thumbnails