Nathan Bransford, Author


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Query Letter Subject Lines: Act Now!! Get It While It Lasts!

Lately there seems to be a trend afoot wherein writers, presumably in an attempt make their query stand out, have taken to getting creative with their subject lines. So, sandwiched in between subject lines like "Query" and "Query Author Name" will be one that says:

New novel act fast!!
I have just the project for you!
Not just another query! (only it's usually just another query)

I do respect that these authors are thinking about how many e-mails are likely in the agent's inbox (chances are: a lot) and are thinking they need to really stand out in order to be read. It's definitely coming from a good place. But the end result is that it sometimes feels like I'm hearing from a group of excited telemarketers and/or spammers.

Allow me to take a moment to reassure the "OMG another rule to follow and someone else on the Internet said the exact opposite KMN" anons. This isn't another rule to follow and no one is getting rejected over their subject line. Subject lines? Really not a big deal. Also, imaginary anon: you might consider decaf.

The real reason to reconsider a wacky subject line is this: we live in a Spam Filter world. If your e-mail accidentally ends up in Spam Land and the agent is scanning that folder before deleting, the best way to ensure that an agent will see your query and retrieve it is if you have used some combination of "Query" or "Query + Title" or "Query + your name" in the subject line. It's like your query's life raft!

If your subject line looks like spam: should it land in the spam filter an agent may well mistake it for spam or not notice it at all.

Now. Is it mandatory? Not unless the agent you're querying says it is. Is the agent probably going to appreciate it? Yes. Have you ever had spam musubi? Delicious.

You're not selling the agent on your ability to write a catchy subject line. Be confident that your query will do the trick.

Photo by JanetGalore






69 comments:

Johnaskins said...

That Spam photo led me to imagine a real Spam filter. Not pleasant!

Livia said...

My college roommate was Hawaiian. I love spam musubi!

Catherine Gayle said...

Not too long ago, an intern tweeted about how writers should NOT put query in the subject line. I had to correct her. LOL. Most important reason is the spam filters.

Marsha Sigman said...

I hate canned meat.

I never thought to add anything else in the subject line other than query+title.
Maybe I should worry that I lack imagination.

Suzannah said...

These people obviously think they need to stand out for you to read their queries at all. Since you've assured your readers that you do, in fact, read and respond to all queries, it's totally unnecessary.

Also, silly.

Like you say about the amount of time you spend formatting your query letter being inversely proportional to how professional it looks, I think this falls under the same category.

Bethany said...

I'm super hungry and STILL. Never would I try that.

Candyland said...

Some like flash. Like glitter. Glitter invades crevices. Flash invades inboxes.

ElegantSnobbery said...

Haha, at least they don't say "You've just one the UK lotto, open to collect!" because then, of course, when you open up the query, you'd be disappointed that you didn't' actually win the UK lotto.

JohnO said...

I'm thinking that if your novel is about someone who works in a Nigerian bank, you're really up against it.

Word Verif: "gadvisms." Not sure what it is, but I know I don't want to have it.

Mark Terry said...

Business. Relationship. = Business. Letter.

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

great advice.and funny post!

Terry Stonecrop said...

Well, I guess it shows imagination, but it does come across as a hard sell gimmick. And, as you say, it might disappear into Spamland.

Anonymous said...

What if the subject line promised that the query would make your penis larger?

Anonymous said...

Very helpful advice in regard to creating query subject lines that sound like SPAM. In regard to your mentioning how many rules there are today for query letters, even though unusual out-of-the-box approaches no longer work in trying to get a book published, they still work in other businesses. A recent TV show demonstrated how wildly creative approaches can lead to huge success. One young woman who designs bathing suits decided that having her bathing suits worn by the models in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition would hugely boost her sales. So she showed up at the Sports Illustrated office, proceeded to take off her clothes and try on her own bathing suits. Well, the magazine people liked her bathing suits; her bathing suits were worn by the models; she’s now quite wealthy.

Leila said...

Marsha, I'm with you. On all counts.

Hmmm, what an amazing thing your inbox must be these days, Nathan. Almost like a living, breathing, creature of sorts, that generates new ways of challenging you or presenting you with new ways to wonder at the world (in good and scary ways I would imagine) - frequently.

If what I'm about to ask is too off topic then don't mind me, but would you mind sharing the most unique 'thing' you ever came across as an agent?

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Really? Really? People are so darn silly, you gotta love 'em. Hahahaha!

Anonymous said...

Subject:
"Query: If you don't pick it up, someone else will!!"

Book Title:
"Revenge of the Cat-Eating Space Monkeys"

I mean, seriously... who could pass that up?? It's like passing up Northern Iowa on your bracket.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Ick. Nothing made with SPAM is delicious.

Not only are those tags misleading, but they're way too long for a subject line. SL's should be direct and to the point, otherwise, they scream "GIMMICK!!!"

One of my early on-line gaffes, from back when I didn't know anything about how or who to query, involved sending an unsolicited query directly to a publisher. I found out later, that their SPAM filters actually filter out anything that includes the word "query" because they "don't accept them". I hadn't tagged mine as a query, so it slipped through. In that case, the editor liked the pitch and requested a read. (She passed though - phooey! It definitely wasn't ready to be queried.)

All SPAM filters are set differently, and there's no way to know how one is calibrated. It's like when someone has a title that's racy, and the recipient's filter snags it for "content".

Renee Collins said...

I'm totally craving spam musubi now. (Grew up in Hawaii.)

Kimber An said...

I assumed it was Query + Title, unless the agent or editor asked for something else.

I think this issue goes back to the fact that what matters most is the STORY. So, agonize and sweat blood over the book's Title and put that in the subject line.

Of course, it's also important not to get emotionally attached to the Title, since the story might just get published after all that. And the publisher might change it.

Such is life.

Abby Stevens said...

SPAM... eeee! *shudders*

It seems a lot of agents ask that you put QUERY in your subject line in their submission guidelines, anyway.

Anonymous said...

How many queries do you receive from truly gifted writers, those who might actually win a major book award, including a Pulitzer Prize? Your blog seems mostly geared toward beginning writers.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

That's extremely rare.

But really, I try and mix things up on the blog between the stuff-for-beginners and stuff-that-only-publishing-nerds-will-probably-ever-care-about. Something for everyone! Hopefully.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

This raises a question that I had: if you queried an agent and they were interested but ultimately passed, and then you have a publisher make you an offer, what should your subject line hold if you decide to see if the agent is interested now?

I thought something like "Have offer, need agent" might do it, but now that seems suspiciously like some of the examples you've given.

April Wendy Hollands said...

I've been writing all my life, so I'm no beginner writer, but I am a beginner at finding an agent. I think there's a big difference, anonymous. Also, I'm not convinced that beginner writers can't pull a rabbit out of their hat and win some amazing awards, whereas many experienced writers are just hacks (like me? Who knows).

Icy @ Individual Chic said...

Well, how about QUERY: "insert really really really interesting book title here". Then you're following the rules. (I accidentally typed fules, and that kind of works too).

Anonymous said...

April Wendy, I noticed a scolding, chiding tone in today's and other recent blogs. I couldn't imagine extraordinary writers being scolded in that way is all. By "beginning writer," I meant a writer who has only begun learning the basics of how to write, not whether or not they've been published or how many books they've written.

maybe genius said...

Spam musubi actually makes me gag a little. But that's because I'm pretty anti-Spam in general.

Canned meat. *hork*

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

All scolding/chiding unintended!

And if William Faulkner came back to life and wanted to send an e-query I'd tell him to put Query in the subject line too. It's not about who is or who isn't a fantastic writer, it's just a practical suggestion that everyone is welcome to take or not take.

Mira said...

Yes, many writers aren't great at sales, wrong personality type, me included. We're too...obvious and sometimes cluncky....mainly because we're fairly honest types, and sales requires a certain....finessing.

No critique of those who are good at sales implied, though. It's a skill!

But it's nice of you to warn people against being filtered to spam.

My query address line will never be filtered to spam, though. I've already thought of it:

"This is me, Mira, this is not spam, and I'm querying you. I know. I realize you thought this day would never come, and if you want to take a a second to savor the moment, that's fine. This is just a quick reminder, though, that if you do not say yes to my query, you will not be my agent. Food for thought. Okie dokie, go ahead and open the query now. Enjoy!"

Yep. The perfect query address line. That should get me an agent. That should do it.

Author Guy said...

I would have thought that the subject line was pretty formal and routine, like most parts of a query. It's just the synopsis part that's Hell on Earth.

Ashley A. said...

Last month, I found an email in my spam folder from Mitch Stewart, Director of Organizing for America, on behalf of BarackObama.com.

Why?

The subject line (referencing health care reform) was: "Too hard, too risky?"

Anonymous said...

Nathan - Would William Faulkner be published today, or would his serious issues with alcoholism stand in his way? His alcoholism resulted in some unusual behavior, and perhaps he wouldn't be published today. It makes for some interesting discussion - how books used to be published before there were so many writers.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I've actually already addressed that question, or rather decline to address it on a regular basis. Everyone had to deal with the constraints of their time.

TERI REES WANG said...

Spam Musubi is like pocket rocket fuel. It's good to go, and hot.

Anonymous said...

Nathan - Last comment on this subject, I promise. I've noticed so many agents addressing writers over the past few years through blog posts in which the language is very similar to an exasperated parent scolding children or an exasperated kindergarten teacher lecturing the kindergartners. It sometimes creates an impression that either there aren't a lot of great writers querying agents, or that the art of writing is being reduced to a kind of paint-by-number kit. Of course, there are many great books published today, so I wonder where the discussion would go if the writers of those books were the ones being addressed on agent blogs. What if Pulitzer Prize winning books were discussed, for instance, and writers could learn something about how that is accomplished? I'm guessing the discussion would take place on a completely different level. I'm also guessing that most queries that completely follow guidelines are rejected anyway, so isn't the real problem how do you write a really great book? Thanks for bearing with me. I'm just trying to discuss a trend I've been noticing over the past few years on many Internet sites devoted to helping writers.

Neil said...

I'm getting so spooked by all this "how to query" stuff I don't know what to think. I'm about a year out on querying with my project. By then I'll probably have abandoned the whole idea.

Nathan Bransford said...

anon-

I really try and avoid an exasperated tone. It happens to everyone from time to time, but I wouldn't want to think I'm part of that trend.

That said, I do post about the craft of writing and talk about writers and books who have won Pulitzers. But the fact is that there's only so much you can do to tell someone how to write a Pulitzer Prize winning book, and if I could tell everyone precisely how to write a Pulitzer Prize winning book I would be copyrighting it and selling it for millions of dollars rather than blogging for free.

All I can do is provide advice I hope people will find helpful. Some of that is about writing, some of that is about boring nuts and bolts stuff like query subject lines. It's all part of making the process work. Even great writers have to jump through hoops to be discovered.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Nathan, for your time and patience. I really do appreciate it.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

Thank you. None of the cutesy stuff. Okay I get it.

kdrausin said...

I agree with Mark, keep it professional.

Off subject- I read yesterday's post this morning. Thank you, Nathan.

D. G. Hudson said...

Marketing techniques have become the order of the day. We are told to "market ourselves" in what is becoming an increasingly 'do it yourself' model. It's not surprising that promotional tricks have found their way into the what used to be a formal process.

It's a little disheartening to hear that some agents or editors use filters which can snag the unsuspecting writer. Another hoop... Guess that's one way to cull the pile.

Is this type of subject line peculiar to a certain age group, or does it cross boundaries? I suspect it's generational.

Christine Macdonald said...

As always. Out of the park advice.
Thank you.

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

Reading the comments today, I detect some whining. Guess what, writing is a job, just like teaching, painting houses, selling cars or raising babies... there are parts we love and parts we don't. But shortcuts don't often work and we can't presume to know more than people who have been in the field way longer than we have... Love what you do. Have fun along the way and take good advice when its offered, especially if it is given gratis!

ryan field said...

"I try and mix things up on the blog between the stuff-for-beginners and stuff-that-only-publishing-nerds-will-probably-ever-care-about."

Yes you do. I wasn't going to comment today until I saw this. I like the Friday links.

Mira said...

Joanna,

Well, I don't quite agree. Writing is an art form. Some people have decided to set up a business selling that art.

However, going with the idea that writing can lead to a business, it's still a management issue.

The writer is the one member of the team who is not interchangeable, not dispensible and not exchangeable.

Therefore, it's smart business sense to treat that writer well, and not only listen to their concerns, but encourage them to voice them.

This includes applicants to the position. Applicants are future indispensible team members.

This type of thing always puzzles me. It's pretty much understood that a dictatorial approach to management - shut up and do your job - is one of the least effective and least productive. And certain not something to be used with your most valuable team member.

And it behooves team members to assert themselves when something isn't working.

That said, I very much support my fellow writers on this thread, who are voicing their concerns. Good for them! Well, good for us! Yay us! :)

Anonymous said...

Mira, there you go again, typecasting writers! I used to work in advertising sales and public relations, the only jobs I could get then with a J-degree and I enjoyed it. We're not all nerds and shy, awkward misfits--please give us a break!!

Richmond Writer said...

I nearly deleted an e-mail with subject line "about last night" sender: Beth Roper. Fortunately, I saw the first line and remembered there was a Beth at the garden club meeting.

Mira said...

Anon - as before, I said 'many writers', I wasn't implying all.

....I think you're missing my main point here...which has to do with personality types.

But since this is not the first time I've bothered you with this, sorry, let me say, for now and the future, that I am sure Anon 7:17 is gorgeous, suave, debonair, sophistated and could sell popsicles to polar bears.

OfficeGirl said...

I hear Spam is good with eggs or just all by itself....damn...now I'm hungry. Normally, I don't go craving Spam, I mean who does? But that picture makes me want to make Spam lasagna....

Anonymous said...

Mira, it's a date! LOL I like most of your posts, but guess I get offended when you stereotype writers. If anything, we're an unpredictable bunch that can't be typecast. But I do like your witty repartee...

Claire Dawn said...

Gimmicks don't sell books, books sell books.

Anonymous said...

Query Spam -- Light on the Adverbs, Heavy on the Adjectives. Available soon in a super market near you with complimentary hybrid parking.

Donna Hole said...

LOL.

Well, it's your own fault Nathan. :) Telling us to stand out. I'll bet those do stand out!

Sorry; I just really needed this tonight.

.......dhole

Kate Evangelista said...

In the end, it's really all about the query and the first pages. If that isn't stressful enough then I don't know what is.

Susan Quinn said...

That spam picture gave me a nasty flashback to my camping days as a kid, where Dad's favorite meats always came in cans (and yes, there's more than one kind. Ugh.).

It caught my attention, though. :)

Matera the Mad said...

A query with in idiotic subject line would never make it past my BS filter.
lolz

Matthew Rush said...

What if the subject line consisted of QUERY - followed by a rhetorical question repeated twice?

Anonymous said...

Nathan,
I typically use "Query & Genre," which for me is Literary Fiction.

I'm beginning to notice that i get a LOT of no-response rejections. Judging by QueryTracker, in the time I send a query, others get form rejections and I get NOTHING. It's really frustrating.

I wonder if it's because literary fiction is a hard sell, so agents are ignoring the email without even opening it, or if I suck beyond belief...

I know you respond to every query, but should I just resort to "Query" to be safe?

Mira said...

Anon - thanks. :)

Maryann Miller said...

I really find all messages with a hard-sell subject line annoying and not professional. Maybe some folks respond positively to "You must read my blog" or "You must buy my book". However, there are plenty of other folks who are turned off and never even read the message.

abc said...

OK, so this post makes me wanna write a bunch of goofy query subject lines featuring all caps and exclamation points.

like:

THIS QUERY IS DA BOMB!
THIS QUERY IS YOUR NEW FAVORITE!
THIS QUERY IS MINTY FRESH!
THIS QUERY IS YOUR CO-PILOT!
YOUR MOTHER WANTS YOU TO LOVE THIS QUERY!
THIS QUERY IS YOUR BEST FRIEND!
YOU AND THIS QUERY WILL UNITE!
THIS QUERY WILL LIFT YOU OUT OF YOUR CLINICAL DEPRESSION!
THIS QUERY CURES HERPES!

OK, enough. sorry. and thank you. moving on...

The Red Angel said...

Hey Nathan! :) I gave you a blog award, check it out on my blog. Congrats!

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Taffy said...

Thanks for stopping over @ my blog and leaving a comment for the library-loving challenge!
I saw your comments on the other blogs as well...THANKS!

Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado said...

Yes Mira, writing is an art form but it is also a job... I stand by what I said; you have to cover every aspect of what you do. This doesn't mean it need be an onerous and distasteful chore. Sometimes things we initially find unattractive become interesting once we get some experience with them.
Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado

jan said...

I sometimes need to ask a super short question of an agent -- not a query, but something I actually need to know about being an agent or policy or whatever for my job. I always used "Question, not a query" but if folks are putting subject lines about their QUERIES not being queries, it's a wonder I ever get answers to my questions.

Anonymous said...

My subject line looks like this:
Query - Title - Genre - Size
i.e.
Query - Trunk Music - Crime Suspense - 90K

Am I being too helpful?

Broadway Mouth Blog said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Broadway Mouth Blog said...

I always say, the goal is to stand out, not stick out.

At the same time, you can't blame people for getting desperate to try something new. It's a tough, tough world out there!

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