If you spend any time out there on the internet you will hear many stories of authors who break literally every single “rule” about querying and literary agent etiquette and still find their way to publication.
Needless to say, for people who spend months combing the interwebs for information about how to write the most perfect, proper, and impeccable query letter known to publishing and then spend weeks drafting a squeaky clean email, such news about successful rulebreaking makes heads explode aplenty.
If there are so many stories about writers who successfully cast the rules out the window, why should anyone listen to the “rules?” Why do agents spend so much time harping on their submission policies and how to write a good query letter?
Allow me to try and explain why all this is so (and it be so).
Why rejections happen
When someone’s query is rejected they want to know why, and when people want to know why something happens, they tend to look for one reason to explain why.
Such as: Oh, I spelled his name wrong. That’s why my query was rejected. Or: it was that joke about monkeys, wasn’t it?
But there is no such thing as an automatic rejection. Agents are looking carefully and weighing a host of complex factors, and yes, you can spell their name wrong, write an entire query out of rhetorical questions, and/or insult their dog, and they still might request a partial.
Does this mean you should cast all rules out the window? NO!
The query points system
Once you’ve set aside the idea that there’s only one reason for a rejection, the query points system begins to make sense.
Now, just FYI, no agent I know is sitting at their computer with a pen and scoresheet, but here’s what’s happening in the back of their mind as they’re reading a query. (And I should know, I was an agent for eight years).
Let’s say you have to get to 10 points in order to for an agent to request a manuscript. Here are the categories, which an agent is scoring 0-10:
- Professionalism – The appearance of query, spelling the agent’s name correctly, personalizing, the absence of strange pictures and formatting.
- Book idea – The presentation of the hook, the marketability of the project, writing style/quality, the resonance with the individual agent.
- Qualifications – Writing credits, celebrity status.
So let’s just say someone writes a query letter entirely out of rhetorical questions in purple typeface (0 points for professionalism), the book is one day in the life of a literary agent told in second-person stream of consciousness (0 points for book idea), but the qualifications section of the query is “I am Michael Chabon.” 10 points!!
If I’m an agent I’m requesting the manuscript!!
Or, let’s say the person has no writing credits, wrote an unprofessional letter, but the book idea is incredibly awesome and even involves a jelliquarium. 10 points! Manuscript requested!
Earn points however you can
For the average querier out there, you just want to earn points however you can.
Sure, you can break the rules if you want, and if your idea and writing scores a perfect 10 you may find your way to success.
But your odds are so much better if you earn as many points on the “professionalism” scale as you possibly can. When I was an agent I requested a large number of partials where the idea did not immediately strike me (let’s say 3 or 4 points), but the query letter was so impeccable (8 or 9 points!) I wanted to check it out.
I still say your chances are better if you try and stick to the rules, but an agent is also not going to miss out on a perfect 10 book idea just because someone misspelled their name or committed a minor faux pas.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: His move by Albrecht De Vriendt