Jennifer Astle

March 12, 2009

The Great #QueryFail Debate


I sold my soul signed up for a Twitter account this morning.  I have resisted the beast until now.  I wanted to have a look at the phenomenon that is #queryfail.  A handful of literary agents, editors, and other industry “insiders” have been sharing reasons why query letters get rejected.  The query mistakes range from bizarre to simply ignorant (both equally unacceptable). #QueryFail Day on Twitter is the creation of Colleen Lindsay.  This is what she has to say about #queryfail;

Today is #Queryfail Day on Twitter, the first of what will probably become a monthly or semi-monthly experience. What is #Queryfail Day, you ask? * rubs hands together gleefully * A group of online agents, book editors and periodicals acquisition editors are posting about their queries in real time. The idea is to educate people about what exactly it is in a query that made us stop reading and say “Not for me.” We’re being very careful not to include personal identifiers of any kind. The idea isn’t to mock or be intentionally cruel, but to educate.

Here is a sampling for your reading pain/pleasure;

ChristianPubTip: It’s a handwritten manuscript with a note that says this is the only copy they have.#queryfail

danielliterary: Asks me how to go about submitting? Uh. If u have my email address, then u obviously
have my web site address with my guidelines #queryfail

danielliterary: Say you don’t know how to paste the first five pages of your manuscript into your email?
Please get your 3-year-old to teach you. #queryfail

angelajames: ONE sentence about the book. I don’t need to know your life history. I need to know about
the book. #queryfail

angelajames: “passion raging between two characters will burn right off the page” makes me think your
book is going to be overwritten #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: A headshot embedded into body of query email. #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: @bookavore I just delete all queries that come in addressed to Dear Sir, To Whom It
May Concern or Dear Agent. #queryfail

danielliterary: Call yourself a “published author” when what you really mean is “self-published”?

bostonbookgirl: Including a creepy photo of you clearly taken about 20 years ago? You have just taken
your first step on the road to #queryfail

Colleen_Lindsay: Three paragraphs, no plot, no hook, and lots of “me, me, me, look how wonderful I
am!” – #queryfail.

mattwagner: “My proposal is a work in progress.” Sorry, please finish your proposal before querying,

danielliterary: Addresses me “Dear Sir/Madam…”? #queryfail

I deliberately excluded the #queryfails for the BDSM photo included with the letter, the mothers who want to educate their daughters about pimps, and the con-men who are finally ready to tell their stories.  Self-explanatory.

I, like others, am incredibly interested in this debate.  Netta at had this to say;

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what is done in public, what the hell goes on in private? But then, it’s private and I don’t have to know. I also wondered if these agents, who took time out of a busy day to skewer the hapless writer, ever took the time to contact the writer and tell them, in private and in a professional way, just what it was that made the query fail. Feel me?

I feel you.  Rejection is important.  It’s more important than succeeding, because succeeding doesn’t really teach you anything.  You already knew how to do it in the first place.  I can see where there would be concern over the feelings of some poor hapless writer venturing into the mysterious world of Getting Published. That said, not every writer (ahem) follows Twitter, so the personal contact offering constructive criticisms (to the honest mistakes, not the con-men and crazies) would be useful.  I would venture to guess though, that not every literary agent has the time to write a personalized assessment of my crappy query letter.  They have more bad query letters to read you know.

As a whole I think we have become too sensitive to rejection and failure.  No, I don’t like failure.  I’m not a complete idiot.  But, I learn from my mistakes and hopefully refrain from making them again.  No, I don’t want to be another hilarious #queryfail tweet, but I do want to know how NOT to write a query letter, so I learn from the mistakes of others. It seems that this would be common sense to most, but common sense seems to be about as common as horse-drawn buggies these days (see: Pimps for Dummies #queryfail).

Still, some are up in arms about the snarkiness that can come along with some of the fails, but honestly, they seem to deserve it.  Besides, telling an agent or an editor that they’re doing it wrong would be like telling God she built the universe wrong, and that, I suspect, would land you in the #queryfail pile.



  1. Hi Jenn,

    You make some good points. Rejection, like failure, will teach a person more than a mountain of successes. I think the thing that bothered me the most about #queryfail was the atmosphere that developed, especially toward the end, where it seemed to be more about how “funny” or outrageous a query was than pointing out an error. Yes, it’s a harsh world out there, and I think that coddling (for want of a better word) does more damage, but there was an elementary school feel about the whole thing that really bugged me.

    Then the thought occurred to me — this was touted as an “educational” process, right? By their own admission, many agents said that the people who really NEEDED to read #queryfail, probably weren’t. Then why the hell are you doing it??? If you already know you’re not hitting your target market, all you’re doing is making a target out of them. I don’t see the “education” in that.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.



    Comment by netta — March 12, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

  2. Many of those things perhaps seem obvious to us, but others who, good bad or indifferent as thier writing might be, know nothing of the rarified world of publishing and probably even less about Literary Agents, who can indeed sometimes be a breed apart from the rest of humanity.

    I have to say that I agree with both you and Netta, my view has always been that Twitter is frequently for … well, twits … and certainly the examples given here do nothing much to teach would be writers how to approach an agent or publisher.

    I’m afraid that there does appear to me to be an arrogance about the whole attitude of this event that is not pretty.

    Comment by CJ — March 12, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

  3. I get that the negativity or arrogance of the thing can come across a certain way, but if someone includes a BDSM picture of themselves in the query, that’s unnecessary even for erotica (I hope…). I chose the examples that I did because, for the most part, they seemed to be things which writers might honestly do in an attempt to attract the attention of an agent. When you look at a snapshot of those, they seem less snarky…although no more directly helpful. It was enlightening, but I too would like to see more #querywins.

    Comment by jenniferastle — March 12, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

  4. P.S. Does the term “queryfail” remind anyone else of Orwell’s “Newspeak” or do I just have an incredibly overactive imagination?

    Comment by jenniferastle — March 12, 2009 @ 8:12 pm

  5. @Jenn: Re the PS – Oh, yes, very much so. By the way, I think you probably picked some good examples. To me, though, the desire of the publishing industry to hold on to the “old order” is very clear in some of the comments, which clearly demostrate the disdain with which some of the contributors regard everyone of whom they do not entirely approve. Sad really. Oh, and I agree with you about the BDSM thing – that’s just funny (well, fairly funny) – too much information, eh? 🙂

    Comment by CJ — March 13, 2009 @ 10:20 am

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