#1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate

Let me tell you a true story.
It’s a horror story.
A publishing horror story.
The following is not for the faint of heart.

I work at a social science press. We publish history, economic, sociology, psychology, and urban planning books (among others). On occasion, we publish memoirs but these books are usually the memoirs of significant leaders in the above-mentioned academic fields. We have our own website, clearly illustrating what we publish.

So it boggled my mind when I found out that some of the editors at my company receive query letters for fiction titles. Action adventure fiction, mystery thrillers, literary fiction. These aren’t poorly written query letters either; the writers’ have obviously spent a lot of time editing their manuscripts and researching the appropriate format of a catchy query letter. They just haven’t bothered to research their market at all. After all that work, the editors at my company barely give those query letters a glance before throwing them out; with them, they throw out an author’s misplaced dreams and hopes. (Don’t worry. The editors are kind enough to reply and explain that the manuscript just isn’t our thing).

Your book might be amazing. Your query letter might be phenomenal. But it’s not going to convince a publisher to change their business plan, alter their distribution method, and design a unique marketing method just for you and your special book if they simply do not publish/acquire that genre.

An adult fiction literary agent or publisher will not suddenly decide to publish a YA title (and if they do accept your submission, despite it being way outside their range of expertise, you should be concerned. How well can a literary agent, for example, shop your book if they’ve never represented a YA book before and never had the chance to cultivate those critical editor contacts?) A serious academic press will not change their tune and start publishing romance novels. Cookbook publishers are not going to be interested in publishing a collection of short stories.

So writers, do your homework. After all the hard work of writing and editing a book, then a query letter, and then building up the nerve to submit it all . . . don’t waste all that effort (and everyone’s time) by submitting it to a literary agent and/or editor if you both know it’s not going to be their cup of tea. Don’t do all that work and then sabotage yourself and send it to somebody who will, without a doubt, say no.

When querying literary agents . . .
Look at their website and see if your book would fit what they’re looking for. What do they tell you they like to represent? What do they tell you they will never–even if the world ended–represent. Respect their wishes.

When querying publishers . . .
Look at their website. First, make sure that they accept unagented submissions. If they require every submission to be agented, they will not make an exception for you. Your query letter won’t knock their socks off because they won’t even bother reading it before throwing it in the recycling.

If they do accept author submissions, then check out what their mission statement or About page says they publish. Search for comp titles (books they’ve published that are similar to yours). Do they publish books for the same audience (ex: adult vs. children)? Do they often publish the genre your book is (ex: romance, thriller, literary, fiction, memoir)? Are the comp titles recent publications or from decades ago? (This might reflect that they’re moving in a different direction and don’t acquire those types of books anymore.)

So the #1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate?
Submit to somebody who’s going to want your book. You can’t guess ahead of time who will definitely accept it–if you did, writers would never get rejection letters–but research enough to know who would never ever in a million years consider representing/publishing your manuscript.

(Image, No Copyright)


Published by hannahkarena

author & book publishing person.

17 thoughts on “#1 Way to Protect Your Query Letter from an Upon-Arrival Trashcan Fate

  1. I too once worked in publishing, and can concur that these types of queries come in all the time. The other type that used to amaze me were those addressed to Editor in Chief, the writer not having gone to the trouble to find the name. I think some people think that the more queries they send out, the greater their chances–forgetting to target. Sounds obvious, but bears repeating. Thanks for the reminder to do my homework.


    1. That’s the worst. I’ve known of authors that send queries to literary agents “Dear Agent,” or “Dear Sir,” etc. That’s even worse because you’re really supposed to be submitting to an individual who you’re planning on working with for a long time!


  2. I feel like step one in getting your book to an agent is RESEARCH. Why query an agency that doesn’t represent what you write? It’s crazy, really. (And a total waste of time for everyone involved.)


  3. It’s the same with poetry. You can’t just blindly send poems somewhere, anywhere — or to what you perceive to be the “best” publications — without, you know, reading the publications first.


    1. Randomly sending out a thousand anythings is the best way to get a thousand rejections, in my opinion. It’s so worth doing the research and targeting specific publications!


  4. Market research is more crucial than just about any other element, I think, for writers submitting their work. Even the best manuscripts, sent to publications accepting that genre, risk rejection if they’re not what the editor is looking for. After finding the appropriate markets, writers really should invest in procuring a recent issue or two to see what that publication reads like…learn about the audience and the editor(s), etc.

    Great post!



    1. So true! I’ve grown increasingly fond of publications that have online archives, or at least excerpts from past issues on their website. Of course, I don’t mind paying for back issues, but I can only subscribe to so many literary journals a year. The online archives are such a great opportunity to learn about new publications and I love Meet the Editor pages. I agree with you that knowing what the editor likes, their personal writing experience, and what they’re looking for increases your changes a thousand times over!


      1. Online archives are indeed a great resource 🙂 Writers seeking publication within any market should take advantage of *every* opportunity to get to know that market. Advertisements within journals are enlightening as well.


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