When you query, you are approaching an agent, you are making a pitch for something very valuable. Their time.
Agents read unsolicited manuscripts outside of office hours, so imagine that the person reading your work is stressed, tired, probably easily distracted. I’m sure there are agents who achieve a zen space in a beautiful room with bright windows and Vivaldi playing in the background, but the majority are squinting at their phones / computers on the bus / crowded cafe and hoping for something great.
1. Tailor your query. “Dear Agent” or “Dear Sir or Madam” almost immediately makes my heart sink. Remember, an agent’s job is not to publish books and addressing an agent blankly will most likely mean that the writer has not done their research. (An obvious tip would be to make sure that the agent you’re querying actually represents / likes the book that you’re pitching. There is no point in sending your query of maritime history to an agent who specialises in dystopian fantasy.)
2. No typos. It is a huge red flag if there are typos in a cover letter. If you are referencing other authors, make sure the authors’ names are spelled correctly. (If a writer makes an obvious error like confusing they’re/their/there – it’s very hard to come back from that).
3. Self-deprecating cover letter – unless this is an intentional stylistic choice, your pitch should not be self-deprecating. We often see phrases like, “I thought I’d give it a go.” “I hadn’t shared the manuscript with anyone, and I wasn’t sure if it would be good, but…” or “This is my first novel so I think I’ve done my best.” Be confident!
4. Unnecessary biographical information – biographical details in a cover letter can often distract and look unprofessional. Unless it’s relevant to your book, autobiographical details (how many children you have, the names of your cats, are unnecessary.) A personal red flag of mine are cover letters that say that the book is based on their own experience.
5. Confusing synopsis – a strong synopsis is very difficult to write. Not every agent reads the synopsis first, but I read the beginning of a synopsis before reading the first chapter. A concise, coherent synopsis is a very good sign.
6. Non-complimentary cover letter information – including reviews from other agents (or “positive” rejection letters from other agents) never helps a writer’s cause. As an agent, we know how the submission process works, and even if an agent has told you that your work stood out from the crowd, we generally know that this isn’t a selling point for your work. Namedropping an editor who has helped you with your manuscript is also not a good idea, agents tend to think that a paid editor service is a sign that a writer needs a lot of help with their work.
7. Resubmitting a manuscript too quickly – I find it very discouraging when I’ve given personal feedback to a writer, and then he/she comes back a week or two later with a revised manuscript. My initial impression is that it’s not enough time to revise. It is much better to rewrite a manuscript for several months, you do not want to create agent fatigue.