Debunking 6 Querying Myths

Since November of 2020, I’ve offered an array of freelance editing services to #amquerying authors, providing feedback based on my own successes and failures back when I was querying. This past year, I edited over 150 query letters, which has somehow managed to land me among the most popular query editing gigs on Fiverr. It’s also helped me to spot a lot of patterns (read: mistakes) among first-time authors, the most common of which I’ve detailed in previous articles.

I’ve set out to make the sort of feedback I provide as accessible as possible—while I do charge fees for personalized edits because of the time involved in reading and critiquing each query, I don’t want to gatekeep, which means taking to my blog to share my thoughts whenever I think of a good way to distill them down into something digestible.

Last year, I found myself correcting a lot of misconceptions about what is and isn’t going to strengthen your query and make your manuscript more appealing. A lot of querying advice floating around the internet includes blanket statements that authors end up taking at face value. But as with writing, the actual rules tend to be a bit more nuanced than they’re often presented (looking at you, people who try to ban adverbs).

So, getting to the point, here are six querying myths I’m working to dispel:

Myth #1: Positive feedback from beta readers will make your book look more marketable.

Fact: More often than not, agents don’t want to hear about your beta readers, no matter how many you’ve had or how positive the response has been.

Don’t get me wrong: receiving positive responses from beta readers is an amazing feeling. For a lot of authors, sending their manuscript to beta readers is often the first time they get to receive honest feedback. Putting your work out into the world is undeniably scary, and when that feedback turns out to be mostly positive? It’s a combination of relief people didn’t hate it and pride in the fact that someone actually enjoyed your writing. But as far as querying goes, there are a few reasons not to bother bringing up that positive feedback.

First and foremost, it doesn’t actually help agents assess the marketability of your book. They don’t know anything about the people who beta read for you—whether they have any experience critiquing books, whether they are part of your target audience, whether their feedback was honest, etc. Beyond that, positive beta feedback can be difficult and time-consuming to actually verify. It would be incredibly easy for authors to lie and say they’ve had 50 beta readers when they’ve actually had 5 because an agent doesn’t have the time to hunt all those people down and confirm that they actually read your book. It’s faster for agents to just go ahead and, you know, read the book themselves. So leave the mention of the beta readers out of your query.

Exception: If a popular author or someone who works in the industry has read your book and provided some sort of endorsement, then it might be okay to mention them specifically. Use your own judgement to assess how reputable they are and how relevant their endorsement would be to your work (i.e., a niche horror author endorsing your romance novel is less relevant than a bestselling romance author).

Myth #2: Mentioning that your book has been edited by a third party is reassuring because it lets agents know that your writing is polished.

Fact: At best, mentioning an editor is irrelevant, and at worst, it muddles where your writing ends and where the editor’s work begins

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with hiring a freelance editor or asking a friend to look over your work before you send it off to agents. Editing is a huge part of the industry and something that authors have to learn to be comfortable with. But mentioning it in your query letter isn’t super relevant because it doesn’t tell agents anything about your work’s actual marketability or you as an author.

Like the beta reader issue, agents might not be familiar with your editor and therefore won’t know anything about their skill level or knowledge of the industry. Many freelance editors have no experience in publishing and might be providing feedback that’s entirely counterproductive. But say you’re lucky enough to hire a high-end editor who has glowing recommendations and a ton of experience under their belt—now, agents don’t know what your raw work looks like without professional intervention, so they don’t really know what sort of client they’d be signing on. Will your future work be of the same caliber? Will you need to hire the same freelancer every time, out of your own pocket, in order to maintain consistent quality and voice? There are just too many variables, so it’s simpler to leave your freelance editor out of the querying equation.

Exception: If you met an editor from a traditional publishing imprint during a conference or event and they expressed interest in acquiring your work once you are agented, that is typically worth mentioning in your query.

Myth #3: You need to open with a logline to hook an agent

Fact: No logline is better than a bad logline, and a coherent, organized query letter is more important than a punchy opener.

There’s a lot of pressure placed on querying authors to make sure they hook agents from the opening line of their query, and nothing is hookier than a vivid, high-concept logline. The problem is that the vast majority of loglines are neither vivid nor high concept. They either focus so much on capturing the big picture that they don’t hone in on any of the details that make your story memorable or unique, OR they try to pack way too much information into a short sentence. The end result is a logline that’s either entirely unoriginal or completely incoherent. Neither is a good look.

The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to include a logline in your query. If it doesn’t feel like your logline is hitting the mark, just cut it. There’s nothing stopping you and you shouldn’t get disqualified for it. And if you’re not totally sure and want to include it just to be safe, you definitely don’t have to open with it. Opening with your title, target audience, genre, and word count is always a safe bet because a lot of agents will scan for that information anyway.

Exception: Some forms on Query Manager specifically call for a logline or elevator pitch, in which case it is obviously a good idea to follow the directions and include it.

Myth #4: Using multiple genres helps set clear expectations for the unique sort of book you’re presenting.

Fact: Over-complicating your genre makes your book look impossible to market.

This one is pretty straightforward. Your genre should tell agents which shelf your book is going to sit on in a store like Barnes & Noble. If you can’t settle on a genre, how can you expect an agent to know which imprints they should submit your manuscript to, or which editors might be interested? And how is a future publisher supposed to market it? Whenever possible, try to narrow down long, complex genres into one coherent genre with maybe a well-established subgenre. “Dark fantasy” is okay. “Romantic science fiction/fantasy thriller” is just confusing.

Every author wants to feel they’ve written something that’s truly one-of-a-kind, but from a marketing perspective, you want to fit in somewhere, or you’ll end up alienating any potential audience before you get anywhere.

Exception: Some hybrid genres have a clear precedent in the industry and an obvious shelf they would fit into, in which case it’s fine to use them (i.e., historical fantasy is always going to sit on the fantasy shelf). It can also be helpful to include “with ______ elements” if you figure your book has strong elements of a secondary genre (Outlander, for example, is a historical romance first and foremost, but it has elements of magical realism/fantasy).

Myth #5: Comp titles need to be recently published.

Fact: Recent comp titles are ideal, but older comp titles aren’t completely off limits, so long as you frame them the right way.

There’s definitely good reason for agents requesting recent comps. Recently-published titles not only demonstrate the appeal of your sort of manuscript in the current market, they also give agents a reference point for which imprints and editors might be interested in acquiring similar projects, and they provide a reference point for what sort of deal an agent can potentially expect to negotiate for you.

That being said, older comp titles can be used effectively to convey things like themes, setting, tone, etc. My agent sold my debut to St. Martin’s Press by pitching it as “the friendship story from Bridesmaids with some sizzling chemistry on an island paradise a la The Unhoneymooners and a modern podcast spin on How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days.” That’s two older comps, and neither of them are even books. Point being, it doesn’t hurt to think outside the box with comp titles, so long as you present them in a way that’s fresh and interesting.

Exception: Simply saying that your book will appeal to fans of Wuthering Heights or The Hobbit will make it look like you’re writing for an audience from an entirely different era because it doesn’t elaborate on how you’re going to provide a fresh take on old tropes to make them relevant again.

Myth #6: Your bio should focus on telling agents about your writing experience.

Fact: Your bio should present any relevant experience—which often doesn’t even include writing.

If you have professional writing experience, that’s great. Definitely go ahead and mention any relevant English degrees, previous publications, the blog you’ve run for the last five years, etc. But if you don’t have any writing experience, that’s totally cool too. You don’t even need to mention it. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. Filler lines about how you’ve always had a passion for writing, how this is your first novel, how much you love this genre—they end up falling flat because they’re generic (most authors could say something similar), so they don’t give agents a feel for what you’re actually bringing to the table.

Instead, focus on framing other relevant experiences in a way that demonstrates how you are going to incorporate your unique voice into your storytelling. If your story is set in France and you studied abroad in Paris for a year, mention how your experiences there helped you flesh out all the little details. If you’re a nurse and your MC works as a medical assistant, talk about how you’ve drawn on your own background to create a believable character. Point out the different ways your storytelling is going to be unique and authentic.

Exception: Note the word “relevant.” You don’t need to detail your entire work history. Cherry-pick 2-3 bits of info that you’re confident you can frame in a way that feels relevant to whatever story you’re querying, and leave out the rest.

A lot of querying is about knowing the rules and using your own judgement to apply them.

I feel like a broken record when I tell people that there’s no magic formula when it comes to query letters. What makes sense for one letter might be a terrible idea for another. The important thing to keep in mind is that querying’s main goal should be to show agents why your book is a project they can be passionate about. And their passions aren’t usually beta readers, or vague loglines, or long-winded bios about your personal writing goals. Rather than told, they want to be shown—through a solid pitch, good comp titles, a succinct bio—why your work has the potential to be a success. Assess each piece of information you’re including with a critical eye and ask yourself whether it’s actually relevant. At the end of the day, you know your work better than anyone, so it’s up to you to make sure you’re pitching it in the most effective way possible. It’s a time-consuming process, but it’s worth it.

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