Need help submitting your writing to literary journals or book publishers/literary agents? Click here! →
Sometimes the things a writer has to say in a query letter for literary agents are, uh, aaawk-ward! Here are a few ways to rephrase uncomfortable facts into tactful prose.
Awkward Phrase: I had a literary agent for this book who didn’t do a good job. Mentioning any prior negative relationships in a query letter is like wearing a sign to a singles mixer that says, “Ask me about my divorce.” Be clear about a project’s history, especially if you’ve already “shopped it around” to book editors. But save details for later conversations with your new agent.
Tactful Revision: I worked with a literary agent on this project a few years ago, but ultimately decided to part with the agency and deeply revise the book. I’ll be happy to share details at your request.
Awkward Phrase: I self-published this book, but didn’t really sell many copies. Many writers approach self-publishing with hopes of becoming the next great best seller. But in reality, here’s how much self-published books can make. Small sales figures are rarely encouraging to literary agents when they’re considering a self-published book. Be honest about your sales (literary agents may have access to your figures) but also be delicate.
Tactful Revision: I self-published my book last year and, after a very modest effort at promotion, turned my attention to different projects. Now I’m ready to dedicate my energy and resources to bring this book out in a big way.
Awkward Phrase: I’ve never been published before. Every writer is a new writer at some point. And while it is best to nab some good publishing credentials in magazines or literary journals, or at least show some involvement in writer’s organizations, it is possible to land a literary agent without even a smidge of publishing experiences.
Tactful Revision: None. Don’t point out any lack of experience at all.
Awkward Phrase: I have no idea what book genre this manuscript falls into. It’s not you: sometimes, a book’s genre simply isn’t obvious. If your project straddles the line between book genres, you may want to leave your potential genre out of the first line of your query letter and simply allow the literary agents to make a determination. After all, that’s their area of expertise!
Tactful Revision: Omit any references to genre. Or: I believe my book may fit comfortably into the XXX genre; however, it has crossover potential for readers of XXXX as well. I would invite your thoughts on positioning if this project interests you.
Awkward Phrase: I really love my own book and you will too. There’s never a need to make promises you can’t totally guarantee. Don’t feel like you need to talk up your “page-turning” story that “will have readers laughing and crying” and keep them “on the edge of their seats.” Instead, let the writing speak for itself.
Tactful Revision: Omit any descriptive text that sounds like you’re writing a review quote. Better yet: Get an actual book endorsement and show it off.
Awkward Phrase: I already submitted this book to agents in the past (including you), but have since revised it. It’s not unusual for writers to resubmit a book that has been totally rewritten. Depending on how much or how little you revised, you may want to take different approaches to querying literary agents again.
Tactful Revision: To learn more, read: How To Resubmit Your Book To Literary Agents.
Awkward Phrase: I’ve already written ten books in this series, but can’t manage to sell them. If you’ve written a bunch of books in a series but haven’t sold one, agents may feel you’ve put the cart before the horse.
Tactful Revision: I envision this project to be the first in a series, and I’d love to tell you more about the availability of additional titles and plans for future books.
Read More About Query Letter Writing: 9 Query Letter Phrases That Get Results
QUESTION: What awkward thing do you need to say in a query letter? Post it in our comments section. Our experts may be able to help!