It may come as a shock to you, but I get a lot of queries for picture books. It certainly comes as a shock to me! I’m not an agent or an editor and I think that is pretty clear on my blogs and all of the social media I do. I like to think that people work on their writing ad nauseam to make it the very best they can before submitting. I also like to think that people do their research and make the very best decisions they can when deciding who to send to, then work hard to put together a great query letter. I have learned firsthand that this is unfortunately not the case.
When you get a lot of query letters you start to see some common mistakes. Oh I have seen some doosies! For some of you these types of things in a query may be hard to believe, but they definitely happen. A lot. For those of you learning how to make you query the best it can be, here are some things you want to avoid:
- Do not send queries out to random addresses. Study the people you want to query. Make sure they are an agent or editor who works with books in the genre you have written. Also make sure they are accepting queries. Check their submission guidelines and follow them! They are there to help you.
- Do not address your query Dear Agent. It is pretty easy to learn about agents online (my Monster List of Picture Book Agents is a good place for picture book writers to start). Use the standard Dear Mr./Ms. greeting along with the person's last name. This goes for when querying editors at publishing houses as well although I will say that every once in a while it can be difficult to find out who any of the editors are at a publishing house. But, this is few and far between. In the rare case that you have exhausted all of the research outlets and have found nothing, it is okay to use Dear Editor. Or when a publishing house specifies to use that, which I have seen as well.
- Do not talk about what your illustrations or character will look like. Once you sell a manuscript, if you are not the illustrator, you generally have no say in this matter. The publishing company will pair the manuscript with an illustrator they believe will best bring the story to light. The illustrator is a partner in your book. They get to have their own creative input into the story. In your query, showing what your story is about with a good hook and description of your book is the way to make readers see the story in their mind.
- Do not talk about how many books in the series you have written, or plan to write, and make yourself sound like a starry-eyed dreamer who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The first book needs to be published…first. Focusing on the one story is very often the best way to go. Of course, mentioning that there is series potential is okay, if you feel strongly about it. Some non-fiction books are published in series so there are definitely exceptions to this rule. Do your homework, learn about the different types of children’s books that are published, by who, and how. It will go a long way when figuring out how to query something when you think it has series potential. But keep in mind, many picture books that have gone on to become series came from that one great first book.
- Do not talk about having stuffed animals and accessories to go along with the book, or films or television series that will stem from it. When you sell a manuscript to a publishing house they want the book, first and foremost. Agents know that too. Other things will come later, in the rare case that they come at all.
- Do not tell the person you are querying that this is the first book you have written. You don’t want them to roll their eyes and think “obviously!”
- Don’t talk about other things you have written that have not gotten published. The mere fact that you have written them doesn’t make them good. If you have had something published give the title, publisher, and date of publication. Hiding your credentials in a wishy-washy statement like I have had a piece published in a magazine isn’t working in your favor.
- Do not tell the person you are querying that you want the book to be well done or professional. They are professionals. If you are querying them they can only assume that you have researched the sort of product they put out and like what they do. Trust in that, otherwise you are just being insulting.
Of course, there is a time you can ask questions and go over things like whether or not your book will be published as a hardcover or softcover(for editors), or what the submission strategy will be for the book(for agents) and you can decide whether or not to sign the contract based on the responses. But don’t ask these things before you have an offer. You aren’t going to get an answer.
Most picture book submissions come along with the manuscript as well. I will post about some of the common mistakes I see in picture book manuscript submissions soon!