Sunday, October 23, 2005

WORKSHOP -Query Letter - The Wrong Way

The Wrong Way
By Deatri King-Bey

I debated for days whether to write this article or not. As you see, the write it side won. I recently started working at a traditional publishing house. I’m amazed at what people do to sabotage their chances of being selected by editors. Half of the proposals that cross my desk literally have some sort of vital error in them. And I’m not talking about the sample chapters. I’m talking about easy to fix formatting errors that an aspiring author should have addressed BEFORE the submission leaves their desk. This article walks you through what not to do in a submission. You worked too hard writing your novel to submit it to editors the wrong way.

I apologize if anyone thinks I am speaking down to them. That is not my intention. As I mentioned, half of the manuscripts that reach my desk have one or more of the ten logistic issues I’ll cover.

For simplicity, the procedures discussed in this article are based on the publishing house I work for. I’m sure other publishing houses have similar procedures.

Arrival Mistakes
Mistake One - Addressing the proposal to the physical location of the publishing company without any additional information.

For example:
Publishing Company
123 N. Fake St.
Anytown, USA 12345

This is a major mistake that I see way too often. What area of the company will the correspondence be sent to? This error could cause your manuscript to bounce around for months, be tossed, or lost. If for some reason you can’t find the name of the editor, at least put Attn: Editors, or in the lower left hand corner of the envelope write “Manuscript Submission” or “Manuscript Proposal.” Do something to let people know where this piece of mail belongs.

Your best bet is to address the envelope properly with the Attn: Editor’s Name

Mistake Two - No name on the return address portion of the submission envelope.

This is a minor error and fixed at the publishing company (at least at our company it is). The manuscripts are filed alphabetically by the author’s last name then first name. It is easier if the name is already on the outside of the envelope.

Mistake Three - Overstuffing or over-taping the submission envelope (This includes boxes).

This is a minor mistake but annoying.

We like to keep the submission in the original packaging. The packaging works as a protective cover. Some folks jimmy-rig the envelopes so that they can only be opened once. It’s the darndest thing. And don’t get me started on the pounds and pounds of tape. I bet their shipping costs are doubled from the weight of the tape alone (just kidding).

Submission Mistakes
Okay, now it’s time to open the submission. The first person to see your submission will be an office manager, secretary, clerk or someone on those lines. Why are these people allowed to see your submission before the editor you addressed it to? They catalogue your submission.

Cataloging – To keep track of submissions that come into and out of the company, information about each submission is kept in a database. These are some of the categories in our database: Author Name, Manuscript Title, Type (Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry), Genre (Mainstream, Self-help…), Agented, Date Received, and SASE.

SASE=Self Addressed Stamped Envelope

After your submission is catalogued, it is filed alphabetically (by Author).

Mistake Four - Query letter without clearly stated information.

This is a major mistake.

The person who catalogs should be able to browse through your one page query letter and easily find the information for the database. I have seen query letters and proposals that go on for pages and pages without stating the title of the work, if it is fiction or non-fiction, or the authors name (sometimes the envelope is ruined, and we have no name on the submission at all).

It is extremely important that your submission be catalogued correctly. For that to happen, you must clearly state what you are submitting. Otherwise, the cataloger is left to guess. Your autobiography may end up in the hands of a fiction editor. I know next to nothing about poetry. Your poetry manuscript may end up in my hands. At a minimum, your query should have the author’s name, title of the manuscript, and type (fiction, non-fiction, poetry).

Side note: I absolutely love the database. It allows me to quickly sort out the manuscripts addressed to me. If they are of a genre or type that I do not handle, I can easily reassign them to the appropriate editor.

Mistake Five - No Query Letter

This is a major mistake.

Oftentimes people send their previously published book (traditional or self) without any type of query letter. It’s just the book. Our company participates in several writing organizations. What is it you want us to do with your book? Consider it for reprint? Forward it to another organization? What?

Mistake Six – Hand Written Query Letter

Besides being unprofessional, good penmanship is not stressed in most school systems. This often shows in hand written query letters. Go to the library if you have to and type that query letter so your submission can be cataloged properly. You also want to make a good impression on the editor.

Mistake Seven - No SASE

This is a major mistake

The other day someone called wanting to know if we’d reviewed his manuscript. I looked in the database and quickly noticed he did not send a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). This person’s manuscript had not been reviewed yet. I told him to send a SASE so we could send our reply. I know this sounds mean, but companies receive thousands of submissions. It is not economically wise for companies to pick up the mailing expenses.

Side note: This is my opinion, but I believe it is a waste of money to have your manuscript returned. At the small publishing house I work for, the manuscript will pass through three readers, then an editor, then the acquisitions editor. Suffice it to say that the manuscript will not suitable for submission at another publishing house. This is standard practice at the majority of publishing houses. I know some writers believe they are somehow keeping the publishing company from stealing their manuscript by having it returned. Sorry, but this does not protect your manuscript. Technology is so advanced that it is easy to scan an entire manuscript.

Mistake Eight – Hand Written, Audio Taped, and strange font Submissions

This is a major mistake

There are very few cases where we will accept hand written or audio-taped submissions, and I’m not telling what they are.

Some people also like to use fonts other than Times New Roman or Courier New. I’ve seen entire submissions written in italics. Artists being artists I guess. But these fonts are hard on the eyes. Do you really want to be hard on the editor’s eyes?

Mistake Nine – Hiding the SASE or query letter

This is an annoying and possibly major mistake.

Sometimes I receive a manuscript that the cataloger thought didn’t have a SASE or query letter. Occasionally I find the query letter and/or SASE stuffed within the manuscript pages.

Mistake Ten – No page numbering

I’ve never done this (smile), but every so often a manuscript is dropped. Page numbering is a good thing. The header of your manuscript could look something like

Last name / TITLE OF BOOK Page#

That’s the end of the logistical mistakes for now. Make sure you follow the submission guidelines for the publishing house, and do not send more than they ask for.

Happy Writing

If you have any questions, email me at

Copyright 2005 Deatri King- Bey
Distributing and copying are prohibited without the express permission of the author.


JENNA said...

Hi Deatri. I'm Jenna, Agent 08 for the conference. I had a few questions I hope you can clarify.

Mistake 3 - Overtaping. My post office always does this. Last time I actually gutted up and asked her not to. She said "You don't want everything to fall out, do you?" Um, no.

Mistake 4 - I used to open my query with business - title, target, etc - but was advised to open with the hook and put the business at the end. Might be harder on the cataloguer, but isn't it better for the editor?

Mistake 7 - No SASE. On 8 novel submissions, I've only received my SASE twice. The house I target is in Canada, so I have to get IRCs, quite the pain and the PO was out last time I subbed. I made note of it when I subbed, but should I send an IRC now?

Dera Williams said...

This is a great article Deatri. Very informative and helpful.



Robin Bayne said...

Great reminder article for the experienced writer and learning tool for newbies!

I saw the same mistakes when I used to run a small press lit-mag, I guess some things never change. Also drove me nuts when writers addressed things to "Mr. Robin Bayne." Grrr.

I have noticed some publishers, such as Harlequin, will send back a partial or full ms. at their own expense. When I have just an SASE and ask them to recycle the ms pages, they still have sent me back my entire ms--I wonder if they are trying to avoid being accused of stealing a writer's work??

--Robin, Badge 18

Leah Mullen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Leah Mullen said...

Hi Deatri:

I'm Leah (badge 25). You reviewed my book Again and Again for RAWsistahs.

I know this isn't on the agenda today I should have suggested it, but didn't think of it until I red your post about submisstion mistakes. I'd like to know about non-writing careers in publishing.

You mentioned just starting at a traditional pub house. I worked for John Wiley and Sons back in the 90s and am thinking of going back after focusing on my own writing for the last 8 years. Could you talk a little about your professional journey?


leah (#25)

Deatri King-Bey said...

Hello Jenna

Hope you are having a great time at the conference!

Let's do this.

Mistake 3 - Overtaping. My post office always does this. Last time I actually gutted up and asked her not to. She said "You don't want everything to fall out, do you?" Um, no.

---I'm glad you spoke up. I have literally seen submissions that were taped up like the mummy or the box is so taped up that you have to cut it to pieces to get the manuscript out. Sometimes the manuscript is damaged. When sending a bubble envelope or one of the Express envelopes, you may wish to put a piece of tape for your own comfort. Just do not overstuff the envelope. Your submission should slide in easily. It can be a tad bit snug, but only a tad. When sending a box, tape the edges where you have to close the box. Those are easy to cut. Only a single piece, and of course, don't over stuff and don't use torn up boxes.

Mistake 4 - I used to open my query with business - title, target, etc - but was advised to open with the hook and put the business at the end. Might be harder on the cataloguer, but isn't it better for the editor?

It depends on the editor and who is logging the manuscript in. For me, I'd rather have the pertinent information, then have you hook me. Since your address is the heading of the letter, the only thing left is if this manuscript is completed, title, the genre, and the word count.

You can do something as simple as: I would like to acquaint you with my completed novel, Title. It is a genre of approximately XX,000 words and would fit perfectly in the Imprint line. Then start a new paragraph and grab the editor. Then in your last paragraph talk about marketing and yourself.

At one point in time I was reading 25 queries a day. The first thing I wanted was to make sure I was reading something I needed to read (SMILE). Anywhooooo, at the end of the day, it truly does not matter if this information is before or after your hook. Either way, your hook will either work or not. As long as all of the information is in there, you should be okay. I'll see if I can find one of my query letters to post. I'm out of town, so unless I have an older one on my mom's computer, I'm out of luck.

Mistake 7 - No SASE. On 8 novel submissions, I've only received my SASE twice. The house I target is in Canada, so I have to get IRCs, quite the pain and the PO was out last time I subbed. I made note of it when I subbed, but should I send an IRC now?

--------------Double the time the publishing house says it will take to get back to you (if they say two months, give at least four). If they have a toll-free number, you may wish to enquire (politely, I've rejected manuscripts for folks being rude to the office manager. No one wants to work with a difficult author. There are too many good manuscripts out there.). If they do not have a toll-free number, you can snail mail your question and give an email address where you can be reached. Or as you say, you can send postage and packaging again. Sometimes people do not send enough postage.

If you made all 8 submissions to the same house, and they are not getting back to you, then they may have an issue. I hate to say this, but I did work at a publishing house that very seldom returned manuscripts or sent rejection letters. I found that extremely disrespectful, which is why I don't work there anymore (SMILE).

Now that was for your reject or accept letter.

Let's talk about having a manuscript returned. I'm going to be honest with you. It is a waste of money to have your manuscript sent back to you. By the time it goes through the process, it is not suitable to submit someplace else. If you are worried that the publishing house may steal your manuscript…. Well there are scanners that can scan a manuscript and save it as a word document. Sending it back to you will not protect you at all. At the publishing houses I've worked for, we do not write on the manuscripts. If I had comments I wanted to make about the manuscript, I listed them in the return letter.

Okay, I hope my babbling help you at least a little.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Deatri King-Bey said...


Glad you found the workshop useful. You know how to reach me if you ever have questions.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Deatri King-Bey said...

Hello Robin,

Nice meeting you (SMILE).

I'm amazed at what comes into the house. SHEEEEEESH.

I've heard that about Harlequin and was also wondering why they sent the manuscripts back. Folks could still accuse them of stealing their work with the scanner technology out there now adays.

Oh well, I pray you enjoy the conference.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Leann said...

I appreciated knowing the process involved at the publishing house end. From this end, it is like the manuscript goes to a black hole where it floats--lol

Deatri King-Bey said...

Hello Leah,

I remember your book. Anybody reading this post, read Leah's book Again and Again, I really enjoyed it.

Anywhooooo, I started out as a technical writer for a telecommunications company. While there, I returned to college with the thought of obtaining my MFA in Creative Writing, but found I didn't need many of the classes to do what I wanted. Thus I took the classes I needed and hired a writing coach.

Next I started an editing business and hired folks who had been editing for years. This gave me experience editing. At the same time I did an internship at a publishing house as an assistant editor then was hired as an editor.

At this point in time, I didn't have time for my technical writing job, which paid big money. My hubby convinced me to do what I wanted and let him worry about the money. For you that don't know, editors are not paid well.

Anyway, that's how I became an editor.
Okay, now about non-writing jobs.

Graphic Design and Typesetter--Many people often learn how to do one or the other. The graphic designer makes the covers. The typesetter does the internal portion of the book. If you really want to be marketable, learn both jobs and give a discounted rate. If you are not artistic, then just go for typesetter.

Production Manager--Different houses do this position differntly, of course. But in general, they take your manuscript from step to step. For example from editing, to typesetting, to proofreading, back to typesetting, to the printer... Plus they must deal with the distributor, cover designer...

Sales Manager--Marketing...

Okay, I don't want to change the topic of discussion. Email me off line if you have more questions.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Deatri King-Bey said...

Hello Leann,

Man, I know what you mean. I'm a writer also, and sometimes I'm like, "Man where the heck is my stuff!!!!"

Much Joy Peace and Love

Tee C. Royal said...

Deatri, this is a wonderful article, especially for those in the process of submitting their work. I will definitely save this in a safe place and share with those requesting information on the topic.

And whew...finally, someone understands about the tape issue!!!

Tee C. Royal
Badge #57

Deatri King-Bey said...


If the publishing house ill have to break out the industrial box cutters, you need to step away from the tape. LOL.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Felecia Ellis said...

Hi Deatri
I'm Felecia (#158) and I just want to let you know that as a writer the query letter is what scares me most. I enjoy writer short stories, participating in contest and doing writing exercises, but I go blank when it comes to writing query letters. Thank you for the information. I'd also like to thank LaShaunda for setting up the conference. I'm getting a lot of practicle information and having the time of my life doing it.

JENNA said...


Just wanted to clarify. I've subbed 8 times, gotten a response 7 of the times, using my SASE twice.

Jenna - Agent 08

Deatri King-Bey said...

Hello Felecia,

Looks like we keep meeting up in here. I'm glad you are enjoying the conference. This is my third time attending and LaShaunda always delivers. And it is amazing that she always pulls this off without charging a fee.

She's always giving to the writing community.

Keep on enjoying yourself and don't be shy.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Deatri King-Bey said...

Okay, now I see Jenna.

Hope you had a wonderful day.

Much Joy Peace and Love

Deatri King-Bey said...

Okay, now I see Jenna.

Hope you had a wonderful day.

Much Joy Peace and Love

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