"Personalizing" Queries

Recently I gave a talk about Agents to local SCBWI chapter members. One thing that we unfortunately didn't get around to discussing was the whole concept of 'personalizing queries.'

I've noticed this comes up at a few of the writing forums I visit. People want to know why it's important to personalize a query and how a person does it without coming across as a butt kisser or sounding phony.

So...why personalize?

High up on every Agent's hate list is the 'Splatter Query.' This is where the writer finds a list of agents on the net somewhere and sends out a form query to ALL OF THEM, hoping for a request. This is also known as the SHOTGUN approach to querying.

Four words: DON'T DO THIS...EVER.

Why? Because it's disrespectful to the agents you query, other writers who did target this agent, waiting to have their query considered...and it's disrespectful to yourself.  Not only do you waste everyone's time with a mis-query, think about this: how many hours/days/weeks/years did you slave over your manuscript? And now you're willing to hand it over to any old agent to try and sell? That's crazy talk, right there.

Personalizing a query tells the Agent you researched them specifically as a match for your manuscript. It's respectful to them and to your novel. You want to find the right advocate so your MS will have the best chance at placement. Taking a bit of time to research is nothing when considering how long it took to perfect your book.

Getting Personal: What it isn't

Stickers, glitter, gifts, fancy fonts & formatting, colored stationary, drawn-on hearts, nicknames, declarations to name child after agent/get a tattoo of the agent's face/etc in exchange for representation. No, no...just no. This damages the name 'writer' all over the world and screams RUN AWAY to the Agent.

Getting Personal: What it is

Think about what attracted you to the agent in the first place. What did you find out about them as you researched? Mention a compelling reason why you admire them and want them repping you. (And don't forget to always adress the agent by name when querying, never 'Dear Agent'.)

It's simple....Do your RESEARCH

Agents are often at conferences, book fairs, retreats and work shops, allowing for countless opportunities to shmooze and get to know them a bit better. If you don't see them on the circuit, most agents are fabulous about keeping a web presence. Blogs, articles, discussion boards, websites, twitter, Facebook...all of these are chock full of advice, information and personal tidbits that help you get to know who they are. This makes it very easy for you to find something genuine to personalize your letter with.

Personalization ideas:

--Did they speak at a conference? Did you learn something from it? Say briefly where you saw them and how they helped! If you met them personally, mention it.

--When you researched their clients, did one of their novels/writing style make you believe your book would be a good fit, too? If so, mention this. (BUT if you didn't read the book, in the name of zombies, don't lie and say you did!)

--Did you read an article by them on a specific topic and it broadened your knowledge? Thank them for it!

--Do you follow their blog where they share tips and news about the biz? Let the agent know you appreciate the time they give to writers!

--Are you up to date on their successes? Congratulate them!

Agents do a lot for all writers, not just their clients. They are very generous with their time, mentoring through blogs, conference talks, workshops and even Twitter. A genuine 'thank you' for all they do to help us learn and grow as writers is never amiss in a query letter, provided it's professional and concise. Personalization doesn't need to be big or splashy, just honest!

If you need more info on RESEARCHING AGENTS, please check out Julie Hedlund's post--it's chock full of great advice and links to help you on your way. :)

45 comments:

Joanna St. James said...

You are right I have made some faux pas in the past but we learn every day. and Thank you for this post

Deb Salisbury said...

Great advice! I try to personalize my queries, but sometimes it's hard without coming across as creepy: "You are my dream agent." (I was very tempted to write that in a recent query.) Um, no; not a good idea.

Kristi Helvig said...

Great post! I'd also add that personalization starts with their name. I'm amazed at the number of agents who report that queries come to them starting with only Dear Agent or call them Mr. when they're a Ms. and vice versa.It doesn't take much research at all to find out if they're male or female. :)

Angela Ackerman said...

Joanna, I think we all do. I know I have. :) But it's up to us to always try and improve, and that's what leads to success. :)

Deb, thanks! I agree, personalization can be hard, which is why I supplied some ideas. In my case with Jill, I congratulated her on becoming an agent. I also targeted her because she just sold a Pirate poem to an anthology and I was shopping a pirate MS at the time. It pays to find out the interests of an agent!

Kristi, thanks for that--I added it in because you're absolutely right--personalization starts right in the salutation!

Laura Pauling said...

Wonderful post, Angela!!

JEM said...

Great post! I've often wondered about this personalization myself, and find the aspect of researching agents daunting. But I definitely agree that it's totally necessary. You shouldn't walk into a job interview not knowing anything about the company. If you're applying there you should have a reason you want to work there. Same logic applies, in my mind.

Jennifer Hoffine said...

These are great ideas on how to personalize without stepping over the boundary into weird, too personal or too presumptuous.

I always found personalizing an uncomfortable thing to do and rarely did it (I never sent anything out without using the agent's name and checking submission requirements either). I definitely see the advantages of doing it well.

Charity Bradford said...

Great post Angela. I feel like I've burned a bridge or two with my corny "personalization". Some agents are a lot harder to research than others, but I decided I have to be myself as well as professional.

Do you think starting a query with, "You're one hard cookie to research..." killed it for me? Yeah, I really did that! I'm getting better at it though.

Oooo, "twazzles" is my captcha word. I like it!

Julie Musil said...

What an awesome post! You're so right about this. Yes, agents give so much of their time. The information is all out there for us, we just need to spend the time and LEARN! Thanks Angela!

Julie Hedlund said...

I could not agree more with the points you make in this post. Especially the part about how much agents do for all writers - not just their clients. They deserve well thought-out, targeted queries.

I am in the middle of an agent search right now. I just re-posted an article on How to Research Editors and Agents on my blog today because I've learned so much more since I first wrote it. Here is the link if you're interested: http://wp.me/pIkHt-Te

Lenny Lee! said...

hi miss angela! this is really good stuff. im gonna copy it and save it for when i get ready to be a queryer. its gonna be a pretty long while til im ready but i got this neat post when i am.
...hugs from lenny

Karen Lange said...

Thanks, Angela, for this great advice! Somehow I am always wanting to bookmark your site. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

This is just what I needed right now, since I'm living in the query world. Thanks, Angela! :-)

Pk Hrezo said...

I've found it really makes a difference and tghe agents tend to explain why your work isn't right for them if you take the time to personalize the query.

Julie Hedlund said...

Thanks for the shout-out Angela. I included a link back here at the end of my post too!

M.B. West said...

Thanks for this post. I am querying now and have questioned this very thing. I try to personalize with a single sentences specifying why I queried him/her in particular, but it isn't always easy!

Emy Shin (Sandy) said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post! Personalizing the query for each agent can be very daunting, especially if you're querying 100+ of them. However, it's definitely the respectful thing to do -- and is good for the writer's end, too.

Patti said...

Great advice. This is where I'm at right now. My query is written and waiting for the personalization of each one. Although it may be time consuming, like you said, it's nothing compared to how long it took you to write the book in the first place.

Robyn Campbell said...

This comes at a time when I needed it. I didn't understand the personalization thing. Now I do and see it is very important. Can I copy and paste? I am just beginning the query stage. Thanks Angela. You just keep on giving, my friend. I've heard back from several writers that are very excited to find your blog. So you give back every day. :)

Yamile said...

This is such a timely post for me! I just send my first query (a a couple of others followed) last week. The personalization part was harder than the rest of the query. Thanks for these wonderful pointers.

Christie Wright Wild said...

Just found your blog through twitter. It is amazing! And this is a great post with helpful ideas to personalize in a query. It also applies for queries to editors. Thanks!

Nathalie said...

Some awesome info on here Angela! Makes me wonder sometimes though, why what many of us consider 'a given' must be spelled out for others. Scented paper...really?

RAD - Dot Painter said...

Excellent information! I'm adding you to my blogroll. :) Rachel

Angela Ackerman said...

Thanks Laura!

Jem, I agree. But it's funny, some writers think that 'getting an agent' is a magical transporter to selling a MS. An agent will rep your career, and so you don't want to pick any old agent--you want to find the right one. :)

Jennifer, I think that everyone appreciates being told they are doing well, or to be thanked for what they do. So even something small like telling an agent you appreciate the time they put into their blog posts, and a comment on a specific entry can make them feel appreciated. :)

Charity, when I started querying, the personalization was the hardest thing for me to get. I felt like I wasn't worthy of trying to make a connection to them because I'd never met them, and was only now investigating them for my own benefit. But it didn't take long to see how much each agent put into their clients and online presence, and that made me see how I benefited from the knowledge they passed on.

I think as social media takes a stronger hold, it's easier to build a rapport with agents, too. :)

Julie, your post is perfect!

Lenny, if you keep doing what you're doing, you will be an author one day--I have no doubt!

Karen and Shannon, thanks so much!

Pk Hrezo--that's an EXCELLENT point!

M.B. & Emy, I'm so glad this post helps!

Patti, Robyn, and Yamile-- I wish you luck on your querying!

Christie, so glad you found your way here!

Nathalie, I once had an agent relay a story to me of how a writer querying her sent a bird's feather with blood on it 'for luck'. Trust me, there are all sorts of folks who really don't realize what they are doing!

LM Preston said...

Love the post. I'm a firm believer that you address people the way you would like to be addressed. I know I don't like form letters that I get in the mail-so why would an agent want one?

April said...

Great post. I hate querying, but alas...I need to do that soon, I think. After nano and one more revision...

Laurel said...

great ideas here for how to personalize well. I'd asked an agent panelist about this at a recent conference, and she said don't make yourself too crazy trying to come up with the world's best personalization. Your story is what will sell her most. But it never hurts to show you've done some homework. Keep it simple, the agent said.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I tend not to personalize my queries. I found it didn't make a different. I make sure I've spelled the name correctly, and that's about it. If I've read an agent likes their queries to be personalized, then I'll do it. But there are some who don't care for the ego stroking. They just want to hear about your book.

It all comes down to doing the research and knowing the agent's perference. ;

Nicole Zoltack said...

Awesome post.. Definitely one to bookmark.

Henya said...

Great points. When I start querying again, I will make sure to return to this post.

Thanks for sharing.

Holly Ruggiero said...

Thanks for the pointers.

Peeling Orange said...

Thank you as after Nanowrimo the question will be held, as I am still more into trying to do it myself, although it seems hard. Well... Thinking, considering. Doing everything via my blog, mostly.

Tahlia said...

Well I'm glad I didn't make any of those mistakes. It's a good post for people starting out.

Morgan said...

As much as I'd love to decorate my queries with stickers and glitter (I'm still five years old at heart), professional personalization is the way to go. I get a lot of personalization ideas from Casey McCormick's Agent Spotlights on her blog http://www.caseylmccormick.blogspot.com/ . Though her information is mostly for YA agents, I know there are a ton of other resources out there to make personalization a bit easier.

GutsyWriter said...

Since I'm in the Query research phase, this is a perfect post for me. Thanks again.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I think it's really important to keep notes on each agent or editor that you research. Then if you send out another project you already have notes prepared...

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Angela...I hopped over from my dear friend Robyn's blog. You have a great blog. Loved your Thesaurus. Had a peep at few emotions. You have a wonderful resource for writers.

Thankyou for your generosity, for sharing this wonderful resource with all of us.

Rachna

Beth said...

What a great post! I completely agree with everything you've said about personalization, and you've given me some new ideas too. When I've worked so hard on my manuscript, I wouldn't think of sending it out without spending a few hours considering who I'll send it to and why they'd be a good fit.

Mary Witzl said...

Whew -- I know all of this stuff now, but there was certainly a time I didn't. I used to study every agent's particulars carefully, but when it came time to writing that all-important personal line, I just couldn't do it -- whatever I wrote sounded so lame and sycophantic. I think I settled for referring to books we'd both admired, but even that made me cringe a little.

lbdiamond said...

Nice post. Good suggestions on how to handle personalizing the query letter without seeming wonky.

Matthew Rush said...

I'm not ashamed to admit I was naive enough at first to use a shotgun approach. It never ceases to amaze me how ignorant that was, for exactly the reasons you have laid out so well here, Angela.

Excellent advice. Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

I'd like it better if the people (agents) we (writers) are hiring would personalize their replies to us.

Dear Writer:

Thank you for your (whatever), but you're not the droid I'm looking for.

Best,
Ms. Agency (Intern pretending to be the agent)

The few and far between who gave me a clear impression that they actually read my query letter were great. And I personalized every single query I sent out. I'm quite happy to be shut of them until I'm looking for someone to handle foreign translation or film rights. Please send a query telling me how you're the right agent to work for me.

Thank the heavens for Amazon KDP and small presses!

Jeffrey Howe said...

I review the clients an agent has after I've filtered down by genre interest and before I start doing queries. If an agent is interested in a genre I'm doing, but their clients' work looks nothing like mine, they go into a holding folder. I'll come back at the end of the process to see if they've signed someone whose work is more like mine. If not, I won't query.

If there is a good client match, I refer to them as a reason why I'd like to work with the agent. If there are two, I refer to both. Haven't found one with three good matches yet.

Beyond that, I am wary of changing around the synopsis/jacket blurb portion of the query. For one thing, it took weeks of work, review, edits, rethinks, and other angst to get it where it is. Casually flipping the heart of the query around strikes me as dangerous. I agree changing how it's framed is important, though, not just because it's polite, but because I think it keeps you from shooting too many "air balls."

And any agent who runs a real, informative, honest agent blog is a saint.

Laura Pauling said...

I'm all for personalizing queries, to a certain extent. Like use their name and follow the guidelines, read their blog if they have one - though many don't. Be familiar with their clients and read the books if you can. And definitely no spam/form letters sent out in batches of thirty.

But I also think that many of the reasons we are attracted to an agent, the reasons we've built up in our minds, are not usually the reasons we should sign with them, if they're interested.

And many, many agents are really hard to find information on.

In the long run, I've even seen agents shoot down personalizing too much. Esp. when comparing yourself to a writer they already have - why would they want another writer like one they already have?

I think writers can get sucked into the agent search time warp and lose many hours. Because really it is about the book, the concept, the writing, and the execution. I've seen several agents say, they don't really care. Personalization is nice, but they really just care about your story and can they sell it.

The better reason to research agents is not for the personalization but so you know who you might possibly be signing with in the future. Would you really want them as an agent?

Creepy Query Girl said...

I always personalize my queries and in the first four months or so of querying- I really do pick and choose very carefully who I send my MS too. If I have no bites though? It gets to the point after 6 months where it gets harder and harder to be picky I'll send it to any agent who represents YA in general even if their site or online presence doesn't offer many more details. Sad but true.

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