When I worked at a mid-size commercial publisher (from 1998-2010), one of my primary responsibilities was acquisitions. I evaluated queries and proposals coming in and also recruited writers I wanted to work with.
Whether the materials were hard copy or digital, one thing was the same: very few were addressed to me personally unless they came from a literary agent. And even fewer seemed to demonstrate a good understanding of what types of books my company published.
Whenever something came in that demonstrated the writer or agent understood what we published—and could explain why the proposed book was a good fit—I immediately paid close attention and put more thought and care into my response. If it was a rejection, I tried to explain the honest details of why and, furthermore, if I could see a way to successfully reposition the book for our needs.
This is why I often counsel writers to personalize their query letters, whether they are approaching an agent or an editor. It shows you’ve done your homework and you’re selecting the recipient with some care. It’s much better salesmanship to have some level of customization that demonstrates appreciation of the recipient’s needs and wants.
However, some agents (and editors) have spoken out against customization or personalization, going so far as to say such methods backfire. When I speak or work with writers, there is understandably some confusion as to how to best proceed. Personalize or no?
The answer can be complicated and is based on the following factors.
1. If the agent or editor has said publicly they don’t like personalized queries, don’t do it.
This is simple: you’ll always be a better sales person when you’re aligning your pitch with the stated desires or submission guidelines of the recipient.
2. If your personalization is weak, don’t bother.
Some people customize their queries by saying something like, “I see from Writer’s Market that you’re looking for thrillers.”
Well, so what? That’s not particularly convincing or interesting information to the agent. It doesn’t say anything about you or your work that they wouldn’t pick up from the rest of the query.
Some writers will try to go a step further, look at the agent’s submission guidelines, website, or blog, and then insert the agent’s own language into their query as a way to personalize the letter. Again, you’re telling the agent something they already know. At best, it’s probably neutral information; at worst, it could be annoying.
However, there can be ways to do this that are charming or effective. For instance:
“I follow your blog and know you are currently looking for paranormal romances—without vampires or werewolves—and want to offer my novel for your consideration.”
There’s a bit of a wink and a nod here, and it’s unlikely to be annoying to an agent who likely appreciates someone is paying close attention.
3. Avoid being too personal or chummy.
Sometimes it’s great to open with a paragraph that acknowledges that you met the agent, conversed on social media, or had some other kind of interaction. When you mention this sort of thing, you mainly want to do it to spark their memory: “Oh, right, I remember this person from the San Francisco pitch event.”
But it’s possible to go too far and evoke a coziness that isn’t really appropriate. For example:
“We chatted briefly at the San Francisco Writers Conference reception, where I bought you a glass of merlot. I hope your two schnauzers didn’t miss you too much—I can’t bear to be away too long from mine. It must be hard to travel so much for your work.”
“We chatted briefly at the San Francisco Writers Conference reception and later I pitched you [such-and-such work]. I’m following up with the requested materials.”
There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules as to what’s “too much,” but don’t try to affect an intimacy that doesn’t exist. Especially if you’ve never met the person in question, tread carefully—it’s easy to come off as creepy if you’ve been stalking someone online and found details they wouldn’t want or expect you to reference in a query. (“I see seven years ago that you went on a long vacation in Italy with your family. My novel is set in Italy…”)
4. Do mention specific books represented or published, but don’t overly flatter.
It’s hard to find an agent or editor who doesn’t like it when you demonstrate knowledge of their clients or list. It’s ideal if you can reference such work in relation to your own, or express enthusiasm for it in some way that might connect it to the work you’re pitching. But it’s not mandatory.
However, avoid buttering up or flattering the agent to a degree that makes you look silly or subservient. Talk about their list or their clients in a way that shows you have knowledge of the literary landscape or that appreciates their place in it. This works best if you can be specific, rather than saying something that could be lifted and placed into any query letter for any agent/editor. (“You’re the greatest and have the best clients!”)
In fact, that last bit is a good rule of thumb for any personalization: The more you could potentially lift that language and insert it in any query, regardless of who’s receiving it, the less meaningful it is.
The bare minimum
At the very least, address the agent by name. And spell the name correctly! Avoid first name only, since it may come off as too casual.
For more help on queries
- How to Write a Query Letter: Novels
- How to Write a Query Letter: Nonfiction and Memoir
- I also offer a master class on query letters, with a critique component.
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.