The Uselessness of Querying Editors

First, some important definitions.

In publishing lingo, a query is an email (or letter or phone call) to an editor that describes a manuscript you’ve completed and asks if they are interested in looking at it. This is distinct from—though in practice often confused with—the following:

A cover letter (sometimes called a pitch letter). This is an email or letter that accompanies and introduces an unsolicited manuscript. A good cover letter is both useful and necessary.

An assignment pitch. This is an email or letter that describes a nonfiction piece you would like to write for the editor and asks if they will assign (i.e., commission) you to write it. Many nonfiction pieces are sold this way, in advance of their creation and on the basis of their central concepts. Assignment pitches are useful, and often essential, for many writers.

But queries to editors are normally useless, if not highly counterproductive. Here’s why:

In general, editors are miserably overworked, often to the point of physical or mental illness. Most editors deal with this by blowing off anything that isn’t urgent or high priority. And where do unsolicited queries rank on editors’ priority lists? Usually at or near the bottom. The result: in practice, about 60% of queries to editors get ignored.

Your much wiser alternative is to not ask permission. Simply send your full manuscript with a cover letter.

By “full manuscript,” I mean the entire project. If it’s a 700-page book, send all 700 pages. Don’t build interim steps into the process—e.g., don’t initially send only the first 50 or 100 pages, to see if the editor is interested. This only gives the editor an extra opportunity to say no—and no opportunity to read the project from beginning to end without interruption.

But wait. What about all those large book publishers and prestigious magazines that clearly state, on websites and in reference books, “No unsolicited manuscripts” or “Query first”?

About two-thirds of the time, this is a lie-—though not a malicious one. The truth is that most editors eventually read most of the unsolicited manuscripts they receive—although they may be slow about it.

By saying “Query first” or “No unsolicited manuscripts,” publishers are usually just trying to keep down the number of manuscripts they receive. If they publicly say, “Come one, come all,” within a month they’ll be buried under unmanageable mountains of manuscripts.

Here’s another twist: Even when a publisher does have a firm official policy not to read unsolicited work, all editors nevertheless have the right to read whatever manuscripts they please. So if you identify the right editor and send an unsolicited but intriguing project, there’s a good chance it will be read, no matter what the official policy declares.

Less than 10% of the time, when publishers say, “Query first,” they genuinely mean it. In these relatively rare cases, how will editors respond to your unsolicited material? You may hear nothing at all, or you may receive a note explaining that your manuscript wasn’t read and that you absolutely must send a query. In these cases (and these cases only), you can then query the editor—or, if you prefer, you can simply shrug your shoulders and forget about them.

Now let’s turn from editors to literary agents—a turn of 180 degrees. With literary agents, the best way to begin is with a query, sent simultaneously by email and snail mail (with a note at the end explaining that you are sending your query through both methods). Once an agent asks to see your book, proposal, or script, only then should you send the full project. (Again, don’t build in interim steps. If the agent responds to your query by asking for the first three chapters or 50 pages by email, send a brief cover email, a file containing those early pages, and a second file containing the rest of the book, so they can keep reading if the project is interesting.)

If you do send agents an unsolicited manuscript with a cover letter rather than a query, 50% to 60% of the time your work and your pitch will be ignored and recycled.

The bottom line: Queries to agents are useful and important, but queries to editors are generally pointless.

Yes, this is a blatant contradiction—but it’s how things have evolved in the industry. For whatever reason, agents are much better at responding to queries—and much worse at responding to unsolicited manuscripts—than editors.

No one has yet offered a convincing explanation for why this is so-—but if you’ve got one, I’d be happy to hear it.