Should I Personalize My Query?

I’m frequently surprised by the things other industry professionals say. That could mean I’m still (and always) learning. Or it could be an indication that such people are much smarter than I am. Nah, that can’t be it.

I was recently a tad nonplussed to see a fellow literary agent state that the personalization of a query or cover letter or email was a waste of a writer’s time.

I must respectfully disagree.

Beyond the simple courtesy of a correct salutation (“Dear Bob” is always better than “Dear Agent” or “Dear Someone-Else’s-Name”), taking an extra minute or more to make a personal reference of some kind increases the chances of a good first impression. And, as I often say, we have only one chance to make a good first impression.  

So, when someone says something like, “You may not remember but we met at the Lake Chaubunagungamaug Writers Conference last year,” it has a positive effect. It may not clinch a sale, but it prompts me to be a little more attentive and responsive than I might otherwise be—maybe even helpful. Or, when someone writes, “I’m a regular reader of your blog posts” or “I’ve already profited from the excellent advice in your recent blog post ‘Sending Donuts to Agents,’” it warms the cockles of my heart. And, when those cockles are warmed, that warmth sometimes flows out in my responses to submissions.

I do this myself as an agent. Before I submit a client’s new proposal to editors, I routinely ask that client to apprise me if they know or have any past connection with any of those editors. If they do, I’ll mention that information in the submission process. It never hurts and often helps—and I look for every opportunity to make the review and acquisition process easier and more pleasant.

All of this reflects one of my personal and professional convictions, which I repeat often: Christian publishing, like all of life, is about interpersonal relationships: making them, maintaining them, protecting them, repairing them, and improving them.

I realize, of course, that personalization isn’t always possible. “Life comes at you fast,” as the ad campaign says, and a personalized pitch to multiple agents or editors takes time and effort. But when it’s possible to make a personal connection of some kind, it can indicate a likable personality and an attention to detail, both of which are recommendations—if not for the current project, then for a working relationship in the future. And such a recommendation is rare enough and valuable enough to tip the scales, ever so slightly, perhaps, in the writer’s favor.

10 Responses to Should I Personalize My Query?

  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser September 1, 2021 at 3:56 am #

    Personal? Sure, we do personal. (With tongue so firmly in cheek that I can pass for one of the Chipmunks.)

    Hi, there, Bob, here is my query,
    and I thank you for the time you’ll give;
    if you feel a tad bit leery,
    remember, we know where you live.
    The donuts, I trust, did arrive,
    delivered by my well-toned friend?
    It’s just so nice to be alive;
    don’t let poor choices bring an end
    to a career that’s as each agent wishes,
    with so many grace-note touches.
    How sad to swim now with the fishes
    wearing unstylish concrete galoshes!
    So represent me, you can’t really lose;
    it’s an offer you just can’t refuse.

  2. Roberta Sarver September 1, 2021 at 5:38 am #

    Bob, you have the heart of a teacher. Four years ago at the Taylor U. Writers Conference, I came as a newbie and submitted material that wasn’t quite what it was supposed to look like. Your kind response and suggestions set me on a quest to learn lots more about the writing and publishing industry.

    If you had responded differently, if you had dismissed me with, “Try something else, kid,” things would have turned out differently. So, thanks for being kind and thoughtful to those still pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.

    • DAMON J GRAY September 1, 2021 at 5:52 am #

      There are such agents out there, Roberta, but I’ve found that they are few in number. Bob is a rare breed, one worthy of our applause. He had a similar reaction to the first proposal I ever sent him. Another agent responded with a three-page typed response saying, “I’m declining to represent this proposal, and here is why.” Such responses are exceedingly uncommon but so helpful to writers who are struggling and stumbling along the publishing pathway.

  3. DAMON J GRAY September 1, 2021 at 5:48 am #

    Bob, first off, I’m thrilled to see you use the word “nonplussed,” a hot-running entry in my list of English fun words. It’s running neck-and-neck with “curmudgeon,” something I am definitely NOT accusing you of being.

    The assertion that one should prospect agents anonymously is asinine. Life is about relationships, networking, interaction. I am with my local church family specifically because I visited one week did not show my face again until three weeks later. Six people greeted me by name, and three of those six asked, “And where is Alean?” (my wife). I was shocked by that.

    And your example of personalizing presentations to editors rings true, and it was not until I read it that Tamela’s question to me made sense, “Are there any editors you would like me to send this to?” I had no idea why she asked me that, but now it makes perfect sense.

    At any rate, thank you for sharing this, As always, it was a fun and informative read.

  4. Jeannie Delahunt September 1, 2021 at 6:08 am #

    As I was studying for my Masters Degree in Public Administration, one of the research papers I wrote dealt with bonding between whatever agency and the consumer. Under that umbrella emerged the component of trust.

    We build trust with personal connections and honorable behaviors to promote trustworthiness, which in turn, promotes the growth of long-term relationships between parties. Personal touches, no matter how brief or seemingly insignificant carry a good deal of weight. Research supports this.

    It would seem to me advantageous to all to build connections at every opportunity, which ultimately benefits everyone.

  5. Frank September 1, 2021 at 6:59 am #

    Thanks for your thoughtfulness. I would send donuts but they would be stale by the time they arrived. The holes would make an lasting impression but not a good one.

  6. Elliott Slaughter September 1, 2021 at 1:34 pm #

    Here’s an example of what another agent says (note: this is only the agent’s opinion, I don’t think they’re trying to make a general statement here):

    > It is better to have no personalization than vague personalization (i.e. I’m querying you because you represent fantasy). It is only a smidgen better to have good, specific personalization than to have none. Take from that what you will.

    From the twitter thread at https://twitter.com/LZats/status/1418561907515142144

    To me the concern seems legitimate: if you’re going to do personalization (beyond the salutation, which is obviously a must), then you’d better do a good job at it.

  7. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D September 1, 2021 at 3:12 pm #

    Bob, I really enjoy your blog postings and hope that gives us some kind of connection… I remember when my younger son, David, was applying for jobs. He got a rejection letter from one company that began “Dear Charles,” Not exactly the connection they were hoping for, I would say.

  8. OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU September 2, 2021 at 5:03 am #

    Hi Steve, God bless you for this. It has been very helpful and good to know your thoughts on this issue. Even the bible says that when we are praying ,we should especially remember the family of believers [Christians, of course].
    I like that we are already acquainted by my participation on your blog posts! That is a step in already!! I participate from the UK and I have never met you or the team. Keep up the good work folks!
    Blessings.

  9. Pam Halter September 3, 2021 at 4:15 am #

    Clearly, you work with that donut-lovin’ agent, Steve Laube. 😉

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