Taking the leap to querying literary agents or publishing house acquisition editors is a milestone in any author’s life. But before hitting the send button, eliminate these common mistakes that could make an agent or editor—who get tons of stuff landing on their desks every day—toss the book instead of scooping it up over other submissions. 

1. Misfocused/lack of focus

Every book has a theme; each chapter must adhere to and support that theme, even if the chapter addresses a counter argument. Manuscripts that digress into associated but irrelevant content easily lose their focus.  

Deciding which BISAC category is a book’s primary one helps an author keep their message/theme strong and on target.  

But how does a writer decide which BISAC category their book fits into? The Book Industry Study Group lists every BISAC category along with its subcategories. Those groupings determine where sellers will position the book for greatest success. Most books fit into multiple categories: a self-help title that fits into a psychological category could also appeal to readers of health-and-fitness, body-mind-spirit, or even social science.

Though your book may have broad appeal, it has to have a clear and consistent focus. If it talks about improving your diet (a hugely sellable evergreen topic), digressing into the history of diets will, in many cases, dilute both the focus and impact. 

2. Missing attributions/plagiarism

It’s one thing to use quotes to enhance your points; it’s quite another to use someone else’s words but claim them as your own. 

Citing an expert can enrich your own message. But those experts must always be credited! Not only does plagiarism rob the original author’s authority and hard work, it’s a dreadful way for writers to present themselves as experts. A lot of money is made with plagiarism lawsuits.

3. Fictionalization of nonfiction content 

In nonfiction—including and especially in memoirs—when the author didn’t actually witness an event or go through an experience, it’s a major no-no to pretend they did. Making assumptions about another person’s thoughts and feelings, or to relaying actions the author couldn’t have done or seen because they weren’t there, can make an agent or editor distrust the manuscript’s other info. Nonfiction material must be represented either by the author’s lived experiences or their research. 

4. Excessive block quotes

Nonfiction writers are claiming to have expertise in their subject. But if an author uses long quotes from other writers to make a point, that tells literary agents or acquisition editors the author isn’t a credible expert.

A short quote to emphasize a point can be a powerful tool. But no matter how perfectly someone else said something, every author should be able to restate it in their own words, thereby demonstrating not only their own expertise but their voice.

Even an author who creates a book from their blog posts can fall into this mistake. Especially with highly successful blog posts, state the point in a fresh way—rather than simply regurgitating it—so it matches their book’s tone and has the smooth “Slinky-flow” dynamic Claudia Suzanne teaches.

5. Missing ultimate takeaway  

Having a takeaway is essential in today’s book industry. That takeaway is what the reader learns or understands; it comes from the book’s central thesis, each chapter’s thesis as it relates to the central one, and the final message. 

Despite lyrical prose or fascinating content, if the reader doesn’t have a clear understanding about the contents, there’s no takeaway. Takeaway issues frequently happen alongside poorly focused or misfocused material.

6. No meat – content too thin 

A short manuscript is usually either an incomplete one or doesn’t have enough info for a full-scale book. An agent or editor can spot this a mile away and may not even bother to read past page number one. 

Some authors are so fulfilled by just having their main thoughts on a page that they forget to expound and expand. Some just don’t want to. Either way, a book with thin content is better turned into an eBook, a long article, or a series of articles/blog posts that could promote the author as a thought leader. 

Having a completed manuscript is fulfilling and thrilling. But part of that thrill is in thinking it’s ready to match the book industry’s vast competition. Give your manuscript its best shot at acceptance and a hefty advance by eliminating these six common mistakes.

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