One way is if an author takes it too literally. "A riveting and haunting read from a brilliant debut author" is fine for a cover but sounds strange when coming from the author directly.
Another misstep is themes. Some cover copy can be a little florid and it sounds even more so when imitated in a query. "A tale with themes of love, hate, tragedy, and recovery" is not uncommon in queries, but it is unnecessary because it doesn't tell me anything concrete about the book. (And really, those aren't so much themes as abstract nouns.)
So if you’re writing a query and thinking about including your book’s themes, here are a few ways I suggest doing it.
1. Don’t.Yes, I know, ha ha. But seriously, it can be tricky to include themes in a query successfully. Part of this is that while self-analyzing one’s work is natural and even necessary, much like going pants-less, it’s generally better done in private with people who know you rather than in front of strangers.
The other part is that themes aren't always clear in the beginning of a book, which is what a query should be about, so dropping them on a reader out of context can come off awkwardly.
So if your book’s themes don’t naturally work their way into a query, there is no need to force it. Pitch the plot and characters; the themes will come across without being pointed out.
2. Be Specific.“It’s a book about parenthood.” This sentence might be true of a book, but that doesn’t make it enticing. This is because no experience is universal. Parenthood, growing up, everything from our births to our deaths is unique to each person. The specifics are what make a story; any perceived universality is a reader recognizing themselves in an aspect of the work.
Try instead, “It’s about Jenna’s struggles to raise her child, an instant celebrity as the first human born in space.” That tells us the book is about parenthood without trying to be universal. It also leads into my next point.
3. Tie It In.Because queries are so short, every sentence should do double duty when it comes to world-building, character, and plot. This is also true if you want to include theme. The above example blends conflict, theme, and a bit of world-building. An example tied to plot would be “Former mercenary Tera infiltrates the systems of her old company, seeking to tear it down from within and right her own wrongs.”
The more you can tie your theme to your characters, plot, or world, generally the better it will come across.
Themes can be a lovely thing in a query when done right, setting on a lightbulb in the reader’s mind. But it’s always fine to leave that lightbulb moment for later in the manuscript so the reader to discover things for themselves.
Have you thought about including themes in your query? Have you noticed good cover copy with themes included? Comment and share!