Just as in any other profession, authors, whether indie or traditionally published, must sometimes craft either a cover letter or a query letter. In business, that cover letter may go with our resume, but for authors, we must write one each time we submit work to a contest, anthology, or literary publication.
For many, avoiding having to do that is one of the reasons they went indie in the first place. However, if you write short stories and submit them, you must also write cover letters, which are a form of the query letter.
But what goes into a cover letter?
For authors, cover letters are our resume, which makes writing them quite tricky. They are one page documents, usually in the body of an email. Sometimes, if the publication uses Submittable, you can copy and paste your cover letter into a template. They may ask for it to be page one of your submission, or they may want it uploaded on a separate word document.
A cover letter:
- Introduces you to the editor of the contest, anthology, or literary publication.
- Mentions how you came across their publication.
- Explains why you think your story is a good fit for their needs (include title, genre, and word count).
- Gives a short bio of you and a quick rundown of your publishing history.
The cover letter should be kept brief.
Dear Ms. French,
My name is Author J. Mayhem. I heard about your magazine via a post in a Literary Writers group and saw you were still accepting submissions. I picked up and read the last issue and judging from the kind of work I saw published there, I think my story, Eternity’s Gate, might be a good fit for you.
I live and write in the Olympia area of Washington State, and am active in several writing groups. I have independently published nine novels. My short stories have appeared in several anthologies and other publications, listed in my bio. Eternity’s Gate, has never before been published, but was selected out of over a thousand entries as the winner of the 2018 North Pacific Writers’ Conference ‘Stars of Excellence’ short story contest award.
I have attached the manuscript as a word document in William Shunn’s manuscript format as specified in the submission rules, and also as specified, I have attached my full bio as a word document.
Thank you for your consideration,
Author J. Mayhem
The query letter is similar but different and more detailed. Most editors and publishers want a one page, 300-word description of your novel. They want the hook and the essence of that novel, and they want to get a feel for who you are. Both aspects of this 1-page extravaganza must intrigue them.
Every editor or agent has a website detailing the way they want queries submitted. In general, they want letters/emails that follow a certain pattern, and that basic format is readily available via the internet.
The www.NYBookEditors.com website has this to say about query letters: “You must walk a very fine line between selling your manuscript without coming across like the parent who knows his kid is the best player on the bench.”
That, my friends, is more complicated than it sounds. I’ve attended several seminars on the subject and written many of them. I’ve had good results and also bad results with mine. The best place I have found with a simple description of what your query letter should look like is at the NY Book Editors website.
In essence, what they tell you is this:
- If the letter is a hard copy, format your letter this way:
- Your address at the top of the page, right justified.
- The agent’s address, this time left justified.
- If the letter is an email or a hard copy, continue from here:
- Use a personalized greeting where you acknowledge the agent or editor by name.
- Keep the body of your query letter to three to five paragraphs.
The 1st paragraph is where you introduce yourself. If you have a connection with the agent or editor you are approaching (perhaps you met at a convention or seminar, or you are a fan of one the authors they represent) mention that. Briefly.
Dear Ms. Jones,
I met you at the 2017 PNWA convention during the author meet-and-greet party. I attended the pitch fest, and after seeing the sort of work you were interested in, I think my novel might be a good fit for your list.
If you have no previous connection, NY Editors suggest you get down to business right away with your attempt to sell your book. Their point of view on this is that you only have a few paragraphs in which to make that sale, so every word must count.
I am currently seeking representation for my 70,000 word, contemporary fiction novel, Baron’s Hollow.
The three most important things to include in that paragraph are:
- Word count
The next paragraph must give a brief description of the work—highlight the plot to show why you think it is a good fit for this agent/editor. Do this in one paragraph, and don’t give it the hard sell.
Five people, two women and three men, each with a secret, rent a house on a secluded Washington coast beach for the summer. The high-profile, wealthy group is comprised of three authors, a musician, and an artist. My protagonist, Isobel, has a deadline for her work, as do the others, so the vacation is intended as a working retreat. Isobel’s marriage is crumbling, and she is worried about her stepsister’s opioid addiction. The revelation of her stepsister’s unplanned pregnancy and her refusal to name the father pushes my protagonist to the breaking point and another character to attempted murder. With the notorious Washington weather keeping them indoors, tensions run high. Privilege and power may not be enough to save their careers when a suicide attempt goes awry.
This is most important: don’t forget to double-check your letter for typos and spelling errors. We all make them, and we don’t want them to be our legacy.
Any time you send out a query letter or submit a story with a cover letter, you just have to cross your fingers and trust you have done your best. All we can do is hope our story hits their desk on a day when the person in question is in the mood for a story exactly like what we’re selling.
Credits and Attributions:
How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter, © 2015 NY Book Editors, https://nybookeditors.com/2015/12/how-to-write-a-darn-good-query-letter/ (accessed August 16, 2016)
Underwood Standard Typewriter, PD|75 yrs image first published in the 1st (1876–1899), 2nd (1904–1926) or 3rd (1923–1937) edition of Nordisk familjebok.
IBM Selectric, By Oliver Kurmis [CC BY 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons