Every author who wants to sell their work will be required to craft either a query or cover letter at some point in their career. This is frequently a requirement for submission to a magazine or contest.
Some authors despise that process so much that they go indie, thinking they won’t have to leap that hurdle, only to find there is no escaping it.
Writing queries and cover letters can be an inconvenience if you don’t know what is expected or what you should include.
I’ve attended several seminars on the subject and have written many of them. 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.
Boiled down, what they tell you is this:
- If you are mailing it or submitting a cover/query letter as a separate document, be formal:
- Your address at the top of the page, right-justified.
- The agent’s address, this time, left-justified.
In an email, you don’t do step one. However, you DO make sure your personal information is in your signature.
- Be personal and polite. Greet and acknowledge the agent or editor by name: Dear Ms. Stuart
The body: This is important: the body of your query letter should not exceed three to five paragraphs.
- The 1st paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Perhaps you met at a convention or seminar, or you’re a fan of one of the authors they represent. If you have a connection with the agent or editor you are approaching, mention it but be brief.
If you have no previous connection, NY Editors suggest you get down to business right away with your attempt to sell your short story or book. Their point of view on this is that you only have a few paragraphs to sell your work, so make those words count.
The 3 most important things to include in the 1st paragraph are:
- Title of the story (or novel)
- Word count
The 2nd and possibly 3rd paragraph must give a brief description of the work—showcase the plot and tell them why you think it is a good fit for this publication. Do as briefly as possible—do not write a 3,000-word synopsis.
ALL prospective publishers, whether for magazines or larger houses, want the hook and the essence of that short story/novel in these paragraphs. They want to get a feel for who you are as an author.
Do NOT give it the hard sell. The www.NYBookEditors.com website has this to say about query/cover 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.”
The final paragraph is where you post a short (as in BRIEF) bio of you. Mention your published works, and whatever awards you have acquired. If samples of your work are available on your website, say so.
When submitting queries to two widely different types of editors, anthologies or magazines, the submission guidelines will be different. However, the basic cover/query letter is the same.
Magazines: Most magazines are available online nowadays and they usually want electronic submissions. Many publishers use Submittable, a service offered by a submissions manager software that makes the process simpler for both authors and editors. If they want their submissions sent via email, the email you attach your submission to is your cover letter.
Large Publishing Houses: Most agents, editors, and publishers want a 1 page, 300-word description of your novel. This is the query letter, as described above. Your ms is not attached to this.
Every magazine, publisher, editor, or agent has a website detailing the way they want things submitted. In general, the larger publishers and agents want to receive letters and/or emails formatted to rules that are readily available on their website. You must read and follow them carefully.
I have mentioned the word “brief” numerous times in this post—and hopefully you see why. Choose your words carefully so that your brief paragraphs showcase you and your work in the best way possible.
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.
A sample email cover letter might read:
Dear Ms. Editor,
My name is Connie Jasperson. I was introduced to you at the 2019 PNWA conference during the book signing event. I hope my story, A Cold and Dangerous Place, might be a good fit for you.
A Cold and Dangerous Place is a quest tale about forgiveness and human frailty, with some elements of high fantasy. It is 3,500 words and has never before been published. I have attached the manuscript as a word document in Vonda McIntyre’s manuscript format, as specified in the submission rules.
I live and write in the Olympia area of Washington State, and am active in several writing groups. I am a founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group have independently published nine novels. My short stories have appeared in several anthologies. One of my short stories was included in the 2019 anthology Swords, Sorcery and Self-Rescuing Damsels, featuring stories by authors such as Jody Lynn Nye and Katie Cross.
Thank you for your consideration,
Connie J. Jasperson
123 Writer Rd. S.E.
Buymybook, WA 01234
The body of any cover letter will be laid out in the same fashion. Title, word count, and genre are important. Agents and editors want to know that you sent them the kind of work they specialize in.
Sometimes my queries get good results, and sometimes not. I’ve said this before, but query letters are like ice cream. Everyone likes certain flavors and have to be pushed to try out new.
You just have to cross your fingers and hope your manuscript and letter arrives on a day when the person in question is in the mood for a story exactly like what you are selling.