When I wrote my article on Writing a Synopsis, I mentioned that it was one of the most challenging tasks for authors. The cover letter (otherwise known as a Query Letter), by comparison, should actually be pretty simple.
The main aim of your cover letter is to give the agent/publisher more detail about your manuscript and you, the author. Things like:
- manuscript title;
- word count;
- manuscript blurb;
- market placement;
- target audience;
- author background;
- ‘call to action’; and
- contact information (don’t forget this one!!!).
Most of these seem pretty obvious, however when you are caught up writing this letter, it can be easy to forget to include important details (I can’t tell you how many authors fail to include the genre and word count).
As well as offering information, it is also acting as a ‘call to action’. It is an invitation for the agent/publisher to read your manuscript, with the view to acquiring it. It is part business letter (informational), part sales copy.
The agent or publisher should be able to read your cover letter (along with the synopsis) and get a sense – ‘at a glance’ – of whether your manuscript is worth their time.
NOTE: It is important to remember that the below advice is based on general recommendations, you should always read and adhere to the guidelines that each publishing house and literary agent sets out.
So, what is a cover letter and why is it important?
Part informational and part sales pitch, the cover letter should provide necessary details to the agent/publisher as well as entice (sell) the reader to read more of your work (ie the synopsis or the full manuscript). This document should provide the agent/publisher all the details they need to decide whether it is a good fit for their audience, and therefore whether to consider acquiring it.
When you submit your manuscript to an agent, editor or publisher the first thing they will read is your cover letter and synopsis – which is why you want to get it right, it’s the first step to getting published!
Writing your cover letter
You will be happy to hear that cover letters aren’t actually too complicated to write. The cover letter should be no longer than two A4 pages (preferably one) and made up of a few brief paragraphs, see below for the breakdown of what should be in the cover letter (and can appear in any logical order you choose).
The letter itself, is just that: a letter. And it needs to be formatted accordingly with your contact details, a proper address to the editor/publisher/agent (using their name and title or the name of their organisation at the very least!) a signature, and body content. I would also consider using 1.5 spacing for clarity.
Even if you are submitting via email, your cover letter should follow the standard formatting for a letter. In fact, I would usually include the cover letter and the synopsis as an attachment to your email – always refer to the website guidelines for each agent/publisher to guide you on this.
So what do you need to include?
- Initial paragraph is the ‘fact dump’ where you want to provide the manuscript’s title, word count, genre… Remember, the person you are addressing knows nothing about your manuscript so you need to give them a snapshot of it.
- Follow this up with a brief blurb (teaser) of your work, this should read like the back cover copy you read on books. It should outline the central characters, the conflicts, the themes…
- Then comes the market pitch where you need to outline the target audience, competing titles, similar authors…explain why the manuscript would be of interest to the publisher/agents readers.
- And now you, the author, should figure in the form of an author bio. Keep this brief and succinct, your manuscript should do the real talking. Only include relevant information about you, like:
– What prompted you to write this particular novel?
– What relevant studies have you completed?
– If you have been published, tell us what and where. (Don’t include self-publishing credits unless you had unbelievable sales or were reviewed by a reputable industry reviewer.)
– If there are things about your personal or professional life that are relevant to the manuscript, let us know – if you’re a cattle farmer and you have written a rural romance set on a cattle farm, that’s relevant to mention.
– Only include writing awards if they are from well-known and respected organisations.
- Finish with a ‘call to action’. Invite the editor to contact you if they have questions, let them know the manuscript is ready to be sent on their request, ask for them to consider you as a future client. Whatever you are wanting from them, spell it out here.
- And don’t forget to sign off with a ‘thank you for your consideration’ and your name.
Sample Cover Letter
Please find attached a synopsis and three chapters of my 80,000-word historical fiction, ‘The Outback Way’.
‘The Outback Way’ is the story of Josie, an eccentric child, growing up on a remote cattle farm in Outback Queensland at the turn of the century, from her humble beginnings to her rise to become one of the most well-respected medical professionals in the Commonwealth.
The target audience for this novel is women 30 years and over who enjoy the work of authors such as Kate Grenville and Thomas Kenneally [or other relevant writers or books].
I am a Brisbane-based writer of historical fiction [or whichever genre you write in]. My previous publishing credits include short stories in Island Magazine, The Lifted Brow and Overland Journal – a full list of my publications is attached. I also spent my formative years on a property in central Queensland during the 1950s.
I undertook the writing of this book after stumbling across a newspaper article on Josie in the Sydney Morning Herald. I chose to research her journey and write a fictionalised account of her life. I began writing this manuscript while enrolled in my post-graduate degree in writing, which I completed with distinction in 2010.
Many thanks for considering my work for publication, if you would like a full copy of my manuscript please notify me and I will happily send a copy through to you. I look forward to hearing from you in this regard.
A few more tips…
Here are a couple more things that I find helpful when reading a cover letter. I read quite a few and I want the information to be quick and easy to consume, and these are the things that help me:
- I rather like headings; ‘story summary’, ‘selling points’, ‘author bio’, ‘market position’, ‘competition overview’ just to name a few. This helps me read the information that is most important to me first, and stops me skipping other information while I look for the ‘good bits’.
- I also like the use of bold and underlined It helps me grab for the important bits quickly. I am usually looking for genre and word count information in the first instance, and this really helps me to grab this information quickly.
Things that annoy me (just a little)…
- Typos and misspellings, wrong word usage, incorrect punctuation – I know this all seems petty, but these are things that writers really should get right in their cover letter. It shows that they care about the words that they are putting on the page, and that they’re not lazy. No one likes a lazy author.
- Letters that use it as a platform for a diatribe of rubbish that is irrelevant to the manuscript, but seeks to prove their intelligence. PLEASE let your manuscript speak for itself, keep the cover letter simple. All I want to know is what your MS is about, whether it fits my list and whether you have any relevant experience. Here is an example of the above pet peeve:
I was reading information written by ‘experts’ who said ancient man was so stupid that he wouldn’t come out of the rain. When I read Thomas Hobbe’s, famous quote that life for ancient man was ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. Well I bristled…blah blah blah. What has all this to do with my novel? Well, nothing actually, but it is how I commenced writing…
- On this note, please don’t tell me what your novel was intended to be when you started writing it!!!! Tell me about what it is now. Here is another example of a letter I received:
It was originally meant to be a thriller for ‘a male on a plane trip’ reader, but has been softened and lengthened with the addition of two strong female characters, who made it as much about people as action situations.
And a few general items…
- Research relevant publishers for your work. The ‘bible’ for writers of articles and books is Writer’s Marketplace, which lists publishers’ contact information and the type of manuscripts they seek. Read the listings carefully and selectively make your choices instead of mass mailing your manuscript to every publisher under a certain category. Also, make sure you check the publisher or agent’s website to make sure what they are and are not currently accepting..
- Know your genre and the market competition.
- Expect to wait between six to eight weeks (or longer) for a response to your query – assuming you get one at all!
I hope the above information has helped you to formulate a draft of your own cover letter, or edit an existing one. If you are still having troubles with your cover letter and synopsis there are plenty of services (like The Manuscript Agency) who offer this service, professionals who will sit down and help you write your cover letter. Please contact me via email – firstname.lastname@example.org – if you would like more information on the fees and processes related to this service.