How to write a cover letter to a publisher

Written by christina hamlett
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Whether you've just typed "The End" on your first novel or are dabbling with an outline for a nonfiction title you've always wanted to write, sooner or later you'll need to pique a publisher's interest in reading it. When you stop to consider that publishing houses receive tens of thousands of unsolicited manuscript inquiries per year, it's clear to see that only those letters that really hook their interest from the very first sentence are destined to become other than shredded matter. Here are some tips on how to make your cover letter stand out from the competition.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Imagination
  • Computer
  • Internet access
  • A current edition of "Writer's Market"
  • A telephone
  • Professional stationery and envelopes
  • Postage

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  1. 1

    Survey appropriate markets for your manuscript or proposal. One of the best ways to do this is to purchase a current copy of "Writer's Market", an annual resource directory published by Writer's Digest Books. This comprehensive directory lists the market needs, submission requirements and contact information for fiction and nonfiction as well as a plethora of listings for trade magazines, agents, and writing competitions.

  2. 2

    Make a list of those publishing houses that would be the most receptive to your particular project. You wouldn't, for instance, send a cover letter about your sizzling new romance novel to a publisher that is only interested in nonfiction titles related to agriculture, nor would you send your children's picture book to a house that clearly states "We do not handle children's picture books". Many a new author, of course, believes that rules are meant to be broken and will waste valuable time, energy and postage in a scattergun approach to inappropriate markets. The thinking here seems to be that their work is so exceptional that it will cause an editor to say, "Oh wow! Let's change our entire submission policy to accommodate the genius of this inquiry." Nope, doesn't work that way. Likewise, new writers are often dismissive of pesky rules that say such things as "We only read agented submissions", "We do not accept any e-mail inquiries", or "Do not submit anything between the months of May and September". Trust me. They really mean everything they say.

  3. 3

    Identify the appropriate editor or department to which inquiry letters should be sent. These will be listed in "Writer's Market". At large publishing houses, for instance, there will be multiple editors listed and the topic areas that they respectively handle. Before you write your letter, however, it's advisable to call first and confirm that the information is still accurate. What many writers don't realise is that there is generally a high turnover amongst editorial staff, especially at major houses. By confirming that the correct person is still there, this demonstrates that you have done your homework. Whether your inquiry is via e-mail or formal correspondence (and many editors still prefer the latter), the target reader should not be addressed with familiarity or chumminess. If and when "Bob" invites you to call him by his first name, he should be addressed in correspondence as "Mr."

  4. 4

    Hook the editor with a question, a provocative statement, a statistic, or even a short excerpt from the book. This will comprise the first paragraph of your cover letter. Example #1: Janet's boss, Mr. Peevish, warned her that she'd be fired if she was late to work one more time. After missing her train on that fateful Tuesday morning, a part of her wondered whether she should even go into the building at all and endure his usual wrath. Twenty minutes later, she was running for her life amid a panic-stricken crowd. She glanced back only once at the terrifying devastation of the inferno and knew that there was no way Mr. Peevish could have escaped before the tower fell. Example #2: "It's just a little push down the stairs," my mother said, "and Grandpa Ellis won't hurt you anymore." It seemed like such a simple idea at the time. Little did I know it was a convenient way for her to get rid of both of us.

    Immediately following your hook, identify the title of your book and its genre.

  5. 5

    Summarise the plot of your book in the second paragraph. Brevity is paramount since the total length of your cover letter should not exceed one page. The synopsis should identify your key characters, the core conflict, the setting, the time frame, and the resoution. A lot of writers are reluctant to give away their endings because they assume that a prospective editor will then have no need to read the entire thing if they know how it comes out. It's actually the opposite that is true. If it's a well told story, an editor will want to read it and see how the author handles all of the elements therein including the development of character, the handling of dialogue, the pacing, the structure and the originality of the premise. If your book project is nonfiction (for instance, a how-to or self-help title), the second paragraph should briefly describe what the target reader will learn how to accomplish. This can be described in narrative format or as a short list of bullet points.

  6. 6

    Explain your personal or professional qualifications to write this particular book in the third paragraph. This paragraph should also include who you believe the target audience to be for this title, how it compares to similar titles the publishing house has already released, and how you plan to help market the book. This last element is something that more and more publishing houses are looking at since they want authors to take an active role in the book's promotion. If, for example, you have written a how-to text and just happen to teach workshops across the country on this very subject, there is a defintiive tie-in. Likewise, if you are a zealous blogger, write a weekly/monthly newspaper or magazine column, or have visibility in a particular industry, an editor is going to look more favourably on you than if you simply expect the publisher to do all of the legwork in promoting your new release.

  7. 7

    Conclude with a very short fourth paragraph that identifies the estimated word count of the book and whether the book is completed. For new fiction authors, publishers will have the expectation that the book is already finished. In nonfiction, however, a credible expert can pitch a concept along with an estimated date of completion without having actually finished it. The receptivity to the latter, of course, has a lot to do with the uniqueness of the proposal and whether the writer's reputation is well known. Beneath your closing paragraph, be sure to include your full contact information. This means address, phone number and e-mail. If you have a website, it's permissible to include that as well.

Tips and warnings

  • For snail mail submissions, always use professional grade stationery and matching envelopes. Do not send them letters in weird colours or festively decorated with ducks, bunnies or photos of your grandchildren.
  • Always include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.
  • Never submit a full manuscript with your cover letter unless you have specifically been requested to do so. Likewise, if the market guidelines indicate that you should submit three sample chapters with your cover letter so that you writing ability can be assessed, do not send anything less or anything more. Simply send what they asked for.
  • For snail mail submissions, wait at least six weeks for a response before following up. Do not call and incessantly pester them.
  • Do not use weird or tiny fonts or colour ink in your snail mail submissions. Stick with black ink and Courier or Times New Roman 12 pt. font which is easiest on the eyes.
  • Do not identify your book as "The next 'Gone With the Wind'", divulge any sob stories about how you wrote this book as catharis after your cheating husband left you for his slutty secretary, include anecdotes about your children or pets, boast that "this book will help turn your company around after all the loser titles you've been publishing lately", or share that you have already purchased the stylish outfit you are going to wear on "Oprah" when this book becomes a gazillion dollar best seller. Such inclusions do no score you any points and, in fact, become fodder for silly quips told at agency cocktail parties.

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