January 28, 2021
The vast majority of submissions you will make during your publishing career will include a letter. If the letter travels on its own, it is a query letter and must carry a heavier load than the briefer demands of a cover letter, which travels with either a manuscript or a proposal package.
Both types of letter can be daunting for newer writers (and, honestly, some experienced writers never truly become comfortable with query and cover letters.) Sometimes it can feel as if your whole publishing life depends on getting these tricky letters right, and that isn't quite true. Still cover and query letters are an important way to make a great first impression, and thus are worth some time exploring how to do them well.
First though, let's talk about the obvious things to avoid like typos and other small errors. The cover or query letter is short (preferably no more than a page) so it's important to take the time to find all errors and correct them. Sometimes errors creep in when we're revising the letter so don't assume you are error free because you've fixed the ones you found. Instead, make a final read-through, out loud so you have the best chance to catch everything. You might even consider having your computer read the letter to you (most word processors have this option). By having the computer read the letter, you can catch any errors you might have been reading over. (Sometimes we'll read the word that should be there instead of the mistake that is there. The computer doesn't do that.)
Check also for obvious errors like addressing the wrong editor or agent, having the wrong date (this can easily happen if you're recycling an old cover letter and updating it to work for a new project. We often forget to update the date), calling your project by the wrong title (this is also easy if you've change the name of a manuscript), and misspelling the editor, agent, or publisher's name. All of these kinds of easily corrected mistakes make a bad first impression.
Letters and Voice
One trap writers can fall into with cover letters and query letters is using successful letters written by other authors (often available in marketing guides and on websites all over the Internet) without reimagining the letters in your own writing voice. Your cover letter or query letter should sound like you. In other words, the sentences may basically have the same sort of information in everyone's cover letter, but you need to write that information in your way. How do you write, talk, and explain things? That's how your letter should sound.
This doesn't mean you need to affect a very distinctive voice. I've heard of writers who've written query letters in the voice of the main character of the book (and sometimes even writing the letter in first person as if the character is writing it). This seldom works. It might have worked for the first few writers who did it really well when it was a unique and novel letter for an agent to read, but it's not unique and novel anymore, and it is really hard to do well without coming across as campy or silly. So don't try to write your letters in a different voice. Simply write them as you would write a casual letter to a friendly acquaintance. You don't have in-jokes with this person, but you also wouldn't be trying to project some sort of academic or authorial voice. You'd simply convey information in a clear, interesting, and informal manner.
Essential Parts of a Cover Letter
Cover Letters exist to introduce other materials. They consist of a greeting, the reason for sending, a statement of what to expect from the contents, a little about you, and a signature. At one time, it was absolutely essential that the greeting of the cover letter be addressed to a specific person (an acquisitions editor, for instance), but many times that simply isn't possible and sometimes it isn't preferred. Some submissions travel through several people before ending up on the desk of the editor or agent who will take action about whether to represent it or publish it. In those situations, putting a specific name on the letter could mean you're addressing someone different from who ends up reading it. This isn't a deal killer. Editors and agents know how the submissions process works at their company, but careful research will often show you whether or not the publisher or agency you are targeting wants a name or not. When I do not have a name, I will often simply use "Greetings" or "Good Afternoon" as my greeting. Avoid anything that sounds archaic or stiff like "Dear Sir or Madam" or "To Whom it May Concern." Better no greeting than one of those.
Now, to the real contents. First, why are you sending this cover letter? There are a number of ways to approach this part of the letter. You’ll want something specific. What is your reason for sending this piece to this particular publisher (or agency.) For instance:
"Ever since seeing the SCBWI webinar on your love of speculative fiction, I've hoped to produce a book that will delight you in the ways you described. I believe I have managed it with The Falcon of Embid."
See how specific that is? It references something very specific about the recipient and points out how this submission is a specific response to that. The more specific you can make the connection, the more you convince the editor or agent that you're not wasting their time with shot-gunning your manuscript or proposal to anyone who will look at it. If the letter is a follow-up to a request for a manuscript or proposal submission, that will be your reason for the cover letter.
After you've made that connection between your work and the recipient of the letter, you need to clearly introduce whatever you're sending. This usually begins with a very short summary of the book that is designed to be enticing. This summary can be more of a blurb or log-line than a full synopsis. This is because either the actual manuscript or at least a more detailed summary will be attached. As a result, you're going to summarize the project in a sentence or two, much as you would with an elevator pitch or Twitter pitch. You'll make the genre clear. You'll introduce the main character and the main story conflict/plot (in fiction) or the topic and focus (in nonfiction). And you'll point the reader to the next place to learn more (the chapter-by-chapter summary in a proposal or the manuscript in a full or partial submission). For example, the blurb could sound like this:
"As you'll see by the enclosed 10-page partial, The Falcon of Embid is a fantasy novel introducing Matthias Falcon, the young heir to the throne of Embid, a world wracked by a deadly plague. Matthias is determined to help his people, but when his efforts uncover the plague originated in his family's own actions, Matthias must decide if he can pay the cost of truth."
The next bit of the letter will have a short reference to yourself. For instance, if the story grew out of my own research on pandemics for a children's educational nonfiction book for Big Brains publishing, I would make that the introduction of the bio part since it links the book and me Whenever you can show your personal connection to the book, it makes a great transition to the bio bit. Your bio part can even stop there, or you can talk a bit further about the connection, or mention your other published books, or mention any other personal qualifications you have. Again, if your letter is an actual cover letter for a proposal that includes a resume or extended bio, then this section can reference those. For instance, after my remark about The Falcon of Embid growing out of my research on pandemics, I might add:
"As you can see by enclosed resume, I have written a number of nonfiction books on historical medicine and have also written a number of fantasy short stories. The Falcon of Embid is the child of my two writing loves."
Your letter will end with a signature line (in the case of an electronic submission, it's not going to get a real signature, but don't worry about that.) Do be sure to include an enclosure line after the signature listing exactly what the editor should expect to find in the submission. That will help the recipient to keep the pieces together.
Essential Parts of the Query Letter
A query letter differs from a cover letter in a few key ways. It generally doesn't travel with attachments (though I've seen some submissions guidelines that call the letter part of a proposal package, a query letter. Even if they call it a query though, you'd write it like a cover letter if it is covering attachments). A query letter will often be a little longer (cover letters are as short as half a page, but a query often requires serious tinkering to keep it to the ideal one page.) Like the cover letter, your query will have a greeting, an introduction that tells why you are recommending this specific piece to this specific editor or agent. Like the cover letter, the query will have a summary and a bio. Even though the introduction explaining why you're sending the piece is exactly the same as in a cover letter, some of the other parts will be a little different.
In a fiction query, the summary is longer and reveals the arc of the main plot line, including the ending. Query letters are meant to make the piece sound enticing, but they must also show that you know what a plot is and that you have one in the piece you are offering. Not knowing what a plot is, how to state one, and how to write one are the biggest problems with most novels so your query needs to be a big shout out that lack of plot is not a problem.
Make it clear that things are happening in this novel. A query that only talks about what the main character thinks, feels, or decides will scare an editor or agent as it tends to make the main character sound static and the book sound plotless. Basically a plot will sound something like this:
Because __ happened, Main Character must do ______ before ____ [catastrophic result], but the main character’s efforts are hindered by ____ [thing that makes it really hard for the main character to succeed] so Main Character is forced to ______ [do something really hard and probably against his inclination.]
Now if your novel is an action story or a mystery or pretty much any kind of adventure, the plot tends to be fairly easy to explain (assuming you have one and not simply a bunch of actions that don't ultimately produce a change in the situation and the character], but if your book is literary or more family/friends focused, it can be harder to state the plot clearly. Still if your novel has personal stakes (which it should) then you will have a plot. Remember, plot isn't what the book is about. Plot is what happens in the book that ultimately reveals what it's about. Your description of your book should include both physical stakes and emotional stakes. For instance, in my imaginary Falcon of Embid novel, the main character both has the physical stakes of putting an end to a plague and the emotional stakes of deciding if his duty to his people is more important than the consequences to his family and himself.
In a nonfiction query, the summary will describe the topic and focus and how the book will be organized. For instance, a book about a specific animal is often organized by things like physical attributes, habitat, family life, and perhaps, threats to its continued existence with a final call to action for the reader telling what they can do to help. If you introduce any problem in a nonfiction book, you usually need a call to action so the reader learns something (even if it's small) that could be done to help. Nonfiction (especially for children or teens) is not intended to leave the reader frightened or depressed about some inevitable terrible thing they can do nothing about.
Historical nonfiction is often organized chronologically (as is narrative nonfiction). Whatever type of organization you are using for the information, make it clear. Keep in mind as you describe the project that you want it to sound interesting so don't give into an urge to describe it in a way that is dry or academic. Nonfiction queries are especially vulnerable to this. Keep your tone light and informal and look for wording that demonstrates how interesting this topic will be. Nonfiction queries will also reveal the hook and the closing for the book so the editor or agent can see that you will get into and out of the book in an interesting way.
The End Bits of a Query
Unlike with a cover letter where this summary is usually only a very few sentences and a single paragraph, a query summary is going to be several paragraphs and will make up the longest part of the letter. After the summary, the "you" part of the letter will be quite short. If I must borrow words from anywhere in the letter to cut it to a page, it's in the bio that the words are usually cut. I'm not above skipping this part entirely if I need the space. The project is what matters most. After the bio bit, close with your goal:
"Please, allow me to send you a detailed proposal for this project."
That's if I know they take proposals. If I know the next step with this agent or publisher will be a partial, then I'll say that:
"Please, allow me to send you a partial so that you can meet Matthias and get caught up in his world."
After that, I simply end with a signature, usually followed by a list of all the ways to contact me. Now that we don't send many paper queries, I often put my full contact info in the query email after the signature. Don't forget to put your contact information (name, email, and phone always, and probably postal address) somewhere in the communication. Never leave the agent or editor frustrated when they want to get back to you.
Cover letters and query letters can seem a little daunting when you're facing the blank page, but remember, you're going to be talking about a project you love. Let your excitement and enthusiasm carry you in and you'll have an exciting letter that grabs the reader and makes them eager to read what you've written.
And that's what we hope for, always.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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