How to Write: Query and Cover Letters
Cover letters are usually sent with submissions, either to publishers or agents. They’re intended to say something about the item you’re submitting and about you as a writer and person. However, for something that sounds simple, they can be surprisingly annoying to get right.
First of all, I should say that there’s a difference between the standard “cover letter” (UK format), and the US-standard “query letter” (examples and advice behind the link). The US letter usually asks for more information.
As with everything – look to see if there are any guidelines on the publisher’s website before you start. Some publishers want 3-4 paragraphs about the book, some don’t. Usually if you’re including a synopsis with your query, you won’t need to include as much information. I find the American-style query letter works best if all you’re doing is sending out a query to see whether and agent or publisher might be interested in seeing your opening chapters and a synopsis. In that case, your query letter needs to do the work of your synopsis and opening chapters, to draw the reader in and make them want to ask for more.
From a personal standpoint, I prefer a shorter query letter. The longer you make your query letter, the more chance there is that you might write something that would put me off? But let’s break it down, paragraph by paragraph. Use a clearly readable font, and don’t include any pictures unless requested. In fact, don’t include anything that hasn’t been requested!
Include your mailing address and email address at the top of the letter. You don’t need to include a phone number, but you can if you want.
Addressing – if you know the name of the person you’re submitting to, the correct form is to address them by both first name and surname – e.g. if you were submitting personally to me, you would address your letter “Dear Joanne Hall.” Bearing in mind that at most publishers, especially the big ones, the person reading your submission is unlikely to be the person your letter is addressed to (they have minions for that kind of thing, don’tchaknow?), addressing your letter “Dear Editors” is equally acceptable. “Dear Sir/Madam” isn’t.
Essential information – tell ’em want you’re sending, word length, genre etc. If you’re pitching to an anthology mention the name of the anthology.
Please find attached my novel The Fabulous Story of Dave Fabulous, which I hope you will consider for publication. The novel is a steampunk-themed space opera of approximately 95,000 words.
(When you say “please find attached” – don’t forget to actually attach the bugger. It happens to the best of us!)
Please find attached my short story “Steampunk Superman” which I hope you will consider for your Steampunk Superheroes anthology. It is approximately 3500 words long.
You don’t need to give the exact word count – an approximation will do. If you’re sending it as an email attachment say what you’ve attached, in case it goes astray.
PARAGRAPHS 2-2A (OPTIONAL)
The sticky area. I’ve found that this is where people slip up. For personal preference, again, if you’re sending a synopsis you can skip describing the book in your cover letter. If you’re sending an on-spec query without any supporting material, I’d recommend including NO MORE THAN TWO paragraphs talking a little bit about the book.
I’d like to reiterate at this point, know your market. I can’t stress that enough. Look at what sort of things the publisher has previously published, what they’re looking for now, what they say on social media, and tailor your query accordingly. If your target publisher has expressed an interest in, say, LGBT fiction, and your book contains LGBT elements, now is the time to mention them. If they’ve previously published feminist grimdark, or intergalactic romance, or time travel, and your book contains elements of those things, mention it now. You don’t need to go into masses of detail or give away the end, but write enough to whet a publisher’s interest.
Rough example (you can probably do far better than this, but it might give you an idea) :
(*aside* – I would buy this in a heartbeat. Someone who is not me needs to write this…)
This is the part where you sell you. Don’t make that face, it’s not as awful as you think. We don’t need to know every detail of your life since the day you were born, but we would like to know your interests, your skills, and your previous experience. Don’t undersell yourself with phrases like “I’m an aspiring writer” or “I’m still learning my craft” – they don’t fill a potential publisher with confidence. In horrible business-wanker terms, you and your book are a product that you are trying to sell to a potential buyer – you wouldn’t sell your car by saying things like, “The doors are falling off but I guess it runs ok….”
So, a line or so about you – where you live, your main interests etc. Mention any previous relevant publications or experience – short stories and articles you’ve had published etc (protip- if you’re submitting to an SFF publisher, stick to SFF credits – that series of articles you wrote for Knitting and Crochet Magazine are only relevant if your book contains a significant amount of knitting and/or crochet). If you have LOADS of credits (good for you!) mention the two or three that are most recent, or most impressive – stories in Asimovs and Interzone beat that story that won a tenner in the local parish gazette.
If you have experience that’s relevant to the story, mention that. If you’ve got connections that may help you find a market for the story, mention them too. All of this is useful information.
(My friend Stephen asked about name-dropping in cover letters. Name dropping is fine, as long as you’re honest. If, for example, someone who works at the publishers has previously accepted one of your stories for an anthology, it would do you no harm to mention that. But don’t say they have when they haven’t – no BS-ing allowed!)
I have had short stories published in Interzone and Lightspeed magazine, and my story “Steampunk Superman” appeared in the Steampunk Superheroes anthology edited by Joanne Hall.
I am a member of my local hot-air ballooning society, as well as an organiser of the Chipping Norton Steampunk Tea-Drinking and Moustache-Twirling Club. My blog can be found at www.chippingnortonteaandmoustaches.com”
Be polite, thank the reader for their time and… that’s it!
I’ve included our sample cover letter in full – it seems to have got progressively more silly as it’s got later, but feel free to use it as a template if you think it will help.
Good luck – I hope this helps!
5, Any Street
Please find attached my novel The Fabulous Story of Dave Fabulous, which I hope you will consider for publication. The novel is a steampunk-themed space opera of approximately 95,000 words, and I have included the first three chapters and a synopsis as an attachment with this email.
(The Fabulous Story of Dave Fabulous is the story of an airship captain, Dave Fabulous, who falls through a rift in spacetime from an alternate Victorian Edinburgh and finds himself far in the future. He is thrown into a battle between the belegaured colonists of Europa, and the hordes of mechanised dinosaurs that threaten them with extinction. Dave must find a way to rescue the colony, resist the temptations of the beautiful and dastardly Queen Xanthe, and find a way home to his beloved husband.)
I am a lion-tamer and part-time writer with a degree in astrophysics who lives in Chipping Norton with my husband and a growing collection of aardvarks. When I’m not collecting aardvarks, I enjoy trekking in the Himalayas, hot-air ballooning and golf.
I have had short stories published in Interzone and Lightspeed magazine, and my story “Steampunk Superman” appeared in the Steampunk Superheroesanthology edited by Joanne Hall.
I am a member of my local hot-air ballooning society, as well as an organiser of the Chipping Norton Steampunk Tea-Drinking and Moustache-Twirling Club. My blog can be found at http://www.chippingnortonteaandmoustaches.com.
Thank you for your consideration, I look forward to hearing from you.
This work by Joanne Hall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Green Sky & Sparks