What do you say in a cover or query letter?
“The most IMPORTANT THING a cover letter does is ALLOW YOU TO SHOW YOURSELF IN THE BEST POSSIBLE LIGHT TO A PROSPECTIVE PUBLISHER. There are many variables possible in cover letters and most of them will work for someone, somewhere. But in order to get your letters working for you, you need to find the best possible combination of things to say (and NOT say) in YOUR cover letter for YOUR stories that show off YOUR specific talents, credits and expertise in the best possible light.” – Verla Kay, children’s author
There are a few rules.
Rule number 1 – one page only.
Rule number 2 – know the purpose, which is to catch the editor’s (or agent’s) attention.
Now let’s discuss the Pieces and Parts of a Query or Cover Letter.
Simple letterhead with your info.
Editor or agent name and address.
Greeting – professional (Ms. Martin, Mr. Yee, or Evan Z…).
Your contact with editor/agent, if any. This can be your opening, or can follow the paragraph about your submission.
- Where you heard editor speak, if appropriate
- Where you read article
- What you thought
- May mention a RECENT book of theirs that you loved
- May be a thank you, i.e. “Thank you for your encouraging remarks on my last submission, Title.”
Something exciting about your book, short story or article.
- Grab the reader right away. This may be a direct quote from the manuscript or a catchy line or question about the theme of your piece. A sound bite. A teaser. The following are starter ideas:
• Does the first line hook the reader?
• Is it an unusual idea or deal with an unusual situation with universal themes?
• Is it set in an unusual place?
• For a magazine piece, is it timely? (i.e. 100th anniversary of … and, of course, you’re submitting with plenty of lead time.)
- In a query, this paragraph or section may be all you have to showcase your piece. Make it as good as you can. For a book, think of doing an elevator pitch or mini-synopsis of your story. Think of the blurb on the back of the book as you work. Agent Nathan Bransford has an excellent blog entry on this topic. Read “The One Sentence, One Paragraph, and Two Paragraph Pitch.”
Details about your piece.
- What it is: middle grade novel, picture book, magazine article.
- Nonfiction books often require a book proposal–this series does not address those since I’ve not had that experience.
ARTICLE VERSUS STORY
Some people call articles stories, while others only refer to fiction as stories. What’s what?
I personally differentiate these two by nonfiction (article or essay) or fiction (story), and of course, each of those categories can be broken down more. That said, I will at times call a piece a “true story” versus an article. That usually happens in response to a magazine looking for “true stories about…” Sometimes these are also called true experiences.
When submitting a manuscript, I usually indicate “article” or “nonfiction” for those true stories and “fiction based on a true story” or “fiction” on those I’ve made up.
It might be a middle grade novel, an early YA novel, or a tween novel, etc., but never a fictional novel. Editors and agents hate that misnomer.
More details about your piece.
- Why it shouldn’t be passed up or a need for book in today’s market. If you can demonstrate this, you’ll have an edge.
Verla: “It was an exciting and dramatic period of our American history, but until now there have been almost no picture books on this subject for the 5-8 year old child. The only picture books listed in “books in print” are very long — up to two thousand words. None of them are suitable for younger children.”
And more details about your piece.
- a brief summary
• one sentence for a cover
• no more than a paragraph for a magazine query
• high concept – 25 words or less
• hit the high points
• tell the end
- word length and number of chapters, if appropriate
- rights for magazine pieces: if reprint rights, tell where and when it has appeared
- exclusive or multiple submission, if appropriate
- whether it is complete
- whether you are including a synopsis (if requested in their guidelines)
- whether it has additional material
• for books, glossary or maps or photographs (color slides, digital images, black & white photos)
• for magazine pieces, sidebar, activity, photos, related websites
• anything the editor should know about it
- setting is unusual and you’ve lived there
- a holiday story
- what inspired you to write it
Appropriate info about you.
- publication credits – if you don’t have any, leave this out
• “I’m enclosing my résumé” or books you’ve published and/or a list of some magazines you’ve been published in.
• don’t apologize for not having credits
• don’t say you’re a first time writer
- awards, contest winner
- training – degree in something relating to Literature or English, graduated from Institute of Children’s Literature
- related personal history, education, jobs, or hobbies that apply to this piece
- include info about SASE and if it’s for “reply only” indicate they may discard the copy of the manuscript
- for queries, call for an answer on whether they want to see your manuscript (or the rest of your manuscript)
Sincerely (or whatever you feel is appropriate) and your typed name with space to put a signature.
Enclosures – this is standard business letter practice.
If you learn better by example, check out these sample query letters by Laura Manivong and Jodi Meadows.
Get Ready. Get Set. Submit!
1. Do you know where you want to send it?
• If so, move on to the next step.
• If not, and you’re already done the homework mentioned in part one, discuss with your critique group. They may have good suggestions.
2. Check your market book, guidelines, and any other resources you have for this specific publishing house or magazine. Ask yourself . . .
• Is my manuscript the type they publish?
• Is my word count appropriate for what they want?
• Have I heard an editor from here speak? Or read an interview with them?
3. Read first lines from your manuscript or write out what is exciting about your piece to use as a teaser.
4. Write your letter.
5. Check for the elements above.
6. Proof carefully!
7. If possible, share with your critique group or another writer; they might offer suggestions and comments for improvement.
- Overall, remember to be brief, professional and to the point, but let your voice come through
- Spell check!!
- Send a clean copy
- Keep copy of your letter