Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Cover Letters and the Slush Pile of Doom

Cover Letters and the Slush Pile of Doom

Just a little reminder to our author friends: when submitting a work to an agent, editor or publisher, it is customary to introduce the manuscript with a covering letter. Most agents, editors and publishers will remind you to include this small courtesy in their submissions guidelines.

A cover letter is a standard for seeking publication for commercial/genre fiction. In fact, it’s safe to say that it’s a standard requirement for any submittal in any and all cases for any type of writing. It’s basically a short letter describing the book, introducing yourself to the agent/publisher and then offering the manuscript for representation or publication.

With the rising use of electronic submissions, many agents and publishers have decided to pass on the query process, and accept a full manuscript up front; electrons are endless, and time is saved. You still need to provide a cover letter.

Cover letters are really just like query letters. In the latter case, you’re asking the agent/publisher if they would like to see more of the manuscript. In a cover letter, you are attaching and providing the actual manuscript. When you are providing the manuscript, whether it’s the first communication or in response to a request for a partial or full, you need to provide a cover letter, and that cover letter must include a short and intriguing blurb about the book. It’s the single most important thing you need to include on a query or cover letter.

Spending some time crafting your book blurb and cover letter is in your best interest – it will get your submission read. I don’t know anyone willing to pick up and read a 90k word novel without checking the back blurb, do you? Reading is a great pleasure, but it’s also an investment of time and emotion, and the same back blurb that sells books on shelves and online helps sell your submission to the agent or editor. Without it, your submission can be a quick delete, a fast pass. Even if the editor chooses to begin reading the manuscript, if it doesn’t draw them in the first scene, and they don’t have a good blurb or synopsis to reference to let them know what the conflict or theme of the story is to give them something to look forward to, you may not get more than that first scene read.

Without using that book blurb/synopsis, any other material you provide on your cover letter is pointless. An elevator pitch (1-2 sentences) is fine, but when faced with a 300 page read, most editors/agents would prefer to know what to expect going in. I recommend using both: first the pitch, then the blurb. Give them something to get them reading, then something to look forward to reading.

After you’ve mastered those elements, then you can tell the story of how you discovered you wanted to be a writer. Once you’ve pitched your story, then you can list the stories you've already had published.
Expecting an editor or agent to dive right into a full manuscript without a proper cover letter is a bit like expecting them to go all the way on a first date.

Oh, they may, but you gotta get ‘em drunk on the pitch, first.


  1. What I find confusing sometimes is the amount of information out there that is available to a person in crafting one of these letters. Query shark has a specific way in which elements should be provided in a letter. But you go to some agent/publisher websites and they want additional paragraphs that contain information outside of the query shark guidelines. Given the high rate of rejection on queries, once you've toiled for weeks to get one that you think is ready to submit, adding things to it makes an author extremely nervous. But not including those things is the kiss of death it seems.

  2. I don't know if it's really the kiss of death - all those fiddly little extras, but I do know what you're talking about.

    It may be a way that some editors/agents weed out the tire-kickers. I know many agents/editors aren't interested in hearing about the theme arc, but I am, and I ask for that in our submissions guidelines.

    The problem I've been seeing with our submissions box is a complete lack of a synopsis/blurb. Even though that element is considered standard across the board. Even from authors who have been previously published. It boggles. I've seen lists of credits and academic accomplishments and not a word about the work actually being submitted.

    My personal opinion is if you really want to work with a particular publisher or agent, by all means, jump through those hoops. They are often there for a reason, if if the reason is to stop emails asking what font size is preferred. Query Shark provides the basics that should satisfy any editor/agent.

    Once you have a really killer blurb, though, the rest is gravy. Or, you know, ANY BLURB AT ALL.

  3. A good cover letter must have continuous content and it's concise and compact but well targeted.

    CV Cover Letters