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.