The Cover Letter: Your Ticket In or The Kiss of Death?

By Dawn Seewer

A new submission arrives on the editor’s desk Monday morning, adding to the already teetering mountain of work to be considered for publication. Each submission holds the promise of an informative article or edge-of-your-seat story. But before the editor even considers the manuscript in question, she will first reach for the cover letter. As she begins to pour over the first few lines, she shakes her head and tosses the entire submission package in the rejection pile. Another submission bites the dust. Why? Because the cover letter in question did not meet her standards. So how do you keep your cover letter from being solely responsible for your submission’s demise? By learning the basic manuscript format for the publisher and by knowing what the editor expects.

Before you begin writing the cover letter you should research the needs of the publisher. This information will help you tailor the cover letter to the editor’s requirements. Obtain a copy of the publisher’s submission guidelines. Study current and previously released work the editor has published. “Do your homework on the publishing house you’re submitting to. Read their books to see what kind of elements they like, and publish. Use that knowledge to sell your book in your cover letter,” says Bonnee Pierson, editor for the e-book publisher Dreams Unlimited.

Unless the publisher’s guidelines specifically state that simultaneous or multiple submissions are acceptable, avoid sending more than one manuscript at a time. Melanie Rigney, editor for Writer’s Digest Magazine gives a perfect example of how frustrating it can be to receive multiple proposals at once. One person “pitched four articles on widely disparate topics- poetry, copyright, writing for radio and publishing your book- with virtually no credentials listed.” She laments, “I was to check the articles I wanted, indicate the wordage and deadline dates.” The person also asked Rigney to return the submission along with information on rates, kill fee, payment policy, and to send the editorial calendar. “No SASE, the clips consisted of a montage of nine articles, supposedly written by this person, overlapping and covering each other, all on a single page, not one with a publication name or date published.” And how did this audacious submission fair in Rigney’s hands? “Yes, I keep it handy,” she says, ” in case you didn’t guess, to use as an example of what not to do.”

Once you have done your homework and understand what material the editor is looking for, you can begin writing your cover letter. The formats for cover letters are as varied as the authors themselves; but when it comes to impressing an editor it does not matter what format you use, what matters most is content and presentation. For example, similar to writing an effective resume, it is always a good idea to begin by knowing to whom you should address the letter. After all, her name is not “Editor.” There is nothing more impersonal than receiving a cover letter addressed “Dear Editor.” In addition the editor may assume that if you did not take a few minutes to find out her name, then you probably did not take the time to read the guidelines either- even if you did! You can find the editor’s name by sending for the publisher’s guidelines, checking market-listing books, or by calling the company and asking the receptionist (just do not ask to speak to the editor). You can also try searching on the Internet. Writers end up communicating a wondrous lack of gumption to an editor when they open a cover letter with a generic salutation.

When writing the actual cover letter, writers often make up for their lack of upfront research by inundating the editor with unnecessary information. In this case, the editors are not as hard to please as most writers tend to think. They want your inquiry to be informative, professional, and -most of all- brief. When you begin drafting your letter, keep in mind that editors are extremely busy people. Editors are faced with the unique task of choosing from among an endless pile of seemingly indistinguishable items, of which very few should be there in the first place. And almost every editor has neither the time nor the patience to read a cover letter that goes on for three-and-half-pages. “I hate receiving submissions with a lot of extra ‘”junk”‘ in them,” says Charis McEachern-Calhoon, editor of Romance Writers Report. “I simply want the cover letter and the submission.” Remember that your cover letter is just that- a letter. It is a business correspondence, not a story, and should be treated as such. Again, much like a resume, you should be able to effectively convey cover letter information on one page.

The body of your letter should contain three basic sections (usually divided into separate paragraphs), including your reason for choosing this particular publisher, a description of your submission, and notations about your publishing credits. Depending on how you wish to convey your message, you may choose to vary the order of these sections. The following example displays the most common format: three separate paragraphs in order of Introduction, Abstract, and Background.

The introductory paragraph contains a brief explanation of why you are writing to this particular editor. Yes, she is going to know that if it is sitting on her desk with a manuscript attached, it is probably a submission. But we are talking about more than simply saying, “Hey, take a look at my submission.” An easy-to-read format gives the editor all the basic information she needs to know right off the bat. This generally includes information such as word count and the title of the work. Many writers also tend to state that they believe their submission is just “perfect” for the publication or that they know the editor will just “love” it. However, editors do not look favorably upon an author who thinks she knows best. Remember that the editor needs your information, not your opinion. The editor knows her business and she knows the publication; so do not tell her that she simply must buy your article or book, let your facts show her. McEachern-Calhoon calls these “assuming” letters. She gives a good example of what these types of letters say to an editor. “I assume I know exactly what you need. I assume that what I’m submitting is exactly what you need.” Dreams Unlimited’s Pierson likewise complains that “this kind of cover letter grates from the start because often the implication is that I shouldn’t even bother reading it. Just send the author a contract, slap a cover on it and start selling it.” She says that she tries to be open-minded, but that “this kind of approach narrows my view before I’ve even opened the file.”

Another mistake is to take the negative approach. Occasionally, editors receive cover letters that slam work that was recently published by their company. Generally, the author’s intent to persuade the editor that their work is better has just the opposite effect. Melanie Rigney of Writers Digest Magazine quotes a perfect example of this sort of criticism: ‘”I know Jane Doe just wrote an article about interviewing, for you, but quite frankly, it was the worst thing I’ve ever read and so you should buy my article because it will be better.”‘ Editors do not look kindly on this type of statement, not only because it is unprofessional, but also because it also implies that the editor does not know how to do her job. After all, the writer is inadvertently insulting the editor’s choice in material, and telling her that you know better will not warm her to you. Instead be positive, but not gushing, about the publication and briefly point out why the subject matter, theme, style or other feature makes your submission appropriate. Better yet, do your research and find a special issue or installment that your work is especially suited for, and gently point that out. Then if you can prove with your abstract that the publication-to-editorial match-up is legitimate, you will get the editor’s attention.

The next section, the abstract paragraph should be detailed, yet brief. It should contain an overview of the main topic of the article or the basic plot-line of the book. Dreams Unlimited’s Pierson says that her biggest pet peeve is receiving “letters that tease [me] by giving a great beginning for the plot, and then say I have to read the completed [manuscript] in order to find out how it ends.” You do not have to entice the editor into reading your work; that’s her job. Remember you are not writing a trailer for a movie or an infomercial, you are writing a cover letter. Leave the campaigns to the advertising department. Also remember that even the most detailed abstract cannot carry the full import of a submission, so do not worry about spoiling the surprise. As Pierson says, “Don’t tell me you can tie the loose ends. Show me.”

When you reach the background paragraph you will be tempted to indulge your ego a bit. However, it is very important that your background information should only include information that pertains to your work. Charis McEachern-Calhoon says, “I don’t want a four-page bio on the contributing author, I don’t want her resume, I don’t want any bookmarks or photos of her cat.” If it does not relate to the work in question, or show that you are capable of writing on a particular topic, then it does not belong in the background section. At the same time, do not leave out relevant information. “I’m not going to assign an article on writing stronger dialogue to someone who’s never had a work of fiction published, and if you don’t give credentials, I’m going to assume you don’t have them,” states Rigney. This is not to imply that if you have never had anything published you will not be able to sell an article or book. Everyone has to start somewhere, and at one time even the greatest of writers were without publishing credits. The point is that you need to give the editor some indication of your ability to write this particular article or story, and previous publishing obviously illustrates knowledge of your subject.

Finally, you should end your letter by thanking the editor for her time and consideration. It is also a good idea to make your work available in an electronic format, since this may make it easier for the editor to work with and access. Of course you will want include a formal closing along with your signature.

Once the final draft of your cover letter is written, it is time to proofread. This is the stage where your most fatal mistakes can be made; so do not treat proofreading as an afterthought. Most editors will cringe the minute they see a spelling or grammatical error in your cover letter. While it may not bother some editors as much as others, too many mistakes will lead even the most forgiving editor to dismiss your submission before they get past the cover letter. “If she can’t even write the letter, then I know she can’t write an entire article,” says McEachern-Calhon.

Small errors in your cover letter may seem minor to you, but the editor will judge an unpolished letter the way a prospective employer would judge a job applicant wearing jeans for an interview. Editors have to notice the most superficial details when sorting through their applicants. So remember, it is better to spend the extra time proofreading and fixing any errors than having your submission end up in the rejection pile because you did not bother to fix misspelled words and typos. Once you are satisfied that you have found every error in your letter, ask someone else read it over just to double check. A good tip is to choose someone who is impartial; avoid asking a friend or spouse since emotion may cloud your acceptance of their advice. Also ask someone who is competent to judge. Your dentist may be brilliant, but your English-major brother-in-law would be a better choice.

Now you are ready to send your submission with confidence. You have done your research. Your cover letter should now be as flawless as you can make it and ready for the editor’s desk. You have avoided the generic, fluffed-filled, assuming letter that makes an editor wince. You have provided the editor with all the basic information that she needs to quickly assess your submission- and you have done it all with a few choice words and a single sheet of paper.

Your submission may be a work of art, but it is good to remember that when you present it for publication that publishing is a business. A cover letter should reflect your professional attitude and approach. Sell the editor on your ability to conduct yourself in a responsible, knowledgeable manner in your cover letter. Sell her on your incredible style and writing abilities with your work.

© 2002 by Dawn Seewer

6 Responses to “The Cover Letter: Your Ticket In or The Kiss of Death?”

  1. Sarah says:

    What a great article! Thank you for posting this. I appreciate the quotes from editors themselves, too.

  2. James says:

    Thanks for the compliment Sarah.

  3. Cathleen says:

    The information listed in this article is exactly the information I was searching for. Well done and thank you.

  4. MDN says:

    I have been utilizing the internet to find Agents. What’s interesting is that I researched one particular Agent and felt that my book genre (middle grade fiction) fell within his area of interest. Several different sites, even his own, listed an interest in middle grade fiction. When I sent a query letter I was rejected with a note that it was not his area of interest.

    Upon further scrutiny of his blog I found a small entry where he stated “I am not interested in middle grade fiction”. I have encountered this on more than one occasion.

    Unless I call every Agent and verfiy area of interest I have to rely on what I find on the internet.

    A busy Agent is not going to field calls from a slush pile entrant.

    As for the Bio portion of the letter. I am sure Agents are not interested in my education, especially since it is not in the language arts.

    I have no previous writing credits. Therefore, I skip that portion. Any reccomedations for aspiring authors?

  5. Jack Sheffrin says:

    I’m in the process of submitting my first non-fiction article to a publisher, and I just want to say thank you for keeping this wonderful article available … and for pointing out all of the mistakes I probably would have been guilty of. I would love to see a followup link to proper query letter writing. I’ve learned that it falls under the “good idea” section to write both letters at the same time; so the editor can see a consistency of style.

    Even almost three years later, this was the most informative article on the topic I’ve read. Thanks again.

  6. Molly says:

    To Whom it May Concern,

    After extensive reading, there are a few things about book submissions I’m still having trouble understanding. Could you please
    clarify the differnce between a cover letter and a query and the way
    In which they’re formatted and info. included in them? Do I need
    them both in a book submission, or is it a either or?

    Thanks for any and all help provided.


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