The Cover Letter

When I started writing and submitting, the cover letter was one of the first things I learned how to write. It was impressed on me that unless I had a cover letter that popped, one that grabbed a publisher by the throat the second they read it, I could pretty much forget about having a contract offered.

Here I am, many years later, and the art of writing a cover letter, if one writes one at all, seems to have disappeared in the dust of the electronic age. Yet, with electronic submissions, with almost immediate responses when we hand a publisher our life’s work, shouldn’t the cover letter be the most important thing you spell check, reread to see if it will grab someone’s attention, and ensure that we’ve made a good first impression?

Absolutely. All of those things. The cover letter is still the first instrument a publisher uses to gauge if you are the right person to make part of their growing stable of writers.

Yet, in this electronic age, where many people have eschewed the desktop or laptop computer for their phone, the cover letter has become somewhat dated to those with the latest electronic technology.

What do I mean?

Below are examples of cover letters received. Names, places, etc have been removed so as not to cause undue embarrassment.

Yo, dude or dudette, here’s a book I wrote. Can U chk it out and give me a great contract? This bok will be the best 1 U ever got. Signed: The Most Fabulous Author In The World.

Uh… No. No, I will not send you a contract. No, I will not even open your submission to see if you actually wrote a real book instead of one full of abbreviations, a lack of knowledge about capitalization, and desperately in need of a spell check. I’m too busy to do anything more than send you the generic “Thank you for submitting but your book is not for us” response—a response I swore I would never use once I became an editor-in-chief, but have now discovered why it’s used.

Even better are these types of cover letters. They come in several times a month. One was even to announce a novel by the same title.

Dear Mr. or Ms. Editor-In-Chief,

My name is blah, blah, blah. I am currently working for major company as a whatever profession. I love to (add a long list of activities not related to writing) but in my spare time, I have been penning THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL for the last few days, years, months.

Of course, this cover letter goes on for the hard sell, about how the publisher will make millions off this novel, which apparently doesn’t need editing or proofreading. Why, the author will even provide their own cover art, designed and done by them, because no one else can grasp their concept. Of course, they added this cover art to the attached manuscript, so the clueless editor-in-chief can see what it looks like. In fact, all the editor-in-chief has to do is send along a contract and then the author will instruct us on what they want done next.

This particular cover letter does have my attention, in a staring at a disastrous incident and being unable to look away. I will open the submission, and then groan and reach for the coffee cup to refill it, knowing that I will need a triple shot of the cappuccino I save for special occasions to add to the regular coffee to stay awake.

Here is another individual who needs to learn the basic rules of grammar, along with a few other things. They have no clue about formatting. After viewing cover art that will not pass the review to get a print edition done, I’m usually staring at a really weird, nearly unreadable font that’s sized around seventy-two. Once I manage to find the actual book, after having to go through a very long table of contents, a dedication to everyone the author claims helped start them on their trek to instant fame—all the way back to kindergarten—I am very happy to have taken that triple cappuccino shot, or I’d be nodding off. The opening usually starts the book long before it should have, but that’s a subject for another day.

Back to the cover letter. It’s very simple to write a perfect cover letter.

First, you need to put your basic information on the electronic form you’re filling out—name, snail mail address, phone number if you are so inclined, and your email address. Please be aware, most publishers, especially small ones, won’t actually call you. Their staff is generally small and has a lot to accomplish during their work day.

A salutation is always good. Do your research here. Go over the publisher’s website. See who handles submissions. If you can’t tell, the editor-in-chief is the place to start. If they don’t handle submissions, they will forward your email to the proper person.

The first paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Please, be brief. We don’t need to know anything other than your name, the title of your book, and a five to ten word tagline. Taglines are another subject for another day.

The second paragraph is a short, to define short so there are no misunderstandings, two to three sentence synopsis of your book. This was probably the hardest thing for me to learn, how to take the synopsis I’d labored over and change it to one that would fit on a cover letter, which should only be one page long.

The third and final paragraph is where you thank the publisher for looking over your submission and indicate you will await their response, at their convenience. Then you sign off with a signature, or in the case of an electronic submission, just your name.

That’s all a cover entails. Use a plain font, such as Times New Roman or Arial. Don’t do bold or underlining. Italics is all right for your book’s title. Nothing else.

Why such an uncreative, boring letter. Because like a job you’re applying for at a business, the cover letter to a publisher is your application to become part of their company. You need to impress on the person reading it that you are a professional.