WRITING A COVER LETTER
Your manuscript should always be accompanied by a short cover letter. A cover letter is essentially a business letter introducing your story and yourself to the editor. The tone should be friendly but professional. If you are submitting electronically, your email will be your cover letter. If you are submitting by snail mail your cover letter is on a separate sheet and included in the envelope with your manuscript.
First, read any submission guidelines the publisher may have. These guidelines will tell you whether to submit by email or snail mail, whether the publisher accepts simultaneous submissions or prefers to have the manuscript exclusively, and whether to included a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply. You can usually find guidelines on the publisher's website. The Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Marketplace is also a good source of information. If you use the Marketplace double check the publisher's website, as the policy may have changed since the book's publication.
Formatting Your Letter
- As with any business letter, you should include your contact information. Email will automatically include your return internet address and the date. However, it is always a good idea to include a phone contact. Some people prefer to place this below their signature. If you are sending a hard copy, use the traditional format for a business letter. Place the date and all your contact information in the left hand corner.
- Drop down two spaces after your contact info. place the editor's name, the name of the publisher and address. (Again, you don't need to do this for email.) If your manuscript is unsolicited you may not have the name of a particular editor. Many publishers prefer that submissions be addressed to "Submissions Editor" or simply "Submissions." In that case your salutation will be "Dear Editor."
- How do you get the name of an editor? Attending conferences is one way. Editors who speak at conferences will sometimes invite attendees to submit directly to them, even if the publishing house does not normally accept unsolicited manuscripts. Follow any instructions you receive from the conference organizers regarding this. For instance, you may be asked to put the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or receive a sticker designating the manuscript as one from a conference attendee. If you had any personal contact with the editor, it's a good idea to remind her of that. For instance, "We met at the recent SCBWI conference in New York after your presentation on Picture Book Humor and you said you would be interested in seeing my work."
- If you are writing to "Dear Editor" then go right into introducing your story. Your letter should include the following information:
- The title of your story: "I would like to submit the enclosed picture book manuscript Centipedes Play Soccer for your consideration."
- Take another sentence or two to indicate the age group for which you are writing and to briefly describe your story: "Centipedesis a humorous story for the early grades that emphasizes the joy of participating in sports. Even in the confusion of too many legs going in too many directions, Suzie Centipede and her friends manage to have a great time. When you're having so much fun cares who won?
- Why are you sending this manuscript to this particular publisher? The most obvious answers is that they are one of the few houses that still accept unsolicited submissions. However, even a little research on your part can do a lot to put yourself in an editor's good graces and save you from wasting your time. Go to the company's website and look at what books they've released recently. Many publishers will also send a hard copy catalog upon request. In addition, Publisher's Weekly puts out a special edition on upcoming children's books twice a year that lists books by publisher. Ask your local librarian if she has a copy. After you've done some research on publishers your letter can read something like this: "I've noticed that Snapdragon Press has published many books that use humor to teach children social skills. I believe my story would complement many of those on your list, especially Proud to Be a Slowpoke and Who's on First?
- In the next paragraph you can add something about yourself and your qualifications if you wish. If you have previously published work for children list it here. Likewise, if you have professional experience relevant to your book--say you're a teacher or coach, for example--you can mention that too. And what if children' s writing is a completely new field for you? Don't worry. Ultimately, your work must speak for itself.
- How long should your letter be? No more than one page. Remember, this is a brief introduction. Your purpose is to make the editor want to read your manuscript.
- Should you include an SASE? SASE stands for Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. Of course, if you are submitting by email, you do not need one. For many years publishers used the SASE to return unwanted manuscripts and/or a rejection letter depending on the size of the envelope. If you include an SASE and wish your manuscript back, be sure the envelope is large enough and includes enough postage. Publishers will not add postage to it. If you don't wish the manuscript itself back but still want a letter, use a business size envelope with a single stamp.
- When not to include an SASE? These days, many publishers are no longer responding to manuscripts unless they are interested. Read the submissions guidelines carefully. Publishers that do not use SASE's, often state they will respond within a certain time frame (usually 3-4 months) if interested in pursuing your submission. If you don't hear from them within that period you can safely assume your manuscript has been rejected.
- Should you submit the same manuscript to more than one publisher at the same time? Again, read the publisher's submission guidelines. If the guidelines indicate that multiple or "simultaneous" submissions are okay, you can send your story to other publishers. Some publishers, however, prefer to have manuscripts "exclusively." This means you should not send the story to another publisher until you have heard from the first one. What if they don't send rejections? How long should you wait? Most likely, the publisher will give you a window of time in the guidelines, saying something like, "We prefer to have manuscripts exclusively for three months." In that case, if you haven't heard from them after three months, you are free to submit elsewhere.
- Close your letter on an upbeat and courteous note. It's always a good idea to indicate that you have read the guidelines and are complying with them. "Thank-you for your time and attention. In accordance with your guidelines, I have included a business size SASE for your convenience." Or, "I understand that you will respond to me within three months if interested. Thank-you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you."
What should your letter look like. Here is a basic sample.
What should you do while you're waiting to hear from a publisher? Work on another manuscript. Publishing can be a slow process. That's why it's a good idea to have more than one story in the works.
WANT MORE COVER LETTERS?
This is only a bare-bones guide to writing a cover letter. If you want additional advice or variations on formatting, take a look at Harold Underdown's excellent The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, available in bookstores or at your library. Underdown includes many sample letters for manuscripts of all genres. You will no doubt find something that you can adapt to your own purposes in his book.
Here are a few suggestions for you to consider when approaching an agent. Remember to use these as hints…do not follow them slavishly as if a literary agent is going to spend their time critiquing your cover letter.
By the way, we make a distinction between a cover letter and a query letter. A cover letter is what goes on top of a longer proposal and sample chapters. The query letter is a stand-alone letter that goes by itself to the editor/agent without a proposal or sample chapters. We happen to prefer the cover letter along with the rest of the package. Why? Because a query only shows that you can write a letter. A proposal begins the process of showing that you know how to write a book.
Address the letter to a specific person. If sending something to The Steve Laube Agency, simply address the appropriate agent. Every proposal will cross the desk of the designated agent eventually.
Don’t waste your time or ours. Do your homework! If you are submitting to an agent, visit their web site and follow their guidelines!!! We cannot emphasize this enough! Make certain to spell the person’s name right. (We’ve had people spell Steve Laube’s name as “Laub” “Labe” “Lobby” “Looby” etc.)
If you use a market guide book or some online database listing of agents or editors, make sure you have the most current information because addresses do change (go to the web site). Our main office changed its mailing address in February of 2007…and we still discover that material is being sent to the old address. You would be astounded by the number of calls or inquiries we receive from writers who have not done their research.
Whatever you do, do not say your book is the next Purpose Driven Life, Eat Pray Love, Left Behind, or The Shack, or that it will sell better than The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. That shows an ignorance of the market that is best left alone.
In addition, please do not claim “God gave me this book so you must represent or publish it.” We are firm believers in the inspiration that comes from a faith-filled life, but making it part of your pitch is a big mistake. Read this blog post for a larger discussion on this point.
The 4-part Cover letter:
1) A simple introductory sentence is sufficient. Basically you are saying “Hi. Thank you for the opportunity…”
2) Use a “sound bite” statement. A “sound bite” statement is the essence of your novel or non-fiction book idea in 40 words or less.
The fiction sound bite could include:
a. The heroic character
b. The central issue of the story
c. The heroic goal
d. The worthy adversary
f. The ending
g. A grabber
h. Or a twist
Thenon-fiction sound bite should include the main focus or topic.
One suggestion is to describe the Problem, Solution, and Application.
If someone were to ask about your book you would answer, “My book is about (write in your sound bite.)”
3) Tell why your book is distinctive-who will read it. (Targeted age group….adult, teen, youth) – point out what’s fresh, new, different.
One suggestion would be, for your intended genre, read a number of recent books in the same genre as your own to familiarize yourself with market.
4) Give pertinent manuscript details: a) mention whether or not book is completed (if it is not, then give an estimate as to when it will be finished) b) word length of the complete manuscript, even if it is an estimate (approximate – round off the number) c) pertinent biographical info d) tell the agent if it is a simultaneous submission e) let the agent know they can discard the proposal if rejected.
Click here to review a sample non-fiction cover letter from one of our clients who approached us via an email inquiry.
Keep letter to one page!!
Please don’t use narrow margins or tiny print to fit it all on one sheet. That is silly. We once received a cover letter written with an 8 point font and 1/4 inch margins. It was virtually unreadable.