Ten things I've learned about covering/query letters (maybe)


After prevaricating about the bush as to which of my three ideas to write about this month, I asked people on the ACW FB page and this got the most votes. I put maybe in the title of this post as I would not claim in any way to be an expert. I have recently had a novel accepted for publication but, without wanting to discourage anyone, this was the third novel over a period of about fifteen years and many, many rejections. However, I feel I've learned quite a lot along the way and would love to help spare others what-I-call the head-in-the-oven moments. Although I should point out that I use this purely as a figure of speech and have never ever come close to putting my head in the oven. (It would be impossible in our kitchen anyway, due to its distance from the floor).

There are some publishers and agents in this group who will hopefully contribute in the comments if they have anything to add. Liz Carter also recently wrote a fantastic post (How not to write a query letter). So, with all these riders, here goes: -

Things I have learned about covering letters

  1. Read the publisher/agent's submission guidelines about what to put in the covering latter and follow them To. The. Letter. I copied and pasted and printed each set out and highlighted the parts that were important. They are all different. E.g. One said 'please just tell us a little about yourself and your writing'. Another had a full length application form that you had to fill in, online, and then click 'Send'.  Very scary! As if you are applying for a job...which you are really.
  2. Take time to check your covering letter again and again, making sure you include every single thing they mention. Get someone else to check it if you're not confident with punctuation/grammar etc. You are, in effect, applying for a job and you would never rush or fail to triple check an application form  before sending it. At least I assume you wouldn't.
  3. Keep your letter as brief as you can and to the point. I recommend short paragraphs and finely honed sentences, taking out any unnecessary words, the way you would when editing your book. A tightly written letter will demonstrate a lot about you as a writer.
  4. Read a few submissions criteria on agents/publishers' websites and write a template that you can then tweak for different companies. This will make a long drawn out process quicker and easier to navigate.
  5. Be professional but also honest. In my first paragraph (2 lines), I introduced the novel by name, told them the word count and said which genre I thought it might come under (commercial fiction - uplit) but told them I find the genre thing confusing. 
  6. Give a brief bio, aimed at the specific agent/publisher you are submitting to. If possible, find the person on the website whose interests are most similar to the ones reflected in your book (I highlighted them) and address the letter to that person, mentioning aspects of your writing experience that, from what you can tell, will most appeal to them. In my second paragraph (3 lines), depending on who it was, I briefly mentioned my teaching and then said I was a published writer, but only outlined the published work I thought would be of interest to that person. I also embedded links to my tes articles, reviews of my self-published novella and my blog.
  7. Make your elevator pitch work for you. I started my third paragraph (3 lines) with mine and then used it to show how it was similar to other books out there (a question they often ask): - In this way, I think it is comparable to Beth Morrey’s Saving Missy and Libby Page’s The Lido. With a quirky protagonist, it also has similarities to Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. In fact, one beta reader said it reminded her of Gail Honeyman’s book.
  8. Explain briefly what you are trying to achieve with your writing  and give a flavour of what the book is like. I decided to do this in my fourth paragraph (4 lines): - My ambition is to write books which inspire readers to think about people and places in new ways. With Braver, I have tried to write a feel-good, emotional read with some humour and an ultimately hopeful ending. I went on to expand on my elevator pitch but only in two sentences.
  9. If you have used beta readers, quote a few carefully chosen comments which reflect the kinds of things you think your agent/publisher would find interesting. I finished my fourth paragraph with this. Comments from eight beta readers include the following: - (followed be a few bullet points with short quotes)
  10. Finish by signing off in a polite, matter of fact way: - Thank you for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you. With best wishes

I realised two things over the years of writing covering letters:
  • It's not just my book but myself I'm trying to 'sell'. Do I sound as though I'd be professional/pleasant/easy to work with? From reading my email as objectively as I can, would I want to work with Me? Or do I sound wordy and self-obsessed? Have I given too much information? Do they really need to know about every article I've had published, since my debut in the school magazine in 1972? As with the novel, cut, cut, cut. One of the ways I can make myself and my writing sound attractive is to be brief.
  • If they say they will get back to you within 3 months and then they don't, it's OK to send a polite follow-up email. We seem to get ourselves in a real pickle about this. No one is going to say, 'Well, she did a great submission and we loved her writing but look what a nag she is. Let's reject her.' Then there are people who send a follow-up email after a week. Not good. Wait until the stated frame has passed.
I took a long time over the covering letters. I finished my book at the end of July last year and didn't finish submitting until the beginning of September. I read and reread and cut and refined every word until I was completely happy with each one. In the past this was the part of the process I rushed and I was determined not to do it again. Of course there are no guarantees. They still need to like your synopsis and your first three chapters. But the covering letter, to me, is like a gateway. If we can persuade them to open the gate, and read our work, then we've jumped the first hurdle. 

Then we have a chance at the next one.

Deborah Jenkins is the author of textbooks, educational articles and a novella ,The Evenness of Things, available in paperback and as a kindle e-book. 

Her novel, Braver, will be published in the summer of 2022 by Fairlight Books.

Deborah wonders aloud about the crazy, inspiring and inappropriate, on her blog, stillwonderinghere.net


Post a Comment