When I began to contemplate sending my YA SF Tijaran Tales series off to publishers and agents, the thought of writing a cover letter filled me with dread. What should I include? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I say too much or too little? I would do as much research as I could, including reading the Writers and Artists Yearbook, as they always had great tips, but the niggling suspicion of doing it wrong was still lingering...
If a book is excellent, I hear your cry, a poor cover letter won't hurt your chances, right? Perhaps, and then again it might. Taking on a manuscript is not as straight forward as it seems, and the number of things that are taken into account before making that decision is very high, no matter the size of the press. What if a publisher happens to be considering two manuscripts of equal weight, only one of them has a cover letter that works?
With the years, looking at the type of responses I got from publishers, I realised that the more customised the cover letter was, the more favourable the returns, even when it was a rejection. Everyone wants to be recognised for what they represent and who they are, and publishers and agents are just the same.
So, what does this mean in practice? I can share my experience as a publisher. Four years into running Luna Press Publishing, I have received my fair share of submissions and cover letters - in the first week of January 2019 alone I received around 250 entries for our SF open submission week. I know what I need to read in a cover letter and what I don't. It is necessarily a custom job.
How do I know what to include in the cover letter?
To answer that question successfully, the first thing you need to do is go to the publisher/agent website and read the submission guidelines, which will inform the content of your cover letter, and here is why.
If a 'Submit to' name is given, use it. If not, use a variation of 'Editorial Team', 'Luna Team', 'Senior Editor'. These will do just fine.
An editorial team, say the Luna Team, decides on the criteria for the submission: format, genre, length, USP (unique selling points), etc., as well as other info requests, are pulled together and then shared on the website/socials, etc. We would consider the schedule over the next three years, authors who have been signed and authors who we are talking to at the time of the submission week. We look at the budget and our vision - where we are and where we want to be - and we also allow for a degree of flexibility as we don't want to curtail opportunities for creativity. In short, we customise what we want according to Luna's requirements.
In the same way that the publisher takes time to inform you about the exact requirements of a specific submission, so should the author take the time to write their cover letter according to these. Customise. There goes that word again.
What if they ask me about something I don't have?
OK. Say you are asked to share your social media links, whatever they may be. Most authors have at least one these days; however, new authors may not have started one yet. Simply say so. Having a social media presence is a big deal in the internet age, as it does help to spread the news, but it's not a deal breaker, at least not for me. A few of the Luna authors were signed up at debut, and had not started their 'social media' life as authors yet: they did so with us. We talked about what was the platform most suitable to them and their personality, and we gave tips on how to do that.
Same for sharing past publications: if you are a debut author you won't have any. But don't forget to mention if your book has already been out on Lulu or Amazon as self-pub before: again, not always a deal breaker, but a very important fact to share. If you have a writing experience of another kind, mention that: if you have been blogging successfully for years, it shows commitment, no matter the topic.
Is an email enough or should I attach a separate file?
Again, the submission page of the website will specify if they want a cover letter as a separate file, or if in the body of the email is sufficient.
Here the most important thing, especially if you write in the main body of the email and especially if you are doing a bit of copy and paste, is that you take a minute or two to make sure your font style and size is consistent! You'd think this should be common sense - think again.
What not to include in a cover letter
If it's not mentioned in the guidelines, it's not necessary to include it. Unsolicited extra info you may want to share, should be relevant and to the point, and perhaps relegated to the bottom half of the email. Start with the requested info, then add the extras if you feel they are important.
And another don't. Remember the 250 submissions I mentioned earlier? A handful of them were press releases... These authors weren't even talking to my team or me. They just pasted a press release in the body of the email. No other info, not even a 'Hi there!'
To Recap: -'Customise' is the word -Read the submission page guidelines -Follow said guidelines -Keep it simple, relevant and honest There should be no fear in approaching a publisher: you are both professionals whose primary wish is to find the perfect match. Let's start that relationship in the right way.