I am finally submitting my first manuscript to publishers. They all ask for a cover letter containing a list of required information. Is there a secret to how you go about structuring your cover letter? I have started by creating a heading for each of their requirements - eg: synopsis, author bio, target market - and then simply adding information under those headings. At least then I know that I have met their requirements, but I'm worried that it doesn't look professional and doesn't flow well!
This is a great question.
I think the most important thing to remember is that not all cover letters are the same. Step one is to take careful note of the requirements of each publisher (for both manuscript and cover letter. Following these to the letter ('scuse the pun) will show you are a serious publication contender.
If there are no specific guidelines, just briefly introduce yourself and your work. Have maybe one sentence about your book, like a tagline (see my tip, below), and then briefly outline what you have attached with your submission. That's it.
Once you are really clear on what the publisher expects in a cover letter, step two is to keep things succinct. Don't rabbit on about yourself, how great you are, or how you're the next Maeve Binchy. Don't talk about how all the kids at your local school just LOVE your work. By all means, show you are passionate and love to write, but this letter isn't a platform for self-promotion. Make it clean, clear and brief. Always keep in mind that publishers have a heck of a lot to read as it is. Don't make it harder for them.
Step three is to ensure your letter's grammar and punctuation is absolutely perfect. Have someone you trust go over it with a fine tooth comb. A poorly-written cover letter is not going to bode well for its accompanying manuscript (have your manuscript proofread, too!).
Step four: cover all the elements required by the publisher. If there are a lot to cover, just list what you have attached. You don't need to have paragraphs explaining what is attached, so no need for mini headings. If you're required to list achievements, awards, associations or publications in your cover letter, choose only the significant ones, then offer a website link for more info (yes, even in hardcopy letters).
Step five: don't try to be someone you're not. Be yourself and use your regular voice. It's easy to be daunted by publishers, but they are just people, too, and they can sense (and appreciate) the real you.
Step six is one of the most important. Be polite, professional and UN-demanding. You want to show you are easy to work with. Send the letter and the other submission requirements, and let go. If you are really keen, you can check the publisher's usual response rate--wait that time then add 2 or 3 weeks. You can then send a very short, polite query letter or email. Then, again--let go. If they don't respond to that, forget it and move on.
Down the track, when you develop relationships with publishers, you would usually submit something via previous discussion or via a simple manuscript query email (whereby you send a quite email, briefly outlining your book, and asking if they would be interested in seeing it). When this happens, I tend to send a covering letter as simple as 'Thank you for this wonderful opportunity, I hope you enjoy Manuscript Title. Warmest thanks, Tania.' And that's it. Occasionally, depending on the situation, I might add something about why I wrote the book, but it's only one sentence, and any other explanatory notes are similarly just one sentence.
A little tip: learn how to define your entire book in one sentence. Think of it as a tag line, as though your book is being made into a film (we can only hope!)--and have this on standby, if need be, or include it in your cover letter. Make it poetic and arresting, no matter the book's content. This is not only handy to have, it will help you understand the nature of being succinct.
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