An author query with a missing or weak cover letter communicates to the publisher that the author doesn’t care about his work. In which case, why should the publisher? If your goal as an author is to get published, then everything you write helps complete the sale. Cover-letter mishaps remain a common, yet easily avoided, obstacle to winning a publisher’s heart.

Behold, the eight commandments of writing effective query letters:

  1. Thou shall write a letter that looks like a letter, including a return address, the date, a salutation directed at the right person and an ink-based signature. Use a standard business-letter format. Submitting electronically? Print, sign, scan to PDF. (Yes, really.) As harsh or as indelicate as it may sound, most folks who receive minimalist letters — e.g., a Word document with a few terse paragraphs in Times New Roman on a white background with no obvious conformance to standard letter templates — infer that the writer is lazy, incompetent, inexperienced or some combination of the three. I offer this counsel not to demean authors, but to emphasize the point: Take the time to write a real letter. Perhaps for the big publishing companies, a letter may be a formality (agents, after all, matter more with huge markets), but for independent publishers, a real letter says you’re pitching me, instead of a generic publisher, and psychologically, that attention to detail really matters. So write a real letter. Don’t pepper it with bullet points. Get the intended recipient’s name correct; you’ll find the right names for Caffeinated Press within our editorial guidelines. Prove that you’re interested in publishing with us and not with the first person who nibbled at your manuscript.
  2. Thou shall not litter thy letter with grammar errors or misspellings. This commandment should be self-evident, especially for writers, but a majority of cover letters we receive have clearly not been proofread. It’s not just one or two subtle errors, either — we’ve received letters where nearly every sentence had some sort of fairly obvious problem, and in many cases, those problems really didn’t seem prevalent in the pitched story. The cover letter cannot be an afterthought: It’s your first impression to a publisher. If your first impression contains obvious and avoidable language errors, you’ve incurred strikes one and two before the publisher even looks at your story.
  3. Thou shall use thy letter to demonstrate that you understand the publisher’s guidelines or catalog. Make reference to a provision in the guidelines or mission statement that suggests that your pitch is welcome, or reference a recently released volume in the publisher’s catalog. Let it be known that you — like all successful professional writers — read the rules or skim the market first, so the publisher knows that you’re not machine-gunning queries to every publisher with an email address. This form of personalization requires customized letters instead of the same cut-and-paste body, a point in your favor because most people can tell a form letter when they see it. Pro tip: So far, fewer than 5 percent of letters we receive make any reference at all to our guidelines or catalog — so taking the time will absolutely get you noticed.
  4. Thou shall not use thy letter to explain why you’re unilaterally exempting yourself from the publisher’s guidelines. We once received a note from an author referencing our local focus but then telling us that although he had never been to West Michigan, he thinks his state is close enough and that we’re all Midwesterners and, by gosh, it’s really only the story that matters. True? Maybe. But it’s not an author’s prerogative to decide which of our guidelines are important. By trying to make an exception for yourself, you’ll send the unintended message that you’re unwilling to follow established processes — a trait that makes contract and rewrite negotiations more challenging and can turn off publishers who are averse to dealing with “difficult” authors. Publishers really don’t want to work with the self-important any more than any other person in the universe wants to work with the self-important. So if you don’t meet a publisher’s requirement, pitch somewhere else, or politely ask whether your situation falls inside or outside the foul line instead of just asserting that the foul line is irrelevant.
  5. Thou shall tell the publisher important things about thyself. Publishers want to know a bit about you, in one page or less. Useful tidbits include your publishing history, your experience as an author, any academic preparation supporting the material you’re pitching, or some claim to fame that humanizes you. Let your wit impress. Did you win a short-story contest? Get published in a poetry magazine? Have a degree in creative writing to support your literary-fiction pitch? Or a degree in history to bolster your historical-fiction piece? Sometimes a one-sentence fun fact, especially if it’s obscure or impressive, makes a difference. The things you say about yourself, and the confidence with which you present them, cast an impression that — if done well — can work to your advantage. But please tell us about yourself within the body of the letter; do not just randomly add free-floating paragraphs or bullet-list bios after your signature, or skimp on the substance by pointing us to a URL that we absolutely will not visit during a query review. Pointing us to your website is the same thing as telling us nothing about yourself, with the attendant risks of rejection that follow from such omission. By all means, share your URL — but don’t rely on it as a shortcut to presenting yourself succinctly and in the context of the work you’re pitching.
  6. Thou shall not tell the publisher unnecessary demographics about thyself. Although authors don’t serve in the employ of publishers, some publishers get sensitive when an author discloses information that’s protected under federal employment law but is irrelevant within the context of the disclosure. You should not share your age, ethnicity, disability status, orientation, veteran status, gender identity, chronic-disease history or related facts, when such information is not germane to the story or to your fitness as an author. These superfluous facts may increase the publisher’s sensitivity to being on the receiving end of bad PR or even a discrimination lawsuit. For example, a Native American writer pitching a sword-and-sorcery tale shouldn’t offer his tribal lineage — it’s utterly irrelevant. So when such lineage comes through in the cover letter, some publishers may over-react and get lawyers involved internally, or conveniently “lose” the query to ensure plausible deniability. After all, who wants an author asserting on Twitter that Big Publishing Company refused a novel because the author is a minority? Although some publishers, particularly indie presses, might jump at signing a person with a minority status irrespective of whether such status matters to the story, most publishers don’t function like that. As such, sharing irrelevant demographic characteristics could be construed by many publishers as a shot across the bow. However, if the demographic fact is relevant to the pitch, then disclosure is actually helpful. For example, a young-adult story about a person’s struggle with puberty and transsexualism will likely generate more initial interest if the author shares his or her own experiences as a transsexual.
  7. Thou shall tell the publisher about your story. Please share the most important context about your work — a high-level synopsis, genre alignment, word count, point of view, similarity to other books/authors, that sort of thing. In your letter, we want to see a paragraph or two that accurately summarizes the plot and shows (not tells!) us why this story needs to be told to a mass audience. Never tease the publisher! You’re selling a work — so don’t leave us hanging about essential details on the very-much-mistaken belief that we’ll reach out to learn more. But note, however, that this high-level synopsis is not a formal written synopsis (that’s a different document altogether) and that the summary you provide in your cover letter should be worked into the letter’s body text and not appended as a series of bullet points or potential back-of-the-book marketing blurbs.
  8. Thou shall not try to sell the sizzle about your story. Avoid telling the publisher how great the story is, how wonderful of a writer you are or how many millions of dollars you expect the book to earn. Instead, write a polished letter supported by an accurate sample and synopsis so the publisher can infer for herself just how good you or the story really are. As a rule of thumb, the higher the bravado, the lower the competence, so avoid giving publishers material that will elicit an exasperated eye-roll. For that matter, avoid qualitative modifiers altogether — there’s no need to assert that your story is funny or clever or heart-warming or whatever. Just present the facts without ornamentation. One way of looking at the difference between commercially successful and unsuccessful authors is that the former have mastered the preparation of the steak, whereas the latter merely talk up its sizzle. Aim for quiet, confident competence and let your laurels be furnished by hands other than your own.

Over- or under-thinking a cover letter could lead to outright rejection without any substantial review. A well-thought letter, however, often gets the material reviewed at least once. Given the volume of submissions relative to the number of openings in an editorial calendar, sometimes just getting on the radar when the query package first gets opened can make all the difference.

[Revised 20 Nov 2017 – JEG]

The Eight Commandments of Writing Query Letters That Shine
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