Author and creative writing tutor, Beth loves helping her students improve their technique.
Why Write a Cover or Query Letter?
You have written your article, finished your novel, or completed your poems. Whatever your forte, the creative part of writing is only the start of your journey to becoming a published author. It’s a competitive market. Everyone thinks they have the skill to write a bestseller, and publishers are inundated with poorly written books. To make your work stand out from the crowd, you may decide to enlist the help of a literary agent.
What is a Literary Agent?
A literary agent is a kind of go-between author and publisher. They act as a filter, weeding out the worst manuscripts. This saves the publisher a lot of time and effort, and they value the expertise of a good agent. The reputation of a literary agency can open (or close) doors for you in the publishing world, so it’s important you approach the right one.
Finding a literary agent that will accept you onto their books can be almost as difficult as finding a publisher direct. But you must persevere; many publishers no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts from authors. They will only discuss submissions that reach them via a literary agency.
What to Include in an Agent Query Letter
A great cover letter will hook a literary agent the moment they start to read. It is a business letter so be professional. The letter is a shop window for your writing skills, so make every word count. Get it right, and you will have taken a major step along the road to becoming a published author.
As a minimum, all cover letters should include the following:
- Your name and address. Always include your real name and address. If you write under a pen-name then add this too. An agent will check your credentials to see that you are a real person (by reference to electoral rolls, address registers etc.)
- Your email address. Remember this is a business letter. Its contents will set the tone of your proposed relationship with the agent. Your email address should sound professional. Don’t use a jokey one. If necessary, create a new email especially for your literary endeavors.
- The title of your book or article. This may be a “working title” and can be changed later.
- A brief paragraph describing the book or article. This should not be a synopsis (that can be included as a separate document). The emphasis is on the word “brief”. A literary agent receives hundreds of letters like yours every week. They want to be able to quickly scan your query letter to get an idea of the subject and angle of your submission.
How to Approach a Literary Agent
Do’s and Don’ts When Writing a Cover Letter
- DO Use the agent’s name. Generic letters addressed to "Dear Literary Agent" or similar are frowned upon. By using an agent's name, you personalize the letter and the agent is more likely to take your submission seriously, but be sure you spell the agent's name correctly.
- DO Explain why you've chosen to query this specific agent. Researching the agency prior to submission is essential. You need to know what other books they represent so that you can explain why you think your book is a good fit in that group.
- DO Sell your credentials as an author. If you have a website or blog, mention it and the extent of its readership. Include any gigs you have done that relate to writing. Having an existing audience enhances your opportunity to sell books, and makes you a more attractive client.
- DON’T Be arrogant. Don’t oversell your writing achievements; stick to the facts. You want the agent to warm to you and your book, and not find you conceited and untalented.
- DON’T Include your age. It’s irrelevant and may create unintentional bias that makes it more difficult for you to sell your book.
- DON’T Include writing credits that aren't meaningful. The agent is not interested in an essay that won a school prize 30 years ago. Unless you've already had a book published or written articles for a prestigious journal, it's best not to mention them.
Be Brief and Write Clearly
Don’t use ten words where one will do. The query letter must be brief and businesslike. It should cover no more than one side of A4 sized paper. Use a clear and simple typeface, and reasonable font size. Font styles such as Calibri, Arial or Times New Roman are good ones to choose. You want your target literary agent to be fascinated by your prose, not by your fancy lettering. A font size of between 10 and 12 makes the text easy to read for most people.
Literary agents are busy people. They receive hundreds of unsolicited manuscripts every week. They will skim read your cover letter and make a judgment on your work within seconds of starting to read. Don’t waste those precious first moments with unnecessary distractions.
Your cover letter to a literary agent or publisher is a selling document. You need to sell not just your book or article, but also yourself. It is important that the tone of your letter is enthusiastic. You need to demonstrate your talents as a competent writer by sending a well written and grammatically correct letter. If you have spelling mistakes or typing errors in the cover letter, it is unlikely that a literary agent would bother to read any further. You should start with a punchy fact about either yourself or your work will catch the agent’s attention. Then briefly explain your book or article stating the topic it covers and its word length.
How to Find and Choose a Literary Agent
You should research the market BEFORE you submit a manuscript; this is the key to success. There are several reference books that list literary agents, publishers and the type of submissions they accept. These are published annually and it is important to access the current edition. I recommend you look at A Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published. It is a comprehensive volume with details of over 1,000 agents in the US who represent authors at home and overseas, and contains lots of useful advice.
The demand for different types of fiction is constantly changing. An agent that was taking on new clients last year may not be doing so next year. When deciding which literary agent to contact, make sure you understand in which genre they specialize. Take a look at their websites to see which writers they already represent. Their websites will also contain information about their terms of service and how they accept submissions from new writers.
Email Versus Snail Mail
There is an ongoing debate about whether you should send your cover letter and manuscript by email or snail mail. This decision is not yours to make. You need to refer to the literary agent’s website. If they state that they only accept manuscripts by email, then don’t send your work by snail mail. It’s no excuse to say that you don’t have an Internet connection; if you want an agent to take you seriously, you must follow their wishes.
Most agents will not accept any attachments to unsolicited emails. This is to protect their computers from bogus emails containing viruses. A literary agent may request that you send your initial cover letter by email with the stipulation that the full manuscript is sent by snail mail. If you are sending documents through the post and require them to be returned if unsuitable, you will need to include a self-addressed envelope with sufficient prepaid return postage.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.