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Rites of Submission:
Cover Letters and Query Letters

by Jacqueline K. Ogburn

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Covers letters and query letters are a source of great anxiety for writers. Because the submission process seems so mysterious, cover letters are viewed as talismans or lucky charms, the magic object that will open the door leading to publication, fame and fortune. Not quite. A terrific cover letter never sold a bad manuscript, and many lovely books have sold in spite of their cover letters. Query letters are trickier, because they are the proverbial foot in the door.

So what is a good cover letter? First it is a courtesy. As an editor, I did find submissions that lacked a cover letter a bit rude, like a phone caller who doesn't bother saying hello or identifying themselves before launching into the conversation. Like any business letter, it should include your name and address. The text should have the title of your manuscript and what type of book -- picture book, easy-to-read, nonfiction, etc. It should be simple and direct and signed. That's it.

A good query letter is a different beast. Simplicity is still a prime virtue, but a query letter is a come-on; it should entice the editor to read more. It should give a taste of your book, a description of what it is, what is special about it, and it should be less than one page long.

I hear skeptical questions from the back of the room: but what about marketing information, reading levels, testimonials from my high school English teacher, my experience as a teacher in a special school for the double-jointed? Following one of the basic rules of good writing to show, not tell, I have written a selection of cover letters and a query to identify common approaches and problems.

Sample Cover Letters

For some of the samples, I made up book titles for imaginary manuscripts. For one of these samples, I used one of my favorite books, the Newbery Medal winner Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli. (Mr. Spinelli did not write these letters, I am merely using his book as an example. The book is readily available, so you can check and see if my descriptions are good.) The first letter, the bad example with an imaginary manuscript, has footnotes to the common mistakes, which you may jump to if you wish.

Sample Cover Letter #1
What Not to Do

Dear Harper Brothers,(1)

I began making up stories as an aid to getting my children to bed each night. With the encouragement of my dear family, I finally wrote them down and collected them into a book.(2) Forty-two of their favorites are included in The Awesome Adventures of Anthony Ant, including "Anthony and Arthur Aardvark," and "Anthony Ant's Aunt Annie." (3)

I don't have much publishing experience, and I'm sorry I don't have a list of credits to send to you. I did work on the high school newspaper, but I don't suppose that counts. As soon as I have some, I will send them along.(4) I read the manuscript of my book to my six children and they all loved it. I also took it to my ten-year-old son's class at school and the children there were equally enthusiastic.(5) Even though the main character is a boy, girls liked it too. This book has definite kid appeal!

Kids today face a tough world, and this book will teach them about courage and good manners in a fun way.(6)

Since ants are a big part of this book, there should be good sales potential in elementary schools and libraries, many of which have ant farms, especially if you publish it in a paperback edition as well as hardcover. I have enclosed the address of the National Headquarters of the Ant Farmers' Association of America, since I am sure they will be interested in a book that features so many ants.(7)

My cousin Norbert Finkel is a wonderful illustrator and he is eager to do the cover art for the book. His portrait of Anthony is enclosed. Since he is family, he will give you a good price.(8)

I will call you next Tuesday to discuss the manuscript.(9) Thank you for your consideration. (10)

Sincerely,

A. Writer(11)

Addressing the Unknown:
The Greeting of a Cover Letter

Even when you have composed the perfect cover letter to send with your manuscript, and you have done your homework and chosen the perfect publisher to submit it to, one tiny problem remains. What do you put in the greeting of your letter? You know, the part that comes after the date and address, and begins with "Dear."

Editors do move around a lot, especially since downsizing has hit the publishing industry too. It's not always possible to find out the name of the person reading submissions at a particular house. How do you address an unknown person who is going to be doing something as personal as reading your work?

There are so many choices:
To Whom It May Concern -- Polite, but it has overtones of "Please take care of my baby left here on your doorstep."
Dear Madam -- This acknowledges that the majority of children's books editors are women, and even still employ mostly women, but the word has unwholesome associations with those naughty shops on 42nd Street.
Dear Sir or Madam -- While admirably including both genders, this one sounds like Jeeves addressing a drag queen who hadn't quite finished hormone therapy.
Dear Terrible and Beneficent Goddess of Publishing -- This may accurately reflect a writer's feelings about the balance of power during the submission process, but might be perceived as groveling.
Dear Money-Grubbing Philistine -- This may also accurately reflect a writer's emotional state after a morning of many rejection letters, but could come across as a little hostile.

And the winner is: Dear Editor.
It's simple, direct, and gender neutral. Even if it is not the correct job title of the person who first reads your manuscript, the reader is performing an editorial function. Omitting the greeting would seem rude, so include what seems polite, and don't waste too much time over it. After all, who remembers the wrapping on the best present ever? What an editor really wants to read is a terrific manuscript, not the perfect cover letter.

Common Mistakes in This Sample:
(1) The company has not been Harper Brothers for decades. If you don't have a contact with a particular editor, addressing the letter to "Dear Editor" is fine. It 's direct and gender neutral. (See sidebar) back

(2) Telling stories to your family is a fine tradition, but not very informative. back

(3) Alliteration should be on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins of Writing for Children. It gets cloying fast. back

(4) If you don't have any publishing history, just don't mention it. Apologies are not necessary. back

(5) Reading the story to children is a good exercise, but not a good indication of publishability. Most children adore the attention of being read to and would love it if you read them the phonebook. It is also difficult to tell if the response is to the story or to your performance. What's important at this stage is how it reads on the page. back

(6) Most editors see this as a red flag. Stories written to teach moral lessons usually end up with the lesson overwhelming the story. back

(7) Publishers are aware of the major markets for the kind of books they publish. Unless you have knowledge of a special opportunity, say if the Ant Farmers' Association is starting a mail order catalog, don't spend too much space on marketing ideas. back

(8) Unless you are an artist, don't send cover art with your manuscript. Publishers are responsible for the production of the book, including the cover art. back

(9) Most editors would be afraid to answer the phone on Tuesday after reading this. The editor probably has not read the manuscript yet, and if it's rejected, there's nothing to discuss. back

(10) Nowhere does this letter say what sort of book this is or what it's about. The opposite of this mistake (but still a mistake) is a letter that tells the entire plot, or in case of a picture book, a synopsis that is as long as the manuscript. back

(11) Always include a self-addressed stamped envelope. back

Sample Cover Letter # 2

Dear Editor:

Harper Collins has a proud history of publishing quality fiction and I am submitting my middle-grade novel, Maniac Magee for your consideration.

The history of a kid is one part fact, two parts legend and three parts snowball. * Maniac Magee performs legendary feats in Two Mills, Pennsylvania, from hitting a home-run bunt on a frog-ball to bringing kids together from both sides of the tracks. But most of all it is the story of boy looking for his true home.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Sincerely,

A. Writer

SASE enclosed.

*From Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, copyright 1990.

This cover letter isn't sparkling, but it gives the important points: that the manuscript is a middle grade novel, a hint of the style and some of the themes of the story. It's an introduction, not a pitch letter.

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Query Letters

Many publishers now have writer's guidelines requesting query letters instead of sending unsolicited manuscripts. This is an attempt to cut down on the time processing inappropriate submissions, but it does present another hurdle for new writers. Not only do you have to write a wonderful book, but also a wonderful query letter that will tempt an editor into requesting your manuscript.

Sample Query Letter # 1:
Fiction -- Novel

Dear Editor,

My grandma says time don't run but one way, but that summer was one where at times I wished it wouldn't run at all. Just hold still on Saturday nights when the best thing to do was fly down dark roads in Billy Clodfelter's Lark with the windows rolled down and the music up. Stop on Sunday mornings when Mary Barrier smiled at me over her hymnal. Just stay at the time when things still seemed simple.

Jake Hanson has always helped his dad on his rounds of the juke joints and pool halls of Cap Rock, Georgia, changing the records and collecting the cash. He always thought he would take over the business someday, but now at 14, he's beginning to really listen to some of the people and the music they make. He also begins to question why some customers are treated differently, especially in the black sections of town. When he hears Belinda Triplett singing in a way he's never heard on any record, Jake knows he wants to be something more than just a juke box man.

Set in the early 60s, Juke Joint is a young adult novel of a boy finding his own path in a turbulent time. Jake and Belinda are strong characters whose growing friendship flies in the face of the conventions of their small Southern town. Not just a romance or a problem novel, Juke Joint explores the issues of racism and family loyalty against a setting of church socials and midnight drag racing, gospel and rhythm and blues.

I would be happy to send the manuscript to you for consideration and have enclosed a reply card for your convenience.

Sincerely,

A. Writer

A fiction query letter might be the toughest kind to write. It should be short, but contain enough of the sense of the story and your writing style to catch the attention of an editor. Since so much of fiction is a matter of taste, the letter needs to be targeted carefully. Think about what sort of copy entices you to check out a book by an author you have never read before. Sometimes including an excerpt from the manuscript can be a good approach--for example the beginning paragraph if you have a good hook.

Query letters for fiction are worth a bit of angst and extra polishing. Reading a novel requires a larger investment of time on the editor's part, so the query letter must be targeted very carefully. Don't send a serious issue book to a house that does only series romances.

Sample Query Letter # 2:
Nonfiction

Dear Editor:

Do you know what an Egyptian mummy, a samurai soldier, and your pair of sneakers have in common? The answer can be found in the introduction of my book Sticking Together: A History of Glue. Different kinds of glue affect all parts of our lives, from kid's projects with library paste to the rubber industry to post-it notes. Glue helps hold together our houses, our cars, even our shoes.

Sticking Together combines history, science, and hands-on activities. My opening chapter explores the role of rubber cement in the colonization of the New World and explains the production process from tapping the tree to shipping the bottles to the art supply store. The final chapter includes recipes for homemade glue products and projects. My background in anthropology gives me grounding in exploring the ways that a seemingly small thing like glue can affect an entire culture.

Written for 7 to 10 year-olds, Sticking Together fits in with your series of excellent children's nonfiction "The Way the World Works", with a format similar to Hold Everything: Containers from Pots to Plastic. The proposal includes a complete outline for the book and three sample chapters.

A reply card is enclosed and I hope to hear of your interest in Sticking Together.

Sincerely,

A. Writer

A book on the history of glue might not ring your chimes, but to an editor who has published a book about containers this project would be worth a look.

Cover and query letters are important. They are part of doing your homework, of presenting yourself to a prospective publisher in a professional manner. In the end it is your story that matters the most, your book that has to sell itself. The best letters in the world will not sell a bad book. There is no magic formula for these letters, no secret phrases that will make the editor offer you a contract. The magic has to come from your writing the best book you can write.

Editor's postscript:

For more information and sample letters:

How to Write Irresistible Query Letters: The best of several guides on the market, this focuses on general, not children's publishing.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books: This is a general guide I wrote. It includes more samples of cover and query letters and guidance in writing them.

Query Letter Sample List of Awesomeness: A list of links to query letters.

Query Letters Revisited / Sample Query Letters: A two-part article by Margot Finke with sample query letters.

How to Write a Great Query Letter: An Example That Worked: From Cheryl Klein's blog, this also has a link to a "Query Letter from Hell."

The One Right Way to Write a Query: An agent's view.

Must Manuscripts Be Submitted with a Cover Letter? A short piece on a surprising question.

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