As a publisher, I am inundated with manuscript submissions. These usually arrive with a covering letter, and while I hope I am professional enough not to judge a manuscript simply by its cover(ing letter), there’s no doubt that a poor covering letter puts any author at a disadvantage. So, here’s what works for me.
1. Be brief. Keep in mind that every publisher/editor/assessor is likely to receive hundreds if not thousands of manuscripts. They are looking for a covering letter that is professional and to the point and that addresses their submission criteria, not a five-page epic that takes almost as long to read as the manuscript itself.
2. Be genuine. By this I mean that you need to be yourself — the real ‘you’, not the persona you think is most likely to impress a publisher. If you’re quirky, let that quirkiness come through (don’t go too overboard though — intrigue the publisher, don’t scare them!). Try to give the publisher a feel for what makes you tick, why you’ve written the manuscript, what drives you. At all costs avoid lines such as ‘I’ve noticed that Dystopian fiction is really popular now, so that’s why I’ve chosen to write in this genre.’ Publishers don’t want authors who write to a trend or formula; they want authors who bring their own unique experience and voice to stories they simply have to tell.
3. Be relevant. While a publisher will want to get a sense of who you are as a person, they don’t need a blow-by-blow account of your entire life. I still remember the covering letter I once received that began, ‘I was born in Zimbabwe’ and then — over four pages — went on to tell me about the author’s engineering career, subsequent transition to architecture, eventual retirement, and now newfound desire to write children’s picture books. Also, don’t include lists of societies you belong to unless you actually participate in them. It’s very easy to sign up to a membership; a role as treasurer is a more reliable sign of passion and commitment. Similarly, only mention awards and accolades for your writing if they have resonance outside your immediate circle — winning your rural village’s poetry day, while wonderful for you, is not going to make a prospective publisher take note; winning the CYA or KBR unpublished manuscript award might.
4. Be warm. This might be stating the obvious, but publishers are humans. A polite, friendly letter will go a long way to making a publisher turn to your manuscript in a positive frame of mind. Don’t include a deadline by which you ‘hope to have had a response’; don’t ask for feedback on your story (most publishers simply don’t have the time to give this); do thank the publisher for their time and consideration.
Anouska Jones is our KBR Editor. Mum to a gorgeous little girl, she has over twenty years' experience in the book publishing industry. A publishing consultant and editor, Anouska is obsessed by all things to do with words, writing and books.