Attention-Grabbing Cover and Query Letters

You’ve labored over your manuscript for months. It’s a polished, spell-checked, one-of-a-kind manuscript. Now it’s time to approach an editor. Does the editor want to see a complete manuscript with a cover letter, or a query letter? Either way, you’ll have about ten seconds to get his or her attention.

What is a cover letter?

A cover letter is a business letter introducing a particular piece of writing, which accompanies the letter, to an editor or agent. It should be concise, informative and professional. Professional does not mean stuffy. This letter is your representative. Let your own personality come across. The letter should contain all the necessary information…and nothing more.

Cover letters are typed and single-spaced, written in standard business form. They are printed on plain white, 8 1/2-by-11 inch paper unless you have personal business letterhead, in which case you may use that. Ideally, the letter is no longer than one page. The more white space on the paper, the more inviting a busy editor will find your letter.

Begin the cover letter with a paragraph that states what you are submitting. It should include the title of the piece, the genre, and the approximate word count. Usually, nothing more needs to be written about the manuscript as it will be enclosed in the envelope and will speak for itself.

However, there are instances when you may want or need to impart more information–such as to alert the editor to the timeliness of your topic, provide important exclusive source information, or let the editor know that photos are available.

Next, tell why you have chosen to send your material to that editor or publishing house. Perhaps your manuscript fits with a series they publish, you particularly like the way a book similar to yours was illustrated, or you read in a named resource that she was looking for magazine features such as yours. All this establishes the fact that you have some knowledge of the industry.

Finally, tell a bit about yourself, but only what is pertinent to the project. If your background gives you some expertise in the field about which you have written, state that. If you have publishing credits in the field or genre, state that. If you have none of these things to tell, omit this paragraph all together. Always keep a positive tone to your letter.

What is a query letter?

Frustrated editors everywhere have sought ways to decrease the number and size of the stacks of unsolicited manuscripts. So, more publishing houses each year hang out the “no unsolicited manuscripts” sign. Many writers think this means doors are closed to them, but it only means you must ask the editor if he or she is interested in seeing your project. This is done with a query letter.

A query letter asks permission to send the project described in the letter. The query letter is sent without an accompanying manuscript. So, a query letter must sell the editor on looking at your completed manuscript.

The first paragraph must hook the editor’s attention, just as your manuscript must. That hook should be in the tone of the manuscript you want to submit–whether rollicking, somber or humorous. Then, in a couple of sentences, tell the plot of your story. Many people write this as they would write a book cover flap, drawing the reader in. Unlike the cover flap however, don’t keep the editor guessing. Tell the high points of your plot in a sentence or two. That’s hard to do. Plan to take your time and do it well. If you don’t sell your story and yourself in this letter, that’s all the editor will ever see…your letter. Do this with facts and polished work, not hype.

The remainder of the query letter will have the same information a cover letter would–the nature of what you want to submit (genre, word count, title), why you chose to send to them, and pertinent information about yourself.

One editor who still takes unsolicited manuscripts tells how much she likes query letters. When the mail arrives, the manuscripts are placed in the slush pile for later perusal but the queries are opened that day, read, and decided on. If a self-addressed stamped post card has been enclosed, she can check the appropriate box and get it back in the mail. If the project is not something she can use, in just a few days the author knows that and can mail his or her manuscript to another editor. If, however, the editor wants to see the entire manuscript, when the author sends it, she or he marks its envelope “requested material”. When the editor receives it, she will put it in the requested or solicited pile which will be dealt with long before the slush pile.

Cover and query letters must be written with the same care as you took with your manuscript. Use your ten seconds for all they’re worth.

Cover and Query Letter Checklist

* My return address includes my name, address, phone number and email address.
* The letter is addressed to the proper editor, whose name is spelled correctly.
* The letter is concise, polished and written in a business format.
* The one-page letter (two only if absolutely necessary) contains no more than three or four paragraphs and as much white space as possible.
* The letter sounds professional, much like any other job application.
* I have used Courier typeface at ten characters to the inch.
* I have checked my spelling and grammar.
* For cover letters, I have enclosed a self-addressed, stamped envelope large enough and with the proper postage for the return of my manuscript–just in case it’s necessary. For queries, I’ve enclosed a business sized SASE or a SASPC (self-addressed, stamped postcard) for the editor’s response.

This article is excerpted from Author to Editor: Query Letter Secrets of the Pros, edited and compiled by Linda Arms White. It’s the latest book from Children’s Book Insider.

Author to Editor: Query Letter Secrets of the Pros features actual contract-generating book proposals, query letters and cover letters used by some of America’s top children’s authors. The authors analyze each letter, tell why it worked, and share inside tips for writing the perfect letter.

For more information about this remarkable book, click here!

Laura Backes is the publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Writers. For more information about writing children’s books, including free articles, market tips, insider secrets and much more, visit Children’s Book Insider’s home on the web at

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