Publishing Insights

» Query & Cover Letters

What is a Query Letter?
A query letter is a formal letter that is sent to magazine and literary editors/agents. These letters are used to inquire about possible representation and to propose writing ideas, introduce the writer and their writing style.

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Writing a Query Letter
To decrease the amount of unsolicited manuscripts some publishing houses have requested to not receive any unsolicited manuscripts. This means that for unrepresented authors they will be required to send in a query letter asking if an editor is interested in their work. Query letters are typically read and responded to within a few days and are often appreciated by busy editors.
Generally, a query letter should be about a page long and contain three paragraphs. Query letters are important as they give a literary agent a sense of who the writer is and what kind of work they produce, therefore these letters should be professional and written with care.

Each query letter should follow this general formatting:

  1. The first paragraph should contain a catchy one to two sentence long “hook” for the work you are seeking representation for. This should be a brief and direct statement about your work that attracts the attention of the agent/editor.
  2. Paragraph two: This should be a mini-synopsis of the work. The paragraph should be well written, concise and should entice the agent/editor to read more of your work. For inspiration consult the backs of other books.
  3. Paragraph three: The third paragraph is the biographical section of the letter. This paragraph should contain general information about you, the writer, outlining any works your have written, academic achievements, and any relevant information, the focus should remain on the writing aspects of you biography.
  4. The closing of your letter should thank your contact for their time. If your work is non-fiction then let the reader know that you have enclosed an outline, table of contents and sample chapters of your work for their review. If your work is fiction, let the agent know that a full manuscript is available for their review.

What is a Cover Letter?
Cover letters are short business letters that introduce a particular piece of writing. A cover letter most often accompanies a manuscript submission to a publisher. These letters are shorter than a letter of query and serve more as a greeting to an editor, telling them what you have enclosed and thanking them for their time.

Writing a Cover Letter
A cover letter should be short and to the point. Avoid including too much information that does not pertain to your work. Generally, a cover letter should be a couple paragraphs long and include only the most necessary information in order to inform the editor of what you have enclosed with your submission.
A cover letter should follow this general format:

  1. Paragraph one should state what you are submitting. The paragraph should be fairly short and include the title of the work, approximate word count, and the genre.
  2. The second paragraph should explain why you chose to send your work to that particular publishing house. This paragraph should demonstrate that you have done your research and have some general knowledge about the industry and markets.
  3. The third paragraph should be about you as a writer. Remember to remain on topic, editors are busy people and at this point in your relationship do not want to know about your personal life. Include any background expertise you may have in the field you have written on, and any past publishing credits. If you are a new writer without any past experience, you may want to omit this paragraph.

Other tips for writing a successful cover letter:

  • A cover letter should be short and well written.
  • Include your name and contact information.
  • This is a business type letter so make sure you are addressing the correct editor, and have included all the pertinent information.
  • If you are unsure of who your letter ought to be addressed, the general greeting of “Dear Editor” is acceptable. Remember to remain gender neutral when addressing an unknown editor.
  • Keep a positive tone throughout your letter.

Query Letter and Cover Letter Check List

  • Your return address should include your name, address, phone number, and email
  • Make sure that your letter is addressed to the proper editor and that the name of the person you are contacting is spelled correctly
  • Your letter should be written in a proper business format, using concise language
  • Your letters should contain no more than three central paragraphs and if possible the length should be approximately a page or less long
  • These letters are prospective editor’s first glimpses at your writing style. Be as professional as possible, think job application
  • Check your spelling and grammar. A poorly written query/cover letter will not reflect well on you as an author
  • For a query letter include a self-addressed postcard. For a cover letter include a self-addressed stamped envelope big enough to fit your manuscript.

For more information and tips on how to write the best possible query and cover letters see the Writers' Digest's article on How to Write the Perfect Query Letter, read Lynn Flewelling's The Complete Nobody's Guide to Query Letters, or learn How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter from NY Book Editors.

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