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How to Write a Cover Letter for a Book Submission

getting published Nov 18, 2022
a good letter could mean you get asked to provide the completed manuscript

If you’re wondering how to write a book submission cover letter, first of all: congratulations! You’ve written a whole novel, and edited the completed manuscript so it’s ready to submit to literary agents. That’s a huge achievement!

While the world of publishing and the manuscript submission process might seem opaque, we’re very lucky here at The Novelry. We have a whole team of experienced authors and editors who have been on both sides of the process – so we know how to write query letters that really grab literary professionals’ attention.

Read on for our top tips on crafting the perfect cover letter. Remember, the cover letter is one of the most important ways to ensure the package you submit stands out from the crowd.

While you’re here, be sure to look over other articles in our creative writing blog – they’re full of tips and tricks for navigating the publishing industry. For example, you can find advice on how a writer can create the perfect hook for a novel, and how to write a synopsis to go with it. You might also want to cast your eyes over our tips on how to start a story and write a great first paragraph.

Plus, you can read this article with a literary agent’s advice on novel openings so that your first three chapters are as strong as they can be.

And always, always remember to read the instructions on each agent’s and publisher’s website before you even think about putting together a submissions package.

But above all, do away with any fear or nerves: manuscript submission really isn’t scary stuff! It’s all very straightforward, and agents are on your side! They want to share great stories with the world. Think of this as another stepping-stone to seeing your book on the shelves, not an obstacle. 

 

The basics of writing a book submission cover letter: tone

The first thing to establish before you start writing the cover letter for your book is the tone.

It can be a difficult balance, and – understandably – a significant choice for a writer. After all, this isn’t a cover letter to apply for any old job where your writing prowess might not be a huge factor. This is your chance to prove your prose is worthy of agents’ extremely limited time.

The temptation to show off your skills and your writing style might be strong. But remember: that’s why you submit sample chapters. Think of this more as a business letter. Keep it professional, to the point and easy to read. Keep your word length and sentence length in check; this is no place for purple prose.

Some writers also hope their query letters will convey their personality – and so they should! If it feels right, feel free to add a splash of dry humour, and give the agent an idea of who you are (without recounting your entire life). But again, maintain a balance and stay on the professional end of the spectrum rather than going all-out wacky. 

A brief note on conveying your personality: be sure to write in the first person, as yourself. Some people think it’s kooky or endearing to write their letter as their protagonist. It might feel original, but unfortunately agents have seen it before, and few will be amused.

Above all, proofread, then proofread again, and then proofread a final time. You might even ask a friend from your writing group, or a savvy editor, to give it one more proofread for good measure. What you really don’t want in your cover letter is a grammatical or spelling mistake. You’re selling the agent on your writing – keeping it error-free is the bare minimum!

  

Key elements of cover letters in publishing

Once you’ve thought about tone, consider the topics your cover letter should address.

There are five key elements in the query letter that writers send with their book submissions: 

  1. The hook

  2. The story

  3. The market

  4. The agent

  5. The author

Generally, you’ll write a cover letter that hits those topics, probably in that order.

The word count

Before we think about how you’ll address these elements, and how much of your cover letter each will take up, it’s worth thinking about the overall word count.

Again, you might find yourself wrestling your writerly instincts (even if you’re fond of writing short fiction…). You need to keep your covering letter short and snappy. After all, you don’t want the agent to spend all their time reading just your letter. You want them to turn to your manuscript as soon as possible, and get right into those three sample chapters (or however many their guidelines request).

At most, your pitch letter should take up one page (in a legible font size, please. We know your tricks!)

 

1. Writing the hook for your book submission 

The very first thing in your letter will likely be your hook. It’s right there in the name; its job is to hook the reader into your fiction.

As we mentioned, you can get in-depth advice on how to write a great hook for a novel in a dedicated article, but we’ll give you some brief pointers here.

It should be a very short paragraph, which includes the title and genre of your novel, along with the pitch or hook. Put simply, it will go: ‘[TITLE] is a [GENRE] in which [PITCH]’.

The hook should be (ideally) a single sentence, and sum up the premise of your book. To nail it, you’ll want to consider these factors:

  1. What your novel is about

  2. Who it’s about

  3. What’s at stake for your protagonist

  4. What stands in their way

  5. What they must do to achieve their goal

Some writers find it helpful to use titles of works they’re comparing their novel to, often in the ‘X meets Y’ format, or ‘X but in Z setting’. For example:

  • Alien was pitched as ‘Jaws but in space’

  • George R.R. Martin’s pitch for A Game of Thrones was ‘Lord of the Rings meets the War of the Roses’

  • Our writing coach Katie Khan’s debut novel, Hold Back the Stars, was pitched as ‘Gravity meets One Day

If there are titles or concepts that fit, this can give agents an immediate idea of what to expect in your manuscript.

Plus, you’re offering proof of concept. That’s integral to any compelling business proposition, but it’s especially important in the world of publishing. While the industry has risk-taking pretty much baked in (given only around a third of published books are profitable), there’s still hesitancy around signing books with a premise that’s completely untested.

Which brings up another important point: don’t make the mistake of comparing yourself to an outlier or phenomenon (like Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey). Not only could you come across as a little self-aggrandising, but not all agents want to bet on outliers. They might prefer the security of a surer thing.

2. The story paragraph

Once you’ve given the basic hook, you’ll be relieved to know that you have another, longer paragraph to summarise your story.

This is one of the most essential parts of your cover letter. Importantly, it sits apart from your hook, synopsis, chapter outlines and/or sample chapters.

To give you an idea of what you’re aiming to write, it’s akin to the blurb written on the back of book covers. It should be stirring and pithy. It should also make it clear what question will drive readers to the novel’s end from its very beginning.

Make it as intriguing as you can and feel free to end on a cliffhanger. The agent needn’t know the entire story at the point of submitting. Plus, they’ll usually have requested a more detailed synopsis as part of the submissions package, so they’ll turn to that if they want more detail. Or they might even ask to see the full manuscript! But this letter is your chance to grab their attention and stick in their memory. 

While you want to distil the essence of your whole novel into this section, do try to keep the focus on its beginning, the part that makes us keep going. That’ll make the literary agent want to read the rest of your materials!

One fact you should always include is the total number of words in your full manuscript. 

Examples of story paragraphs

To give you an idea, here are a couple of examples from popular books. We’ll put the novel after the paragraph, so you can see how easily identifiable the work should be from its brief description. Hopefully it will give you an idea of the amount of detail to go into.

Mrs Bennet wants nothing more than to secure good marriages for her five daughters and is thrilled when a wealthy young gentleman rents a nearby manor. When middle daughter, Elizabeth, is first introduced to eligible bachelor Fitzwilliam Darcy, she finds him cold and arrogant – and he seems unimpressed by her quick-witted charm. However, as the weeks pass, both Darcy and Elizabeth find themselves reconsidering their first impressions.
—Summary for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

Summers span decades, winter can last a lifetime and the struggle for the Iron Throne has begun. It will stretch from the south – where heat breeds plots, lusts and intrigues – to the vast and savage eastern lands, all the way to the frozen north where an 800-foot wall of ice protects the kingdom from the dark forces that lie beyond. Kings and queens, knights and renegades, liars, lords and honest men... All will play the Game of Thrones.
—Summary for A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

As you can see, neither is especially literary or complex in its language, but each gives the reader a sense of the tone of its corresponding novel. Likewise, without giving away the whole plot or spoiling the ending, we have a very good idea of where the stories will take us.

 

describe your story in your letter so you can match your manuscript with the right editor

  

3. Addressing the market in your cover letter

We touched on the notion of staking your novel’s place in the market in your ‘hook’ paragraph. If you didn’t do it in your hook, this paragraph is your chance. If you did, now you can dig a bit deeper.

In any pitch letter, you should align your work with other things that have been successful.

It doesn’t have to take the form of ‘X meets Y’. You could just write something simple, like ‘people who enjoyed Example Book will also enjoy my novel’, or ‘This novel would sit comfortably in a bookshop alongside Example Book and Another Great Book’.

Of course, this requires a deep and very up-to-date awareness of your genre. While it’s good to have an appreciation of the classics, it’s often best to draw parallels with recent successes and show you understand current trends in your cover letter.

Some good avenues include:

  • Reading bestseller lists (like the Sunday Times or the New York Times)

  • Browsing bestselling titles of online retailers like Amazon

  • Checking which books are stocked on supermarket shelves (and particularly those that stick around for months)

  • Seeing what bookshops have in the windows and on the front tables

Bonus points if you mention authors represented by the agent you’re querying! (And a stern reminder to be very mindful of copying and pasting cover letters from one agent to the next; they should be carefully personalised each time.)

This section should make it easy for a literary agent to identify your target audience. It will give them clues as to which editors and publishers they can pitch your novel to, and how it can be marketed after publication.


4. Mention the agent in every cover letter

We just touched on the importance of personalising your cover letter, but it’s not just in the published authors you mention.

You should write about the agent and any relevant details about why you’ve chosen them. Most agents receive hundreds of query letters a week, so if you want them to give you their time and attention, show that you’ve given them yours.

Of course, you don’t want to give the impression you know every detail of their life. Not only could that be creepy, but you’re adhering to a tight word limit – don’t let yourself go over one page!

You can – and should – use a couple of your precious sentences to show you know their professional background. While researching individual agents might seem time-consuming – especially on top of all the work you’ve already done – it’s vital.

And it’s not just manners; it’s important for your long-term success, well after you sign with a literary agency. After all, this is ultimately a business deal and a professional partnership. You need to be sure that it’s the right fit for you and your novel.

So use agents’ online presence on their agency website or professional profile to see the kinds of authors they work with, and the ones they admire. If they align with your style – great! You can feel good about submitting to them, with the promise of a fruitful partnership on the horizon.


5. Writing about yourself in your query letter

Finally, we come to the topic many novelists least like to write about: themselves. 

You’re in luck, because most agents want this section to be very brief. Remember, the focus is on your fiction and its viability. Your life story isn’t relevant. While your passion and commitment to writing are indispensable, the fact you’re trying to publish a novel you’ve written speaks for itself. Don’t wax too lyrical. 

In fact, there’s pretty much only one concrete thing that every agent wants to know about you, and that’s whether you have any publishing history.

Don’t panic if this is your first book! Unless it says otherwise in their submission guidelines, the vast majority of agents are open to debut authors (and many are actively looking for them).

If you haven’t yet published any books but would like to include something about your writing experience, you can mention other publications or practice you’ve had. It could include:

  1. Experience in a professional realm (maybe you’ve worked as a journalist or a copywriter)
  2. Online creative writing courses you’ve taken (especially if you’ve done any with The Novelry, which literary agencies love!)
  3. Short fiction you’ve published
  4. Writing awards you’ve won

Some people include a brief line about their day job or other details of their life – particularly if it’s relevant to the genesis of their fiction. For example, Harriet Tyce was a criminal barrister, and wrote two novels centred around criminal barristers. It was clear where she found story ideas for her thrillers – or at least their protagonists.

This type of connection can give agents confidence in the accuracy of your writing, suggesting your editor will have a lighter workload when it comes to factual discrepancies. Plus, it can be helpful when it comes to marketing (if you’re happy to divulge your background).

If your job is uninteresting, unrelated or you’re trying to keep it under a page, feel free to omit details beyond your fiction writing. Agents are more interested in you as a writer than as a person.

And that’s pretty much it! All that’s left to do is to thank the agent for their time and consideration, and sign off. Done and dusted.


What happens next?

So what happens next? Agents will usually give an expected window for responses on their website, and this can be anywhere from a few days up to six weeks, or even longer. It’s important that you respect this timeframe! Follow their guidelines about when and how to check on the status of your submission.

Similarly, if an agent passes on your submission, please do not badger them for an explanation or ask them to reconsider. Agents can only take on authors and stories that they genuinely feel they can champion, and they know their own tastes – be gracious about rejection and try not to take it personally. Remember, publishing is a small business and agents have long memories!

And the fact is, dealing with criticism and rejection is part and parcel of a writer’s life; that’s why it’s so important for us to develop resilience

review 

Tips from The Novelry’s partner literary agencies

At The Novelry, we’re fortunate enough to partner with some of the world’s leading literary agencies.

They’ve kindly written articles for us in which they share their experiences and advice on querying agents, as well as on a whole range of other fascinating topics which you can read on our blog.

Here are some of the gems they’ve shared: 

  1. Keep the body of the email as short as possible; send materials as attachments, unless otherwise directed.

  2. Include your attachments (i.e. the sample chapters, synopsis/outline and anything else that’s requested) as a Word document if possible. Most e-readers don’t deal well with PDFs.

  3. Proofread very carefully; a single mistake could make an agent give up on your submission.

  4. Be respectful and humble.

  5. Address agents by name. Some may prefer a title and last name, others are happy to be addressed by their first name. If in doubt, go for the more formal option. But never address them as ‘Sir/Madam’ or anything similarly anonymous. Triple check you have spelt their name correctly!

  6. Always send exactly what they ask for on the website. If they request the first three chapters, send them. If they only ask for ten pages, send that. Some might not want any sample material in the first instance, so don’t send any! You need to make it clear that you’ll be able to follow directions from your agent, your editor and your publisher down the line.

  7. Tell agents who you hope your audience will be. Think of the common marketing technique across media, ‘for fans of’ or ‘if you liked X you’ll love this’. Imagine your book on an online retailer – what titles would it appear with under ‘Customers who bought this also bought…’ or similar features?

  8. If you’ve been rejected by an agent who’s offered some reason for their rejection, don’t resubmit your edited manuscript requesting new comments. They aren’t your editor. If they want to see a revised version, they’ll tell you.

  9. Don’t pester agents for a response. If they’re going to reply, they will when they have time. Hopefully their auto-response or guidelines will let you know what to expect (i.e. whether they respond to unsuccessful submissions, and what the window usually is for responses).

  10. Use a professional-sounding email address. Not the silly address you created in high school, and no joint accounts with your partner. Remember, agents are considering not only whether they can publish your book, but whether to sign a professional contract with you. Act accordingly!
     

Sample cover letter

Finally, you might want to look at examples of successful pitch letters for books.

We look at sample cover letters in depth in our courses, analysing what works well and why.  

In the meantime, you can also look at other cover letters online. For example, author and editor Phoebe Morgan shared her sample cover letter here, and agent Juliet Mushens has published one here.

Of course, making it all the way through to bagging your dream literary agent and getting a publishing contract means your manuscript will need to live up to the promise of your perfect pitch letter. The best way to make sure it does is to join us for The Finished Novel Course. We’ll get your novel ready for publication and connect you with your perfect partner agent who knows the publishers that will love your story. Sign up and start today to become one of our sparkling success stories!

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