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The art of cover letters

[Originally posted: 30/08/08 on my old blog]

The covering letter is the part of submissions that makes me time after time postpone sending out my work. It's considered that important. It's the first thing an agent (or their assistant) will read when they pick up a submission off the slush pile, and it will determine whether or not they bother to go on to read your synopsis and sample chapters, or so the talk goes. Either way, the key is getting it right.

Various sources differ with what to include in the covering letter, but some of the key advice repeated time and time again says to include:
  • A brief biography, especially to mention if you have work previously published.
  • A brief synopsis of your book, perhaps comparing it to similar works to your own.
  • The reason why you have approached this agent to represent you.
So, it doesn't have to be a master-piece it seems, but why is it so tricky to perfect a cover letter that will set you apart from the rest of the slush pile?

Daniel Clay helpfully wrote this article on how he managed to escape the slush pile, and more importantly, has included his covering letter and synopsis that landed him the marvellous Jonny Geller as his agent. As he concludes:

If you’ve been thinking of giving up yourself, try to remember it’s not just a thin line between success and failure on the slush-pile, it’s an almost non-existent one, and whether you fall the right or wrong side of that line often depends on the mood and skill of the person reading your submission as much as the quality of your submission itself.

Even more importantly, always try to remember that every now and then, despite the odds, someone does come out the other side of a slush-pile submission with a publishing contract in their hands. As long as you keep writing what you believe in and never let the rejections stop you submitting, one day it might just be you.

Sound advice indeed for any Pipe Dreamer to remember when faced with another rejection letter on the doormat! As a follow-up to this, I remembered this video that was sent to me by a friend. It is brilliant, and should make anyone smile who has ever had a standard rejection letter:

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