Covering the Cover Letter

This is the last installment of my proposal series. You may think it strange to write about the cover letter last, but usually, it’s the last part of the proposal an author writes. Our own Steve Laube has already written about the cover letter here.

His tips are so wonderful that I asked him if I should even attempt this post, but he encouraged me to write from my perspective. So here are key points I like to see in a cover letter:

Fiction:

1.) Title and genre of book: I can immediately discount horror and erotica. Saves everyone time.

2.) Target market and word count: While part of an agent’s job is to identify markets for your work, you still should do enough research to understand where your book might fit. A 250,000 word novel aimed at Love Inspired Historical shows you have no idea about today’s CBA marketplace.

3.) Story summary highlighting primary conflict. For example: “Set in Chicago in 1905, Party Time is the story of a political party boss who must fight his attraction to a suffragette.”

This is enough to tell me that I’d have to hesitate since the title is questionable for CBA and for the Christian market, a Chicago party boss is not a sympathetic hero.

4.) Past Sales: But, if you mention that your last CBA romance novel sold over 100,000 copies, I’d ask to see Party Time anyway. Those sales tell me you may possess enough talent to make the party boss the most dashing romantic hero ever.

On the other hand, if you are a new author, it’s fine not to belabor the point. I will figure this out since you didn’t mention sales history. (And this early in your career, I recommend writing about the type of heroine and hero everyone agrees deserve true romance).

Nonfiction:

1.) Title and topic of book: I will know immediately if I’m intrigued.

2.) Summary: What is your book’s overarching theme? For example: “Devotionals to Comfort Your Elderly Dog is a collection of devotionals meant to read aloud to your elderly dog. These devotionals will soothe your pet even more than his favorite treat!”

This summary tells me that, while well-meaning, your book’s potential audience is too small for your book to be a huge success.

On the other hand: a title like How to Have a Better Marriage enters into a market that is so crowded, you must have a never-before-thought-of twist or a huge platform to be a success.

3.) Platform: a snapshot of how you can reach your audience through a speaking ministry, social networking, etc. If you’ve snagged a stellar endorsement or promise from a big author who’ll write the foreword, mention this here. You can go all out with numbers, a speaking schedule, and other goodies in the proposal. The letter should just be enough to show you have a platform.

4.) Past Sales: Again, a highlight. This can be a career total or a mention of your most successful recent title. No past sales? It’s possible to overcome this with a fantastic, well-executed idea.

The purpose of your cover letter is to intrigue the reader so she’ll want to review the proposal right away. Granted, the key points are factual and don’t allow a lot of room to show your best writing, but you can always use the opening line to grab the reader. One way is to pose a question, such as, “What would you do if you were rescued from a trap during a mission trip by an avowed atheist determined to bring you to his way of thinking?” This type of lead-in can do wonders to keep the reader interested.

Most of all, don’t shortchange your cover letter. It’s the first introduction to your proposal, and must be your best. Read it aloud and check for errors. A typo should not get your work thrown into the “reject” pile, but it does show a lack of proofreading ability, or at least care.

And finally, Steve Laube pointed out to me that his “keep it to one page” rule doesn’t apply to email. Well, it sort of does. You don’t want to be too long-winded just because you can! And speaking of which, I’ll close for now. Until next time, happy submitting!

Your turn:

What is the hardest element of the cover letter for you?

Did I leave out any element you think should be included?

17 Responses to Covering the Cover Letter

  1. Jeanne August 30, 2012 at 6:13 am #

    Tamela, this is helpful. Seeing a cover letter from your perspective, what it does (and doesn’t)tell you is revealing. 🙂 I think the trickiest thing for me to write when I write a cover letter will be summarizing my story into a couple of sentences. Question: would I basically use my pitch for that section of a letter?

    Thanks for sharing your insights and your perspective about cover letters!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 30, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Jeanne, yes, in my view, you have the option of using your pitch. I would not be offended by seeing it both places. Good question! 🙂

  2. Rick Barry August 30, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    As someone who wrote a cover letter just recently, I can say the hardest part for me is encapsulating a fragment of the drama and emotion of 95,000 pages in a few brief sentences. I take comfort in the fact that agents understand the challenge involved!

    • Rick Barry August 30, 2012 at 6:31 am #

      My bad. That should have been 95,000 words, not pages! 🙂

  3. Meghan Carver August 30, 2012 at 8:39 am #

    Thank you for clarifying that the one-page limit doesn’t apply to e-mail. I’ll stop agonizing over the two lines I can’t seem to edit out. You make it sound so easy, but my palms are sweaty by the end of your post! The hardest part is hitting “send.”

  4. Carrie Miller August 30, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    Tamela, thank you for this. I am interested in identifying the target market for my novel. Do you have any resources for this?

  5. Jennifer Major @Jjumping August 30, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    Soooo, it’s a bad idea to include a video clip of something like “Star Wars in 60 Seconds” only it’s my novel? I guess I’ll check that OFF the list. Which is good, because I don’t have a black horse OR a forest fire.
    Heaven help me if I ever get a call from an agent! “Blah blah blah… nervous, stupid statement… blah blah”. Ahem.

    For me, the critical part of the cover letter is making sure the words weave and flow in such a manner that by the end of the letter, you can’t believe you learned that much in such a short amount of virtual space. And you want nothing more than to know more!

  6. Becky Doughty August 30, 2012 at 2:31 pm #

    Tamela,

    Succinct and to the point. I guess that’s how a cover letter should read, too.

    Thanks for sharing your POV and I’m glad Steve encouraged you to do so.

    Blessings,
    Becky

  7. Jan Cline August 30, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    It’s the summary that gets me. I have a hard time condensing my story down to a short paragraph. I’ve heard other writers say the same. And I’m never sure whether to put any personal information in the letter.

    Great information – thanks so much.

  8. Jackie Layton August 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    Tamela,

    Thanks for sharing this. I wrote a cover letter last week, and thanks to you I can go back and tweak it. This helps tremendously!

    Joyfully,
    Jackie

  9. Jamie September 11, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    I sent this post to some of the budding authors I know pulling their hair out trying to write a cover letter. Thanks a lot! 🙂

  10. Mayur kohlia October 8, 2017 at 10:27 pm #

    Great piece of information on covering the cover letter, I wrote a cover letter for my next interview but after reading your post it gives me something different that i don’t want to miss in my CV.
    Thanks a lot!

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