[I originally posted this piece 11 1/2 years ago. The information still holds true but I suspect many have not found the necessary information elsewhere, so I am daring to post it again. I’ve left all the comments intact since they add to the ongoing conversation. Feel free to add your thoughts.]]
Here are a few suggestions for you to consider when approaching an agent or an editor. Remember to use these as hints…do not follow them slavishly as if a literary agent is going to spend their time critiquing your cover letter.
By the way, we make a distinction between a cover letter and a query letter. A cover letter is what goes on top of a longer proposal and sample chapters. The query letter is a stand-alone letter that goes by itself to the editor/agent without a proposal or sample chapters. We happen to prefer the cover letter along with the rest of the package. Why? Because a query only shows that you can write a letter. A proposal begins the process of showing that you know how to write a book.
Address the letter to a specific person. If sending something to The Steve Laube Agency, simply address the appropriate agent. Every proposal will cross the desk of the designated agent eventually. (Please do NOT send it to all of at the same time)
Use this cover letter in the body of your email, but NOT the proposal and sample chapters! You’d be stunned to see how many people contact us with a blank email carrying only a subject line of “here it is.”
Don’t waste your time or ours. Do your homework! If you are submitting to an agent, visit their website and follow their guidelines!!! We cannot emphasize this enough! Make certain to spell the person’s name right. (My name is spelled, Steve Laube. Not “Laub” “Labe” “Lobby” “Looby” etc. But note that Bob Hostetler has to address me as “sir” or “the honorable” or “Mr. Boss”.)
If you use The Christian Writers Market Guide or some online database listing agents or editors, make sure you have the most current information because addresses do change (go to their website). Our main office changed its mailing address in February of 2007…and we still discover material is being sent to the old address. You would be astounded by the number of calls or inquiries we receive from writers who have not done their research. Someone called the Phoenix office the other day looking to talk to one of our agents who does not live or work in Phoenix.
Whatever you do, do not say your book is the next bestseller like Purpose Driven Life, Eat Pray Love, Left Behind, or The Shack, or that it will sell better than The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. That shows an ignorance of the market that is best left alone. [update note: These examples will date you really fast. The Harry Potter books are now 25 years old, published in 1997.]
In addition, please do not claim “God gave me this book so you must represent or publish it.” We are firm believers in the inspiration that comes from a faith-filled life, but making it part of your pitch is a big mistake. Read this blog post for a larger discussion on this point.
The 4-part Cover letter:
1) A simple introductory sentence is sufficient. Basically, you are saying “Hi. Thank you for the opportunity…”
2) Use a “sound bite” statement. A “sound bite” statement is the essence of your novel or non-fiction book idea in 40 words or less.
The fiction sound bite could include:
a. The heroic character
b. The central issue of the story
c. The heroic goal
d. The worthy adversary
f. The ending
g. A grabber
h. Or a twist
The non-fiction sound bite should include the main focus or topic.
One suggestion is to describe the Problem, Solution, and Application.
If someone were to ask about your book you would answer, “My book is about (write in your sound bite.)”
Another word for sound bite is “hook.”
3) Tell why your book is distinctive-who will read it. (Targeted age group….adult, teen, youth) – point out what’s fresh, new, and different.
One suggestion would be, for your intended genre, read a number of recent books in the same genre as your own to familiarize yourself with market.
4) Give pertinent manuscript details: a) mention whether or not your book is completed (if it is not, then give an estimate as to when it will be finished) b) word length of the complete manuscript, even if it is an estimate (approximate – round off the number) c) pertinent biographical info d) tell the agent if it is a simultaneous submission e) let the agent know they can discard the proposal if rejected.
Click here to review a sample non-fiction cover letter from someone who approached us via an email inquiry. We signed her as a client.
Keep letter to one page!!
Please don’t use narrow margins or tiny print to fit it all on one sheet. That is silly. We once received a cover letter written with an 8 point font and 1/4 inch margins. It was virtually unreadable.
Thanks for clarifying the difference between a query and a cover letter. And I never thought about including a note about discarding the proposal if it’s rejected. I’ll remember that next time.
Julie Surface Johnson
Thanks for the helpful information. Appreciate, too, your making it print friendly. This is going into my “Writing Aids” file.
This is very helpful. Thank you for this overview of the cover letter. I critique manuscripts at writers conferences, and I plan to refer them to this post!
I am confused; this article requires a cover letter be ONE page, double-spaced, exactly while the Guidelines article requests the story be summed up in up to THREE pages, single-spaced.
So what are you supposed to do since these contradict and I would like to present myself as expected by Mr.Laube?
Let me clarify so as there is no confusion.
This article is about the cover letter. Keep that to one page.
The synopsis is not the cover letter. That piece is where you tell the whole story of the novel in a maximum of three single spaced pages.
Any presentation package to an agent or a publisher has three parts.
1) The cover letter (one page)
2) The proposal – which includes, among other things, a synopsis of the book or story
3) Sample chapters
Hope that helps!
Thank you Steve. Any bits of wisdom imparted to the masses is wonderful.
So, just to clarify, should the promo sentence, sales handle and back cover copy be included in the same document as the synopsis?
The word count, target audience and platform are all mentioned briefly in the cover letter. Should they also be reiterated more in-depth in the proposal?
Just trying to line up my wayward ducks. There’s no point in submitting a manuscript if it isn’t submitted properly.
Thank you for your guidance and clarification. It helps to have every aspect broken down so well.
thanks for the offered clarification, one further point please. Perhaps I am reading too deeply and detailed, but cover letter, sample chapters, synopsis, we are talking three separate attachments to the email, given the different structures of each piece.
Now I understand. Thank you for taking the time to reply 🙂
As an aside, for further clarification – the sample chapters should always be the first three correct? (No other chapters instead?) And if you have a prelude, I would assume that would not be counted as the first chapter, particularly if it is only a few pages?
One last question please: in the cover letter should you use specific names of characters or simply be broad until you arrive at the synopsis?
Thank you so much for making things clear and God bless you.
Sample chapters. Always the first pages. Include a prelude or a preface if applicable. The idea for the limitation is to keep what you send under 50 pages of text. Some chapters are very short, some are long. But sending too much will put you in the “I’ll read this someday, when I have the time” pile.
As for the cover letter? You aren’t retelling the whole story in the cover letter so character names are not as critical. But they can be used if appropriate. Don’t write something like “Snow White along with Sneezy, Sleepy, Dopey, Doc, Happy, Bashful, and Grumpy went to the local grocery store to buy some apples.” That can wait for the manuscript or the synopsis if you want to use those names.
Great! Thank you again and one absolutely necessary (and final) question please: my prelude is the first 4 pages and
that with the first three chapters bring you to page 60. Is that a problem? Should I just cut the story off at page 50? Thank you and this is my final question 🙂
I can safely say, without seeing your work or reading a word, that your chapters are too long to begin with.
Cut your chapter length by thinking in terms of scenes. Make chapter breaks more frequent. A twenty page chapter in a novel is far too long in today’s market.
To be even safer, consider hiring a good freelance editor (click here for a list) to give you help and advice before ever sending it to us.
If a manuscript is pretty good, we will reject it.
It has to be magnificent and nearly ready for market.
Any idea of the price range for a freelance editor that you have listed on you link?
Thank you for the input. My work is Christian fiction, so a few of the chapters are for world-building so that is why some of the chapters may be a little longer. I have plenty of chapters that are 8 or 11 or 14 pages long, but the third one in particular is 27 pages. I suppose I will have to split that up of course, and I do think in terms of scenes (as in a movie)…So be it then.
One more question: if you are writing a trilogy and are only submitting the first book thus far, would the synopsis cover only the 1st book or would it encompass all 3? Thank you!
There is no hard and fast rule.
It is usually a good idea, when submitting a trilogy, to have at least a half page worth of synopsis included in the proposal. A publisher needs to have something they can see in order to buy.
I have a project encompassing 5 books on the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers which uses the historical record to refute the Internet claim that the FF were deists and atheists. The first book is done, 2 others are 85% done. There are over 600 separate cited sources in the first book, two-thirds of which are in the public domain. Must I get written permission from the other 200 sources before I can publish the book or will footnoting the quotes used with TITLE, AUTHOR, PUBLISHER INFO, DATE, AND PAGE NUMBER be sufficient ?
Thanks very much for your help.
Great, and with that, I have run out of questions, much to your satisfaction 🙂
Thank you and I will be sending you something soon.
This is a great post. Thank you.
I do have a question, though. I have published my book (11/8/09), but I would like to be represented. What kind of pages do I submit? The book or the final draft of the ms before it went to print?
Also, this book is the first of a series of books that I have outlined at this point with one other ms done (children’s book, which is apart form the series).
How would I document this in a cover letter (the book and subsequent ideas I have outlined as I know you don’t accept children’s books)?
I appreciate your time and attention.
A necessary question: are the sales handle, promo sentence & back cover copy lumped in with the synopsis or are they separate in a fiction proposal so that the proposal would contain a cover letter, synopsis, sample chapters and then another page with those 3 items? It just is not clear from what I have read on here.
Thank you for clearing this up!
God bless you in His name,
Thank you for explaining what you expect of our submissions to your office. I spent the night finishing my proposal and cover letter to your specifications and sent out my package today.
Steve, I’ve finished my first Biblical historical novel about Jesus, the God-man. While my goal was to stay with twenty pages per chapter, some are a couple of pages longer. And how many lines per page do you suggest? I’ve tried to stick with the typical publisher’s guideline, but would appreciate your comments on this area. Also since you state that you’re open to all genres of fiction, does this include Biblical historical?
Simply use the computer’s double-space format. Also use one inch margins on all four sides. And use a Times Roman 12 point font. Whatever you do, do NOT try to squeeze more lines on a page. That will only irritate a reviewer.
In general, when using the above formatting you will end up with about 300 words on a page…which is very similar to the word count on a finished book.
A chapter that runs to 20 pages is probably going to feel long, depending on the action and dialogue included. That is over 6,000 words in a chapter.
As for our agency’s interest? I personally tend to stay away from most Biblical fiction. The only exception is Tosca Lee (see her novel HAVAH: The Story of Eve). But you may find that our other two agents may be more interested.
And be aware that if your novel is based on the life of Jesus you will need to compare it to the classic novels by Marjorie Holmes and the novel by Walter Wangerin…all of which are still in print.
As as up and coming writer, it’s so important to attend conferences, begin networking, but most of all, read about your craft. In order to put your best foot forward, a writer needs to know what is expected. I’ve learned the answer to many of the questions above through writers groups, networking at conferences and obtaining an editor to work with me on my projects.
Thank you for this practical advice! Much appreciated. I in preparing the proposal to send off, I am grateful for your graceful bluntness of what you are looking for. Saves us both time and energy when communicating.
Thank you for outlining so clearly what exactly you expect in a cover letter! I was unclear on one point, however; the first part you identify – “a simple introductory statement is sufficient.”
I confess, I’m unsure on what you are looking for in that statement. Your example is, “Hi, thanks for the opportunity,” but I can’t imagine that you’re looking for something to blunt and plain. What are you wanting from the author in this statement; what are you seeking to know? Is this statement really necessary, or could a cover letter open with the second part, the sound bite?
Thank you for taking the time to clarify this matter.
I have the same question regarding the Introductory Statement.
Thank you for posting this information about the cover letter. It is a huge help!
Steve, when submitting a proposal for a novel that is intended as the first of a trilogy, is this something that should be mentioned in the cover letter? I’m uncertain as the second book is not yet written and the first works as a stand-alone.
Thanks so much,
If you intend to propose a series, even if book one stands alone, that should be mentioned in the cover letter and the proposal. If you are doing a query letter without a proposal then most definitely reveal the plan for a trilogy.
But if you are not certain a second book can be written then do not mention it, instead go with the stand alone.
There are times where the success of a first book creates demand for a sequel. However, most agents and publishers like to know that there is a career or a future with a particular author beyond the first book. One-book wonders do happen, and with some success. But generally we look at the total potential of an author.
Steve, Is your answer intended to convey to those of us in later life that we have little chance of finding agents and publishers? Now that I am in my early sixties and have retired I finally have the time to write but I am realistic enough to see that my literary career is unlikely to be long.
How do foreign authors work with American agents? Our style and spelling do not always align well with yours – I am English but I write (and speak) in British English not American.
We have no idea of the age of an author because we are reviewing the content of a proposal. The age of the author is immaterial.
Our primary audience is the U.S. reader. If you write with British English a U.S. based publisher will note that they will have to work harder at the various editing stages to change the style to fit U.S. English standards. Some contracts even name the Chicago Manual of Style as the standard to which the submitted manuscript must comply.
My advice? Change to the American style of English and it won’t be a potential barrier.
We write for the love of it, to entertain and educate and nobody knows for certain what will fly, so don’t worry too much about anything.
Yes, being professional is good so one ought to be polite and open minded, but we need to write compelling stories – – those that will pull readers in and not let them out easily.
Set our tone, grab a theme and move the story along like an expert, keeping us engaged, questionning and interested. Action, drama, suspense, pathos and transformative characters are excellent pieces of narrative. Hook ’em and don’t let them go.
If I have a self-published book but hope to see it reach a greater audience, do I make copies of the pages to submit to you? I do not have them on a Word document form any longer. Thanks!
You will need to have your manuscript in digital form at some point (Word is preferred by most publishers). If you self-published it had to be in digital form at some point. Even your printer should be able to provide a file. If it is a PDF it can be converted back to Word with the right software.
Just copying pages and mailing them is not a good idea.
I’m a Canadian who has a completed manuscript about a personal family tragedy that garnered both political and public support. It tells how our faith and God’s intervention brought discoveries that eluded authorities after the failure of the largest search launched in 30 years.
Although this is a personal story, the case is now being used at symposiums for both Crown and Defence attorneys in Canada.
Does this story fall into the category of anything you’ve worked with or be willing to work with. I am looking for an agent in a very competitive field.
Hard to comment in a blog comment like this because technically I still don’t know what the story is about. Best not to use the comment section to make the pitch.
We have, on occasion, represented a personal story if it is highly unusual and has commercial appeal. In 2013, look for UNTIL WE ALL COME HOME by Kim de Blecourt as an example (published by FaithWords).
Steve – I am seriously impressed to see that you are still tracking new comments on this post a year after it was first posted.
Thanks for the how-to on the cover letter.
Hello: I’d like to receive an example of a one page cover letter to an agent. I have query and synopsis letters and some agents want a cover letter as well. Thank you for your help! Brenda Sue (This is a fiction, suspenseful, murder, romantic novel dealing with international art theft.)
Thanks so much for going far beyond the call of duty and explaining exactly what is a cover letter. Now, it’s up to me. I’ll do my best.
Steve, I have a quick question. I am nearing completion on a Biblical fiction novel about the nativity of Jesus. Since everyone is already familiar with the story, should I take a different approach to the cover letter and synopsis?
Thank you for any advise.
Your cover letter should focus on what makes your story unique. That “selling point” is critical for a publisher when considering whether or not they can make room for it in the marketplace.
Thanks so much for all the help you’ve given us in this post.
I’m curious to know if you can provide a sample cover letter as an example. I’m sure it would help others who are visual learners like myself.
A sample non-fiction cover letter is now available for review on our site:
Hello Steve, I have a question. I published a book with another publishing company that turned out to be a POD. My book has a part two to it. The way that I wrote part two you really don’t need to read part one to understand. I would like to send it to you. Would this be a good idea to send in part two.
That is risky because while you may think the reader doesn’t need part one, in reality there may be things in the story that are confusing to a reader of book two.
I’ve never seen a publisher jump at the chance to publish book two in a series if they do not also publish book one.
Hello, I am currently self published under a freewill contract in which I can cease printing at anytime. I have had issues getting proper statements and wish to be represented for traditional publishing. Will this be an issue for you to accept a manuscript?
Not an issue if you own the publication rights. It is your book to sell to another publisher.
Lara M. Van Hulzen
Thank you for the helpful information. I have one question: when sending a proposal by email, do you want a query letter in the body of the email and the a cover letter, sample chapters and synopsis attached as a file, or is the cover letter in the body of the email?
Lara Van Hulzen
The body of the email should contain a pitch of some sort. The content of the cover letter described above would serve that purpose well.
A HUGE mistake is made by some who send an email with the body of the email blank or with a sentence like “Here is my book. Take a look.”
Or “If you want to read my book go to this web page.”
Do you prefer single or double-spacing in a cover letter?
Single spaced. Just like a regular letter.
The only thing that is double-spaced is the sample chapters or manuscript itself.
Thank you, sir, for the fast reply.
I have nothing to submit in the moment except my deep gratitude for your site, so full of so much a writer needs to understand and apply. It’s like a free tutorial, clean, clear, concise, a true resource for the explanation of the sticky things, like query, and proposal and what to send to whom, what never to do, what’s absolutely necessary to do, and anything else that causes a writer to do the Stupid Stumble. You save our face over and over with all this help.
I just want to express my pleasure to have discovered such a credible site run by a gifted teacher. Okay. Back to the memoir.
I am now confused over the length of chapters. My chapters in standard spacing are between 8-13 pages in length. When I double space them as asked the first three chapters are 19 pages in length. So when you recommend chapters be less than 20 pages are you talking about double-spaced print or standard print? Thanks for your reply.
Always send a manuscript using Double-spaced text.
The proposal and synopsis is single spaced.
Thus your chapters are very long. But it may be that they are just fine as is. Sometimes you can get away with longer chapters.
I do recommend leaning toward shorter…
Within the first paragraph (second sentence) one reads, “…As if a literary agent is going to spend their time….”
I would have thought someone in the “profession” would be a bit more capable of matching a singular subject with a singular pronoun. This confusion of “number” has become acceptable I suppose because so many are willing to worship at the altar of political correctness, so as not to appear behind the times while ruffling feathers.
I suppose I could have use “his or her” or “his/her” instead of “their.” But instead I used what is called the “Singular Their.”
See this post about that topic:
Hope that helps clarify.
I have written a memoir and believe that Karen Ball is most likely the agent with your group who would be interested.
I understand that a cover letter, proposal and sample chapters should be sent to her. In reviewing your instructions for submissions, it seems that much of the information in the cover letter gets repeated in the proposal (or is it just me?!)
Should I therefore just keep the cover letter very succinct? Or do a combo cover letter/proposal and attach sample chapters? Thank you! I’m very new to this.
So when writing a cover letter you should specify that you are writing or have written a series of books? I am on my third book and plan on making at least two more. I was told before when writing the manuscript to only focus on that one book, and to reveal the ending of that one book.
Hi Mr. Laube,
After reading through the post and the comments, I just want to make sure I understand. Do you prefer the cover letter and proposal to be emailed or mailed?
When researching agents and their submission requirements, I see
“query, synopsis and first 3 chapters or 50 pages”. I’ve never heard of a “cover letter”. My novel is a 29,000 word middle grade story.
It’s really, really hard to boil down a 200 page book to 40 words. I feel like I”m trying to write a haiku of my entire life….
TThomas R. Gabbitas
When you write or type a query letter; should you follow the guidelines of literary sites or not to follow the submission guidelines? There were a few writers who didn’t follow the guide-lines and sent a query letter and got represented.
Steve, can you offer a sample 40-word sound bite for a historical? Struggling with the 40 word concept.
Always learn from you.
if you are writing a cover letter, or book review, synopsis etc. you should take a glance at this page to find out some tips
I was hoping you might clarify for me concerning your guidelines for submission of a query letter versus a cover letter. Do you prefer a query letter be sent via email with the book proposal and sample three chapters or a cover letter sent through the mail with an attached book proposal and sample three chapters? I am slightly confused because its appears the cover letter would only be sent if you were interested in the query letter. Would it be possible to send the covered letter instead via email with the attachments for the book proposal and sample chapters?
I can see how that might be confusing. Try not to overthink it.
Let me clarify…as far as our agency goes, which is not a universal thing.
Never send us a query letter. That one page, if sent by itself, will not help us evaluate your writing in any way.
Always send a full proposal. A part of that proposal will be your cover letter, which is basically a “hello my name is” sort of introduction.
Frank V. Yates
Great post. I didn’t think I could shorten my pitch to a 40 word sound bite, but I did. Thanks
This is great. I just watched your interview in the Masters class in the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild. That was very informative. Thank you. If I want to use a pen name do I include this information in the cover letter? Thank you for your time.
Yes. It can be as as simple as “I write under the pen name of I. Noah Tall, which you will notice on the title page of the proposal.”
Thanks so much for this helpful post! I just have one question–where can I find the book Hope for Anxiety Girl from the example cover letter? I am 100% the target audience and I so want to read it! I can’t find it online and I’m wondering if a) it was retitled, b) it’s not yet published, or c) it was repurposed into a different book. Thanks again! 🙂
Rebecca. That specific book idea has gone through multiple iterations but has yet to be published. However, the writer has had other successful projects released. The latest is a co-authored book (with Kathy Lipp) called OVERWHELMED.
Thanks! I purchased a copy of Overwhelmed last night. 🙂
In the Proposal Guidelines, it says to include:
Back Cover Copy
Do you actually want to see those headings in the proposal? Sorry if this is a dumb question.
You’re my kind of girl! Although we’ve seasons and waxing and waning needs, I’ve grown comfortable in the book club porch hammock with a tome of my own selection. I hate someone else deciding where I need to mature or what I’m going to spend a month devouring.
“Teach us to number our days aright, o Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” With a barrage of published and digital words stalking us, we need discernment on what edifies.
I’m a man with a unique name and a unique manuscript searching for a unique agent. I found your answers very helpful, practical and instructive. Thank you.
Hello! I’m not sure if you still check a post this old, but I’ll give it a try.
Should the cover letter be the body of the email with the rest of the proposal as the attachment, or should it be a part of the attachment with the rest of the proposal?
Nancy E Patton
Thank you for the helpful post! It’s nice to have a concrete idea of what the agent is looking for before sending out the book proposal.
This is wonderfully informative. Thank you!
In looking at the guidelines for a proposal, it lists a number of things for non-fiction, compares fiction and adds a few additional notes. My question is, in non-fiction it asks for a half page to one page overview. If all of the additional topics are addressed for fiction it seems to cover a lot of what is described in the overview. Do you want a half page to one page overview for a fiction proposal as well?
Lisa Larsen Hill
Thank you for this terrific perennial post!
The patient answers to the many questions demonstrate your passion for supporting writers. Thank you for taking the time to instill such great knowledge. It is much appreciated by this new author.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thanks so much, Steve! These posts with examples for how to do the basics are always so helpful. I look back on them whenever I work on my proposals. Such a great resource!
Linda Riggs Mayfield
I’ve published numerous articles and love my work as an editor of books and articles and author and editor of academic research. If I submit everything you described in this great article correctly and well, and my contemporary and historical women’s fiction books have been alpha and beta reviewed with strong support and appropriately edited, but I have virtually no platform (only 1046 Followers on my website), is there realistically any point in submitting a proposal to an agent before I build a larger platform? Thanks to reading Writer’s Guide and this column for many years, I think I’ve mastered and actually enjoy the submission process you described, but I keep running into the platform roadblock. If there is no platform of thousands to cite in the proposal, is it likely to generate an offer to represent or publish? Thanks!
Okay, so I got to eat a little crow here(which isn’t bad if you put a little A-1 on it), I didn’t read the submission instructions properly and submitted my information, and a portion of my book totally wrong. I have since gone back and read as I should have done in the first place. Now I will PROPERLY submit my work as it should be. I hope this didn’t cause too much of a headache for you and your staff and please forgive my anxious foolishness. I do have a couple of questions:
1. Do I have to wait a certain amount of time before I can re-submit my work?
2. The manuscript is being edited, should I wait until the edit is complete before I resubmit it?