|By Antonio Litterio|
You’ve heard of “show, don’t tell”? In your covering letter, you’ve got to “sell, not tell”. Imagine you’re surfing the net to check out holiday sites while your boss’s back is turned. You’ve only got a few seconds, so it’s the sites where one glance tells you all you want to know that get bookmarked, isn’t it? The same goes for the letter you send with your manuscript when it’s sent to an agent or publisher.
That letter is your landing page. It’s your shop window, where you entice an overworked reader to stop and take a second, and maybe a third, look. Make it sleek, professional, uncluttered, and easy to understand. Writing for publication is a business, so make your communications businesslike. Keep it to one side of A4, and don’t write it by hand. Get it printed.
Direct it to the right firm, and if possible, a named person. This shows you’ve done your research, rather than copying-in multiple agents and publishers with a scatter-gun approach.
Tell them who you are, and give details of any relevant publishing history you might have. Be brief, and don’t be afraid to blow your own trumpet, but beware. What’s the first thing you do when you discover a new person? That’s right, you check them out on Google. The writing industry is no different. If the Dalai Lama doesn’t really ring you for advice each morning, your credibility will go the same way as your chances of reaching nirvana.
Include the length and genre of your book, the market you’re targetting, and why you’re the best person to tell this story. Explain why you’re writing to them in particular. “The MegaPublisher website names you as the commissioning editor in charge of contemporary romantic fiction,” shows you’ve read up on them. Make sure you’ve checked out their requirements, too. List what you’re sending, which should ideally be no more than a synopsis, your manuscript and return postage if you’re sending it via the postal service.
YOUR ELEVATOR PITCH:
This is the essence of your story, distilled into no more than a sentence or two. A synopsis is the proper place for full details of your story (you can find out how how to write the perfect one here). Your covering letter must major in facts, to plant seeds of curiosity about your fiction. Cultivating an overworked editor’s need to find out more about your work will stop them moving on to the next manuscript in their inbox.
Tell them why you write and for Pete’s sake, be original. We all have “a compulsion”. None of us “can help ourselves”. Sad sacks that we writers are, we all “just have to write” and “can’t go a day without doing it”. Imagine the excitement of an editor who’s read a million of those tired old trills when they come across something like “My sense of injustice provoked me to write this story,” or “Solitary confinement after my conviction as a rogue trader left me with time to fill, so here’s the inside track on pork belly futures,” They’ll dance with joy—as long as you don’t go on to blow it all by claiming the Dalai Lama got you released.
Unless it’s true, of course.
Wreck your chances by telling them it’s a work of genius, you’re the next E L James and you’ll be ringing them in a week’s time to arrange a date and time to sign your contract. They’re much better qualified to make decisions about things like that than you are.
It’s not only self-pubbers who have to market their own books these days. Mainstream publishers expect a team effort. They have a lot invested in their authors, so everyone has to work hard at promoting their books. An unknown who shows they’ve got a good grasp of the marketing basics by presenting a faultless covering letter stands a much better chance of getting their manuscript read.
Can you condense your favourite classic book down into the one or two sentences of an elevator pitch?