WHAT I LEARNED THIS WEEK: A good cover letter is hard to find.


I keep a collection of manuscript excerpts and cover letters that have come in over the years. They’re useful as demonstrations of what to do–or not to do–in the process of submitting a book for publication. I quote from them at writers’ conferences and SF/fantasy conventions in hopes that others will learn.
This week I received a submission from a writer who informed me that several other publishers had already turned the project down. Lack of vision and publishing guts had led to those decisions, the cover letter said, leaving the project ripe for the picking by another publisher intelligent enough to recognize its value.
The inference was that if I rejected the material, we’d be added to the list of visionless, timid publishers who’d had their chance and failed to act. This did not go over well with me; I don’t react well to the badmouthing of other editors even if they remain nameless. [more]

A cover letter should present the basics of the project and its author and then shut up. No cover letter has ever sold a manuscript, though a good cover letter can entice an editor to read a submission sooner than he or she would otherwise get to it. A bad one can accomplish the opposite, if not turn an editor off to reading the material at all.
Perhaps a few examples are in order. These are taken from cover letters received many years ago, some by editors at other houses.
Author, explaining that his main focus in writing is on the storytelling: “I am not interest in rudimentary spelling, and grammar.” Editor: Oh, but you should be, you should be.
Author, using flattery to attract an editor: “I’m looking for a sharp gal with the hunting instincts of a mother cheetah. I’m one of the few males who recognize that a strong female will out-perform a strong male every time.” Editor: Hmmmmm. Wonder how his letter to male editors reads.
Author, attempting to come across as mysterious: “I do not wish to disclose anything about my background, for reasons I’d rather not discuss at this time. If you wish to read the complete ms, it will be sent with an SASE. A request for a preview of the first three chapters must be respectfully declined.” Editor: Great. Thanks.
‘Nuff said, I hope. Keep your cover letters straightforward and send in only your best work. Enjoy the process!