WHAT I LEARNED THIS WEEK Part 2: A good cover letter is hard to find.


I posted a few weeks ago about things not to do in a cover letter. Now I’d like to showcase a few cover letters I’ve seen over the years that fulfilled their mission.
To recap: A bad cover letter can affect an editor negatively–negatively enough, at times, to send the submission straight into the circular file. A good cover letter won’t sell a manuscript, but if it catches my eye in a positive way it can cause me to pick up the attached manuscript sooner than I otherwise would.
One purpose of a cover letter should be to provide a few selling points for the manuscript. Part of an editor’s decision to buy a manuscript is based upon its “saleability” in the eyes of sales reps and booksellers. Is the author an expert in his/her field? Does he/she have a big publicity platform that will help a publisher reach the target audience?
Here is an example of a cover letter that supplied a major selling point in an engaging way. If the author happens to read this and would like to identify herself, that would be great–my compliments on the submission letter, which came into an editor friend of mine more than fifteen years ago.
[more after the jump]

Dear Editor,
Imagine what it would be like to work in a university research laboratory–surrounded by beakers of colorful solutions and racks of test tubes, and tranquillized by the intermittent hum of whirling centrifuges. For over 15 years, I worked as a nutritional biochemist. I operated sophisticated equipment, wrote scientific papers and earned a Ph.D.
But I also killed rats. Many, many rats.
I never liked doing that. At first I tried to become hardened to scientific methodology. I tried to view rats as despicable creatures, useful only for their contribution to medical research. I hung on to a fading vision that one day I would be part of the team that would conquer heart disease or put an end to the bitter sufferings of diabetes and obesity. […] Enclosed is a chapter from my first novel and a synopsis of the story born out of my experiences as a scientist.

That letter gave me the author’s pertinent background and a sense of her as a person. Her manuscript was read quickly.
Humor is a terrific way to catch an editor’s eye. There are too few opportunities for a laugh in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. A funny cover letter will earn a walk around the office while we share the amusement with our coworkers. Humor is always subjective, it’s true, but if you are fairly certain that your sense of humor is ready for prime time, give it a shot! Here’s an example I appreciated for its cheerful goofiness :

Dear Editor,
Now, I know another manuscript is probably the last thing you want to see, and if it’s any consolation, I tried to send a pizza the first time, but the cheese kept sticking to the envelope. Besides, have you ever seen a postmaster try to stamp a pepperoni? It ain’t pretty.
So, inside is my plot synopsis and a few sample chapters. I could sit here and tell you how great and fantastic it is, but I’m sure you hear that all the time. So I’ll let you decide for yourself.
I’ll let you get back to work now … or to your pizza, or whatever you happened to be doing.

The author closed with a P.S. containing a fairly funny joke about a rabbit. His final farewell was, “Yeah, yeah. Stay out of comedy, right?”
Here’s one more cover letter I’ve kept around for years. This one gets kudos for sheer creativity in presenting its material. It definitely stood out in the submission pile.

Dear Editor:
I am monster.
Monster look for publisher.
I am main character in new book, [title removed]. 330 manuscript pages approximately.
Good horror story: lots of action. Blood.
And guts.
Monster enclose return postage.
I may be monster, but I have manners.
Monster thanks you for your consideration.