Writing is tough: time-consuming, brain-addling. Pitching to an agent or a publisher accepting direct submissions is worse: time-consuming, brain-addling plus frustrating when they don’t answer and demoralising when the rejections trickle back.
Before submitting my recently-published novel Not The Life Imagined, I spent hours reading advice on submitting covering (USA aka ‘query’) letters. Publishers’ and agents’ websites, writers’ blogs and magazines, author friends and university tutors have taught me there are some universally agreed ‘Don’ts’ – but a bewildering, diverse, number of ‘Dos.’
One. Don’t ever start a letter or email with ‘Dear Sirs.’ While it’s said that there are more male authors published than female- and they get more reviews (see The Guardian, Mar 18 2019) a huge number of submissions editors and agents are female. Up to 75% of ‘submittable’ agents in the US are women. A ‘Dear Sirs’ will not go down well. In any case, with the exception of the Inland Revenue, eliciting a response from a named person is probably always more productive. Do choose your recipient wisely. Research them on Google and social media to ensure they are someone you could work with- and who takes your sort of thing. Do mention why you chose them, briefly outline your book and give completed wordcount.
Two. Don’t look unprofessional by giving validations from acquaintances e.g .my friend told me I must publish this story. or my sister/aunty/dog ‘loves my novel.’ Do put any University grades, writing qualifications or prizes, publications and writing group membership in a short biography.
Three Don’t profess to be the next Stephen King or Lee Child. They will know this is most unlikely, and while desiring someone confident for book promotion, no one likes a big -head. Do mention your genre if you can (sadly my novel straddled several) or suggest an author writing in similar vein. The tone of the letter should reflect you.
Four Don’t tell them your life history and the name of your inspirational childhood cat. Agents and publishers are swamped by hundreds of submissions weekly. They are busy people and don’t have time for a lot of flannel. Do mention writing-associated experience, tuition, and qualifications relevant to authenticity/knowledge which makes your book unique. But keep it short.
Five Don’t send them what they haven’t asked for. like attachments if they’ve asked for chapters and synopsis to be pasted in the body of an email. The huge variation in requirements for submissions is mystifying e.g. a writing sample of the first 3 chapters or 10,000 or 15,000 words or whole manuscript. Font may be specified. Requested spacing may be double (mostly), 1.5 or single. Synopsis needed might be 100, 250, 500 or 750 words or perhaps half, one or two pages (can be single spaced).. While it may seem that they’re trying to make it difficult on purpose, it does mean that you have to tailor each query; like the letter. Do ensure your cover letter isn’t a template batted off to everyone if you want them to read it.
Online you’ll find many agents’ examples of letters which hooked them. They vary widely, some even longish and breaking rules. But since publishers and agents must be as varied as authors and books, it’s horses for courses. All we can do is send a polite, tailored letter-with-a-hook to grab them and hope it is ‘what they are looking for,’ lack of which I’m told causes the majority of ‘rejection’ emails. Remember JK Rowling was repeatedly rejected – as was The Help (60 times) yet filmed it made millions at the Box Office. Happy submitting!

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