Hints for a Great Cover Letter

Here are a few suggestions for you to consider when approaching an agent. 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.

Don’t waste your time or ours. Do your homework! If you are submitting to an agent, visit their web site and follow their guidelines!!! We cannot emphasize this enough! Make certain to spell the person’s name right. (We’ve had people spell Steve Laube’s name as “Laub” “Labe” “Lobby” “Looby” etc.)

If you use a market guide book or some online database listing of agents or editors, make sure you have the most current information because addresses do change (go to the web site). Our main office changed its mailing address in February of 2007…and we still discover that 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.

Whatever you do, do not say your book is the next Purpose Driven Life, Eat Pray Love, Left Behind, or The Shack, or that it will sell better than The Da Vinci CodeTwilightHarry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. That shows an ignorance of the market that is best left alone.

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
e. Action
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.)”

3) Tell why your book is distinctive-who will read it. (Targeted age group….adult, teen, youth) – point out what’s fresh, new, 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 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 one of our clients who approached us via an email inquiry.

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.

 

56 Responses to Hints for a Great Cover Letter

  1. Leigh DeLozier January 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    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.

  2. Julie Surface Johnson January 17, 2011 at 8:40 pm #

    Thanks for the helpful information. Appreciate, too, your making it print friendly. This is going into my “Writing Aids” file.

  3. Joseph Bentz January 19, 2011 at 2:52 pm #

    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!

  4. Ryan A January 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm #

    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?

    • Steve Laube January 20, 2011 at 8:24 am #

      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!

      Steve

      • sheila strassburg March 8, 2012 at 11:53 am #

        Thank you Steve. Any bits of wisdom imparted to the masses is wonderful.

  5. Ryan A January 20, 2011 at 10:33 am #

    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.

    • Steve Laube January 20, 2011 at 11:06 am #

      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.

  6. Ryan A January 20, 2011 at 1:37 pm #

    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 :)

    • Steve Laube January 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm #

      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.

  7. Ryan A January 20, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    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.

  8. Ryan A January 21, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

    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!

  9. Steve Laube January 21, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Ryan,
    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.

    • Ray Strobo March 16, 2013 at 4:14 am #

      Mr. Laube:

      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.

  10. Ryan A January 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm #

    Great, and with that, I have run out of questions, much to your satisfaction :)
    Thank you and I will be sending you something soon.

  11. Karen Kolbu February 15, 2011 at 4:58 pm #

    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.

    Blessings!

  12. Ryan A February 19, 2011 at 11:05 pm #

    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,
    Ryan

  13. Christopher Holms May 17, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    Dear Steve,

    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.

    Faithfully,
    Christopher Holms

  14. Jane Mohline August 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    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?

    • Steve Laube August 20, 2011 at 11:13 am #

      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.

  15. Heather Riggleman October 2, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

    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.

  16. Jodi Kozan October 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm #

    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.

  17. C Bishop October 20, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    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.

  18. Christina November 5, 2011 at 10:55 am #

    I have the same question regarding the Introductory Statement.
    Thank you for posting this information about the cover letter. It is a huge help!

  19. Marge November 25, 2011 at 4:21 am #

    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,

    Marge

    • Steve Laube November 26, 2011 at 8:43 am #

      Marge,
      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

      • Steve Long May 9, 2014 at 5:50 am #

        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.

        Many thanks
        Steve

      • Steve Laube May 9, 2014 at 9:09 am #

        Steve Long,

        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.

        Steve

  20. Ritchy Dube December 5, 2011 at 7:03 am #

    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.

  21. Josh McNeal January 24, 2012 at 12:59 pm #

    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!

    • Steve Laube February 9, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

      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.

  22. Sylvie January 25, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    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.

    Thank you.

    • Steve Laube February 9, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      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).

  23. Iola March 2, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    Steve – I am seriously impressed to see that you are still tracking new comments on this post a year after it was first posted.

  24. Nikole Hahn April 30, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    Thanks for the how-to on the cover letter.

  25. Brenda Sue May 7, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    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.)

  26. Jackie King-Scott June 19, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    Hi Steve,
    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.

    Blessings,
    Jackie King-Scott

  27. Deborah July 7, 2012 at 11:58 am #

    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.

    Respectfully,
    Deborah

    • Steve Laube January 18, 2014 at 11:03 am #

      Deborah,

      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.

  28. Jackie Layton July 23, 2012 at 7:03 pm #

    Steve,

    Thanks so much for all the help you’ve given us in this post.

    Sincerely,
    Jackie

  29. Fletcher Christian August 8, 2012 at 7:49 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    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.

    In Christ,
    Fletch

  30. Kiesha Collier August 23, 2012 at 10:04 am #

    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.

    • Steve Laube January 18, 2014 at 11:01 am #

      Kiesha,

      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.

  31. Dianna Dixon August 23, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    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?

    • Steve Laube January 18, 2014 at 11:00 am #

      Not an issue if you own the publication rights. It is your book to sell to another publisher.

  32. Lara M. Van Hulzen January 13, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    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?
    Thank you,
    Lara Van Hulzen

    • Steve Laube January 18, 2014 at 10:59 am #

      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.”

      Steve

  33. Stephen Lawson January 18, 2014 at 10:39 am #

    Do you prefer single or double-spacing in a cover letter?

    • Steve Laube January 18, 2014 at 10:56 am #

      Single spaced. Just like a regular letter.

      The only thing that is double-spaced is the sample chapters or manuscript itself.

      • Stephen Lawson January 18, 2014 at 11:57 am #

        Thank you, sir, for the fast reply.

  34. Barbarann Ayars April 29, 2014 at 9:03 am #

    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.

  35. Cindy C. July 22, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    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.

    • Steve Laube July 23, 2014 at 6:42 am #

      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…

      Steve

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