How to write a cover letter

Remember the misadventures? This is one of them. In the early days, I happened to be under the impression that a novel had to be picked up by a literary agency and, as luck would have it, I managed to sign with one. Here are some helpful points regarding cover letters.

When it came to querying literary agencies, I was surprised to discover how varied their submission guidelines were. In general, most agents require a cover letter, synopsis and sample pages of the manuscript.

Preparatory work is required in producing the draft cover letter.

1. The first step was to clarify the book’s genre. Krish is a modern love story with a dark, thriller-like edge, so I had to find agents who represented commercial women’s fiction, romance, and cross-genre novels. Based on that search criteria, I drew up a list of agencies to query.

2. The cover letter is the interface between the writer and the agent. A positive first impression will encourage the agent to peruse the sample chapters, therefore it has to look and sound professional, and clearly show you’ve done your research. Make it short and to the point, allowing the synopsis and sample chapters to do the talking.

3. In the opening line explain why you have chosen to submit to that particular agent and, why the novel might appeal to them. Then provide a ‘hook’ or ‘elevator speech’ for the book. This is a very brief synopsis. As a rule of thumb, it should be no more than a couple of lines. The purpose of the hook is to entice the agent to read the submission. Too much description is unnecessary in the cover letter if you are submitting a full synopsis as well.

4. Next, in a sentence or two, provide the background and setting of the novel, and explain why you wrote it. Here it is useful to include your inspiration for the story and personal experience of the subject matter.

5. Mention your educational background, particularly courses/qualifications relevant to writing. Any previous publications would also be beneficial in building credibility.

6. Clarify whether the manuscript is complete, giving the total number of words. Do also mention whether the book is a one-off or part of a series.

7. It is helpful to outline the target audience of the book. One can also mention similar books in the market to indicate potential readership.

8. I was asked by a couple of agents where I saw Krish sitting on the shelves in the book stores. Worth covering this point in the letter when dealing with cross genres.

9. And finally, don’t forget to provide your contact details.

Once the draft cover letter is done, it can be tailored according to the submission guidelines for each target agency.



When to submit to literary agents?

There are two schools of thought on when to submit the book to agencies. One can either start querying agents very early on in the writing process i.e., when the book is around thirty thousand words or, hold fire until after the novel is completed and polished to perfection.

As a debut writer, I knew there was an extremely low likelihood of my novel getting picked up by an agency on the basis of the first 30K words. However, being an eternal optimist, I went for it anyway. My rationale had been simple, if I get an agent, great, if not, I’ll get some much needed experience in writing cover letters and synopses.

Using the Writers’ & Artists’ Handbook as my starting point, I searched for literary agents specialising in dark, edgy, love stories. There are also numerous websites listing agencies and their preferences, so pulling together a target list had been straightforward.

I sent off sample chapters of Krish to a few agencies and unsurprisingly, received form rejections from all, except three. These wonderful individuals had taken the time, from their busy schedules, to provide me with some very helpful feedback, as follows:

“Strong writing and I like the story but it’s overwritten in places.”

“You are a strong writer but your characters need further development.”

“You have a strong voice but too much detail slows down the pace.”

I cannot stress enough how valuable, not to mention timely, their comments were at that early stage of the book. Taking them on board, I re-wrote the novel from scratch. And what a difference it made, the prose flowed and the characters sprang to life.

So, back to the question of when to submit to literary agents, in my experience, the sooner the better.