I will never forget a truly disastrous gift exchange with my husband when we were newly married. It was my birthday and my husband told me he had a gift for me. He then handed me a paper sack and said, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t have time to wrap it.” The smile on my face was gone and was replaced with a look of disappointment. To this day I can’t tell you what was in that sack because the joy was over for me. I opened the bag and held it upside down. The gift fell into my lap. There were no fancy ribbons, no pretty paper and there was no card. I thanked my husband for the gift, but he could tell by my expression that I was not happy. He got the message loud and clear and he has never done that again in our 19 year marriage.
Now, imagine you are an editor at a magazine. You open up an envelope and expect to find a neatly wrapped package containing a cover letter, a manuscript, and a SASE. You dump the contents on your desk and find a sloppy manuscript, single-spaced with no cover letter and no SASE. What a disappointment!
GIFT WRAP OR GIFT BAG?
You must write a cover letter for every manuscript you submit to a publisher, period. If you took the time to polish your manuscript and check it over carefully for mistakes, then you should take the time to write a sparkling cover letter to go with it. The cover letter announces the arrival of your manuscript just like a birth announcement tells about a new arrival.
Not all cover letters need to be formal, dressed up in ribbons and bows. If you are submitting your manuscript through the mail, you will want a more traditional cover letter, or gift-wrap. Your cover letter will contain three or four brief paragraphs: the first will introduce the manuscript; the second will tell about your publications, the third will tell why you sent it to this publisher and thank them for their time. If you submit a manuscript electronically you will still need some type of cover letter. The email cover letter is more like a gift bag, than a traditional gift-wrap. My experience has taught me that you can be a little less formal in email correspondence. However, the first time you send a manuscript to a particular publisher it is best to be very professional. After you develop a relationship with an editor, your cover letters can take a more casual tone.
THE GUESSING GAME
Just like little kids want to shake their presents and try to guess what’s inside, editors like to get a sneak preview in the cover letter. This helps them know if the manuscript is going to be right for their publication. Your first paragraph gives the editor something to hold onto and shake. Tell them something about the manuscript that is inside the envelope. You can quote a particularly good passage or arouse their curiosity with a statement that shocks, surprises, or delights them. Whatever you do, you need to make them want to read the manuscript.
Be original and be clever in your cover letter. I imagine editors get tired of reading the same boring cover letter format over and over again. You should customize the cover letter for each editor. Don’t just change the name at the top and send it off. Research each publisher and find out what kind of manuscripts they are looking for. If you have written one that they might like, tell them why your manuscript is perfect for them.
RIBBONS, BOWS, AND ALL THE TRIMMINGS
Just like a gift has ribbons, bows, and fancy details, so do packages prepared for editors. Make sure to use quality paper to print your manuscript and your cover letter. It should be crisp and clean. The ink in your printer cartridge should be dark and easy to read. Check your cover letter over not once, but twice for mistakes. The editor’s name should be spelled correctly. Your cover letter should be double spaced and laid out so that there is some white space. The editor has to read hundreds of cover letters every week. Address labels should be printed on your computer, but if this is not possible, you should write on the labels in your neatest handwriting.
Please don’t confuse my gift-wrap metaphor with the actual giving of gifts to editors. Do not bribe an editor with gifts. This is highly unprofessional. Your manuscript will not be given higher consideration because you included brownies or gift certificates in your envelope.
FLATTER THE RECIPIENT
Finally, you should flatter the recipient of your package just like you would flatter the recipient of a gift with a nice card. A card usually tells the recipient how young, beautiful, or smart they are. Tell the editor how much you love their publishing company. They are probably curious about why you chose to send your manuscript to them. If you have read their books or magazine articles, tell them. If your book is similar in style to others they have published, mention that in your cover letter. Editors like to be flattered just as much as recipients of gifts.