WRITING A COVER LETTER
Your manuscript should always be accompanied by a short cover letter. A cover letter is essentially a business letter introducing your story and yourself to the editor. The tone should be friendly but professional. If you are submitting electronically, your email will be your cover letter. If you are submitting by snail mail your cover letter is on a separate sheet and included in the envelope with your manuscript.
First, read any submission guidelines the publisher may have. These guidelines will tell you whether to submit by email or snail mail, whether the publisher accepts simultaneous submissions or prefers to have the manuscript exclusively, and whether to included a self-addressed stamped envelope for reply. You can usually find guidelines on the publisher's website. The Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Marketplace is also a good source of information. If you use the Marketplace double check the publisher's website, as the policy may have changed since the book's publication.
Formatting Your Letter
- As with any business letter, you should include your contact information. Email will automatically include your return internet address and the date. However, it is always a good idea to include a phone contact. Some people prefer to place this below their signature. If you are sending a hard copy, use the traditional format for a business letter. Place the date and all your contact information in the upper left hand corner.
- Drop down two spaces after your contact info. and place the editor's name, the name of the publisher and address. (Again, you don't need to do this for email.) If your manuscript is unsolicited you may not have the name of a particular editor. Many publishers prefer that submissions be addressed to "Submissions Editor" or simply "Submissions." In that case your salutation will be "Dear Editor."
- How do you get the name of an editor? Attending conferences is one way. Editors who speak at conferences will sometimes invite attendees to submit directly to them, even if the publishing house does not normally accept unsolicited manuscripts. Follow any instructions you receive from the conference organizers regarding this. For instance, you may be asked to put the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope or receive a sticker designating the manuscript as one from a conference attendee. If you had any personal contact with the editor, it's a good idea to remind her of that. For instance, "We met at the recent SCBWI conference in New York after your presentation on Picture Book Humor and you said you would be interested in seeing my work."
- If you are writing to "Dear Editor" then go right into introducing your story. Your letter should include the following information:
- The title of your story: "I would like to submit the enclosed picture book manuscript Centipedes Play Soccer for your consideration."
- Take another sentence or two to indicate the age group for which you are writing and to briefly describe your story: "Centipedes is a humorous story for the early grades that emphasizes the joy of participating in sports. Even in the confusion of too many legs going in too many directions, Suzie Centipede and her friends manage to have a great time. When you're having so much fun cares who won?
- Why are you sending this manuscript to this particular publisher? The most obvious answers is that they are one of the few houses that still accept unsolicited submissions. However, even a little research on your part can do a lot to put yourself in an editor's good graces and save you from wasting your time. Go to the company's website and look at what books they've released recently. Many publishers will also send a hard copy catalog upon request. In addition, Publisher's Weekly puts out a special edition on upcoming children's books twice a year that lists books by publisher. Ask your local librarian if she has a copy. After you've done some research on publishers your letter can read something like this: "I've noticed that Snapdragon Press has published many books that use humor to teach children social skills. I believe my story would complement many of those on your list, especially Proud to Be a Slowpoke and Who's on First?
- In the next paragraph you can add something about yourself and your qualifications if you wish. If you have previously published work for children list it here. Likewise, if you have professional experience relevant to your book--say you're a teacher or coach, for example--you can mention that too. And what if children' s writing is a completely new field for you? Don't worry. Ultimately, your work must speak for itself.
- How long should your letter be? No more than one page. Remember, this is a brief introduction. Your purpose is to make the editor want to read your manuscript.
- Should you include an SASE? SASE stands for Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. Of course, if you are submitting by email, you do not need one. For many years publishers used the SASE to return unwanted manuscripts and/or a rejection letter depending on the size of the envelope. If you include an SASE and wish your manuscript back, be sure the envelope is large enough and includes enough postage. Publishers will not add postage to it. If you don't wish the manuscript itself back but still want a letter, use a business size envelope with a single stamp.
- When not to include an SASE? These days, many publishers are no longer responding to manuscripts unless they are interested. Read the submissions guidelines carefully. Publishers that do not use SASE's, often state they will respond within a certain time frame (usually 3-4 months) if interested in pursuing your submission. If you don't hear from them within that period you can safely assume your manuscript has been rejected.
- Should you submit the same manuscript to more than one publisher at the same time? Again, read the publisher's submission guidelines. If the guidelines indicate that multiple or "simultaneous" submissions are okay, you can send your story to other publishers. Some publishers, however, prefer to have manuscripts "exclusively." This means you should not send the story to another publisher until you have heard from the first one. What if they don't send rejections? How long should you wait? Most likely, the publisher will give you a window of time in the guidelines, saying something like, "We prefer to have manuscripts exclusively for three months." In that case, if you haven't heard from them after three months, you are free to submit elsewhere.
- Close your letter on an upbeat and courteous note. It's always a good idea to indicate that you have read the guidelines and are complying with them. "Thank-you for your time and attention. In accordance with your guidelines, I have included a business size SASE for your convenience." Or, "I understand that you will respond to me within three months if interested. Thank-you for your consideration. I hope to hear from you."
What should your letter look like. Here is a basic sample.
What should you do while you're waiting to hear from a publisher? Work on another manuscript. Publishing can be a slow process. That's why it's a good idea to have more than one story in the works.
WANT MORE COVER LETTERS?
This is only a bare-bones guide to writing a cover letter. If you want additional advice or variations on formatting, take a look at Harold Underdown's excellent The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books, available in bookstores or at your library. Underdown includes many sample letters for manuscripts of all genres. You will no doubt find something that you can adapt to your own purposes in his book.