Mentoring 2018 - The Importance of the Covering Letter - Karen Coles

Covering Letter

When you send out your completed chapters to a literary agent, you are taking a first step into the unknown world of publishing. And much like applying for your dream job, you want to present yourself in the best way possible. It’s easy to forget, in the scramble to polish your manuscript and put together a pithy and concise synopsis, that the first and possibly only thing an extremely busy agent will read is your covering letter.

That may seem unfair, but imagine for a moment you are that agent. You’ve spent your day seeing to your existing authors’ needs, and the only time you have to read from ‘the slush pile’ is after work, maybe on the train, or as you catch a flight, or in a taxi to your next meeting. You might have ten, twenty, fifty submissions waiting in your Inbox. The first few covering letters don’t grab you, but the tenth one does. Which one would you spend your precious time on?

Maybe, despite an uninspired covering letter an agent does read on, you might be lucky, but is that really the first impression you want to give? I know for a fact many agents won’t open emails addressed to ‘Dear Sir’, and why should they? If you can’t be bothered to learn their name, or sex, then why should they consider beginning a long-term working relationship?!

In this wonderful guest post by Karen Coles, she proves that a well-crafted covering letter can be the difference between form rejections and multiple offers of representation! Over to you Karen, and thanks so much for sharing your inspiring tale…

Karen Coles

Karen Coles

A few weeks ago, I was struggling to write a synopsis for my recently-completed novel. Having written several versions, I finally managed to cobble together a reasonable description of the events in the story. I breathed a sigh of relief. The opening chapters were polished to within an inch of their lives, bless them. The synopsis was done. All that was left to do was the covering letter. A doddle, I thought - a paragraph or so about the book, and a little a bit about me. It did not occur to me for one moment that the letter might be as, or even more, important than the synopsis.

I wrote my letters, emailed a few agents, and attached my sample chapters and synopsis. Then I sat back and waited. Before long, rejections started arriving – form rejections.

I re-read my chapters. I loved them, but knew they were a bit odd and wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, I was disappointed that none of this initial round had even asked for a full manuscript. Then I spotted a post about covering letters on Twitter, by the lovely Amanda Reynolds herself. I responded to it, saying how difficult I was finding it, and she very kindly offered to take a look at my letter. Let’s just say it needed some work!

My first error was in not mentioning why I was submitting to that particular agent. This made me think about the agents I had been sending my work to. I hadn’t even attempted to submit to ones I thought out of my reach – those who represented my favourite writers. This time, I decided to do just that. After all, if I was just going to let the story sit on my hard drive, I may as well aim high before mothballing it. Knowing why I really wanted to be represented by the agent meant it was much easier to write an individual letter.

The next problem Amanda spotted was that I didn’t have a killer hook. I hadn’t really captured the essence of the story at all and had instead made it sound a bit dull. No wonder agents hadn’t been keen to read on! I did find this immensely difficult to do, but it turned out to be well worth that extra effort.

I submitted the story again, and this time had four requests for a full manuscript. Although I had tweaked the opening chapters, they were minor changes and didn’t quite explain the different outcome. I do think it’s vital to submit to agents who represent your favourite writers - after all, the chances are your tastes in literature are going to match – but it’s also important to work as hard on the covering letter as on every other part of the submission package. Thanks to Amanda, I have finally realised this. I have now signed with my dream agent, so all the agonising over that covering letter was worth it after all. Thank you, Amanda x