SO, WHAT IS A COVER LETTER?
Literary agents and many literary competitions require a cover letter along with your sample chapters and synopsis. This is a formal introduction to you and your novel. Note: It is not a CV, a bio or a blurb for the book. It’s a letter, written from one professional to another, that should make the agent or judge want to read more. The biggest mistake entrants to the BPA First Novel Award made this year was getting the balance off, either writing too much about the novel or too much about themselves – some poor novels didn’t get a mention. There’s a rough template most agents and competition judges will look for, and it’s pretty doable! Let’s give it a go.
TELL US ABOUT THE NOVEL
First, tell us about the novel. That’s what you’re trying to sell! You want the agent to finish the cover letter with such curiosity about the book that they’re hungry for the sample chapters.
The first paragraph will usually reveal the title, the genre, the word count of the completed manuscript (If you don’t include this, they might worry you haven’t finished it!) and something that offers a taste of the novel, like a mention of the themes you’re going to explore.
Be specific when stating the genre – if it’s general fiction, think about whether the market is commercial, book club, upmarket or literary. If it’s YA, don’t just say it’s YA – is it a YA romance? YA dystopia? Who’s out there writing YA crime? The literary agent will be familiar with all the terms, so the more specific you are, the easier it will be to picture an audience for the book.
Once you’ve provided these core facts, write an elevator pitch. This is a single sentence that conveys your novel’s hook or USP. For inspiration, check out the Sunday Times Bestsellers List:
- Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club: Four friends in a retirement village team up to solve a mystery on their doorstep.
- Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train: A commuter’s fascination with a married couple she passes every day turns deadly.
It’s a good idea to follow this up with a one-paragraph description of the novel. Unlike the synopsis, it doesn’t need to tell the entire story, but it should be just more than the premise. Tell us who the protagonist is, what happens to upset the balance of their life, and what their goal is (presumably to restore said life balance!). If you can do that in a couple of sentences, you might also mention one of the novel’s core turning points.
Cover letters should describe the novel first, then the writer, then remind us of the novel at the end. In a short final paragraph, say what inspired you to write the book and offer some comparable titles. (Check out agent Nelle Andrew’s advice on comparable titles.)
The letter should be targeted towards the literary agent or competition judge you’re writing to. Some writers choose to open with this and others incorporate it into the later paragraphs. The best way to make a connection and show you’ve done your research is to mention an author on the agent’s list who has a relevant readership. You could also explain why you think your novel aligns with what they describe in their wish list.
TELL US ABOUT YOU
It’s the writing, not the writer, that’s important … but the agent or judge does want to know about you too. They especially want to know why you were the one person who could write this book. And it’s true – no one else could write the book you’ve written. So tell us why. Did your job as a psychiatrist inspire the analysis of your antagonist’s motivation? Do you live in the idyllic town where the book is set? Have you studied the era of your historical novel? Share relevant details about yourself.
The agent or judge also wants evidence that you are a writer. You’re not just someone who thinks they have a novel in them; you take your craft seriously. If you can, share what magazines your short fiction has been published in, the competitions you’ve been listed in or the creative writing courses you’ve completed. If you don’t have that kind of experience, share anything that tells us you’re serious. Join a writer’s workshop group and tell us about that. Attend an online masterclass (like the ones BPA runs) and mention that. Experiment with writing in different forms and tell us about it. Share which contemporary authors have inspired you, so it’s clear that you’re well read. Just don’t put, ‘This is my first attempt at writing fiction,’ and leave it at that. It doesn’t inspire confidence.
A cover letter should be professional, like the cover letter you would send with a job application, but you also want it to have some personality. And given you’re basically applying for the role of ‘novelist’, it needs to be well written.
So, keep it formal, make sure it’s eloquent, and try to get some flow into it. When you read it aloud, it should sound natural. If it doesn’t, it might be that you haven’t varied sentence length, that you’ve used rigid language, or simply that you’re trying too hard. As formal as a cover letter should be, you want your enthusiasm for this novel you’ve spent so long writing to imbue the lines.
COMMON ISSUES IN ‘BPA FIRST NOVEL AWARD’ SUBMITTED COVER LETTERS
- Formatting it like a CV or splitting it into sections titled ‘Bio’ and ‘Novel Summary’.
- Sharing irrelevant detail about your personal life.
- Making it too short – 200-350 words is a good guideline.
- Or too long – unfortunately, nobody’s going to read a cover letter past the first page!
- Writing a vague description of the story e.g. ‘When a mysterious event happens, a woman will have to look to the past to uncover the truth.’
- Including long-winded explanations of why there’s a huge market for your book.
- Coming across as arrogant … or lacking in confidence.
- Sharing more about the novel’s message than its story.
WRITE THE COVER LETTER YOUR NOVEL DESERVES
Once you’ve finished a manuscript, the instinct is to get it on submission as soon as possible, but it’s worth taking the time to give an accurate and exciting representation of the work. Literary agents receive many submissions a day and have to fit reading time in with a huge workload. You need to grab them in the cover letter so that they’re already thinking of you as a potential client when they read the sample.
Out of everything you could have written on the blank pages of a document titled Novel, you’ve carefully chosen each word of this story that has to be told. You know people will love it and you hopefully have a sense of who and why. Get that across to the agent or competition reader, and maybe, just maybe, they’ll request the full manuscript.