As an agent, I receive a lot of query letters, and the simple truth is that most of them are awful. I feel bad for the writers, because their work may be very good, but I’ll never know because I’ve deleted their cover letters.
When you sit down to write a cover letter, there are a lot of things you can do wrong. A lot of people will start out with a chunk of their book. Don’t do that. I need to know something about who you are and the context you see yourself working in before I dive into that first paragraph. Another mistake is arrogance; if you claim you’re going to make a million dollars or that you’re the next big thing, that’s quite a turn off. At the other extreme, sometimes authors will go on for several sentences about how they know I’m busy and they’re just lowly little authors and would I please read their cover letters. That’s not exactly enticing either. Don’t be arrogant, but do have confidence in your work.
So what should go into a good cover letter? First, I want to see that writers have taken the time and effort to find out something about my agency so I know they’re not just sending query letters to every agent in the book. I’ve even seen authors include a whole list of agents in the address line of an e-mail. That’s a definite no-no. But when someone has written to me specifically, can cite a book or two that I’ve represented, and has some compelling reasons why we might be a good match, I sit up and take notice. If you can describe your book in an appealing way succinctly, that’s also a big plus. And you should certainly provide some information about yourself—if you’ve been published before, or if you have an interesting job, or if you can bring some contacts or marketing ideas to the table, those are things I’m likely to pay attention to.
There’s a quality of confidence that shines through in the best query letters and helps them stand out from the pack. I can tell almost instantly if someone is really a writer and feels confident in what he or she has written. Above all, that’s what I’m looking for.
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