Query Letters, Cover Letters, and Pitch Letters—And When to Use Them by Wendy Hinote Lanier
In the world of writing there are several kinds of letters related to submitting an idea or manuscript to a publisher. Words like pitch letter, query, and cover letter get thrown around a lot at conferences and in writing circles. But not everyone is clear on what those things are and when to use them. If you don’t have an agent (and many people do just fine without one), all this is on you. Hopefully, this will help.
All three types of letters are designed to help you sell something: an idea, a book, or yourself. No matter which letter you are writing, your goal is to keep it short and sweet. None of these should
be more than about 250 to 300 words. Think: one page letter.
A query letter is designed to sell an idea. The point is to get an editor to request the full manuscript. Knowing how to write one is a useful skill.
A query starts with a connection (IF you have one) that shows you either know the editor or know something about their house based on your research. You might mention that you met at a conference (IF you have), or that you were pleased to note on their website that they are looking for manuscripts just like yours, or that so and so (name drop here) suggested you contact them. Be sure the letter is addressed to an actual person, and double check to make sure you have the
right name. In a pinch, if you don’t actually have a connection and the publisher’s website was pretty vague about what they might be looking for, it’s ok to start with the hook.
Now the hook. That’s the one to two sentence elevator pitch that you have memorized for those moments when someone says, “What are you working on?” For fiction the answer goes something like, “It’s a picture book (or YA, or MG, or whatever) about X (your main character) who wants Y (the problem) but can’t get it because Z (the obstacle). For nonfiction your hook
might include an interesting fact from your manuscript, a description of some scene or process in the book, or a question your work will answer. Whatever you choose to do, try to use the same tone as the book so that the editor gets a feel for the overall manuscript.
Next is the 411 on the book. This includes a short summary and vital statistics such as title, length, type of manuscript (fiction, nonfiction, informational fiction, etc.), and intended audience. Keep it to one paragraph, and make it sing. You want this part to capture your voice and intrigue your audience (the editor) at the same time.
Next comes your biographical information. This is a short paragraph about your qualifications as a writer. Don’t include your education or work history unless it is pertinent to your writing. If you are a teacher, that’s pertinent. If you are a nurse but your book is about something nonmedical, it’s not. If you have won any awards for your writing, be sure to include them here.
And finally, finish up with a polite request to send all or some part of the manuscript, a closing, and your contact information. Boom. Done.
Does this HAVE to be done in this order? Nope. But all of these pieces should be there. So, might I suggest a TIME SAVING HACK?
Create a folder for each of your manuscripts. The folder may include older versions of the manuscript, notes, and/or research on the topic. And one document in that folder should be dedicated to promotion and biographical information for that book. Write out your hook (elevator pitch), your book summary (vital statistics), and your biographical information as it
pertains to that book. Then, when you write your query or cover letter, simply copy and paste the pieces. All you’ll need to add is a salutation, a connection (only if you have one), and a closing.
Which brings us to the second kind of letter—the cover letter. A cover letter accompanies a manuscript submitted either by request or through open submissions. If it was requested, be sure to note that in your connection point. A cover letter has, essentially, the same parts as a query. But instead of asking if you can send the entire manuscript, you’ll be indicating whether the manuscript is enclosed, pasted below, or attached. (Be sure to read the guidelines on the publisher’s website to see which one is their preferred method.) Overall remember to keep it simple. Let your manuscript do most of the talking.
And finally, there is the pitch letter. A pitch letter is designed to sell YOU as an author. The goal is to be awarded a writing assignment.
A pitch letter begins much like a query or cover letter. Make a connection if you have one. This is usually only two or three sentences in a single paragraph.
Next, indicate your interest in the editor’s company. Tell why you like their products. Maybe you’ve used them in your classroom. Maybe you ordered their books for your library. But let them know you have done your research by showing them you are familiar with their work. And then let them know you would LOVE to do an assignment for them. Keep this to one paragraph.
(One caveat to this is to make sure you are not only familiar with the publisher’s books, but also their guidelines for getting an assignment. If the company has a form they want you to fill out and requires a writing sample, don’t try to write a pitch letter instead. As always, follow the guidelines.)
Follow this with a short paragraph about your qualifications (biographical information). If you are not yet published, tell the editor some experience or knowledge you have that would make you a good candidate for an assignment. Don’t worry if you have no published work to list. Assignment writing is one area where not being published doesn’t necessarily work against you.
Finally, thank the editor for their time and indicate you hope to be hearing from them soon. If you are including samples (per their guidelines), make a note of that here. And be sure your complete contact information is clearly visible somewhere on the page.
There you have it. Query letters, cover letters, and pitch letters. Easy peasy. Now, go get’em!
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