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Dos And Don'ts Of Writing A Cover Letter

Literary agent Federcia Leonardis offers some handy dos and don'ts on writing a cover letter to accompany your manuscript submission.

In preparing for a How to Hook an Agent event I got to thinking about the sort of things that put me off in a manuscript submission, and how so many of these things can be avoided by the writer with a bit of care.

While a lot of the points on the list below may seem obvious to me and to most other literary agents, I do realise that might not be the case for a writer that knows little of what goes on on the other side of the barricade, and one perhaps also caught up in the anxiety of submitting their manuscript to an agent for the first time. It is important to spend time on the submission, though, and your cover letter is often the first impression a writer makes on an agent. I know I’ve made snap decisions to reject an author's work based on a messy cover letter. When the volume of submissions is very high and there are only so many hours in the day, inevitably the standards an agent expects to see in a novel or non-fiction proposal AND in a cover letter go up.

Remember though, an agent always wants to find good books and good writers to work with. So see the below as useful information, offering a bit of insight into the mind of an agent and to be used as a hand checklist to look over before clicking 'Send'!

  1. Write a good book or the best book you can write.
  2. Don’t submit the first draft.
  3. Only submit once your manuscript is completed.
  4. Research the agents you’re going to send your manuscripts to and tailor your cover letter.
  5. Research your market before submitting and think about how your book sits in the market.
  6. When preparing a pitch or a blurb think of what your reader will enjoy and what you enjoy when choosing a book.
  7. Treat your submission as you would an application for a job.
  8. Do address your submission to a specific agent and double check his or her title, gender and name.
  9. Always check and follow submission guidelines on the agency’s website. 
  10. Do not make a generic submission to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ and do not submit to multiple agents in the same email. One agent = one email.
  11. Submit to more than one agent but not in the same email. One agent = one email.
  12. Be confident but don’t be a diva. Don’t be arrogant and don’t be demanding.
  13. Be polite.
  14. Do not send your submission more than once. 
  15. Submit only one book at a time.
  16. Do not threaten the agent.
  17. Be concise. Don’t ramble on; let your manuscript speak for itself.
  18. Do say what your book is about, in which category it falls, and to a reader of whose books it would appeal.
  19. Double check you spelled the name of the agent correctly regardless of whether you think you know how it’s spelled. Sometimes even common names can have unusual spelling.
  20. Don’t be overfriendly or overfamiliar. 
  21. Don’t assume political or religious affiliation in your cover letter. Treat it like a first date and don’t mention politics or religion. 
  22. Don’t try to be quirky or original or funny in your letter. Save that for your novel.
  23. Double check your email and cover letter for typos and spelling mistakes. And then check them again. 
  24. Check you attached/included the documents you were supposed to attach/include.
  25. Don’t include in your cover letter your demands or wishes for the cover, promotion, marketing. You can mention anything that might facilitate promotion, like your social media following on any channel or any professional position you hold.
  26. Try not to come across as desperate.
  27. Don’t submit an idea for a book.
  28. Don’t assume you know everything about anything but try to know as much as you can, and remember that you can always know more. 
  29. If you have one (but don't worry if you don't!) mention a relevant personal connection in your cover letter, like an editor, a writer, an agent, or an acquaintance of the agent you’re submitting to.
  30. Pick the right agent, not the most famous, or the most popular but the right one for you and your career. 
  31. Like the excellent Peter Robinson my ex-boss and mentor at RCW once said: decide if you want an agent or an accessory.
  32. Tell the agent if you receive an offer of representation by another agent, if you’ve accepted an offer of representation or a request for a full ms.
  33. Don’t chase by phone or email. It will probably make the agent read your manuscript more quickly but it will probably make them slightly biased against it since that’s human nature and we are after all only human. 
  34. Don’t be sensitive. Rejections suck but they are part of the game, and if you can’t stand the heat...
  35. Do remember agents are fallible human beings with a mortgage to pay, families, a social life and, most importantly, other clients.

Federica Leonardis is the founder of the Martin Leonardis Literary Management. Her publishing career includes four years in Foreign Rights at Ed Victor Literary Agency, three years in the Contracts department at the Orion Publishing Group and over two years at Rogers, Coleridge & White Literary Agency where she worked alongside two senior agents while building her list until July 2016. 

Federica loves stories that keep her reading through the night and those can be in different genres: commercial or literary, a love story or a murder mystery, a cosy crime or an international thriller, a romantic comedy or a story of loss and grief, a speculative and dystopian novel, or a psychological or domestic suspense. Federica is also interested in non-fiction books in the following areas:food writing and cookery but also business, psychology, smart thinking and positive thinking, self-help and life-style; in short, books that can potentially trigger positive change in any aspect of the reader’s life.

Fully bilingual, she considers submissions in both English and Italian.