In this extract from Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent — a quick-fire introduction to the process of gaining literary agent representation — James Rennoldson looks at things writers should include in their covering letter to a literary agent... as well as some of the things they shouldn't!
It should be clear now that the job of your covering letter is to help the agent to whom you’re submitting form a clear picture of the book you’ve written, and also gain a positive impression of what it might be like to work with you. Here are some things a good covering letter should include:
- Salutation, including the agent’s name, correctly spelled;
- Framing devices – book title, word count, genre and/or intended reading audience, suitable comparisons if relevant (literary or otherwise);
- Your pitch. What’s at the heart of your book? What is its USP? Why would someone want to read it?
- information about you – name, contact details, any relevant writing experience, anything else of interest that’s relevant to your book. Mention formal writing qualifications (a recognised course, something previously published or shortlisted) if you have them, but there's no need to say you don’t have any experience;
- Agent-specific reasoning. Why have you sent your work to them? Are you aware of (and admire) some of the authors they represent? Have you met them at an event or follow them on Twitter and felt encouraged to send your work to them
- Politeness. This is a minimum expectation in forming a good working relationship;
- Confidence. Believe in your book! If you don’t, why should anyone else?
- Professionalism. Adhere to submission guidelines, use a spellchecker, etc.
- brevity. Less is more. The covering letter is a preamble to the beginning of your manuscript. Let the manuscript do all the talking on your behalf
THINGS NOT TO INCLUDE IN YOUR COVERING LETTER
What follows is a quick-fire list of common mistakes writers make within their covering letter to literary agents.
- ‘Dear Sirs’. Tailor your covering letter to individual agents; don’t ‘Send To All’; and definitely do not assume every agent you submit to is a man because most are not.
- Referring to one’s self. Don’t leave out your contact details (email and phone number); it’s a risk to sign your letter off using a nom de plume; and would you write any other application in the third person?
- Mistakes. If you’re sloppy in your covering letter, then even before they’ve started reading your opening chapters an agent will have begun to wonder about the amount of editorial time they’ll need to spend on your manuscript.
- Arrogance/unrealistic expectations. Is your book really going to be the next multi-million-selling phenomenon? Is it really your place to say it’s better than the work of an acclaimed author? And don’t mistake having an appreciation of the marketplace as an excuse to do someone else’s job for them. There’s no need for statistics, graphs or tables around the potential marketability of your book.
- Apologies. Don’t be self-deprecating or dismissive of your work before an agent has even read the first page.
- Waffle. Don’t overload an agent with lots of details about the book; don’t include superfluous information about yourself (‘I have two children and three dogs, Their names are … ’); and don’t waste words with statements like ‘I’ve always written since I was a child’. Anyone could say that; what can you say that’s remarkable?
- Gimmicks. Your manuscript submission should stand out for your writing only (although a solid proposal could be enough for non-narrative non-fiction writers). Don’t undermine it with other ‘features’, such as wacky fonts, bullet-pointed lists, accompanying gifts, photos of yourself, illustrations, and similar.
- Lies. You’ll get found out if you make a claim about your book that’s untrue, and ruin any chance of trust with a prospective agent.
In isolation, one of the above errors is probably not going to mean an agent doesn't look at your sample section of writing. A clutch of these sorts of mistakes, however, is likely to make the agent wonder about whether they could work with you.
Written in Q&A format, the Writers' & Artists' Guide To How To Hook an Agent is an introduction to the process of submitting a manuscript to literary agents, and is directly inspired by popular questions asked by writers that have attended our long-running series of events of the same name. If you're looking for a literary agent to represent your manuscript order your copy here, or to find out about our latest events click here.