Here are a few suggestions for you to consider when approaching an agent. Remember to use these as hints…do not follow them slavishly as if a literary agent is going to spend their time critiquing your cover letter.
By the way, we make a distinction between a cover letter and a query letter. A cover letter is what goes on top of a longer proposal and sample chapters. The query letter is a stand-alone letter that goes by itself to the editor/agent without a proposal or sample chapters. We happen to prefer the cover letter along with the rest of the package. Why? Because a query only shows that you can write a letter. A proposal begins the process of showing that you know how to write a book.
Address the letter to a specific person. If sending something to The Steve Laube Agency, simply address the appropriate agent. Every proposal will cross the desk of the designated agent eventually.
Don’t waste your time or ours. Do your homework! If you are submitting to an agent, visit their web site and follow their guidelines!!! We cannot emphasize this enough! Make certain to spell the person’s name right. (We’ve had people spell Steve Laube’s name as “Laub” “Labe” “Lobby” “Looby” etc.)
If you use a market guide book or some online database listing of agents or editors, make sure you have the most current information because addresses do change (go to the web site). Our main office changed its mailing address in February of 2007…and we still discover that material is being sent to the old address. You would be astounded by the number of calls or inquiries we receive from writers who have not done their research.
Whatever you do, do not say your book is the next Purpose Driven Life, Eat Pray Love, Left Behind, or The Shack, or that it will sell better than The Da Vinci Code, Twilight, Harry Potter, or The Chronicles of Narnia. That shows an ignorance of the market that is best left alone.
In addition, please do not claim “God gave me this book so you must represent or publish it.” We are firm believers in the inspiration that comes from a faith-filled life, but making it part of your pitch is a big mistake. Read this blog post for a larger discussion on this point.
The 4-part Cover letter:
1) A simple introductory sentence is sufficient. Basically you are saying “Hi. Thank you for the opportunity…”
2) Use a “sound bite” statement. A “sound bite” statement is the essence of your novel or non-fiction book idea in 40 words or less.
The fiction sound bite could include:
a. The heroic character
b. The central issue of the story
c. The heroic goal
d. The worthy adversary
f. The ending
g. A grabber
h. Or a twist
Thenon-fiction sound bite should include the main focus or topic.
One suggestion is to describe the Problem, Solution, and Application.
If someone were to ask about your book you would answer, “My book is about (write in your sound bite.)”
3) Tell why your book is distinctive-who will read it. (Targeted age group….adult, teen, youth) – point out what’s fresh, new, different.
One suggestion would be, for your intended genre, read a number of recent books in the same genre as your own to familiarize yourself with market.
4) Give pertinent manuscript details: a) mention whether or not book is completed (if it is not, then give an estimate as to when it will be finished) b) word length of the complete manuscript, even if it is an estimate (approximate – round off the number) c) pertinent biographical info d) tell the agent if it is a simultaneous submission e) let the agent know they can discard the proposal if rejected.
Click here to review a sample non-fiction cover letter from one of our clients who approached us via an email inquiry.
Keep letter to one page!!
Please don’t use narrow margins or tiny print to fit it all on one sheet. That is silly. We once received a cover letter written with an 8 point font and 1/4 inch margins. It was virtually unreadable.
Over the last five years, I’ve read something like 500 applications for entry-level media jobs. Over time, I’ve spotted many talented people, including a number of recent college graduates who are now valued Slate employees. Slate is a small company, so when it’s time to make a hire, a list of three great HR-approved candidates does not magically appear on my desk. I write the ads (like this one) and read all of the responses myself—and after scaling mountains of cover letters I’ve developed some opinions I can no longer hold back.
The most important one is this: Many young people seem to have no idea how to apply for a job. What I see time after time from young media hopefuls are not the classic no-nos, like misspellings and typos, but what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how to sell oneself to a prospective employer. While I certainly don’t speak for all media folk or even all of the editors at Slate, allow me to offer some guidance to current college students and recent grads. Some of my advice may sound familiar, but based on the applications I’m seeing, there are plenty of green job-seekers out there who could use these pointers.
Focus on the cover letter. It is not uncommon for me to get 100 applications for one spot, so I’m constantly looking for reasons not to advance a candidate to the interview round. Writing a good cover letter is your best shot at getting noticed. If I hate a cover letter, I won’t even look at the résumé.
Keep it short. I started putting word limits on cover letters because I couldn’t stand, nor did I have the time to read, the epically long letters I’d receive. I’m going to give your letter maybe 30 seconds of my time. If you are interested in a job in journalism, you should be able to tell me about yourself and why I should hire you in less than 200 words. I’ve never hired someone with a longwinded cover letter. Same goes for résumés. No one with fewer than four years of full time work experience needs more than a page. Your summer lifeguarding job does not need five bullet points.
Avoid awkward phrasing and attempts to be overly formal. Introductions like “With this statement, I declare my interest in the position you have advertised on your website” are clumsy and should be avoided. Start with a strong but simple opener, like “I'm excited to be writing to you to apply for the blogging position at Slate.” Conversational is much better than stilted.
You are your best advocate. It’s not uncommon for me to get a cover letter that opens with, “I am sure you are getting many qualified applicants for this job, many of whom are more qualified than I.” If you don’t believe you are the best candidate, why should I? This letter is your chance to sell yourself. Don’t plant the seed in my mind that you aren’t the best candidate for the job. You don’t want to be overly cocky, but I’ll take confident over meek any day.
Show me that you read my site. It’s common for cover letter writers to say, “I love Slate,” but that doesn’t stand out to me. Be more specific. Who are your favorite writers? What are some recent articles you enjoyed? Detailed flattery will get you further, because it shows you’ve done your homework. Ninety percent of the cover letters I read for our news blog, the Slatest, mention nothing specific about that particular blog. Here’s what one applicant for a recent position wrote (spoiler: I hired him): “I'm particularly drawn to a dynamic news outlet like the Slatest. I appreciate its blend of politics and current affairs, as well as its ability to consistently sniff out the most compelling news pieces and narratives. I dig its sense of humor, too—I can't resist a news blog that picks up on the latest North Korean, pigeon–eating propaganda pieces.”
Explain how selecting you will benefit me. This is where candidates often get it totally backward. I frequently read lines like: “I am applying for this paid internship because I think working at Slate would be highly beneficial for me, and would do a lot to help my future job prospects for a career in media for after I graduate from college.” I know how working at Slate would strengthen your résumé. But I am looking to you, candidate X, to solve a problem for me. My problem is that I need good interns. Explain to me how choosing you will solve my problem. Here’s how one candidate convinced me that his skills were pertinent to the role I was hiring for: “From my editorial experience as managing editor of 34th Street Magazine here at Penn, to my experience in news and culture blogging at LAist.com last summer, I've picked up the tools I need to perform as a Slatest intern with excellence.”
I’m not interested in anything you did before college. Leave anecdotes like this out: “I am a born storyteller, and I’ve loved writing ever since I won an award for playwriting in the third grade for my series of puppet fairytales.” If you are early in your college career, then hopefully you still have relevant experiences and interests to write about. If you don’t, know that you’ll be competing with upperclassmen, college grads, and graduate students who do.
I’m not interested in your life journeys. This includes your experiences studying abroad, even if you had an amazing time. I get too many letters with paragraphs like: “I’ve wondered to myself, how can I translate my natural talent for the written word into a life path that is interesting and meaningful? I asked myself this question many times during my study abroad in Morocco. I loved working with the Moroccan farmers in helping feed their families, but I also longed for a way to feed my own passions for books, literature, and writing. As I enter my senior year, I think more and more that my true calling could be to be a journalist.” Save these musings for late night dorm room chats with your best friend.
When I read “senior thesis” my eyes glaze over. Despite the fact your academic advisers have convinced you these are really important, most people don’t care about them in the real world. Be wary of dwelling on what your topic is and PLEASE do not attach a chapter with your application. Writing a senior thesis has nothing to do with journalism. I’ll never open it, and I’ll resent you for sending it.
I don’t really care what classes you’ve taken, either. I’m much more interested in what you’ve done that relates to the skills needed for the position than I am in what you’ve studied. An interesting Tumblr account, a vibrant Twitter presence, or a personal blog on a topic you are passionate about is 10 times more compelling to me than your course load.
Your college and GPA aren’t as important as you think. This may be the biggest blow to you, grasshopper. In general, I don’t care about your GPA or whether you went to an Ivy League school, so definitely don’t expect this alone to swing open any doors for you. Of all the entry-level people I’ve hired, the one that went on to have the most successful career in media never finished college. If you are still in college, you should mention where you go and what you study. But the further out of college you are, the less I want to hear about where you went or how you did there.
Follow the application instructions to a T. I often give really specific instructions in the job posting, listing a word limit on cover letters, requesting exactly two writing samples, and noting a firm deadline for when applications are due. This is my first test in how good you are at taking direction. If you send four writing samples rather than two, that doesn’t make me think you are overqualified, it makes me think you can’t edit yourself or aren’t good at doing what is asked of you. Small mistakes like this help me figure out whom to eliminate, so tread carefully.
If you follow these instructions, you should have a good shot at making it to the top of the pile. It might not be long before you’re on the other side of the desk, reading cover letters yourself. Good luck.