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Ask the Editor 2: the submission letter


The submission letter: practice and pitfalls

Your submission letter (also known as the query letter) is the first thing a publisher will read; that makes it an important document. Get it right, and you have captured their attention; get it wrong, and your book may be rejected without being read. In this article, I will look at the ground rules for the letter, and the pitfalls you should try to avoid.

The first thing to remember is that the letter is only part of the submission package; you are also sending a synopsis and sample chapters. So the letter doesn't need to do the job of the other elements in the package. In other words, you don't need to tell the story in the letter; the synopsis does that job, and it's better suited to do so. And you don't need to show the publisher how good a writer you are; that's the sample's job.

So what does go in the letter? There are three basic items. The letter should: introduce the book by its title, give the word count, the genre, and the target audience; it should include a brief (ideally a single paragraph) outline of the book; and it should give brief biographical information, if it is relevant. Let's look at each of these items in turn.

The opening paragraph asks the publisher to consider your book. It gives the title (in italics usually) and the word count (this can be rounded to the nearest thousand words). It offers the genre (fantasy, thriller, literary romance) and the target audience. These are not identical items; for instance, your genre might be fantasy, but your audience might be specifically young adult. You can also include an author comparison here (this is becoming increasingly common): This book will appeal to fans of [Lee Child, Jackie Collins, Dostoevsky].

The next part is often the trickiest; give a brief outline of the book that doesn't replicate the synopsis. What you need to consider here is the distinction between the story and the plot. The synopsis tells the story by means of the plot: X happens, so character Y does Z. The outline in the letter is broader than this; it should characterise the narrative rather than recite it. In this respect, it is closer to cover copy than a synopsis and, occasionally, an author will end the outline with a teaser: Can Martha survive long enough to bring the killer to justice?

The important points here are clarity and brevity. Give a clear impression of the story and its ramifications, and don't take pages to do it. If you can encapsulate the spirit of the book in a couple of sentences, then you will satisfy the publisher and, with a bit of luck, encourage them to look at the synopsis and sample.

Biographical information is not vital but it often helps to set the submission in context. For instance, if you are writing about another country or culture, the fact that you have lived there is pertinent and shows you have the relevant experience. A lifelong interest in Roman Britain is a good motivation for writing a historical novel set in that period. The information, in other words, contributes to your reasons for sending the book.

The more basic biographical details - how old you are, where you were born, where you now reside, what you do for a living - are useful too; they give the publisher an impression of you as a person. But they are not compulsory; it's really up to you how much you tell a publisher about yourself in the letter.

Again, the important point is to keep it simple and brief. Your biography should be no more than one paragraph, and it should be factual in nature; this is not the place to get creative. In fact, the submission letter as a whole is a necessary protocol rather than an opportunity to impress; the closer you stay to the protocol the publisher expects, the better the response you will get. The more you try to reinvent the wheel, the less likely you are to get anywhere.

The rest of the letter reflects this point. You should include a short paragraph listing the items you are enclosing with the letter. Then a line saying, ‘Thank you for considering my work and I look forward to hearing from you'. And that's it: job done.

One of the most important parts of a writer's job is to produce material that is appropriate for the audience and the circumstances; the submission letter is a perfect case in point. The audience: an extremely busy person at a publishing company looking at their thirty-fifth submission letter of the week. The circumstances: getting consideration for your book.

If your letter is untidy, overlong, or laced with weak attempts at humour or invention, you have probably lost your audience; busy person A has better things to do. If your letter doesn't provide the necessary information, clearly and without irrelevant decoration, then it is inappropriate for the situation. So the letter, you might say, is no different a project than writing the book in the first place; you identify your audience and their requirements, consider the circumstances (the publishing protocol) and write accordingly.

In the chaotic lottery that is today's publishing world, you should give yourself every chance to get noticed and, more importantly, taken seriously. That's why you should treat even a relatively simple part of the submission process, such as the letter, with the same professionalism as your book. It may not represent the entire writing journey, but it's an important first step.

If you have any queries or suggestions for our new series, Ask the Editor, please email us.


When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.

Ask the Editor 1: What genre is my book?

Ask the Editor 3: Writing a synopsis

Ask the Editor 4: Why do I need you?

Ask the Editor 5: non-fiction submissions

Ask the Editor 6: Writing non-fiction

Ask the Editor 7: Researching for a book

Ask the Editor 8: How I assess a manuscript

Ask the Editor 9: Why do I need a report?

Ask the Editor 10: Writing your blurb or cover copy

Ask the Editor 11: English language editing

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