Editors and agents will review well over a thousand submissions a year but are only going to have the ability to take a handful. It doesn't take a mathematician to see that most are going to be passed over as they look for that diamond amidst the gravel. And it isn't the quality of the story that is the deciding factor, it's really good writing that just happens to fit with the openings they have right at that present time. So a wonderful book that the editor just has no place for is not going to make it. Ever get the dreaded "not a good fit" note and wished the editor had told us what was wrong? They did tell us when they said it wasn't a fit.
So if the point of a query letter or an interview is to get a proposal invited, then what is the point of the proposal? To answer all of the questions those people evaluating submissions use to toss out those who will not be contenders. I've seen editors at conferences working some submissions in spare time and have seen them open it, glance at the cover letter and put it back.
The opening of the cover letter probably indicated it was a genre they don't handle. It should have never been sent to them in the first place. These situations can be avoided by simply reading the submission guidelines for that particular person and following them. I've seen some of those same submissions just thrown away, which told me the people never got a response at all.
It's a query letter if sent without an accompanying proposal, a cover letter if it is on the front of a proposal, and I like to see the same letter pasted into the email transmitting the proposal so I can see what I'm opening. I won't open a file if there isn't something in the body of the email that tells me what it is.
The principle for both the cover letter and the query letter is the same. On many submissions this is the only part of the proposal that will be read and sometimes not all of that. What do I mean? The moment an agent or editor reads something that tells them the project is not right for them, that’s where they stop. One of the most common might be if you say in the first sentence what your genre is and it is not a genre they handle. No point in going further.
First, of course, is the date. Be careful that the “automatic update” option is not checked if we use “insert date,” or every time the file is opened it will put a new date on it instead of the date it was actually sent.
Next is the address block. We should never send anything to “the editor.” That’s the same thing as saying “occupant.” We need to know the actual name of the appropriate editor and should have done some research so that we know they have been acquiring manuscripts that suggest ours might be a fit for them. Just going down the market guide and sending to everyone that has our genre listed as a possibility is a waste of time and money, but more important it burns a number of bridges that with the right approach might contain a good possibility.
We should always have a subject line that contains the name of the book, genre, word count and your name to make it easy to identify in a full inbox.
The opening line is the most important thing on the page. It has one job, to make them read down into the letter. It's an attention-getter. If we met the agent or editor at a conference and they invited the proposal, that invitation is the most important thing and should be in the opening. If there was anything vital about that appointment, this is where we remind them what it was. The bottom line is: why do we think the person is the right agent or editor for our project and that reason is what is presented in the first paragraph.
The second paragraph should be our elevator pitch or more likely the longer interview pitch. Just enough of our story line to interest the reader in looking at the sample chapters or synopsis.
The next paragraph contains writing credentials. Depending on what we have to offer in the way of credentials, the purpose of this is to show that we have done some writing, are very serious about it, and that we have completed projects. Remember that getting published is a survival process, not a selection process. Only by going successfully all the way to the end can we achieve the results that we want. Each point in the letter, each piece of the proposal, only has one job, to move the reader on through the process. None of these items can close the deal by themselves, but any of them have the ability to convince the reader the project is not good fit thus ending its consideration.
Finally we ask for the sale. In the case of a cover letter, that means we ask for the chance to talk to them about it or the chance to send them the full manuscript.
All of this effort and what do we hope it will accomplish? We want them to turn the page and start looking at our proposal.