Cover Letters

Teresa Nielsen Hayden has unsheathed her mighty Hammer of Editorial Whackination and is applying it liberally to one Todd James Pierce, a writer who has issued what TNH believes (and I for one concur) is some spectacularly bad advice on the topic of cover letters. Among the very bad advice: Lie about your writing credits, and be sure to accompany your submission with a phone call.

If you’re a writer or would like to be one, I commend you to TNH’s dissection of all that is truly stupid about this advice (her posting also has a link to the bad advice in question). The reason you should trust TNH on this and not Mr. Pierce is simple: TNH is one of the people cover letters get sent to. Her husband Patrick concurs that Pierce’s advice is bad (with the immortal line: “This is stupid. I now have stupid all over me”) and as he’s Senior Editor of Tor Books, that’s two veteran front-line cover letter readers against one somewhat deluded cover letter writer.

TNH’s evisceration is complete enough that I’ll not replicate her efforts here, but I do want to call out the one piece of “advice” from Pierce that I think is well-near criminally wrong, excerpted below:

Tip Four: Still worried? Never published anything? Lie a little. Yes, lie. A cover letter is a persuasive document designed to do one thing: entice an editor or agent to read your manuscript. Say whatever you have to, within reason, to accomplish this.

Uh, no.

First reason, as TNH notes: There’s this thing. It’s called Google. It allows an editor to fact-check your ass in 30 seconds or less. Now, it’s understandable that Pierce may not have heard of it — this whole InterWeb thingy is new-fangled and all — but be assured that whatever editor you’re attempting to scam has.

Second reason: It assumes editors are incompetent, which — surprise! — by and large they are not. If you don’t think an editor knows all the major and most of the minor writing awards applicable to his or her genre, you’re an idiot. Here’s what’s going to happen if I submit a manuscript to a science fiction house and note on my cover letter that I am the recipient of the prestigious William Booth Award for Science Fiction Writing, which doesn’t exist. First, the editor is going to say, I don’t know this award. Then there’s the quick Googlefest to confirm the William Booth Award has been pulled out of my ass. And then there’s the sound of my manuscript getting plonked, because why would an editor want to work with someone whose very first communication was full of lies.

Third reason: It’s disrespectful. In this particular case, what you’re saying to an editor is you’re stupid enough to fall for this, and conversely I’m clever enough to pull this off. You’re probably wrong, and if you’re right, you won’t be right forever. Read TNH’s comment threads and you’ll note that literary types and the people around them don’t need much of an excuse to pull out their knives. Also, of course, and apropos to point number eight here, people never forget people who disrespect them. Lie to an editor, and for the rest of their life, any time your name pops up in their consciousness, it comes with a sticky note attached, one that says Big Fat Liar. Also, it’s a small business. Word gets around.

As for the “make a phone call,” let me tell you a story. When I was an editor, I specified no phone calls. So on the rare occasion that someone did call to follow up, what I would do is chat with them amiably and then when I was off the phone I would go and find their submission and stuff it into the SASE and send it back unread. Because they failed. You must follow directions. That’s why they’re called “directions.” I had and most editors have hundreds of submissions from people who have followed directions. All of them deserve more consideration than someone who can’t or won’t.

Both of these examples of “advice” go to the heart of why much of Pierce’s advice is rotten: It’s not actual advice, it’s a list of tricks designed to game the system — to cheat your way through. Well, as a writer, here’s the thing to know about the editorial submission system: It’s not designed for you. It’s designed for the editors, to make their jobs easier. Is it fair? No, but so what? The editors are the gateways to money and publication. It’s their ball, bat and field. They set the rules, and if you want to play, you have to play by their rules. It’s simple.

Every attempt you make to game the system makes the editor’s job harder. In the entire history of the world, no one has ever wanted to work with someone who makes their job harder. Sometimes they will, if the reward is substantial enough. But in the case of writing, you gotta remember: It’s a buyer’s market. Sure, you’re brilliant. But there’s a guy over here who is brilliant and who doesn’t make the editor’s job harder. Guess which one the editor is going to go with.

Here’s how I would write a cover letter for a manuscript. Assume, please, that usual addresses and contact information are attached, and that I have done the research to know the name of the editor and the submission policy (which in this case we can assume has said to send the entire manuscript):

Dear [Editor’s Name]:

Hi there. I’m John Scalzi. Enclosed you’ll find the manuscript for [name of book], a novel. It is approximately 98,000 words. I’ve also included a chapter synopsis.

I’m a full-time writer and author of fiction and non-fiction books. My most recent novels are Old Man’s War (Tor Books, 2004) and The Android’s Dream (Tor, 2005).

I’ve enclosed an SASE for your comments. Please feel free to recycle the manuscript.


John Scalzi

And that’s pretty much it. I’m a big believer that the cover letter exists to present minimal factual information that doesn’t go out of its way to prejudice the reader concerning the actual manuscript. It says who I am, what I’ve sent, my relevant track record, and how to get hold of me. That’s all it needs to do.

What if I didn’t have previous publication? I imagine I’d say “this is my first novel” and be done with it. Lying won’t do me any good (see above) and if it does turn out to be good enough to be published, wouldn’t I be covered in the glory of hitting one out of the park the very first time? There’s no shame in admitting you’re starting out.

Don’t lie. Don’t be tricksy. And for God’s sake don’t make an editor’s job harder. Be confident that your writing stands on its own merits. Ultimately, if you lie in your cover letter, what you’re really saying is that what you’ve written isn’t good enough to make it on its own. It’s a bad message to send to editors. It’s a bad message to send to yourself.

1 Comments on “Cover Letters”

  1. And another editor weighs in

    Put in a separate entry to get the trackback right. John Scalzi further explains why Pierce’s advice overall is very very bad, from the perspective of both an editor and

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