These two types of letters serve basically the same purpose: introduce your work and inquire about possible interest on the part of an editor or agent. A cover letter is sent with a manuscript (the entire manuscript for picture books, a partial for chapter books) or book proposal (for non-fiction work). A query letter is sent when you are not permitted to include your manuscript. The query is similar to the cover letter, but it will include more story detail because it must hook a reader's interest sufficiently to persuade them to ask to see your manuscript.
A cover/query letter is the first piece of your writing that a prospective editor or agent will read. This is your opportunity to introduce your work and yourself as well as provide a glimpse of your writing style and expertise.
Before you inquire, research the publishing house, editor or agent. Does your work fit their criteria? Double-check their website for the most current information on submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. If the publisher or agent wants an exclusive look, be sure to mention that is what you are giving them. If they accept multiple submissions, you must let them know if you currently have the work submitted somewhere else.
Format: Plain white 8 1/2 x 11 paper or your personal business-style letterhead, typed, single-spaced in standard business form. Your letter should be no more than one page and ideally you want plenty of white space in your letter. Provide all your contact information: name, address, phone numbers, email. If you are employed in some other field, do not use that letterhead.
Your letter should be clear, concise and at the same time give the reader a sense of your personality. Avoid colored papers, inks, patterns, prints, borders, clip art, or cute fonts. Proofread to catch all grammar, spelling or typo mistakes.
Your letter should be structured more or less like this:
- Opening: Address your letter to a specific person if possible. Double check the spelling of their name and their current company title.
- Paragraph #1 Provide the title, type of book and word count. If the book is intended for a particular publisher's line, mention it.
- Paragraph #2 This is the moment when you hook the reader's interest in the story. Your passion and hard work are showcased here. Provide a description and brief synopsis of your story in a style similar to the tone of the book. A synopsis should not withhold the conclusion. Avoid a "to discover the ending, you'll have to read the book," tease. What is the book about? What's the theme? Why are the characters special? What is the conflict? These are questions you want to answer without sounding like you're checking them off a list. This paragraph will be the reader's best picture of how well you write. Let your enthusiasm come through, but avoid the hype: this is the next Newbery, NYT best seller, Harry Potter, etc.
- Paragraph #3 And now for a bit about you. Include significant publications, credentials, background, memberships in professional writing societies -- as it relates to the work you are submitting. If nothing applies then skip this paragraph. Don't talk about the letter to the editor that made it into your local newspaper, or how your friends, relatives or third grade class loved your book.
- The closing: Make this a polite farewell. Mention any enclosures: manuscript, SASE. Don't leave them with a deadline, "If I don't hear from you by such and such a date, I'm sending this somewhere else.
Cross your fingers and hope for the best. Then get busy writing that next great idea!