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Must Manuscripts Be Submitted with a Cover Letter?

The Purple Crayon Blog April 2007
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I received a question that very much surprised me recently. My correspondent wanted to know if cover letters were still expected with picture book manuscript submissions. I didn't see any reason for limiting the question just to picture books--so far as I was concerned, the answer was simple. Of course cover letters are expected with a submission!

Here's the full question:

I'm a member of SCBWI and have searched their website and yours for an answer to my question.  I just joined a writers' critique group and was asking for advice about drafting cover letters when submitting my picture book manuscripts. I've submitted several and have always included a brief cover letter as a courtesy. I understand, having read your comments on your website, that editors don't pay much attention to cover letters for picture books ... one good reason for keeping them brief. But, I thought it was the "polite thing to do", especially after reading Jacqueline Ogburn's piece in which she found submissions without one a little rude.

Well, I couldn't glean any advice from my group because they said it wasn't even necessary "these days" to include a cover letter with a picture book manuscript. So, now the question: could this be true?!

Here's my response: It's not true. That story, I thought, must have started with a published author, who of course already had a relationship with editors or is at least known to them, and so didn't need to have a cover letter. It's too bad that it's spread so widely, because a cover letter is still the professional thing to do.

Do Editors Expect Cover Letters?

Then I started wondering if perhaps I was behind the times. Has the accepted practice changed? Everyone is so busy, maybe cover letters have become a casualty. So I asked some colleagues at a variety of publishing houses how they felt about manuscripts without cover letters.

Here's their response: All manuscript submissions should include a cover letter. Their feelings about this ranged from mild--one said a cover letter is "preferred"--to vehement--one said that she does not read manuscripts if they come without a cover letter. But all agreed that not bothering with a cover letter reflects poorly on the writer, giving the impression that the writer is careless or unprofessional.

Cover letters also give writers an opportunity to introduce themselves, and need not cover only previous publications or other qualifications. Editors like to know the kind of person they might end up working with. One editor said, in fact, that she saves time by not reading the cover letter until she's read the manuscript, but then returning to the cover letter to find out more about the writer if the manuscript interests her.

As a corollary to this, a similar bit of advice was making the rounds a few years ago, and may still be out there--that a sticky note with a breezy "Here it is!" was all that was needed on a submission. As with the no cover letter idea, the sticky note practice probably originated with published authors who used it with editors they already knew. But what works for a published author with an ongoing relationship will not necessarily work for a beginning writer without personal contacts.

Include a Cover Letter

So the conclusion is simple: include a cover letter. What should it say? Read Rites of Submission, the article by Jacqueline Ogburn mentioned above. What else should you do when making a submission? Read Getting Out of the Slush Pile for help, and strive to be polite, professional, and persistent.

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