I just finished my novel: 112,632 words, 381 pages, 21 chapters, 5 appendices, 3 maps, a calendar, and a family tree. All that’s left to do now is finish my cover letter and mail it off. I have never been so terrified in my entire life. I’m more nervous than when I defended my thesis. Then again, my thesis was only 80 pages long, so maybe anxiety is directly proportional to word count.
Now, about that dreaded cover letter. Whether or not a novel will ever be read depends entirely on that letter. In that single sheet of paper I must summarize all 112,632 words, define my genre and target audience, provide some kind of proof that my writing is worth reading, and include a pithy author biography. It’s a lot to accomplish in a single page.
Some of the information, like the genre and summary, is straightforward. Other information, like writing credits, can leave an author feeling confused about what they should and should not include. After a bit of research I created a list possible writing credits, ranked them from best to worst, and provided a list of what authors should avoid mentioning if they want taken seriously.
The Best Category
- Bestsellers. If you’re a New York Times bestseller that should go first. But, bestselling authors probably have publishers beating down their doors begging for their next novel, so I’d imagine they’re not terribly worried about cover letters.
- Books Published with Major Publishing Houses. If you’re with one of the “big six” that’s some seriously impressive credit. Not sure who the “big six” are? Here’s a list:
- Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group/Macmillan
- Penguin Books
- Random House
- Simon & Schuster
- Books Published with a Reputable Indie Press. Independent publishing houses are taken seriously, provided they are one of the reputable ones. If nothing else, it shows that someone else liked your work enough to take a chance on it.
- Impressive Awards (& Nominations). Even if you don’t win, some awards are so prestigious that just being nominated is an accomplishment.
- Publication in Reputable Periodicals. The New York Times or even magazines like Vogue are the crème de le crème for aspiring authors and many people start their writing careers with magazine articles.
The Better Category
- Publication in Reputable Venues. There is no shame in writing for a middle-of-the-road publication, whether online or in print.
- Professional Writing Groups. Listing the groups you’re active in may help your cause, especially if those groups have national recognition, like the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which requires you to be published before you can be a member.
- Writing Residences. Most residencies are highly competitive. If you’re selected to participate in a reputable residency, let the world (and your would-be-editor or agent) know.
- Publication in So-so Venues. We all have to start somewhere. Local magazines and small literary journals may not have a large readership but, if they pay you, it counts.
- Minor Awards. Some awards aren’t very well-known, but that doesn’t mean the award isn’t worth mentioning.
- Professional Writing Conferences. Receiving a fellowship to a major conference is worth mentioning.
The Good Category
- Your MFA. Yes, you should mention that, but just like every other degree, that diploma is no guarantee of a job.
- Local Writing Conferences. Attending a local writer’s conference can be helpful because it shows you’re serious about improving your work.
- Readings in Amateur Venues. Have you been asked to read at a local bookstore, library, or coffee shop? Mention that because it shows others are interested in your work.
- Amateur Writing Groups. Even if you’re not professionals, it still shows you’re serious about your craft.
The Do Not Mention Category
- Self-publishing. Being self-published does not make you published author by industry standards. To be published an editor must have judged your work, deemed it acceptable, paid you for it, and published it. The exception would be if you’re selling over 1,000 copies a year of your self-published book, then yes, mention it.
- Publishing with Vanity Presses. Like self-publishing, this does not make you a published author. Also, those who go this route may inadvertently be signaling to an editor or agent that they are over eager, difficult to work with, and possibly unwilling to compromise. None of which are qualities that editors look for in authors.
- Blogging. Anyone can publish a blog and most blogs aren’t worth reading.
- Mentioning Multiple Books. Avoid mentioning prequels, sequels, and unpublished books just waiting to be written as soon as you land this deal. Keep in mind that no agent is going to be interested in a second or third book if you haven’t even finished the first one.
- Manuscripts Written Long Ago. Broadcasting that you have multiple manuscripts that no one wanted to publish won’t make an editor want to read what you’re selling now.
- Writing-Related Careers. You might be making money writing, but letting an agent or editor know that you are responsible for the legalese in the fine print of a credit card contract or the impossible to read instruction manuals that come with every electronic gizmo isn’t going to impress anyone.
- Disreputable Awards. Don’t boast about winning a Who’s Who Award or anything else that’s shady. An editor or agent will know what to watch for; so should you.
Things to remember
If you have a lot of publication credits, only list the highlights by picking your best three options. After all, everything has to fit on one page. Also, only list relevant publications; listing too many items outside the genre you are currently trying to market may give the impression that you don’t know the difference between the many forms of writing.
When writing your bio, only include things that are relevant to the specific story. If you are writing a fantasy novel set during the Viking Age it would be advantageous to mention that you are a member of the Glasgow Viking reenactment society and have sailed the Baltic Sea in a wooden ship. However, no one cares about your cat.