The key to selling your book is the cover letter

Guest post by Gary Smailes We are all looking for the secret to securing a book deal! I am pretty sure that there is no one winning formula, though I am convinced that without a killer cover letter you are doomed to failure.

I am sure you know that each year thousands of books are rejected by publishers and agents.

But did you know that many of these are perfectly good books that never get a chance because their query letter, synopsis and extract are not presented in the best way possible?

How it happened for me

In 2001 I wanted to be a writer. I was working for author Terry Deary (of Horrible Histories fame), as a researcher, at the time. I showed him some of my work and he encouraged me to get it published.

However, a bucket full of rejection letters later I was disillusioned and ready to give up. I went back to Terry and asked him what was the key to his success?

It turns out there was no secret, just hard work and (here it comes) a great book proposal.

Today I have an agent, have had book series published by three (soon to be four) separate publishers. I have ten books in print, four books for publication this year with Franklin Watts and a handful of proposals currently sitting on my agent’s desk.

So what was the secret?

Well, Terry Deary was right – a great book proposal goes a very long way to kick starting a writing career. As a result, I became obsessed with decoding the book proposal, both fiction and non-fiction.

Over the years I talked to literally hundreds of writers, publishers and agents about what makes a great book pitch. The result was a set of rules that can be applied to write a winning book proposal.

The Four Paragraph Approach

In this post I want to let you into the secret of writing a great cover letter – I call it... The Four Paragraph Approach.

Paragraph 1

The opening paragraph is split into two sections. The first is the elevator pitch, which consists of a couple of lines that capture the essence of the book.

This is a concise and targeted summary of the book in just a couple of sentences.

You can’t choose who you fall in love with and that’s especially true with football teams. (The Bromley Boys, Dave Roberts)

Belle de Jour is the nom de plume of a high-class call girl working in London. This is her story. (Belle de Jour, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl)

Grosvenor HouseDeep in the City something had been woken, something so old and so ordinary that people had been walking past it for centuries without giving it a second look…(Stone Heart, Charlie Fletcher)

The second part of the opening paragraph is a brief summary containing a few sentences that describe your book in a bit more detail. Include a VERY brief outline of your narrative and the main characters.

At this stage you are simply showing the agent/publisher the type of book you have written and giving them a chance to see if it will fit into their current list.

Paragraph 2

The aim of this paragraph is to present your book as a viable product. Remember that you are trying to sell your book as a tool from which publishers/agents can make a bit of cash.

You need to include:

  • the book’s genre
  • the book’s word count
  • an indication of the market with one or two representative titles
  • notes of any images, illustrations or unusual requirements
  • an indication of if the book is written and if not when it will be finished.

The representative titles are important and should not be missed. The best way to decide on these is to think what readers of your book may also read. The examples will give the publisher/agent a good indication whether your book is the kind of product they can publish/sell.

It may also be advisable to include statistics of potential markets where possible. If you have access to specialist figures then these certainly should be included.

However, do not include figures that are either educated guesses or approximations UNLESS they are specific to your book and something the publisher/agent will not be able to find themselves.

Paragraph 3

This is a loose outline of your book’s plot – just remember to keep it brief. Do include the key characters, the problem they face and the point of conflict. But do not expand this to a full blown synopsis. Short and sweet is the key.

Paragraph 4

This is about you as a writer. In the modern world of internet driven marketing the writer is increasingly becoming an important part of the process.

Include a brief biography, containing any relevant information such as previously published titles. I would also suggest you add information regarding your web presence.

I absolutely want to know about you. I love pithy bios because it tells me a bit about the person behind the words. I don’t care if you’re the president of your dart club unless your book is about darts. Behler Publications

The key to remember is that the query letter is just a taste of your book. At this stage it is all about finding the correct agent/publisher and making sure that your book fits their list.

If the agent/publisher has no experience of selling the genre in which your book falls, then any potential partnership is doomed to failure.

Before we move on it is important to mention that the following information MUST be included in the query letter: your name, your address, any website details, your email address and your home and mobile numbers.

Beyond one page

It is a common myth that book proposals should be one page query letter and one page synopsis. It can be okay to write an extended query letter (in some circumstances).

Here’s a list of topics that might be included:

Marketing ideas

If you have a strong web presence, or if you have a solid vision for the marketing and promotion of your book then this can be included.

However, simply saying ‘I will do ten book signings’ is not the kind of thing that will get anyone excited.

This said making it clear to the publisher/agent that you firstly, understand that marketing is part of the writer’s job, and secondly that you as a writer are prepared to get your hands dirty is always a positive.

This is also where you should include any unique media contacts you may possess.

A book series

Another situation that may lead to an expanded book proposal is if you are pitching for a series of books.

In this case it may be appropriate for you to include a one page synopsis for each title, plus an expanded description of your series in the query letter.

This is especially true for non-fiction works that are more likely to NOT be written at point of proposal.

Share your thoughts

Does this article match your expectations of what it takes to get a book deal? Do you have an alternative tale to tell? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!