#WritingChallenge: Critique this cover letter!

By Deirdre McCluskey, Administrative Assistant, Editorial

You’ve written a book? Congrats! That’s quite an accomplishment. Now comes the challenge of selling it to an editor. You need a synopsis, your manuscript, and . . . a cover letter. (Gulp!)

No editor would reject a fantastic manuscript because of a weak cover letter, but why not make sure you’ve “covered” all the bases? 😉

Your cover letter is a business document. It’s intended to highlight the strengths of your novel with respect to the needs of the publisher and its readers. Sure, editors are people, and there’s nothing wrong with personalizing your cover letter. But Harlequin is a global business that publishes more than 110 titles a month in as many as 150+ international markets and more than 30 languages, on six continents. Many of our titles have appeared on the New York Times, USA TODAY, Publishers Weekly and Bookscan bestseller lists. (For more on Harlequin, visit our website.) Approach submitting to us with the professionalism it warrants (and your hard work and excellent manuscript deserve.)

Your challenge this week? Read the (totally made-up, tongue-in-cheek) cover letter below that includes examples of mistakes, missteps, or clues to the submission’s unsuitability that we see regularly in our submissions. Then look for the following:

  • Is the story suitable for the line?
  • Does it have the hooks we’re looking for?
  • Has it been proofread for errors?
  • Does it contain relevant information about the author and her writing experience? Note: we love publishing debut authors! If you haven’t been published before, don’t feel you need to include writing credits that you wouldn’t put on a resume.
  • Does the author demonstrate a knowledge of today’s romance marketplace and highlight how her book would stand out in the market?
  • Anything else you would do differently?

Review, critique, edit and discuss, and we’ll join the conversation on Monday, March 26, 2018!

Tip: Read our posts on cover letters and submitting to Harlequin for more on cover letter dos and don’ts.

Dear Sirs,

My 95,000 word coming of age fictional novel, The Rose and the Ruby Slipper would be perfect your Desire line. Spanning three generations, it follows the courses of MARY WINTERBOTTOM from the gutters of post-WWII Ireland to the glittering streets of New York, as she pursues her modeling career and is loved by two men, . With a cast of many of characters, it has suspense, family drama, and steamy romance, and is told from the viewpoints of Mary and her two lovers, including letters and diary entries. It’s sure to be a hit with your readers!

I was so exciting writing this book that as soon as I was done, I shared it with my friends who love reading Harlequin’s. They both said they couldn’t put down, and encouraged me to submit to you. I’ve never published a novel before, but I have been a writer all of my life and wrote my first story at seven years old. It’s always been my dream to publish with your company since I first discovered Harlequin books in my teens. Now that I’m retired, I thought it was time to write one of my own!

I’ve attached a complete synopsis and the full manuscript as per your guidelines and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours truly,

Ann Author

 

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Comments

  1. Teresa Jones

    This cover letter makes me dizzy! Lol
    Always know the person you are sending your cover letter to. Know the guidelines for the line you are submitting to. Make sure your cover letter is super clean…review, review and even go as far and let someone else review for errors. Overall this cover letter is all over the place, including backstory about author’s childhood.

  2. Sara Abdul

    *putting on editor’s hat*

    For starters, never address an editor with ‘Dear Sir(s)’ or ‘Dear Madam(s)’. Do the research. Find the editor’s name, or the agent’s name, and give it that little bit of a personal touch. It might not seem like a whole lot, but consider this, would you like to be opening a letter addressed to you as ‘Dear Madam/Sir’. Likely not. Especially if someone’s looking to work with you—and that’s what an author is doing, looking for a long-term business relationship. 🙂
    Right off the bat, that word count is 45,000 words over the 50K for the Desire line. That’s two Desire titles in there! Secondly, Desire doesn’t publish historical romance. It’s a sexy, contemporary line. Although the family saga is just fine, there are sucessful mini-series following a family (or several families), one that spans over three generations wouldn’t work. It has to be contemporary!
    The first paragraph tells me nothing about the story. I do like the idea of Mary pursuing a modeling career. It sounds like a wonderful start to a self-made success, rags-to-riches story. However, SHOW me the conflict. I can see Mary’s goal, but what’s her motivation? What drives her to travel from Ireland to New York. What is she risking? Also Mary Winterbottom doesn’t need to be in all-caps. Save that for this character’s first introduction in the synopsis!
    I do see some hooks here that are appropriate for the Desire line, although they’re not outlined clearly. Suspense, family drama, and a steamy romance can be ingredients of a Harlequin Desire, but I’d need more information here.
    As far as Mary having two lovers, that won’t work either for Desire. Harlequin romances don’t publish polyamorous couples. Consider Carina Press if this is a MFM story. They’d be a better fit!
    “It’s sure to be a hit with your readers!” – Leave this out. Let the story stand on its own, speak for itself and all. I love the enthusiasm though!
    “I was so exciting writing this book that as soon as I was done, I shared it with my friends who love reading Harlequin’s.” – Proofread for spelling and grammar here. Consider leaving this out. It’s great that your friends loved it, but best not share it here. Use the space you have in this one-page cover letter/query to give us relevant information about you or the book. For instance, do you have professional expertise that is an important foundation in this book? Maybe an experience that drives the book. Otherwise, simple publishing credits are all that’s necessary (if you have any!).
    “They both said they couldn’t put down, and encouraged me to submit to you. I’ve never published a novel before, but I have been a writer all of my life and wrote my first story at seven years old. It’s always been my dream to publish with your company since I first discovered Harlequin books in my teens. Now that I’m retired, I thought it was time to write one of my own!” – Again, this can be removed. Instead, use this space to demonstrate that romance market knowledge. This reads more like an author bio once a book is published. Save it for then!
    “and the full manuscript as per your guidelines and I look forward to hearing from you.” – Don’t attach a full unless requested. Assuming, this isn’t a full request already, send along the synopsis + the first three chapters, with the cover letter.

    The closing in this letter is done well. Succinct and professional, it tells me exactly what I’ll find enclosed with this cover letter.

    • Jeanna Louise Skinner

      Sara, your critique is spot on. The only thing I’d add is that there’s a superfluous comma at the end of the second sentence after the word “men”. Also, it’s worth pointing out that a narrative featuring epistolary elements such as letters and diary entries aren’t suitable for the Desire line either. There are so many errors with this query, it’s quite a task to keep up with them all. I’m desperately trying to stop myself from rewriting it.

    • Chrissie

      Sara, you’ve got it, girl! 🙂

      The only thing I would add is that I break my cover letters into an introductory paragraph with the title, word count, and a log line. I have one paragraph about the heroine – goal, motivation, and conflict; and one paragraph about the hero -goal, motivation, conflict. One paragraph to add any affiliates I have like RWA or contests won for my publishing credits and/or accomplishments. And maybe a short line or two of what inspired me to write the book or my experience/credentials to do so, like if it was for the Medical line and I was a nurse. Another line mentioning the book is a completed manuscript and that it can be sent if requested. Signed Sincerely, my name. Short, sweet, and to the point. 🙂

  3. Therese Ferguson

    The only part of the letter I’m happy with is the final paragraph. Although I would say I have, not I’ve. I would also address it To Whom It May Concern or Dear Sir/Madam. She quite clearly has not read the guidelines for that specific line, which is a common mistake too many people are making with Harlequin lines.

  4. Sabrina Ross

    The first mistake made with this cover letter is how it is addressed; Dear Sirs! From there onward there are several punctuation mistakes and grammatical errors. In addition to this a novel that spans three generations with three different POV’s, letters and diary entries does not sound fitting to the Desire series to me.
    Desire is looking for a main Hero/Heroine and two main loves in this series would not fly.
    Also as this is a query/cover letter wouldn’t it be best to just send the first three chapters and not the full manuscript at this point?
    Ann Author’s cover letter tells me more about her then her heroine and in conjunction with her errors and poorly suited fit for what Desire looks for I would have to disregard this query.

  5. Tambra Nicole Kendall

    I’ve made my comments in parenthesis in case my colored font doesn’t show up.
    Thank you!
    Tambra’s critique of Ann Author’s cover letter.

    Dear Sirs, (The salutation is incorrect. Research is needed on which editor she should be addressing. )
    My (Wrong word count. Should be 50,000) 95,000 word coming of age fictional novel, The Rose and the Ruby Slipper would be perfect your Desire line. (The Desire line does not span generations and the time period is wrong for the line.) Spanning three generations, it follows the courses of MARY WINTERBOTTOM from the gutters of post-WWII Ireland to the glittering streets of New York, as she pursues her modeling career and is loved by two men, . (With a 50K word count you can’t have a large cast of characters and the focus should be on the journey of the hero and heroine. Also, there are way too many viewpoints.) With a cast of many of characters, it has suspense, family drama, and steamy romance, and is told from the viewpoints of Mary and her two lovers, including letters and diary entries. It’s sure to be a hit with your readers! (She shouldn’t say the story will be a hit with readers.)
    I was so exciting writing this book that as soon as I was done, I shared it with my friends who love reading Harlequin’s. They both said they couldn’t put down, and encouraged me to submit to you. I’ve never published a novel before, but I have been a writer all of my life and wrote my first story at seven years old. It’s always been my dream to publish with your company since I first discovered Harlequin books in my teens. Now that I’m retired, I thought it was time to write one of my own! (Ann Author needs more than just the word of her friends. She needs to show she’s done the best she can to have her work polished. An editor she has paid to look over her work, or a friend who is published.There isn’t anything here to show this person has educated themselves on the publishing industry such as joining a professional writing organization. Ann Author has shown her total disregard for studying guidelines or that she has knowledge of the Harlequin lines.)
    I’ve attached a complete synopsis and the full manuscript as per your guidelines and I look forward to hearing from you.
    Yours truly,
    Ann Author

  6. Jan Van Engen

    I have no idea what it means – I write stories -have no idea what hooks mean in the real senses sadly – my stories are not that – because they are more than that and over 100k. I do not know how to write a synopses, I do not know how to write an inquiry letter – I do not know a lot about publishing but I am a storyteller, so where do I go? It is so hard for someone who doesn’t fit in what you want. I get where you are coming from, but I struggle. I am learning. I love your books, since I was fifteen. I love your challenges but I can not do this one.

  7. As several others have done such a great job of critiquing the cover letter, I’ve taken a different tack and written a tongue-in-cheek (and very salty) reply to the letter.

    Dear Mr. Arthur,
    Thank you for your Heartwarming interest in publishing with Harlequin. I was extremely Intrigued to read your cover letter and wish you the best of luck with your writing career (as you will assuredly need it). I would like to Present you with some (Medical) professional advice.
    While some Harlequin imprints accept agented manuscripts of 95,000 words, Harlequin series lines are more concise. I Dare hope that you will acquaint yourself with Harlequin’s series guidelines if you Desire to publish with us in the future. Our Historical stories are typically 75,000 words and are set up to and including WWII, though no later. They do not include multigenerational stories, epistolary devices or journal entries. Although your Romance The Rose and the Ruby Slipper may have promise, without a more specific story arc and details of external and internal motivation and conflict, it is difficult to give you more precise feedback.
    I am happy to read your friends enjoyed your story, and can readily believe you have yet to publish a novel. I feel sure the work you produced at seven should qualify you to submit an unedited (and unproofed) story to your second grade teacher; however, I do not recommend doing the same for your cover letter to professional publishing house. Might I suggest a grammar checker?
    I have no wish to keep you in further Romantic Suspense. I fear The Rose and the Ruby Slipper does not fit our current needs. If you are interested in submitting future projects, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with our guidelines before submitting a synopsis and the first three chapters of your story via submittable.
    Sincerely,
    Kate McVerySalty

  8. Deirdre

    Great job, everyone! You’ve zeroed in on the key problems with this letter.

    Regarding the salutation, “Dear Sirs”: It’s not absolutely necessary to include the name of the editor when you’re submitting to series, although as some of you have pointed out, it demonstrates that you’ve done some research on the company before submitting. But as Therese mentioned, “To Whom it May Concern” or “To the Editors of [Line Name]” would be better. There’s a dated gender bias in “Dear Sirs” that does not reflect the workplace today, especially in the larger publishing houses, where the majority of editors are women.

    Many of you correctly pointed out that Ann Author had not researched the publisher before she submitted. Congrats to anyone who has written a cross-generational family saga of over 95,000 words, but unfortunately it will never be suitable for Harlequin series romance. If writing commercial/literary fiction is truly your passion, keep writing, join a writer’s group or author association, submit to agents and learn all you can about the industry and the publishers who sell the kinds of books you love to write – maybe one of Harlequin’s trade imprints. But if you love writing genre romance – one hero, one heroine, and their romance and HEA – read our books and our guidelines and send us your manuscript!

    • Katie Gowrie

      You guys have really nailed this challenge! Lots of great comments and good points raised in this discussion—looks like this group has a solid understanding of cover letters. To expand on the points already made, yes, it’s great to summarize conflict in the cover letter (I always appreciate seeing this before I dive into a submission). As Deirdre says, once you’ve given us some basic details on your ms and how it’s suited for the line, it’s a great idea to give us an overview of conflict. As Chrissie mentions, that could mean a quick rundown of GMC for each character – for the cover letter we just need the basics, and you can save all the details for your in-depth synopsis 🙂

      Despite that this “challenge cover letter” is riddled with errors (including the grammar and spelling mistakes you’ve caught!), it’s structurally quite sound. The focus moves from a. the book to b. the author. In the second half, we get the author’s background and credentials before wrapping up. As you’ve all said, it’s best to focus here on writing experience (anything you’d put on a resume) and background that’s relevant to your story (i.e.: if you served in the military and are submitting a military romance). There’s some room to show a bit of your personality here, but remember that first and foremost this is a letter for business purposes. If you don’t have formal or professional writing credits, that’s okay! You’ve demonstrated in the first half that you understand our series guidelines; now’s your chance to show us all the ways you may be qualified to write with us (and as Sara mentions, that doesn’t necessarily mean telling us that you’re a born writer or that your friend loved your book). Have you joined an RWA chapter or local writing group? Do you review romances, or have you submitted to contests? Do you have a thriving blog or Twitter account that would demonstrate your social-media savvy? Anything like this is good information for us to know.

      And remember, if you do find you need some guidance on writing cover letters and submitting to Harlequin, there’s a wealth of knowledge online, and we encourage you to read our books and series guidelines, but also our past blog posts on these topics. We don’t expect you to be experts in the publishing industry, but your research shows us your enthusiasm and commitment to writing and publishing romance! 🙂

    • Chrissie

      Thank you Deirdre and Katie! We have learned so much on this website. Please don’t cancel it but continue to be as supportive as you have been in the past. All great learning places like SYTYCW, RWA, Harlequin blog, and all those interesting author links that share so much info is what this learning curve is all about and each one of us appreciates it! Three of the books I have written in the past year are from the contests and challenges you inspire us to try and I am beginning book number four from the “Box Challenge” you did last year. Thank you, again and again! You are appreciated. 🙂

    • Therese Ferguson

      I think it was a good exercise for everyone to do. Hopefully more people will read the submission guidelines and Harlequin books before sending through unsuitable manuscripts.

  9. Melanie

    This was a really helpful thing to look at. It shows the simple mistakes that we can make that can be the difference between making it past the slush pile and not. I felt a little bit like I may have made some of the mistakes shown here in the past, and now perhaps understand better how to avoid them and what is really being asked for in the letter.