Advice from an editor: cover letters

When I brought this blog back with a couple of selected posts made public, I was surprised to get a comment from a friend asking for another post with some advice from an editor, specifically around cover letters.

What follows is my thoughts on cover letters.  Keep in mind that I’m just one editor, and everyone is going to have different views on the subject. But I’ve heard this conversation quite a bit over the years, and I don’t think you’ll find my views are too far from the mainstream.

The first thing you should know is that cover letters don’t mean much.  They were something of a necessity in the days of submissions by mail, but electronic submissions capture the needed information in other ways.  Nonetheless, I still find myself

A lot of editors don’t even read cover letters unless something in the submission really grabs their fancy.  I generally do read the cover letters, because I’m intrigued about who’s sending to my magazine– I learn a lot about our readers and our marketing strategy by reading them.  But I don’t read the cover letter until I’ve read the submission and am ready to act on it.

So sending something other than the cover letter is unnecessary.  I’ve had one writer send watercolors, another has sent collages.  Several writers have sent glitter or those little shiny stars in the envelope, which, while it was certainly well-intentioned, made a mess and was kind of annoying.

Be professional.  Or, don’t be crazy.  I doubt seriously if a good cover letter ever convinced an editor to publish a poem or story, but I can tell you with some conviction that a horrible, crazy-sounding cover letter can convince someone that you’re more trouble than you’re worth.

Cover letters don’t need to include a whole lot of information; you’re really just trying to give the editor some basic stuff they will need to respond to you.

I find it useful to include the following:

Contact information.  I include my snail mail address, e-mail address, and cell phone number.  Only a few editors will call with acceptances, but if you’ve ever gotten one of those calls, it’s a thrilling moment and classy touch.  Give the editor the tools to contact you using the method that’s most comfortable for them.  Make sure it’s an e-mail address you check regularly!

Simultaneous submission notification.  If the journal you’re sending to allows sim-subs, let them know that you’re submitting your work elsewhere if that’s the case.  Don’t bully or threaten; a statement like “These poems have been simultaneously submitted to other journals” will suffice.  I don’t do sim-subs, personally, because I’ve had writers withdraw poems just as I was about to accept them, and it broke my heart.  (It was worse when they said the poems had been accepted elsewhere, since my magazine has a “no simultaneous submissions” policy for poems.)  So I tell editors, “These poems are unpublished and will not be submitted elsewhere.”

List of the titles of the work being submitted.  This is especially true if the journal asks that you not include your contact information on the work itself.  It’s less important on electronic submissions, which don’t usually become decoupled from your contact information at any point in the process.

Short bio.  Not all editors care about this at all, but if your submission is accepted, it’s nice when they have your bio to include in the magazine and don’t need to come back and ask for additional information.  Most will still ask for a bio upon acceptance, since you’ve probably won awards and published books since you sent your submission in.  Right?

One note on bios: It’s OK if you haven’t published work before. You don’t need to make it sound like you’re a well-published author if you’re not.  A lot of magazines are thrilled to be the one to discover a new voice.  If your poems or stories are incredible and fit the journal’s aesthetic, the editor will want them regardless of who you are or where you came from.

A word of thanks.  Thanking people for their time or consideration is cool.  Editors work hard, and they really do want you to be successful!

Now, it’s worth noting that any of the above may be wrong for a particular editor.  The best thing you can do when submitting is read the submissions guidelines.  If an editor doesn’t want a cover letter, please don’t send one!

I hope this information is useful, and happy submitting!  Please feel free to leave comments with your thoughts on cover letters.