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From the agent: what I look for in a cover letter

Literary agent Lucy Luck on what it takes to grab an agent's attention.

Audience: Writers

Last updated: 12 February 2020

An agent receives around 50 submissions a week, at least. Every agent wants to find something that makes them stop in their tracks - makes them want to talk about this book, this voice, this author to everyone and anyone - but in reality the majority of any agent’s time is spent working with the authors they already represent because that has to be their priority.

This means the time that can be given to reading submissions is never as much as any agent would want. For me, I probably have an hour a week to look through the submissions I receive. Working that out per submission is a little depressing, but here are my tips on making the most of that limited time to catch my attention.

 If you’ve done the research (and research is crucial), then you should know the agent you want to write to.

The letter is the first thing I read, and so I’d like it to reassure me that the person writing to me knows who I am, knows why they’re writing to me and knows something about the process of finding an agent. I would also like to know that the book they are submitting is something that will fit what I’m looking for, and will intrigue me enough to turn to the actual pages with enthusiasm. It needs to be professional, but not stiff; engaging, but not too whimsical; personal, but not a CV.

How can a letter hit the right note?

The letter should be addressed to me, not ‘Dear Sir’, not even ‘Dear Madam’. If you’ve done the research (and research is crucial), then you should know the agent you want to write to and you should also know why.

If you know why, I’d like to know why. You have researched my list and you know and admire some of my authors, and it’s a very good thing to let me know that. All agents are proud of their authors and it’s an easy way to flatter an agent by telling them they have great taste.

I’d like to know about your book, in a pithy and practical way. I’d like to know if it’s literary fiction, or young adult, if it’s a crime novel or a memoir. I’d like to have an idea of the plot in no more than a paragraph - ‘a man walks into the bar and his life changes’ - and if at all possible I’d like an idea of who you might compare your work too, or even what, sometimes films are as useful as other titles. This is the pitch, and to get one down in a paragraph is a great skill and rare, but any attempt is useful.

A good letter always makes me smile.

Finally, I’d like to know a bit about you - not where you were born and what degree you have, but anything to do with your writing experience, for example writing courses taken, any competition successes, anything previously published. Keep it relevant (and think of author blurbs and what works for you) and don’t oversell yourself, that is what your writing is there to do.

That’s it, that’s all I need. Something that introduces you and your work in a courteous and professional manner, and makes me turn to the work with interest, not dread. If emailed, it should be in the body of the email so it’s the first thing I see and doesn’t take time for me to open. I would never reject someone just on the basis of the letter, so these are guidelines, but a good letter always makes me smile, and I am always grateful for that.