Death of the Cover Letter

Now and then, for my own obscure amusement, I like to calibrate my mortality in interesting ways: Twinkies eaten, years since I last used a typewriter un-ironically, hours spent watching TV since 1989 – that sort of thing. I do this on a pretty constant basis, as I have a real love for statistics and keep a raft of them reflecting my own life. One of the more prominent stats I keep on myself is my short story submissions, which I’ve mentioned before on this blog. I write a short story a month year in and year out, and if any of those stories seem good enough I try to keep them in circulation, trying to sell them to magazines or web sites or anyone, really, who might be willing to pay me five cents a word for them.

In my most industrious year, I managed 107 submissions. I have no idea how I managed that. Last year I managed 25. I’ll top that this year, but I’m not sure by how much. So I’m still pretty actively shilling fiction out there. I know there isn’t a lot of money in short stories, but the Somers Way is never about money, mainly because I am lazy and don’t understand money. Back in The Day all of these submission were through the post office. 107 submissions meant 107 photocopies of a story, 107 large envelopes, 107 letter-sized envelopes with my address and a stamp, and 107 cover letters. These days a lot of my submissions are via email or web form, which is fantastic, and I’m inching towards a Scalzi-esque refusal to submit to any magazine that requires a physical submission, because this is 2010 and goddammit it’s two thousand and ten.

But despite the increasing prevalence of electronic submissions, up until very recently I’ve still included a cover letter with each submission. I’m proud of my cover letters. I enjoy creating absurd, humorous cover letters that talk about Helper Monkeys and Wormholes delivering manuscripts to me, like this actual cover letter I have actually used:

“Having learned to subsist entirely on alcohol and the radiation beaming out of my computer monitor, I believe I am the next step in human evolution—assuming I can survive long enough to sow my soon-to-be-dominant seed. In order to buy time, I need money to pay for the best in health care. Imagine a race of supermen, drinking booze for nutrition, and downloading pornography from the Internet in lieu of sleep! We’d rule the universe in no time. But first I have to get my mutant genes into the pool, and that brings us back to the question of cash.

“You can help! If you publish approximately 500 of my short stories this year, by my calculations I’ll be moderately well off. Here’s the first one: “as soon as its day dawns” (~13,000 words). I hope you enjoy it.”

I’ve often received positive feedback on my cover letters, actually. I’ve even had editors offer me the (dubious) compliment of telling me they’d publish my cover letter, but not my actual story. I just kind of enjoy the whole cover-letter experience, to be honest.

Recently, however, I’ve started to see more and more markets instructing me to skip the cover letter. Usually it’s with a statement about only being interested in the work; some markets even ask that the story itself be anonymized so they can judge it solely on its merits, with no knowledge about you, the author. I don’t mind this in general; it’s not a bad idea to judge a story on its merits. But I will miss making up these ridiculous cover letters. For all I know my cover letters have cost me sales, as Serious Business Editors have been offended by my jolly missives, but that doesn’t bother me too much. I’m going to miss writing the little essays, is all.

The main reason this sticks out for me is that it’s one of those unpredicted consequences: The cover letter is an artifact of a paper age, if you think about it, it’s perfectly sane that it gets dropped when you’re just submitting a file via an automated form. Still, I never thought about cover letters going away. Yet another of my largely unmarketable skills, gone extinct, along with playing the spoons, knowing all the Pac Man patterns for the Atari 2600 version, and programming in BASIC.

Damn universe.

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