Not every market I submit to asks for a cover letter, but they’re nice to include anyway, even if it’s only something as short as
Dear [editorial horde/slush pile heroes],
Thank you for taking the time to consider for publication my story, [title], which is about [length] words long.
Some markets do ask for cover letters as a way to pre-screen those people who haven’t even bothered to read their submission guidelines, and I always think it’s nice to give thanks to the heroic slushers and editors who are at least looking at my first 13 lines. Other than crafting amusing ways for C. C. Finlay to reject my submissions, should he need to, though, I don’t usually put a whole lot into my cover letters. I’d guess that you don’t either?
So, a story about how a well-crafted cover letter can be a good thing.
In the 80’s, my dad worked as an editor at Amazing Science Fiction Stories. Working at a magazine means a lot of things, and not all of them are totally exciting. One day, it fell to him to separate cover letters from rejected manuscripts, put the cover letters in the round file, and put the manuscripts in their return envelopes (those being the days before widespread computer ownership, when a writer would want their manuscript back, rather than having to type it out again). As this was not a job that required much thought, he would scan the cover letters before tossing them.
It was in so doing that he ran across the cover letter of an as-yet-unpublished author named Lois McMaster Bujold.
He read the cover letter.
He re-read it.
He thought to himself, “This is the greatest cover letter I’ve ever read. It has got a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is an author who is going places.” And then, rather than tossing it, he date-stamped the cover letter, stuck it in a sleeve, and took it home with him.
Despite this, they did not end up publishing the story to which the cover letter was attached. It appeared in print some years later, after Lois had begun to make a name for herself.
Some years after taking home that cover letter, my father saw that Lois was going to be a guest at an upcoming convention, so he made sure to bring the cover letter with him, still carefully preserved, and sought her out.
He told her the story, showed her the cover letter. To this day, I believe that my dad can claim to be her first Fan. He still buys all of her books new.
This isn’t to say that you must labor over your cover letters, workshopping them with your writing groups, turning them into works of literature in their own rights. It’s only to say that maybe you should think twice before you totally phone it in on your next cover letter (or skip it entirely).