16 April 2014

Gardner had it covered

by Robert Lopresti

Topic for the day: Cover letters.  Do you use them when you send a short story to a magazine?  Most magazines say they're optional.

Personally I only use one if I have something specific to say about a story.  Only when--

Oh, skip it.  You are welcome to write about cover letters in the comments if you want, but that was just an excuse to tell you this story. Let's get to the point, because getting to the point is  exactly the point of what I am about to tell you.

I have been reading Dorothy B. Hughes' biography Earl Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Real Perry Mason.  It seems that early in Gardner's career, when he was turning out stories and novelettes like a printing press on steroids, his best market was Black Mask, and he started getting too many rejections from them.

Obviously this called for the attorney to use his best diplomatic skills and eloquence to persuade the editors that he was an author they wanted to work with.  So he wrote the following cover letter, which I quote in its entirety:

'Three O'Clock in the Morning' is a damned good story.  If you have any comments on it, write them on the back of a check.

Editor Harry North not only bought the story, he printed the cover letter in front of it.  And bought a lot more of Gardner's work after that.

Which shows you what you can do, if you're a future MWA Grand Master.  For the rest of us, your mileage may vary.


  1. Rob, as we've noted before, my mind sometimes flies off in different directions. This cover letter story reminds me of how Kris Kristofferson contacted Johnny Cash to listen to one of his songs when he couldn't get his demos out of the slush pile (which is a round container). He landed on Cash's front lawn in a helicopter one Sunday morning. The song he was pitching was "Sunday Morning Coming Down," which Cash made into a big hit. Sadly, those unusual techniques don't work for everyone, but I love to hear when they do.

  2. I think this is a Good Old Days story. It's less about the quality of the story than of a time when editors could catch their breath and give a writer who made them laugh a shot. Didn't Ed Hoch have a story in every issue of EQMM for about 40 years? That couldn't happen today either.

  3. Love that cover letter- usually, like the snake, it's rejections that have all the good lines!

  4. Fran, Arlo Guthrie says after he played a show in Chicago a young man came up and asked if he could play him a song. GUthrie said, in effect, "you can buy me a beer and for as long as it takes me to drink it you can do whatever you want."

    Steve Goodman bought the drink and played his song, "City of New Orleans."

    Guthrie, who later had a huge hit with that song, said "It turned out to be one of the better beers I ever had."

  5. What a great cover letter. Quite succinct.

  6. Oh, that story is great! (The Gardner one.) So's the Guthrie one!

  7. And that's a damn good story.

    The old B&W Perry Mason series doesn't age for me, but those newer, 1970s shows seem dated.


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