Pub Rants

Prolific or Unpublishable?

 56 Comments |  Share This:    

STATUS: Crazy busy. A couple of deals are going down so I’m spending a lot of time on the phone.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? The BARE NECESSITIES by Phil Harris (from The Jungle Book)

Nothing is more frightening for an agent then to receive a query where the author proudly announces that s/he has 10 completed manuscripts and a few partials ready for review and can s/he send them along.

Yikes. I realize that the writer includes this information to show the seriousness of intent (or ability to write lots of material) but that’s not what I’m thinking. I’m thinking, “You’ve completed 10 manuscripts and none of them have been published at this point? Did you need 10 manuscripts to learn how to write?”

Now this might be erroneous thinking on my part. Maybe this person is really good and just happens to be prolific.

If that’s the case, you spring that information on to your agent after you’ve signed for representation. (Keywords here are “signed for representation.”)

In a query, it’s best to highlight one work and one work only. We have to fall in love with your writing first and we only need to read one project to do that. Then we can explore what else you have in your arsenal.

56 Responses

  1. joycemocha said:

    Um…what about if you’re working on a series (genre issue, romantic space opera/sf), the first one’s out at an editor, and the following book that mugged you happens to be a standalone sequel?

    Just thinking about the marketing aspect, planning to market books separately until something gets a bite.

  2. David said:

    It’s possible that a really good writer would work away for years, producing lots of good stuff, and then finally approach an agent, thinking it would be good to have a whole bunch of stuff ready to go.

    Unlikely, I suppose, but there must be people who think that way.

  3. Anonymous said:

    that explains why my first queries to agents were either rejected or never answered.

    However, I would have thought that the number of awards that my 13 published books (from various large and mid-sized houses) have accumulated just might have hinted that I CAN write.

    Oh well. Due to Miss Snark saying the same thing, I’m now sending out agent queries about individual books.

    And yes, after some X+ years of writing, manuscripts do accumulate.

    -librarian, writer, mom

  4. Rylie :0) said:

    can i just say how much i love this blog? Kristin, you’re so helpful… i’ll try and remember some of these tips if i ever send out a query when i finish my manuscript

  5. Anonymous said:

    Interesting factoid about publishing. In just about any other profession, to not indicate an ability to be productive would work against you.

    I can understand not inundating an agent with the half million books one has already written…they can’t read them all at once. It kind of seems like a pink elephant in the room issue. Agents assume that many writers have several completed manuscripts, but they don’t want to know about them up front.

    But I’d like to hear more about the flip side of this coin, namely, the number of proposals/ideas/manuscripts that clients pitch and that get rejected by their agents.

    I wonder what the rate of rejection is for that?

    Also, if investing in a client is so much work, isn’t the ability to write productively in different genres going to help the agent down the line? For the agents who do career management, I would think this is a factor–but maybe not.

    Maybe the career management means a “first look” kind of thing with clients, or the ability to say, editors want this type of book, so go ahead and write it. Maybe I’m too cynical, but I just want to know what’s being unspoken here (agenting in general, not necessarily Nelson Agency policy).

  6. Richard Lewis said:

    I believe John McDonald wrote the first four Travis McGee novels before seeking publication.

    I know I wrote about 4 or 5 learning curve novels myself, but I didn’t seek representation for them.

  7. Sara B. said:

    I am shocked that so many people didn’t know this. What Kristin points out is obvious, publishing 101. I don’t know how people can NOT get this.

    One anonymous poster says: >>In just about any other profession, to not indicate an ability to be productive would work against you.
    Stop and think about what you’ve just written here. There’s a big, huge difference between an ability to be productive vs. advertising your failures.

    You wouldn’t walk into a job interview and tell them about the 10 other places that turned you down. That’s what you’re essentially doing when you mention all the “drawer novels” you’ve got sitting around. You’re showing one of two things:

    a.) You’ve been rejected all over the place and, therefore, the agent will think twice about taking you on. Why taken on a proven loser?

    b.) You’ve written a boatload of novels but never had the sense to send them in before. This represents a lack of drive and/or common sense. If you’re writing to be published, if your goal is to see your work in print, then why stuff all your books in a drawer? That shows that you aren’t very savvy.

    Kristin, I thought this point would be obviously and I was stunned to read all of the comments from people who don’t seem to get it.

  8. Anonymous said:

    It’s not obvious. Writing is an intensely personal journey. Not everyone “arrives” at the same speed. Having a backlog you are proud of is not a sign of failure as a writer. It can, however, be a sign that you’ve failed only to connect with the right agent or editor, one who understands you and your work. I love your blog, Kristin, and I read it every day despite being politely rejected by you several times. This is the first time I’ve felt compelled to post a comment. I’ve signed with an agent, and I’m hopeful she will sell my backlog eventually. But even if she doesn’t, I’m proud of every bit of it. I’m also proud of myself for not giving up–yet. Keep up the great advice. It’s very helpful.

  9. Stephanie Feagan said:

    Then there are people like me, who wrote 11 manuscripts before selling. Began seriously writing in 1992 and did not sell until 2004. I had an agent, then didn’t, switched subgenres several times, but never gave up.
    The book that sold was the one that landed my second agent, who I am still with. I sold 3 more after the 1st, though none of those were from the original 11 manuscripts – which will likely never see the light of day. I’m not sure it took me that many to learn to write – after all, one of them connected me with the first agent, and two of them finaled in RWA’s Golden Heart.
    The first book I sold won a RITA for Best First Book.

    I will say, however, when I was querying for an agent, I didn’t mention my long and winding road of a career. I stuck to the current project.

    I think it’s like everything else in life – everyone’s journey is different. Some sell their very first manuscript. Some don’t. I do know one true thing, however – no way a first timer could ever appreciate selling so much as an old warhorse like me! I still grin when I think about it. 🙂

  10. pjd said:

    anonymous said, In just about any other profession, to not indicate an ability to be productive would work against you.

    sara b. responded with an analogy of a job interview. How about other analogies that illustrate the differing meanings of “productive”?

    Let’s say your car had a problem, and you took it to a mechanic. The mechanic says, “I haven’t fixed a car yet, but I’ve got these ten others up on blocks and I’m workin’ real hard on ’em now!”

    Or the general contractor you’ve talked to about remodeling your kitchen: “Sure, I’ve worked on ten kitchens. Finished? Naw, but I’m working on them.” Hmmm.

    Or perhaps the painter you meet at a cocktail party. “Gallery exhibits? Not yet, but I’ve got ten canvases I’ve been working on for years.”

    Not that compelling. I think the point is not that you should only write one book and sell it, but that if you are working to sell one book, having written nine others is tantamount to saying, “I also know how to knit sweaters.” It’s irrelevant (unless this is a book about knitting sweaters). What matters is this book that you’re trying to sell.

    Progress != Productivity. That is, simply working hard does not necessarily mean you’ve been productive.

  11. Anonymous said:

    >There’s a big, huge difference between an ability to be productive vs. advertising your failures.

    This statement is based on the assumption that every novel someone writes (up until the one that sells)is a bad, unmarketable novel, which I don’t think is true across the board.

    One can write nothing but lousy books, and pitch said lousy books all at once, which is bad form because the system isn’t set up to present oneself as in a resume.

    One can write good books and pitch said good books at once, which is still bad form.

    Not everyone writes ten lousy books, though, before landing an agent. It’s possible to write a good book and no agent lives during your lifetime who wants it (Confederacy of Dunces, anyone?).

    I respectfully disagree that in every case, pitching one’s collection of manuscripts is an advertisement of failure. I do agree that it’s not very strategic, and shows an ignorance of the publishing industry.

    One has to wonder, though…have any published authors anywhere made this gaffe at any time in their careers? Is it one of the definitive factors that separates the published from the unpublished?

  12. Anonymous said:

    >There’s a big, huge difference between an ability to be productive vs. advertising your failures.

    well said. It’s weird, though, that in other jobs involving writing (copywriting, advertising, etc., etc.,), you’d make a long list of things you’ve written or show a portfolio or whatever. It seems to work differently in publishing because as a debut author you’ve done the work on spec. Nobody paid you, so an agent doesn’t know its worth yet (although they believe it has worth). So even nine other novels that might demonstrate the ability to follow through doesn’t mean anything because you’re not a proven commodity. So I guess the moral of the story is don’t jump the gun by pitching ten novels. Or something like that.

    Aren’t agents worried about flaky writers, especially if they want to help guide careers in writing?

    Or maybe, they trust that the ability to write one good book is a great predictor of the ability to write another one…and another one….hence the one book at a time preference.

  13. Reid said:

    I politely disagree. Except for Sara B, who was snotty and anonymous. Her, I rudely disagree with.

    Writers write, that’s what we do. Not every germ of an idea will make it to a full novel, but we don’t know until we try. Most of us will have several ideas we work through before we finally get the one we fall in love with. Sometimes, we’re too green and dumb to put all of our eggs in one basket.

    Just because a writer has multiple projects doesn’t mean they’ve all been rejected multiple times, it probably just means they were projects the writer liked, but didn’t love as much as our main manuscript.

    I’ll bet if you asked the last ten writers you signed, at least six of them would say they have two more projects they could have ready within a month.

    I appreciate the blog anyway. Thanks!

  14. sb said:

    I think what Ms. nelson (I feel weird referring to her by first name since I don’t know her) is trying to say is that the information about multiple manuscripts should not go in a query letter together.

    I was reading pervious posts of hers (I just found the blog and went back to catch up) and there was a post about people not getting published until their 4th manuscript. I think most agents would assume writers have written manuscripts that didn’t work out or there is more than one lurking around. However, there is a difference between writing unpublished novels and mentioning them all in a query letter.

    That’s at the heart of the post. A lesson, don’t write about all those other works in a query letter. (Especially if you are using one query letter for 10 manuscripts!)

    -yet another sara b…how many of us can there be?

  15. Vicki said:

    I may be completely off base but I believe what Ms. Nelson is pointing out is this.

    Everything you done, all ten manuscripts you’ve written, all contest you’ve entered and finaled in, and so forth don’t belong in the Query letter.

    The Query letter is for the project that you want the agent/editor to see. The one you are hoping will make it past the dreaded slush pile. The one that you pray the editor will want to buy or the agent will want to represent.

    To put everything else in the letter would and can bogged it down to the point of no voice coming through.

    While I agree that in most professions you will tell them of your past accomplishments when applying for the job. However, if you’ve been unemployed for X amount of months/years then perhaps said accomplishments may not help you land the job. They may however help promote you later on.

    Yes, there are many writers who will write books several times over before sending one out. Then there are the writers who write one book and off it goes. That doesn’t make either one of them more or less of a writer.

    Basically I think the Query letter is a stand-alone letter on the merits of the manuscript you’re hoping will be requested.

    Just my thoughts.

  16. Patrick McNamara said:

    Prolifity (if that’s a word) is a plus for a writer today. But it’s a difficult marketplace and if a manuscript doesn’t meet the guidelines it won’t sell. Just because one may have ten unsold manuscripts only means that they haven’t written marketable in the current market. For instance, they might have a bunch of romances that are only 70,000 words long when it’s nearly impossible to sell anything less than 90,000 words. In fact most genres aren’t easy to sell. There’s maybe six decent sci-fi publishers. And how many (straight) romances are written for men?

    I’ve heard that it’s all right to mention past manuscripts to show that you are serious, but I can see how it may work against one. But it should be expected that by the time a writer approaches an agent they will have many unsold manuscripts. Sometimes it only takes one sale to get the others moving.

  17. Richard White said:

    Not even that. If you’re developing a 10 book magnum opis, remember you have to sell the first one.

    I usually recommend people take the Star Wars approach to things like trilogies. Make the first book stand on its own. Set up a situation, run with it and have a satisfying conclusion. Then, use book two to set up book three if you want a cliff-hanger in there somewhere. If the book doesn’t sell well enough to justify the other books, at least your readers get a complete (and hopefully satisfying) story.

    This is based on my own experience. I had a three book deal for a licensed project. Wrote the first book, left a cliff-hanger and then the publisher (a mid-size company) went into bankrupcy right after I submitted the second installment of the series. Now, unless a new publisher picks up the license AND decides they want me to finish the series, my readers are stuck with half a story. Let me tell you, that’s a very frustrating situation for both me and my readers (who keep writing to ask when the next book is coming out).

    Pitch the first book and then when an agent says, I want to represent this, you can mention, “Oh, and I have others in the series finished (or at least plotted). Let the agent get you that multi-book deal. Don’t try to sell the book deal to the agent.

  18. Sherry Thomas said:

    Remember also the space constraint. As such, I think in general writers (myself included) have enough trouble getting query letters to stay under one page. The number of mss under the bed or rusticating in the far reaches of the hard drive not only isn’t relevant to the discussion at hand, which is about the one book being queried, but take up precious real estate that could be better used delving into the story/characters to deepen an agent’s interest.

  19. Rob said:

    What about mentioning that you have a variety of other ideas you can develop into novels? You don’t need to say you’ve actually written them, but it will indicate you have other ideas.

  20. Termagant 2 said:

    Sara B #1 says: “There’s a big, huge difference between an ability to be productive vs. advertising your failures.”

    I would never dare call my as-yet-unsold MSs failures. My ex-agent had to look at 4 completed novels before he fell in love with something. He didn’t sell it. After he & I parted company, I sold it myself. Failure? Not while the royalties come in.

    Had I not had those other three novels “languishing on the hard drive” I never would have gotten this agent at all.

    Mind you, I didn’t mention them in my initial query letter, but I did mention I had other FINISHED novels than the one I pitched. Is there a fine line between “I have a bunch of junk under the bed” and “I only have one book in me”? Probably.


  21. Marion Gropen said:

    Writing is an art, and a journey, indeed. Writers don’t need to sell to be successful, depending upon their goals and reasons for writing.

    Authors are writers who sell their work. An unsold manuscript is not a success for them. In fact, a book that doesn’t sell through as well as it should is not a success for them.

    Publishing people (including agents) are in the business of bringing authors’ work to the reading public. That means that they have to be thinking about the marketing potential, and how well the author will adapt to the process, as well as whether or not this book will be profitable.

    So an agent who sees you introducing yourself with a bunch of unsold manuscripts under the bed may have several qualms about your ability to become an author as well as a writer.

  22. C.D. said:

    In this post Kristin asks “You’ve completed 10 manuscripts and none of them have been published at this point? Did you need 10 manuscripts to learn how to write?”

    And as SB points out, in an earlier post she states that most authors wrote 3-4 books before their craft was honed enough to publish.

    I usually mention in my query that “TITLE is my third completed manuscript” to show that I’ve completed other books (and this is not a fluke), that I’m serious about the business, and that I’ve honed my craft. I’m in no way pitching those books in the query, just saying I’ve written more than one.

    It seems odd to me to say that most published authors have 3-4 books under the bed, but that this shouldn’t be mentioned because it is somehow taboo (though I agree that mentioning 10 does make one wonder). Yes, in a query we are trying to sell one book, but how do we show that we’ve honed craft and are serious?

  23. Kalen Hughes said:

    I don’t see that there is any need to prove how “serious” or “prolific” you are in a query letter (I’m with Sara B on this one). Sell the one project to an agent and once they’ve taken you on they will inevitably (in my experience) ask to see what else you’ve got. You may have lots of great stuff that didn’t suit the market when you wrote it (but does now), or you may have lots of stuff that was really just you warming up . . . regardless, you don’t need to tell the agent all about it in your query letter.

    One of my friends had been writing for 10+ years before she finally sold, and when she sold it was like a fire sale, everything went! The market had finally come round to her kind of book. Lucky girl. But there’s no way of knowing when, or if, this will happen.

  24. Chesya said:

    I also agree with Sara B, if not the way she said it. Your query letter should be strong enough to stand on its own. If you’ve sold short stories or won awards, then you will show that you’ve “honed craft.”

  25. sara b said:

    Interesting that a lot of people are jumping on my case.

    Writing is an art form, yes, but it’s also a business. Trust me, the business side counts before almost everything else.

    I’m not trying to say that just because you’ve written 10 books and those 10 weren’t published it automatically means you’re a bad writer. It certainly does not.

    It does, however, mean you’ve FAILED to find a publisher for that work. Since an agent is primarily concerned with finding a publisher for you, it’s going to be disheartening to know you’ve tried and failed so many times before.

    It’s a bit foolish to assume you are helping yourself out by advertising your 10 unpublished works. You’re not. You are hurting yourself. I believe Kristin said the same thing (in a much nicer tone) in her blog post.

    I worked as an agent’s assistant for 2 years before moving up the ranks of publishing. (Go ahead and argue that I didn’t. Yes, I’m posting semi-anonymously. I’m not that to protect my job.) But Kristin is right out front and center, and I think we’d all agree she’s something of an expert on publishing.

    So why argue against her point? Why not listen to her?

    People keep saying that mentioning all of your other work makes you look prolific, and will give the agent a sense of confort. This assumes that an agent’s primary fear is that a writer only has one book in them.

    That just isn’t so. The old stereotype of the Hemingway writer who has great difficulty completing a manuscript is a thing of the past. Most agents assume (rightly so) that once an author has a contract, he or she will be able to put pedal to the metal and finish the other books on time.

    You are not alleviating an agent’s fears when you mention your unpublished backlist. You are merely showing how clueless you are about the industry.

  26. sara b said:

    >>It’s weird, though, that in other jobs involving writing (copywriting, advertising, etc., etc.,), you’d make a long list of things you’ve written or show a portfolio or whatever
    Yes, you would. AND YOU CAN DO THAT IN PUBLISHING, TOO. Just make sure the list if of PUBLISHED work.

    You would do the same thing in copywriting, advertising, journalism, etc. You would not try to get a journalism job by showing them 10 stories that had been rejected by other newspapers. You’d show them 10 clipes, 10 stories that have been published.

    You would do the same in advertising. You would show them the campaigns you worked on, not the campaigns you never landed.

    Think about it people. It’s common sense.

  27. Kimber An said:

    Ha! I just went and clarified this on my website. Yes, I’ve written over thirty novels. No, they have not all been rejected. In fact, I’ve only polished and/or am polishing and/or submitting two at this point. Why? Guess I was too busy living life to get around to taking my writing seriously. Things piled up, yanno. I was just having fun.

  28. Kimber An said:

    P.S. I never mention my thirty or so novels I’ve never tried to get published in my query later. I know they’re irrelevent until I’m an established author.

  29. Cindy Procter-King said:

    I think Lori Foster wrote ten novels before selling…and look where she is now.

    I think the point is not to make the agent’s eyes cross when she reads your query letter.

    Someone asked if writers should mention that they have more ideas. I don’t think it’s bad form to mention your WIP, but then you run the risk of distracting the agent from the book you’re querying. Should she reject it and wait for the next one? Etc. As for mentioning that you have more ideas that you think can be developed into novels…I wouldn’t go there. Because every agent out there would expect that you WOULD have more ideas for novels, you know? Stating what’s generally perceived to be the obvious could come across as the sign of an amateur.


  30. Dave said:

    Personally I’m thinking at least part of it is that the number of trunk manuscripts is so large, coupled with the implication they’ve waited this long to start querying. I can see it being daunting to say the least.

  31. The Home Office said:

    A small publisher spent two years (asking for one re-edit and requiring two gentle reminders in that time) before deciding to reject my first manuscript. I completed two more in the series during that time. I was halfway through the next when I found my agent. All I mentined in my query was that I was working on a series and had more work on disk. I didn’t say how much more.

    She was happy to see I had continued to slog away, and mortified at the publisher’s slow response. I’m trying to see if as a good thing. If I do get published and the publisher wants another book quickly, I’ll never need to worry about deadlines.

  32. Anonymous said:

    I’ve written many books, none published yet. However, I only query one at a time. Twice i have sent a ‘blurb’ sheet for a few of my favorites to agents where I knew they did a variety of work that was similar to mine. both times they wrote me back mentioning that they were impressed with my other completed novels. One of them even requested one of those others…I think we might be close to an agreement.

    Every agent is different — some will see a mention of other books as terrifying and run as quickly as they can. Others will see it as opportunity.

  33. Elizabeth Byler Younts said:

    I would agree that only querying one at a time is a good rule of thumb. Every rule of thumb I realize can have some exceptions…but not commonly.

    I thought this was an obvious thing, though, as another poster said…but I have gone to a conf & workshops & done a lot of research on my own. Everyone learns this info at different times in their writing ventures. Luckily we have a venue like blogspot and the internet to gather info like this from all over the world.


  34. Elizabeth Byler Younts said:

    As I’m reading a few more of the comments I’d like also to make a clarification of the way I’m reading Kristin’s advice…I don’t believe she is saying that you should write only one book then sell it before you do anything else…but that “typically” you should only query one at a time. There’s a big difference.


  35. Janny said:

    The error here, it seems to me, is the assumption that those 10 completed manuscripts are “trunk” books, already rejected stuff, or stuff that’s somehow been through the mill already…i.e., advertising your failures. That’s not the way I read that sentence AT ALL.

    All the writer is saying is, “I’ve got 10 books completed,” not “I’ve finished 10 manuscripts that have been rejected by everyone on the planet, but I’ll be glad to send them all to you too.” Where one sentence became synonymous with the other, I missed completely.

    There’s NOTHING wrong with having a body of work behind you, submitted or unsubmitted. Mentioning that you’ve got it, to me, isn’t even wrong, unless you try to pitch all 10 books in the same letter. 🙂 Pitch one book at a time, one work at a time, or at most, one concept for a series at a time, seems to be the key concept.

    But it’s sheer foolishness, not to mention arrogance, on any of our parts to assume that because someone has 10 finished manuscripts and several partials “ready to go,” that that means they’ve been submitting all that stuff and failed at all of it!

    Maybe this is the first submission they’ve done of ANY of it, because they’ve had to work up the courage to do so. If I had a nickel for every writer I know who’s had to go through that angst, I’d be able to at least buy a frappucino somewhere. (!) So to me, the agent-panic line of “Did it take you 10 manuscripts to learn how to write?” is a huge leap of illogic–and the assumptions that follow, therefore, are flawed from the get-go.

    My take,

  36. sara b. said:

    >>Maybe this is the first submission they’ve done of ANY of it, because they’ve had to work up the courage to do so.
    Maybe so. But at the very least, this shows a major lack of drive. The agent will wonder why the author didn’t submit it. Nerves? Fear? Lack of confidence in their work? None of those are qualities agents look for in a client.

    Also, to go back to the work analogy again (because it works so well). Would you walk into an employer and say: “I’ve seen 10 different jobs posted here before, but I’ve never been able to work up the confidence to apply for even one of them. But pick me now! Please!”

    You wouldn’t. You’d look like a fool.

    And as for the (stupid) question others have posed about listed your 10 completed works in your query letter. Again, would you say at a job interview: “I’m not sure which job I want to apply for here. I’ve seen 10 different positions advertised on your website. How about I just apply for all 10 and you tell me which one is the best fit.”

    People, get a clue. What Kristin said is, true, true, true. Don’t mentioned your other manuscripts in your query letter. PERIOD. It’s okay to (maybe) mention them after you’ve landed an agent. But wait until the agent asks what you’re working on to do that.

  37. Anonymous said:

    What if it’s just someone who wrote for twenty years and never tried to get anything published? People like that are out there. Not everyone has spent their adult lives obsessing about getting on the shelves; believe it or not, there are talented writers out there who aren’t published yet. Get over it.

  38. sara b said:

    -believe it or not, there are talented writers out there who aren’t published yet.-

    That’s certainly true. But it’s the exception, oftentimes, not the norm. Most people who write for twenty years do, at some point in time, make an attempt to get published. I’m not saying there’s something wrong with writing for 20 years and never seeing your work in print. People keep misunderstanding my point.

    Point is, there is NO need to advertise the fact that you a.) have written for 20 years and have been rejected all over the shop or b.) have written for 20 years but lack the drive/ambition/confidence to pursue publication.

    People who have yet to be published desperately want to believe it’s because their talent has not yet been recognized. Sometimes this is the case. Usually it’s not. Usually they have never been published because they never will be published. Simple fact.

  39. Kimber An said:

    It may not be the point, but assuming writers write novels for decades before attempting publication lack ambition or courage is unfair.

    Why is it so difficult to believe in the pure joy of story creation as a motivator for writing novels?

    Besides storytelling for fun, pursuing publication and meeting the obligations of contract are time-consuming. I’m sure no agent wants to take on a client who isn’t yet at a place in her life when she has the time to make deadlines and market her novel. Is it so hard to believe there are those of us who wait out of this consideration?

    We’re not all desperate and/or obsessed. Most of us are rational, sensitive, intelligent human beings who deserve to be regarded as individuals.

  40. Redzilla said:

    I think this is yet another terrifying area where what one agent hates another one loves. I heard a well-known agent speak at a writers conference and he stressed that before signing to represent a writer, he liked to have a sense that the writer had more than one book in him/her. He preferred query letters to mention one or two additional pieces in progress. So…like all things in the publishing industry, it’s either white or black. Never conveniently grey.

  41. Todd-Michael St. Pierre said:

    An agent or an editor might also find misuse of words rather scary too, for instance, in the following sentence…

    “Nothing is more frightening for an agent then to receive a query where the author proudly announces that s/he has 10 completed manuscripts and a few partials ready for review and can s/he send them along.”

    “then” should be “than” because
    then is the opposite of now…a time in space, so to speak. Than is a word of comparison.

    Additionally, Miss Sarah B. might want to check all of her mizspullins hear, I mean here.

  42. Anonymous said:

    I’m coming into this topic late, so this comment may never be read, but it’s the first one to which I’ve felt compelled to comment. This seems sort of like a Catch-22 quandary, doesn’t it? Your website, and others that I’ve visited, urges the would-be writer to list literary accomplishments, however mundane, in the query letter. So the new writer, or more specifically, the as-of-yet unpublished writer has no credentials with which to pad his/her query letter. That person may have diligently completed works which have not yet found a market, but this blog states that it’s taboo to mention them. So now they can’t be used to pad a thin query letter, which also reflects the novice status of the new writer, and so the vicious circle goes on and on. I’m sure I haven’t achieved the sophistication of some of your contributors (“I’m shocked that so many people didn’t know this!”). However, in keeping with the job interview analogy, you may not mention failed interviews but you do mention pertinent experience, and the fortitude to complete several novels should speak of the witer’s dedication. Perhaps the writer simply doesn’t write queries very well, which could be a big reason why he/she hasn’t gotten published yet. Or perhaps it’s just because the last 99 agents and publishers queried don’t take works from new and/or unsolicited writers. There are a lot of THOSE around.

  43. Ithaca said:

    OK. OK. OK. This makes sense. This does make sense.

    My first novel, The Last Samurai, sold 100,000 copies in English and was published in 19 countries. All my other novels are unpublished. Right.

    The published book is the one no agent will ever get a commission on. If there were four other published books that would be another four books an agent couldn’t get a commission on — and that would look really really good. If they’re unpublished, on the other hand, so there’s the prospect of a commission, that looks really really bad. It’s important to conceal the fact that the agent might get a commission on more than one book. Right. Right. Right.

    When a book goes into print, the author deals with a succession of people who claim they will send comments/mark-up/design/proofs by a certain date and then don’t. So one sets aside a block of time to respond to the editor/copy-editor/production manager/designer/typesetter and each is late, and then, because they’re late, everything has to be fixed very fast at the last minute. This is not conducive to writing another book, which would have to be picked up and put down, picked up and put down. Stupid. Once the book is published the publisher is keen to have it publicized — flying about the country is also not conducive to work on a new book. If the rights are sold in many foreign countries, many other publishers will also need proofs checked, the book publicized — again not conducive to work on a new book.

    It’s bad to have a big gap between books. So the best way to maximize your income is to have at least five other books written when the first is getting published. The most promising can then be published while you are still on the campaign trail.

    It IS the best way to maximize your income, and most writers DO think they hire an agent to aid and abet them in their attempts to maximize their income, and a writer who maximizes her income automatically maximizes her agent’s income from the work. It looks better, though, if you have a lot of books under your belt from which the agent can’t possibly make a penny.


    We’ll know better next time.

  44. Anonymous said:

    “You’ve completed 10 manuscripts and none of them have been published at this point? Did you need 10 manuscripts to learn how to write?”

    Seriously? You seriously think this?

    Have you ever written a book? Do you know that Jonathan Kellerman wrote 8 books before he got published? Yes, there is a learning curve. Craft is tricky stuff and there’s a lot to learn.

    Should that writer have approached you in that way? No.

    But should you be so dismissive of someone for trying to improve their craft?


  45. Anonymous said:

    WIth the birth – and often death – of small publishing houses, I would think that agents see more and more queries from ‘previously published’ authors who have been orphaned.

    Would you see this as the same scenario? Perhaps an author has had 10 books (just borrowing the common figure being uses) published with small houses – but due to other circumstances, they are no longer published.

    A book that has been published, but is no longer available, is different than a book that has been sent out and rejected. True? False?

    And if so, wouldn’t a previously published status be something an agent might want to know? I’m not saying provide a detailed description of every book in the query letter… but make the agent aware.

  46. Fluffy said:

    For all I know, by the time I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try for being published, I will have indeed written ten books. I’m not going to get better if I don’t practice. And hey, maybe it makes me a bad writer. I’m working on it, is all.

  47. Twill said:

    A query is like a combination between a short story and a request for a date.

    1) There is only one point, and you must decide what it is. Coffee? Dinner? A movie? The zombie novel or the romance?

    2) Anything which does not add to this proposition, subtracts. Bouncing around just makes you look unconfident or incompetent. You use the minimum number of words to give your desired impression.

    3) The effect you are seeking is not sex or marriage – it’s a particular date. You are seeking a request for partial on the one work at hand. There’s lots of time for wooing after the agent has swooned over your partial (or your date has swooned over your choice of restaurants).

    4) In asking for a date, you want to give the impression you are employable and employed, without listing all the jobs you’ve had or giving the details of your work or financial life. In querying, you want to give the impression that you are a professional writer, with other works completed or in process. But you must do so without detracting from the query at hand.

    5) As with everything else in writing, you do that with *subtext* – how you dress, how you hold yourself, how you phrase things. Consider the following simple phrase –


    It implies there are others…and you haven’t wasted a word. See if you can come up with three other ways to show, not tell, that you are a prolific writer. Use the best one or two.

  48. Twill said:

    ithaca –

    Obviously, a publication credit is different to agents from an unpublished “trunk” novel, which may be gold or garbage.

    The fact that you have achieved some level of name recognition is significant to their ability to sell your next novel.

    Also, when the rights come back to you on your published work, your agent can, and does, earn their commissions by re-selling your backlist.

    But, meanwhile, the question at hand for an agent is, does this work interest me, and can I sell this work that I am being offered?

    If the answer is *no*, then no amount of novels in the closet are going to make me take it on. If the answer is *yes*, then the question of personality fit is second, and author fecundity third.

  49. sylvia said:

    I love the deliberate misinterpretations in a desperate attempt to prove to the (oh-so-patient) agents that they are wrong.

    “He preferred query letters to mention one or two additional pieces in progress.”

    I think Twill’s date analogy is a good one.

    Ithaca and the anon’s are happily convinced they understand the business better than the agents/editors, so one wonders why they are wasting time here.

    Rejection is frustrating. No one likes it. But you know, every attempt to explain REASONS why people are not pre-disposed to your query letter turn into a you-can’t-really-mean-that-what-nonsense-hatefest.

    Ignore the advice at your peril but is there really any reason to attack those trying to HELP you?

    (three cheers to sara b for extreme patience!)

  50. Writer, Rejected said:

    Great advice. And seriously…we should tell them absolutely nothing that they can use against us, which means it’s all honors, awards, and the freshest of fresh new work. It’s the MacDonald’s cheeseburger they understand, but it’s also the unusual breakout book they’ve been waiting a lifetime to publish. Because seriously they will use any excuse to say no. They want to say no because they are inundated and busy and tired and sad about the market. Anyway, not to be too cynical, but you get the picture IMO. But check out Literary Rejections on Display for a closer look at rejections and what people are saying about them.

  51. aspnovelist said:

    I just wanted to mention that obtaining agent representation depends on two things:
    1. The agent has to be interested in your proposed book, feel passionate about it to be able to sell it to a publisher. Would you like to sell something in a very competitive market that you didn’t feel really good about, excited about?
    2. Timing – Take The DaVinci Code. There were many books written about The DaVinci Code theory, but none of those books made the best seller lists or even front list books. The DaVinci Code gets published and now some of those books are on the front list books and some made best sellers. Others spawned as a result.

    Obviously, you can’t sit around waiting for the rest of your life for a DaVinci Code phenomenon to happen – you just have to be lucky enough to hit the publishing world with a book that is timely with the current trends. Obama’s Audacity of Hope is another example – it’s still #223 on Amazon.

  52. aspnovelist said:

    I just wanted to mention that Stephen King wrote five novels before his first was published and Dean Koontz wrote four; John Grisham self published his first novel.

    Take a look at my blog for the rest of the article, Sailing is a Lot Like Writing:
    for more on this topic.

  53. cstross said:

    I think you’re wrong.

    Datum: I’m a full-time SF novelist, Hugo winner, currently working on my thirteenth novel under contract, published by Ace and Tor in the USA and Orbit in the UK.

    But before I sold a novel I wrote about fifteen. A couple of them I have subsequently cannibalized (and large chunks of them are in print right now), but most of them are going in the shredder as soon as I figure out where I left them. (Because I started writing when I was fifteen, and you really don’t want to see what my fifteen-year-old self was capable of doing to the language.)

    As Roger Zelazny remarked, before you can write well enough to publish, you have to write a million words of shit. It’s almost an essential precondition for being publishable, and I’d personally find a letter saying “this is the first thing I’ve ever written” far more discouraging than one that says “I’ve put the effort into learning the craft, now here’s my journeyman piece”.

  54. Abintra said:

    What about those of us who have written many (currently 29) ebook titles over the last decade or so and wish only to see if some of them would appeal to paper publishers?
    I needed extra money, so I wrote and self-published the books as downloadable ebooks.
    ALL my SF titles have appeared on Fictionwise’s Bestseller page for at least two weeks.
    Is there reason to believe a paper publisher would be interested in producing paperback versions of my titles?
    Ed Howdershelt – Abintra Press
    Science Fiction & Semi-Fiction
    My Fictionwise Ratings: