You know the drill: Times are perennially tough, some publishers are closing shop, lists are shrinking, blah blah I don’t want to repeat it but I have to for purposes of this post blah.
As a result, authors constantly find themselves on the lookout for new homes, and as a result of that result, agents see more and more queries from previously published authors.
Which is great! Agents want to hear from previously published authors.
The challenge for previously published authors
But these queries often take this form:
I published this book, it got these reviews, etc. etc. etc.
I teach here, I have a blurb by this person, etc. etc. etc.
I am a professional writer, I am back in the game, looking for new representation, etc. etc. etc.
Did I mention my previous book that was most definitely published? Here’s more about it etc. etc. etc.
And oh by the way I have a new project.
Previously Published Author
Often the new project is not even described, or if it is described, it’s the barest of bare descriptions. Essentially: the author is banking on their credentials carrying the day. And by going about it this way they are either inadvertently or er, advertently projecting an attitude that they have it made in the shade.
I wish credentials carried the day
Look: I wish you had it made in the shade. I really do. I wish a published book or two, especially a successful published book or two, were a guarantor of an agent taking you on or of your next book also finding publication. You’re talented! You got published! I don’t blame anyone for being proud of that and thinking they have an advantage.
But it’s often easier to place a debut than it is a book by an author with a mixed sales track. A previously published book is not necessarily an advantage. It can be an advantage! But not always.
The reasons for this: chains basing their ordering on previous book sales even if the new book is different and/or much better, publishers wanting sure bets and shying away from mixed or quiet track records, and agents knowing all of this and following the publishers’ lead because, well, they’re the people agents have to sell to and agents can only sell what they will buy.
Now, before all previously published authors jump out the window (hopefully you’re reading this on the ground floor anyway), let me just say that all hope is not lost. Far from it!
You may not have a full leg up, but you have some leg up. Like, to the knee at least. A publisher liked your writing enough to pay you for it. An agent’s eyes are going to prick up when they see your query.
But it’s so important to recognize that your previously published book isn’t going to be what sells your new book. Instead, what’s going to sell your new book is… well, your new book.
Your new book is the key
So yes – by all means mention your previously published book(s).
But focus the query on your new book. Instead of inadvertently projecting the belief that you have it made in the shade: know the reality of the situation. Focus on your terrific-sounding and actually-terrific new project. That’s what’s going to sell or not sell or attract an agent or not attract an agent. Project yourself as a writer on the rise.
You want to build off of your last book, but it’s going to be the new book that does the building.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes, my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Allegory of teaching by Juriaen Jacobsze
Elise Logan says
I've been wondering about this. What if – hypothetically – an author published fiction under a pseudonym, but had a non-fiction piece they wanted to publish under their actual name. Is it necessary or even desirable to mention the fiction publications when seeking an agent?
Nathan Bransford says
Definitely mention it, but it's another one of those situations where it won't necessarily be an advantage. Unless the author is a big name, when they jump to a completely different genre they're basically starting from scratch.
Nathan, I think you just scared a lot of unpublished writers, too. As if we all suddenly discovered that the Garden of Eden is full of Imperial Storm Troopers. And Jabba is trying to lick everyone.
Margaret Yang says
@Ink, I find it reassuring. Publication doesn't guarantee a free pass. You still need a good book and compelling hook to interest an agent. Makes the playing field seem more even, somehow.
Hearing debut authors might have a leg up for any reason was pretty exciting. More like unpublished authors are a little short for a Stormtrooper but that just might keep them from being pummled by a rock throwing Ewok.
Oh man….imagine having your query letter go up against Laurell K. Hamilton…can anyone say *big SUCK*?
*All enthusiam has seeped out through the hole where my heart use to be.
Should we mention self-published work, regardless of sales?
Nathan Bransford says
Yes, I'd mention it.
Chuck H. says
You mean when I get published, I won't be set for life? Crap! Something else to worry about and the market tanking today and there goes my 401k! Damn the bad luck!
Lisa Schroeder says
Ink, you made me laugh. The Garden of Eden full of Storm Troopers.
hahahahaha – yes!!
And Nathan, I'm surprised that authors would think they can get away with not talking about the current project? That's what you would have to go out and sell, and so you must love THAT, not their previous books. Or their name. Although I bet some authors have really cool names that are easy to love.
Like Page Bestseller. You'd really love her name, right?
You mean I have to work after I get published? What kind of a lottery is this?
de la O says
Is it really a question of- my manuscript against other writer's manuscripts, or is it- hey if two good sell-able manuscripts came in from different writers you would rep them both. Do you have a limit to how many clients your willing to take on at one time?
Nathan Bransford says
de la O-
No, I don't have a limit. It all comes down to whether I think I can sell a particular project and whether I think I'd be the best agent for it.
Marilyn Peake says
It’s interesting to me how many big-name authors have had some of their recent books published by very tiny indie presses, earning only a couple hundred dollars on those books because their indie presses have very little distribution.
Last night, I read a fascinating interview with Audrey Niffenegger in the most recent issue of Writer’s Digest about how she broke lots of popular beliefs regarding how to make it as a published author, then signed with an agent after twenty or so rejections for THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE. That book took her four-and-a-half years to write and was sold to an indie press that, since the time of the book’s publication, went from having about fourteen employees to having only three employees, despite the many copies of THE TIME TRAVELER'S WIFE that were sold! Her new book, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY, took her about seven years to write and recently sold at auction to Scribner for a nearly $5 million advance. She said that she loved the indie press that had published her debut book, but felt that, with only three employees, they wouldn’t be able to handle all that her new book would require. Niffenegger’s also a visual artist, and some of her visual novels are also being published. She talked about how amazing that feels to her because, prior to the success of THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE, she had made ten copies of each of her visual novels herself and felt delighted when people read one of those ten copies and wrote to her about it. She also spent some time in artist colonies in the past and loved the experience. I personally took away from the article the idea that, if you love writing or creating any kind of art, you should just keep doing that, get better and better at it, hope to make money at it but realize that you can’t count on that.
Marilyn Peake says
Nathan, I have a question about something you mentioned in your blog:
"So yes – by all means mention your previously published book, and YOU CAN TELL THIS IS A PET PEEVE BECAUSE I'M TYPING IN ALL CAPS YOU MUST MUST MUST INCLUDE THE PUBLISHER AND THE YEAR IT WAS PUBLISHED I MEAN IT."
I have fourteen publications, primarily through indie press, and nineteen awards, including several won in competition against books from the big publishing houses. I’ve been torn about listing all my publications and awards and still trying to keep the word count of my query letter for my new science fiction novel manageable. As a result, I make brief reference to having had books published, listing some of my awards, and providing a link to my website. My new science fiction novel is complicated, reflecting the voices of several very different characters, and I want to devote at least a couple of paragraphs to summarizing the main themes of the novel. Do you have any advice?
Corey Schwartz says
Thanks for posting on this (as I am someone in this situation)
Also, after reading this post-
I now see why you don't want an assistant going through your queries!
Nathan Bransford says
I'd include a list of your books, maybe below your signature if you want to keep the focus on the book you're querying about, but I'd only include the very most important awards, if any.
Marilyn Peake says
Thanks, Nathan. Hadn't thought about adding the books below my signature.
T. Anne says
Sounds like a nice problem to have.
Arik Durfee says
Well, I'm not previously published–I'd like to consider myself "future-published". But this post got me thinking about something. I've been working on this YA science fiction novel for a while now. I finished a full draft last December, but it was 190,000 words long. I'm on my fourth or fifth round of revisions now, and I've chopped it down to about 140. I'm to the point where cutting any more will actually start to damage the story instead of improving it, but I'm worried that at 140,000 words it will still be too long to sell.
So I've been toying with the idea of finishing this book in the next month or so and then shelving it while I work on a planned YA novel about a a fake gun threat in a junior high that gets out of control. This novel will be much shorter and (I hope) really relevant and publishable. My idea has been to try to get this next novel published and using its theoretical success (knock on wood) as a stepping stone to getting my big fat science-fiction novel published.
Is that completely backwards, or does it sound like a good strategy?
I had a memoir published by a major publisher, but it didn't sell well.
I have two more books almost finished: one is another memoir with a much stronger narrative, the other is a paranormal romance.
Which should I lead with?
Nathan Bransford says
Personally I think you should focus on whichever one you're most passionate about. If it doesn't work it doesn't work, but at least you give it a shot. You can always try the other one next.
Etiquette Bitch says
I'm with Margaret Yang. This post was reassuring. Kinda reminds me that, essentially, you always have to sell, sell, sell. (And work, work, work.) And go about it the right way.
Wendy C. Allen a.k.a. EelKat says
WOW! When I'm submitting, I don't ever mention past books or even that I'm published before! I focus on the book at hand, looking for future contracts, not books past and fluffing them.
Besides, I publish with so many different pen names it wouldn't do me any good to point out "Hey, I published this book" because you'd look at it and go "Huh? But someone else's name is on it." 🙂
I agree with @Margaret-Yang Publication DOESN'T guarantee a free pass. And yes, you still need ANOTHER good book and compelling hook to interest an agent. That's why I don't focus on my past books, just on whatever the book I'm working on here and now.
Anita Saxena says
Nathan your post reminds me of something that happened about four years ago…
I once talked to a Nameless, older published author (She published three or four novels between the 1970s-1990s). Nameless author gave me various advice:
1. Nameless told me that an agent wasn't necessary (which I completely don't agree with now that I've done my own research).
2. Nameless told me that a full MS isn't necessary. Just shoot the breeze with a few chapters and if you get a nibble then complete it.
3.Nameless also encouraged me to submit my first complete MS (which I now know wasn't or ever will be ready) to her old editor friend with the following letter:
Name less author recommended I send my YA to you. Thank you for your time.
And, not knowing anything at the time, I followed her advice and did exactly what Name less author told me to do. Of course it didn't work.
Name less author told me that was the way things were done back then. I've lost touch with name less author. But,I remember she was trying to get back into being published herself- without much success. But, perhaps it was just the way she was going about it. She was doing exactly what Nathan is saying NOT to do. But, she was just approaching the process the way that had worked for her in the past. It doesn't mean it was wrong for her back then. It worked. She was published.
It's just interesting to see how things change and why some of these pre-published authors may be confused.
But these days it's often easier to place a debut than it is a book by an author with a mixed sales track.
Laura Martone says
Double amen to what Eric just said!
Laura Martone says
Oh, and I should add… I think it's funny that, at this time of day, there are less than 30 comments here. It just goes to show you, Nathan, that your poll was right. Most of your commenting audience must consist of unpublished authors… who have no idea what to say today.
On the one hand, I think, "If only I had the problem of having been published already!" and, on the other hand, I repeat my earlier statement… "Amen!" to this blessed paragraph:
But these days it's often easier to place a debut than it is a book by an author with a mixed sales track. A previously published book is not necessarily an advantage. It can be an advantage! But not always.
P.S. Bryan, you cracked me up as usual. Are you implying that it would be a BAD thing for Jabba to be trying to lick everyone in the Garden of Eden?
But of course, you can always play games with names. Tanking Published Author can take a pseudonym and suddenly be Debut Author all over again. I've known a number of previously published authors who had to take pseudonyms to sell again. I'm sure their agents knew their real names,though. And I'm not sure how the agents presented their names to the publishers.
Nathan–how would you handle this?
Curious: How many of these previously published authors still had agents when they contacted you? Or had they dropped out and are now getting back in the game?
Rachel Fenton says
"But these days it's often easier to place a debut than it is a book by an author with a mixed sales track"
Eric, I couldn't agree more!
We just take what we want to take! It's all good if we want it to be 🙂
Unless your past sales record is nothing but positive, I wouldn't mention ANY past books. Thahat doesn't mean lie and say this is your first book, it just means, all you have to say is "I'd like you to represent my new novel…BLAH about BLAHBLAHBLAH."
Also, keep in mind that poor sales records is the reason pseudomyms were invented!
The biggest advantage newbs have is that they have no track record. Soon as you hit that BookScan, you're a trackable statistic, baby, spreadsheet fodder for the econ whizkids who advise Acquisitoins on success odds of potential buys.
I notice a lot of former major house authors now being published by indie presses, some with decent budgets, but still, small houses.
The biggest rookie misconception is, once they sell that first book, they've made it! In reality, there's aa continnuum to be sustained. Sell the first book? Gret,. Important first step. But how about seeing that book actually published? Another huge step that not all contracted writers live to see. Then how bout selling a 2nd, and seeing that one published? Etc…Every single step is another minefield to pick your way through. Be careful out there, and have fun!
I think that's why series are so popular with authors these days, too. Once you work your way into the marketplace, no one wants to have to really work to get back in again, so if you can come up with a series concept and sell the first book, you might get lucky and be offered a multi-book contract after that. AND, you automatically know what you're going to write, so it can keep you in the biz for 2-3 years as long as #1 doesn't totally flop.
As a published author, I recognize that every new book is a new starting point, especially if your new book is in a different genre than your last.
You would be poorly cast as Princess Leia. You must show revulsion! Revulsion for Jabba's lascivious smoochies! Anything else will take you on the Path to the Dark Side…
Past, present or future, it's a whirlwind of vim.
Autism Mom Rising says
Wow! This blog is a treasury of great tips.
Laura Martone says
Mmm… the Dark Side.
Forget Princess Leia, Bryan. I wanna be an Ewok. They're cuter.
Course, as long as we're dreaming… I'd really rather be ol' Ben Kenobi – McGregor or Guinness version, it doesn't matter. Hey, I'm not picky!
D. G. Hudson says
Perhaps the reason there are fewer comments today is because this post makes perfect sense. What needs to be added?
I agree with Margaret Yang as well — a more level competitive field suits me.
Laura Martone says
Me too, D.G. Me, too.
I'd rather be Jeff Vader.
See clip for hilarity. (Note: Language Warning)
Ungrateful Writer says
Goodness gracious. I can't imagine why anyone would find this post encouraging. It's a very, very sad statement on a writers' place in the publishing world.
First of all, editors and agent can have all kinds of failures and still hold their jobs. As a writer, on the other hand, one false move and you're toast. How many people are wildly sucessful right out of the gate? Why are writers held to such impossible standards? What happened to career building?
Take Dan Brown for instance. His editor stuck with him through several books with lackluster sales and then, surprise, suprise, he knocked it out of the ballpark.
Like any business, publishing takes a while to learn. Dan Brown figured it out and kudos to his editor and pub company who didn't dump him just cuz he was a slow starter.
And any agent who is queried by a published author is lucky indeed. They are getting a letter from a person who already knows the business, is a savvy marketer, knows how to take edits and is already been vetted by the publishing world. A published author is frequently miles ahead of the average person who queries an agent (not to diss unpublished authors but there are a LOT of dabblers out there and that's what I mean by "average."
And yes, if you're a published author, you do hope that agents will treat you a wee bit different from the dabblers, and be respectful of your accomplishments without saying with a sniff, "A debut author is easier to sell."
Aren't agents and editors with a track record treated differently than newbies? Why should it be so different for writers? Yes, I understand about the dreadful Bookscan obstacle but most writers are only too happy to take on a pen name.
And yes, debut authors are more exciting than "previously published authors." They are so grateful and they don't ask a lot of pesky questions. They are discoveries and therefore celebrated, that is until they have disappointing sales and are the summarily discarded.
There are a precious few handful of writers who have hit the big time on their first few times and as statistics bear out, more authors fail to earn out than don't. If you look at the backgrounds of most bestselling authors you will see a slow climb to the top, with many failures along the way. Thank goodness there were helped along by some editors and agents along the way taht understood and appreaited their worth.
Nathan Bransford says
I agree with you. I wish publishers would stick with writers and that chains would order based on their guts rather than on how the previous book did. I just don't think it's fair to pin this on agents. We go to war with the industry we're given. Unfortunately I can't force a publisher to publish anyone's book.
"Take Dan Brown for instance. His editor stuck with him through several books with lackluster sales and then, surprise, suprise, he knocked it out of the ballpark."
Not true! In fact, Brown was dumped after book #3 only sold 10,000 copies (as did the 2 before that. He sold TDC to his new publisher (not sure if he switched agents or not). But, interestingly enough, TDC had been out almost a year with only 10,000 copies sold when it started to take off.
You are right, though, when you say that Brown really worked on "figuring out" the publishing industry. His book #1 Digital Fortress , was a straight technothriller. #2 was Angels & Demons, and the intro to character Robert Langdon, witha subject matter switch into religion and secret societies, although it still had tinges of the technothrller beginnings. Then for #3 he went back to the straight technothriller with Deception Point, which did not feature Langdon. Then he was dropped by his pub, wrote #4, The Da Vinci Code, which went back to Langdon and the religion-secret society subject matter. So he really tried different things, kept fine-tuning his formula and just did not give up.
Laura Martone says
I hope my enthusiasm didn't offend you. It's not so much that I find this post encouraging… I mean, I hope to be a previously published author someday, so of course, I feel for those authors who have been unceremoniously dumped by publishers/agents with no imagination and no confidence. But, on the other hand, when, as an unpublished author, I constantly hear about the impossibility of getting noticed by the publishing industry, it's kind of refreshing to think that I might still have a chance to break through the barrier.
The publishing industry is, alas, not the only industry that lacks vision. Look at television. FOX is a great example – it cancels every new show that doesn't receive great ratings immediately! And yet consider one of its most famous shows – THE X-FILES – the show that helped to put FOX on the map, so to speak. If ratings had been an issue back then, there would be no Mulder and Scully today – the show took time to build a loyal fan base.
So, I'm in total agreement with you… it's just to nice to hear that a debut author has a chance – but no ill will is intended toward others. I'm not the sort of person that celebrates success at the expense of others.
Laura Martone says
Hey, Bryan! Thanks for the laugh – that video was freakin' hilarious. I like Izzard, but the Lego figurines made his routine so much funnier!
I'm just here for the Star Wars discussion.
Jude Hardin says
Is being previously agented (for a different book, with an amicable split) an advantage? Is that something you would mention in a query, or after representation is offered?
This may be a difficult topic.
Before I start, Ink, that was hilarious.
And, most important, I now own an I-phone!!! Can you tell? Can you tell? Does my post seem more lovely than usual? That's because it is! Know why it's lovely than usual? Because I own an I-phone, that's why. Thanks for asking.
So, back to the topic, I think there may be very few posts today because this topic may be upsetting. It's upsetting to realize that your career could be damaged, not enhanced, by being published if you then have poor sales. It's discouraging, and even overwhelming. First you have to write the book, then find an agent, then find a publisher, then, on top of everything, the book has to sell or you basically have to start all over.
It totally sucks.
There are a few silver linings here, though, I think. As an I-phone owner (did you know they have a cheap one now? 99 bucks), I am now very organized, and I shall list the the silver linings:
Silver lining #1: this is very good news for debut authors. It's easier to break in than we probably realize. That's especially true since the blogs are allowing debut authors to network and meet agents in ways they couldn't previously. I also suspect agents and editors may think differently about the 'slush' pile nowadays, but I could be wrong about that.
Boy, this is going to be a long post. Good thing this is a lovely I-phone post.
Okay, Silver lining #2: Marketing. Although it burns me to pieces that the industry is dumping this on the writer, it does give the writer more tools to try to boost their own sales once they are published.
Okay, Silver lining #3: Nathan said he likes published writers.
Oh. And other agents probably do too. I liked what Nathan said about how an agent's eyes are going to prick up. And then, if your new project is terrific….
Okay, Silver lining #4: has nothing to do with the topic. But I'm so happy that Nathan doesn't have a limit to how many clients he is taking on. Yay! Huzzah! Oh happy day! It will be 2 years before I'm ready to descend upon him in full force, er, I mean query him. I've been trying to figure out how to stop him from filling up his client list before I can. So, all of my worries about how to finish grad school while serving time for a potential felony conviction are moot! Yay!
Well, I actually have more to say, but I'll stop here for now to go check out my lovely I-phone.
Okay, I was going to wait until someone else posted, but I'm too impatient.
The other thing I want to say is this: pick your project carefully. Don't rush to get published too early.
Don't write your book, go 'yipee', and race out to find an agent. With the wrong book, it may be better if you don't find one.
I think it's good to think very carefully: Will this book sell? Should I wait with this one and start with a more marketable first book? Can I get better, so I should write a few more books first?
I think we should not give up that special debut author status too easily!!!
Wait, wait, wait, until you're sure this is the one to start with.
I could be completely wrong, but this is the way I'm thinking about it.
I know what I want my debut book to be. I've thought about it and picked it. And I won't query until it's done, and I'm ready to go. That's my focus.