How Much to Tell

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jul 17 2008

I often get questions about how much information authors should reveal to an agent in their query or cover letters. A very valid question, and one, unfortunately, with no right or wrong answer. As I’m sure you all know by now from reading my posts and those from other agents, preferences are long and varied about what we all want or prefer to see.

Recently, though, I was asked whether or not you should reveal to an agent how many books you have sitting under the bed or whether or not this is a first novel. I have actually had this discussion with other agents and have seen a variety of preferences. For me, though, I prefer not to know that this is a first novel. I also prefer not to know that this is your 12th and you haven’t yet been published. While it’s entirely reasonable that you could sell on your first or your twentieth novel, I think we all prefer that you land somewhere in between—say third or fourth. Or at least that’s what our little fantasy worlds tell us we want to hear.

I will admit that if I’m on the fence when reading a query letter and I come across “this is my first novel,” it’s more likely to lead to a rejection than not because while it’s true that some people have sold the first novel they ever wrote, more often than not the first novel gets stashed away never to be seen again. So why do I want to see it?

What I like to know, more than how many novels you’ve written, is what your connections are. I’d rather hear that you are a member of a writer’s organization or critique group. That shows me that you are putting the effort in to improve your writing and to learn about publishing.


25 responses to “How Much to Tell”

  1. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Great information and it leads me to a question. Say it’s the fourth or fifth manuscript and other previous ones are under consideration with editors. Is it better to reveal this? Or better to let the queried manuscript stand alone in the query letter? Is this something agents want to know or not?

  2. Thank you.

    I think this is going to hit home for a lot of writers.

    When I first started in real estate, my boss told me to have my customers prepared with all their information for the loan application. He said, “Don’t tell Ben this is your first sale. Just be prepared and walk in like you’ve done this dozens of times. Don’t give him a reason to look for problems.”

    One agent said, “I start out reading a partial, wanting to find a reason to say no.” While that may sound harsh, the reality is a writer has to make sure he never gets a reason to say no. Glad you shared this so that’s one less reason to say no.

  3. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    I never mentioned that in query letters. It really didn’t matter that Demon Slayer was my fourth novel. I wasn’t trying to sell the other three.

    Even if I wanted an agent to see the other books, it seems like that would be a discussion for later. I always treated a query like a first date. Show your best side and hopefully, they’ll want to see you again.

  4. Oy… I actually do state that it’s my first novel in the bio paragraph… but it didn’t occur to me the agent would think that means it’s the first I’ve written… It’s not, it’s only the first I think is good enough for publication.

  5. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I’m agree with Merry M —

    I always assumed when a writer said, “this is my first novel,” that they meant it is their first GOOD, SELLABLE novel, that they are confident in sending out into the world of agents and queries.

    That they naturally had several other lesser attempts that they’d learned from.

  6. Avatar 150 says:

    Agree with merry–I’ve heard agents recommend writing “this is my first book” if you haven’t been published, regardless of how many novels you’ve trunked.

  7. Avatar Anonymous says:

    If I don’t mention previously published books in my query, I believe most agents would assume this is my first novel whether it be the first one written or the first one good enough to send out.

    I don’t mention whether it’s a first or a fiftieth in my query. IMHO, there are more important points I need to fit on that one little piece of paper.

  8. Avatar Robena Grant says:

    What about mentioning prior published novels? I’m thinking in terms of small press, e-book, self-pubbed or subsidized, or where you used a pseudonym. If the sales were not fabulous, is it better to say nothing, or should you mention them?
    I figure if an agent is contemplating signing you they’d google you anyway, so best to tell the truth right up front. Or is that just another bridge you cross when it comes to signing a contract?

  9. Interesting. I recall other agents in their blogs (Nathan Bransford comes to mind) stating that when they see someone state that this is their first novel, they assume that means “should this go well, this will be my first published novel”, and they generally assume that the writer has a few novels in their trunk. They didn’t want to hear “This is my third novel” if those first two haven’t been published (either because they weren’t publishable yet or because the writer never tried to get them published). I guess this is another one of those things that every agent might interpret differently, so it’s best to research and remember.

  10. Avatar jfaust says:

    I think any time you say first novel an editor/agent will assume it’s the first written, but to be on the safe side I’d avoid using the wording. INstead you could say that you’ve been writing for a year, two years, etc (just don’t imply it’s taken you more than a year to write this one book).

    Anytime anything is under consideration with editors you should let an agent know which houses too. It shows us that someone has already decided your work has value.

    I would mention publications with some of the more successful epublishers, but skip anything that’s self-published.


  11. So should we tell you it’s our fourth unpublished novel? I’ve heard agents say that first novels are easier to sell than third novels because by the third novel, if the author isn’t doing so well, there’s the question of pseudonym.

    This, of course, applies solely to published work, but still…

  12. Maybe I’ll just take it out entirely.

    Thanks for the insight, and I have one question, if you have time: If the query was great otherwise, would that one little line dissuade you from asking for pages?

  13. Avatar Mark Terry says:

    Why advertise your failures?

  14. Avatar jfaust says:

    I don’t think you need to tell me in any way shape or form how many novels you’ve written that are unpublished. Unless you tell me you are published I assume you’re unpublished and I assume the best. I assume you’ve been working hard to develop your style. How many novels that should take depends on the agent. Play it safe. Don’t mention any of it.


  15. Avatar Keri Ford says:

    I’ve heard (sorry, can remember what I read, but WHERE is a little sketchy.)that when submitting a requested partial/full, that’s your opportunity to plug ideas. Such as this is the first of a series. Or I also write in this genre.

    What’s your take on that?

  16. Avatar Anonymous says:

    If you’re unpublished, I do’t know why anyone would make any reference whatsoever to how many “novels” they’ve written. You haven’t sold any of them, or you would have mentioned it, so….THIS one is the one! It’s all about THIS novel, right here in this query. Not any others (unless those others are published in a big way).

  17. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I am as yet unpublished and currently querying a thriller.

    I have written other thriller manuscripts before this, but I don’t mention that in the query since I never sold any of them, and they are not what I’m selling now.

    So my query just says “I’d like you to consider representing my new novel, TITLE, complete at x words…” Then I go right into the jacket copy style blurb, then a quick para. on my background wich doesn’t mention unsold manuscripts, but just my degree and personal interests which make me the right person to write this book.

    I think that says all that’s important.

  18. Avatar Wes says:

    Margaret Mitchell only wrote one novel, and she did OK with the book and movie. So that needle in the haystack exists. But of course, in every business, we play the percentages.

  19. Actually, Margaret Mitchell also had a trunk book – they published it, I think ten years ago or so… I bet she rolled over twice. I think if I ever hit that level of success, I would burn my earlier attempts just to make sure no one did that.

  20. Avatar JES says:

    Thanks, Jessica.

    Some of the more recent comments get into philosophical issues like “What IS a novel?”

    Seems it’s okay to say “I’m writing a novel”; but once you’re ready to pitch it, it becomes a manuscript — magically turning into a novel only on the publication date. 🙂

  21. This was a really interestng post, and something I hadn’t considered too closely before. I’d just been running with the line “this is not the first manuscript I have written” and leaving it at that because I had already heard somewhere else that agents don’t like finding out you’re tryig to sell the first thing you’ve ever written.
    And Jessica –
    In terms of saying how many years you’ve been writing instead, wouldn’t this eventually become detrimental as well? I was reading a very inspiring interview with an author a while back and it took her something like 20 years before she got a manuscript published. I’d assume that if you started admitting “I’ve been writing for 15 years” that might also make an agnet hesitant?

  22. Avatar Gabrielle says:

    Thanks so much! I’ve had this question for a while, as I’m technically working on my fourth novel but none are published; only the fourth one is proving marketable. What was I supposed to say– this is my fourth novel, but none are published, because they weren’t much good, and–

    And the foot in the mouth again.

  23. Avatar Yunaleska says:

    Picking out about being a writing group, where would you slip in that you belonged to this writing group? Would it matter that the group is online? I belong to CC, and it never occurred to me to mention this in a query.

  24. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Someone else wrote a sequel to Gone With The Wind, it wasn’t Margaret Mitchell and it really was not a great book.

    If that’s the “trunk book” Merry refers to, it didn’t come from Ms. Mitchell.

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