Submitting a novel can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’re putting your baby out there into the world, and knowing that it’s most likely going to be shot down over and over again. It can be especially bad for first-time novelists, especially when it comes to that part in the submission guidelines where agnets/publishers want to see a list of past works. This is your first novel, you don’t have any past works. What are you supposed to do? Do you have to have already been published to get published.
Short answer, no, whether you have never been published or a dozen times, a book still has to stand for itself. If you’ve written a good book, people will look at it.
So what do you do when people want a list of prior works? Or what do you put into that last paragraph in a query letter that’s supposed to be about you? There are a couple of different options:
1. Leave it out. If you don’t write that you have any prior works, most publishers/agents are going to assume you don’t have any and leave it at that.
2. Give other relevant credentials. Do you have an English degree? Feel free to throw that in to a query letter where you’d be listing works if you had them. Did you with an award for writing something unpublished? Put that in. Did you write a book about a farm? Maybe put in that you’ve worked on a farm all your life. You can fill in that empty spot with things that show you are qualified to write the book you have written instead of a list of prior novels you’ve had published.
But what if you don’t want to leave it out or don’t have any relevant credentials? What to do then?
Well, to start off, I’d like to strongly urge first time submitters to go with one of the above options. For those who will go with another choice, however, I at least offer some don’ts.
1. Don’t give credentials that aren’t relevant. Ok, you don’t have anything relevant to say in that last paragraph in a query letter, but you don’t want to tell the agent/publisher nothing about you. So let’s throw in that you were a computer science major in college, live with your three dogs on Long Island, really enjoy writing… It’s better than leaving the space blank, right? Actually, not really. Coming from working submissions, you never seem to be caught up. There’s a reason query letters should be kept to one page. Short and to the point is good. When you start cluttering put a letter with things that don’t show either a) You’re most likely a good writer or b) You’re qualified in some way to cover the books topic, it’s just more to wade through. Dogs, family, irrelevant hobbies, those should all be kept out of a query letter if you want to stay on the good side of a slush pile reader.
2. Don’t say this is your first novel. As I said above, by not saying anything about other novels, agents/publishers are 9 times out of 10 going to assume you haven’t published anything before. There is no reason to draw attention to your inexperience. Especially stay away from “This is my first novel, but…” statements (“This is my first novel, but I’ve been writing since I was three” “This is my first novel, but I’ve always loved science fiction” etc.) When you do that, you’re not only highlighting your inexperience, but sounding inexperienced and like someone who has something to prove. Not a good combination when trying to find someone easy to work with. You could have the best novel in the world and still get passed over if an agent/publisher doesn’t like your attitude in your query letter. Afterall, they know they’re going to be working with you for as long as the contract lasts.
3. Don’t talk up your self-published/vanity-published book. At least don’t if it isn’t wildly popular. If you self published a novel and it ended up on the best seller chart, but all means, mention it. If you self published a novel and your friends have read it, it’s at best a sign that you like writing, at worst, a sign you think you’re a much better writer than you actually are (a type of author people in submissions are loath to pass off to their editors). Vanity-published books are no better. The reason agents/publishers like to see prior publishing credits is because it tells them something about you are a writer. Someone else has read your stuff and at least thinks it’s good enough to publish, they’ve vetted/vouched for you. Perhaps have even shown how profitable you are. If you’ve paid someone to publish your book, that endorsement is moot. It’s no better than if you had self-published the book.
Trying to act like the vanity publisher is a reputable press is even worse. Working in publishing, you know the names of the big vanity publishers, thus having a book from one of them is discounted as basically self-published right away, and when I was in submissions, I’d check out any publishers I wasn’t familiar with. Indie presses I always liked to get to know, and vanity presses I liked to add to the list. (This is one more reason going through a vanity press really isn’t worth it. You aren’t “self published” but you’ve paid a ton of money for a name that means nothing along with editing/lay out services you could get cheaper from a freelancer). Trying to talk up a vanity-published novel is also a red flag to people in submissions as someone who possibly has something to prove and thus are not going to be fun to work with.
Long story short, it is best to not point out your inexperience, but not try to pretend to be something you aren’t either. After all, agents and publishers are looking for good, profitable stories and authors who won’t be a headache to work with.
So take a deep breath, and get those submissions out there. First, third, or fifteenth novel.