10/17/2012 10:27 am ET

Writer Wednesday: Tips On Discussing Your Self-Published Books

From Writer's Relief staff:

Writers don’t always make the right decision when choosing whether or not to mention self-published books in query letter bios. And while this isn’t a black-and-white issue, we’ve prepared some basic guidelines to help you make that decision. (Note: Keep in mind that the guidelines listed below are related to mentioning the existence of self-published books when querying a different, unpublished manuscript. If you are querying agents with a self-published book, there are different “best practices” to follow.)

Mention your self-published book if:

  • The book was nominated for an award or received an award or other distinguished honor.
  • A substantial number of copies have been sold. Certainly, “substantial” varies, but definitely 5,000 or more in a year constitutes substantial.
  • You have received positive reviews from reputable sources.
  • Your self-published manuscript is a regional or niche book that has been successful within the associated area or interest.
  • You have received quotes or endorsements from a reputable/well-known author or publisher.
  • The book received other interesting or noteworthy acclaim.

There are also circumstances under which you should NOT mention your self-published book in your query letter bio. While completing and self-publishing a book manuscript is an accomplishment, mentioning a book that has not received any of the above accolades can be more harmful than not. If your self-published projects fall into any of the categories below, you may want to reconsider including them in your query letter.

If your book has had low sales: Unless you have some very successful sales records to point out in your letter, agents might infer that you have not committed the time and effort needed to promote your book or, worse, that you did try your best but readers were not interested in the material.

If the agent might suspect that you had no choice but to self-publish: Some writers have chosen to self-publish their books without first attempting to publish traditionally, and some of those self-published books have gone on to become popular. However, if your book is not among those highly acclaimed self-published books, literary agents might assume that you were unable to find enthusiasm for your project in the traditional market and, thus, had to self-publish.

If you have self-published more than one book: Stating up front in a query letter that you have self-published, say, three different books, could appear as a red flag for the literary agent. He or she might worry that you are overeager and may bombard him or her with the rest of the books in your repertoire. You don’t want to scare the agent off from the primary book you’re pitching by mentioning too many other projects (actually, this rule applies whether you’ve self-published the other manuscripts or not).

A literary agent may also be turned off by the self-published books in your bio because it could appear that you self-published out of a lack of patience for the traditional method or that you didn’t want to give up any editorial or marketing control. Since working with a traditional publishing house requires a certain amount of “letting go,” mentioning too many of those self-published books could send the wrong message.

When querying literary agents, make sure that the information you’re including in the query letter (both about the book project and about yourself) is appropriate and helpful. The same way that literary agents do not need to know how many guinea pigs you had as a child, they don’t need to know that you self-published a few novels that never made it out of your garage. On the other hand, if you self-published a book on the history of your town, and it’s a huge hit with the locals and stocked in every neighborhood store, now you have cause to let an agent know you have experience in promoting your popular, self-published book. Hopefully, with our guidelines and your own sound judgment, you can make the right choice when deciding whether or not to mention your self-published books in future query letters.

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