I have an odd question. I’m multipublished in both fiction and nonfiction with major NY publishers, which is kind of a miracle, when I think about it. It’s been a while since I wrote fiction for publication and my previous half-dozen novels sold abysmally badly due to a variety of weird circumstances. (For example, signing a multi-book contract with a line that announced it was closing in a year right before first book was released and 6 months before second book; all booksellers immediately canceled orders…neither book sold worth beans.)
I realize I shouldn’t mention previous bad experiences with agents (one had nervous breakdown and left the business, one died, one was a crook) or bad editors (two died, one while negotiating a contract with me, two others left publishing entirely, one was a secretary who knew nothing about writing and was filling in while the line closed down), or dissolving publishing houses (I think at last count 4 actual publishers I wrote for have shut down and two others shut down in final stages of contract negotiations with me—thus, no sale to them).
In a wildly optimistic (or vindictive?) attempt to reboot my fiction career, I decided a change in genre was needed. Along with a change in name—a new pseudonym to match the new genre. And a new website, Facebook, and online persona. I no longer have a (living, sane, still in the business, not-a-crook) agent.
Obviously, it is of interest to any prospective agent that my writing has consistently been considered good enough for other agents to represent and for publishers to publish. On the other hand, my personal tale of writing woe reads like a penny dreadful horror story. What rational agent would take on a client with such a history? It’s a potential death sentence.
Since I’m changing genres, names, everything, what do I mention in an initial query about prior writing experience? And should an agent express interest in representing me, at what point—if ever—do I bring up this horror story of a career?
I would like to offer you a word of thanks for the incredible dose of sanity and humor you bring. In my insane writing career, that’s a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, my new genre is not one you prefer. Dang it.
The Typhoid Mary of Publishing
This is where your sense of humor will serve you well. You query as normal but you mention at the close that you've had a rather hilarious bout of bad luck with publishers and agents, most of which was created by the changing landscape of publishing. You'll include a rundown like you did for this query question but very much reduced-in-size. Think three sentences, not thirty. I've highlighted the ones I like best. And trust me, we're all going to ask about the agent who was a crook.
But honestly you're going to be better off meeting agents in person. This is where writing conferences and conventions are well worth the investment of time and money.
I've taken on clients who needed a reboot but it was almost always because I knew them, knew their work, and knew they weren't crazy on expectation juice, or an ego frenzy. You don't mention what genre you're writing in but most genres have conferences/conventions that agents attend.
And honestly, as a client, you come already tempered by the craziness of publishing, so you're actually not quite as undesirable as you fear. Having a client who understands how quickly things can unravel and appreciates an agent who is not dead, not a crook, mostly sane, and actually knows her stuff is a pretty good start on a good relationship.