I was young, I needed the money

What is the proper way to act toward an agent when a writer wants to tone down her publishing history rather than put a spotlight on it?

For example, let's say that I've published, ten years ago, a completely embarrassing book. Something that would put off most agents and publishers, such as a nonfiction book that is little more than propoganda for a cult that I've since left, or a novel that was meant to be a serious examination of the evils of child prostitution but ended up developing an unsavory reputation as erotica for pedophiles.

Obviously, mentioning a publishing credit like "Why the Self-Mutilation Cult is Actually a Great Thing" or "The Toddler Brothel" in a query is probably going to lead to an automatic rejection, but what I'm really wondering is when, if ever, should the subject come up between agent and writer?

I don't want to seem as if I'm lying by omission or trying to mislead an agent, but I also don't want to scare agents away. I want to delay the revelation as long as possible or even, if ettiquette permits, avoid it completely. Is an author expected to discuss her entire publishing history with an agent regardless? If so, at what point in the process of obtaining an agent should the subject come up? If my current book is of an entirely different genre than the embarrassing book, is my publishing history so irrelevant and old that it is not necessary to bring it up? An agent is not going to realize that the embarrassing book is linked to me as soon as they google my name, because I've since changed my name (yes, the book was that embarrassing). So, unless I tell them, they might not realize for a long time. I'm torn because I don't want to seem like a liar or harm the trust that should exist between an agent and writer, but I also don't want to have agents drop me as soon as I tell them (this has happened before at the stage where they request a partial).

Are there reasons having to do solely with publishing history that you would get rid of a writer that you otherwise would have gladly welcomed aboard Snark Central? Will I be forever haunted by this book, or is there a point at which it simply becomes too old and irrelevant to be considered as a black mark against me? Or am I being a nitwit and shooting myself in the foot by not mentioning it at the query stage?

This happens more than you think and for a variety of reasons.

You don't need to claim that old book, particularly not at the query stage.

IF it is something truly frightening that The Post is going to headline when you win the National Book Award, yea, you should tell me at some point before we sign you up, but it doesn't have anything to do with your writing, it's part of career management and we handle that kind of stuff ALL the time.

Don't worry. Write well.


vanishingword said...

I'm sorry for laughing, but that is an amazing tale of woe!

Kit Whitfield said...

I think Miss Snark's right; tell them as a courtesy once they've decided to sign you up. If you present it as 'I'd better tell you, I wrote a really embarrassing book years ago', then that should be fine.

If it'll follow you around forever, have you considered using a pen name? Or a different version of your own name, a la 'Iain Banks/Iain M. Banks', to draw a line between your former and present selves? Or do people ask you that all the time?

Sympathy for being in that position, though, it sounds pretty awkard. Fingers crossed for a happier publishing future...

Dave Kuzminski said...

Keep in mind that there are individuals out there who will find out what you wrote before under other names in order to embarrass or discredit you. The best thing to do is admit to those other writings so they can't use them against you as something you tried to hide.

If folks try to hold it against you, just point out that you found it safer than robbing banks and a whole lot more legal. Or some other explanation that you want. In other words, you really don't have to apologize for being a writer or expressing thoughts, even if some are offensive to others. After all, there's no growth if ideas can't be expressed and discussed.

Janet Black said...

I'd use a pen name, and if Dave K. is right and someone blows your cover, have a brief statement ready in case you're confronted.

Anonymous said...

The person already said the book was written under a different name.

I agree with Dave K.: you can't be blackmailed if you don't lie.

Am I the only one who's dying to know what you really wrote? One of the two examples, or something worse still?