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Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?

By posted at 6:00 am on August 23, 2011 71

1.
In May, after my novel manuscript had been read and rejected by a healthy number of editors, my husband rewrote my author bio. It read as follows:

Edan Lepucki was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1981. He currently lives in East Bushwick.

As an American woman living in an uncool neighborhood in Los Angeles, I thought this hilarious. I also wondered — not entirely seriously, and not entirely in jest — if the revision might help my situation. My situation being that my agent had begun submitting my book nine months prior (not that I was keeping track), and it remained unsold. Admittedly, there had been close calls with two different editors, but, as everyone knows, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I was in the same place I’d been back in September. That is, unpublished. The waiting game was starting to char my soul; if you drew a finger across it and put that finger to your tongue, it would taste bitter. Joking with my husband (“Now that I’m nursing, I’ll send them a new author photo, cleavage and all!”) was one of the few coping mechanisms I had left in me.

Now that it’s almost September (“If anyone in publishing actually worked in the summer, I would’ve sold my book by now!”), the jokes aren’t as funny. The truth is, my novel isn’t selling, and it probably won’t. There, I’ve said it. Eventually, a writer must accept rejection, accept the death of her first true darling, and move on. Can I face that sobering reality? Can I put my first book into the drawer, and shut it?

Others have done it before me. There’s a long and rich history of successful writers whose first (second, third…) books didn’t see the light of day. I remember when Myla Goldberg came to speak to the Creative Writing Department at Oberlin. She explained that Bee Season was actually her second novel. “My first,” she told us wide-eyed undergraduates, “you’ll never read.” At twenty, I thought this terribly tragic. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dan Kois wrote about novelists who abandoned books for one reason or another: Michael Chabon’s infamously unfinished tome, Fountain City, for instance, and the burned pages of Gogol and Waugh. But the differences between these authors and myself are important. Firstly, they all had dazzling careers, failed book or not. I can’t (yet…) say the same for myself. Secondly, these authors decided to kill their books, whereas my darling was murdered.

Just let me be dramatic for a moment, okay? Murdered! My book was murdered!

Or was she? A friend pointed out that I was waiting to sell my book to publishers, when I could sell it to readers, all by myself. That’s true, of course. Self-publishing is as easy as it’s ever been, and if done well, it can even be lucrative. But, in most cases, self-published authors spend money, not make it, and they have to be their own editor, copy editor, publicist, and book cover designer (which can lead to this and this and this). I certainly could self-publish my novel, but I don’t have the cash, time, or talent to do it successfully. Plus,  there’s still a stigma to publishing your own writing. Though this is changing, I’ve never been an early adopter. (I used my AOL email account well into the new millennium, y’all; I leave the experiments to the innovative types.) The truth is, I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.

So, okay, I’m willing to let my book die, if that’s to be its fate. With all my talk of murder and barbecued souls, I’ll be the first to admit I’m letting myself wallow. But can you blame me? I’m grieving nearly five years of hard work. I’m mourning sentences, characters, and scenes that I’m still proud of. Letting go hurts. A lot. A friend of mine once said she didn’t want to write a novel because she couldn’t stand the idea of working for years on a project that might fail. One of my writing students recently told me she’s so afraid her book won’t sell that the very thought makes her hyperventilate. Another friend said she might die if her novel wasn’t published. I identified with all of these confessions. I felt them myself. Not-selling my novel was my biggest fear, and it’s happening. It happened.

(I was in natural, unmedicated labor with my child for 36 hours. For 24 of these hours, my cervix remained only 5 centimeters dilated. No matter how relaxed I remained, how deeply I breathed, there was no progress. None. More than once during the process, I thought, “This is like trying to sell a fucking novel!”)

(There’s a moment, right before a newborn baby breaks into a wail, when his face wrinkles up, collapses in on itself like an imploding building, and sorrow, pure and clean sorrow, sweeps heavy across his features. I know this feeling.)

Goodbye, goodbye, Novel #1.

2.
The thing is, rejection is instructive. Over the past year I’ve learned that hearing “no” doesn’t get easier if the stakes are higher. Reject my piddling short stories and I will barely flinch; mess with my dear book and I’m rendered immediately vulnerable: “immobilized, apologetic,” as Alice Munro writes in her masterful story “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” I urge my students to go for it and send out their work, that they have to get used to a life of disappointment if they want to be writers. As if one can get used to such a thing.

I’ve also learned, however, that a thoughtful rejection is a valuable one, especially coming from an overworked, underpaid editor. To have taken the time to read my work, and written feedback — that’s something I appreciate. This is called relationship-building, I am told. I have more than one friend who sold books to editors who rejected their previous one(s).

Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate. My agent can continue to shop my novel around, but I have already attended its funeral. I’ve said my eulogy, eaten the casseroles, wept in the shower, screamed into my pillow. I have willed myself to move on. I must, in order to continue my life as a writer. I haven’t lost my tenacity, I’ve simply refocused it on my next book, which I’m more than halfway done with. (This is the upside of a submission process that takes forever). Novel #2 deserves my full attention and care. Without it, my work — and I — will suffer.

And this new book, it will be published. If it doesn’t, well, I’ll just die.

 

Image credit: Evelyn Marin/Flickr





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71 Responses to “Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?”

  1. Raymond rose
    at 8:41 am on August 23, 2011

    You call the book your darling… so you love it. Of course you love it, you wrote it. And an agent must have loved it (especially in this day and age) to for them to take it on. What about your husband? Your friends?

    If everyone loves the book, then there’s something there.

    And you can’t put it in a drawer.

    Yes, self-publishing isn’t easy. Yes, it’s a steep learning curve. But, here’s the thing: for the most it’s everything you need to do as a traditionally published author anyway… Every author needs to learn how to create platform and use that platform to tell people who they are. Every author, traditional and, especially, self.

    The great news is that there are so many tools at your fingertips. Social media, message boards, open mic nights, you name it! The audience is out there and they are looking for you. You just have to find them. It’s by no means easy. But you’ll meet a lot of great people on the way.

    And you might just find a publisher. There are a lot of publishers who are watching self-publishers to see who can create a platform, who will buy what books, and who has the drive. Look at all the recent success stories of self-pub to traditional: Hocking, Locke, Michael J Sullivan, and many, many others.

    At this point, going self-pub cant hurt you. So what’s to loose?

  2. Devon Ellington
    at 8:41 am on August 23, 2011

    Sometimes, the timing isn’t wrong. There seems to be a different trend, or there are books on similar topics on the list. When I worked in publishing, we faced this several times. As a reviewer, I get cycles of 14 books in a row where the theme is “I’m a mess because my mother is crazy and it’s all her fault” — one stops being able to care after awhile, as much as one wants to fall in love with every new book that arrives on the doorstep.

    As a full-time,working writer, I’ve found that some books aren’t timed right. I put them away. Take what I learned and write other work. Publish it. Take out the older work with fresh eyes. Fix it or decide it stands well as it and try again.

    Eventually, everything finds a home.

    it’s like dating. It’s highly unlikely you will find your soul mate the first time out. You have to date around a bit. Here, you’re trying to find the soul mate for your book.

    Remember, as writers, nothing is ever wasted. Every word we put down gets us somewhere we couldn’t be without it.

  3. Caridad Pineiro
    at 8:43 am on August 23, 2011

    A wonderful blog. As writers, there are many projects that never get off the ground despite the fact that we may love them. Sadly, even if editors love them in return, many decisions in publishing today are predicated on numbers and marketing. Luckily, it is a changing environment in that there are more opportunities for being able to get your work to the public without losing thousands. Thanks for sharing your writing experience.

  4. bobby
    at 9:00 am on August 23, 2011

    at least you managed to attract an agent. i can’t even do that. i’ve written three novels, and two of them are actually good. it’s a much worse feeling when you can’t even find a publishing professional to at least advocate for your book.

    i’m not saying you’re not right to feel upset or hurt that your agent hasn’t sold your book yet. but it could be much worse, and you ought to know that.

    i truly dread querying with the new novel i’ve completed. in fact, i’m seriously thinking of giving up on writing. at all. as much as i love to write, love to tell stories, this is what i’ve come to: i’ve battered my head against the stone wall of agents and come away empty and hurting. maybe it’s time to put away this dream before it kills me.

  5. General Writing: When Is It Time To Say Enough? « What Did You Learn?
    at 9:48 am on August 23, 2011

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  6. Josh Rolnick
    at 10:07 am on August 23, 2011

    I relate to the personification: novel as a friend, novel (implicitly) as a baby, novel as someone you love, someone you talk too: “Goodbye, goodbye, novel #1″
    I’m struck by two competing thoughts. On the on hand, there is a certain liberation in letting something go, once and for all, when you realize that it’s just not working, and no matter what you try, you just can’t fix it.
    The hard thing about this post is that’s not what’s happening here. You clearly still love, believe in, even cherish this novel. It’s not you that has determined it’s not working — it’s the system, and the system can be capricious and arbitrary.
    Your raw feeling about the book really comes through, which makes me wonder if it still might have a faint pulse afterall. And the very good news is you have another novel coming on its heels, which makes me hope, perhaps, this might prove to be a case of the queen is dead, long live the queen.

  7. Dawn Tripp
    at 10:08 am on August 23, 2011

    This is a heartfelt, brave, well-written piece. My first novel is in a drawer. I have published three novels since. I have yet another novel that is in a drawer–that I wrote, and it left me/died on me when I was 400 pages into it. I find that for me, the key is to remember is that just because a book is in a drawer does not mean that it can’t someday rise out of that. It doesn’t mean it will. But it doesn’t mean it won’t. It doesn’t mean you have to push through it now and make it happen, unless that is what you feel led to do. Sometimes you can go back and strip-mine those pieces, those passages and pages, that still have life, that you can’t bear to lose, torque the details, and transmute them to the page, and let them take a different kind of life in a new story. And sometimes you just need to leave the integrity of those pages intact, in that drawer, and trust that there may be a time for them to resurface down the road. I loved this piece. It was honest and it moved me. Well-done.

  8. Wendy Tokunaga
    at 11:03 am on August 23, 2011

    I do like it when writers are brave enough to write something like this and I thank you for this essay. Reading your bio, with your list of stellar credits, that your stories have been published in a number of well respected journals, that you’ve had a novella published and that an excerpt of your current novel won a prize and, lastly, that your MFA is from the number one MFA program in the country — the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I can imagine the pressure you feel to get your novel published.

    But you’ve also had great success and I guess you need to concentrate on the positive. In this crazy world of publishing (which is getting crazier by the minute), there is always something we’re not getting. Whether it’s not being able to get an agent, or when the book *is* published not being able to get reviewed in the NY Times (or reviewed at all), or not getting a good advertising budget from the publisher or the book not selling well or getting a hardcover deal but no paperback release or *only* a release in trade paper, there are just, well, so many other things to look forward to. :-) So I guess we all have to just keep writing. My “debut” novel, by the way, was the *fifth* I’d written.

    You could, though, self-publish on the platform of an Iowa MFA grad who puts out the e-book of the novel she couldn’t sell traditionally. That might not be a bad way to go. :-) Best of luck to you!

  9. Kim Wright
    at 11:07 am on August 23, 2011

    Almost all writers who take their craft seriously have a novel in a drawer somewhere. And that’s okay. Because sometimes these “failed efforts” become Lazarus novels, works that were declared dead, perhaps for decades, and then somehow arose.
    Right now my agent is helping me edit a novel that I wrote in 1986. That is not a misprint. I was a young mother, sometime between the birth of my children who are now 26 and 22 and I got this wild idea for a novel about Jack the Ripper. There was no Internet in those days so I researched it in the local library with my baby strapped to my chest.
    Of course it didn’t sell.
    Fast forward a quarter of a century. I now have an agent who says to me one day, in an offhand way ,”I’m looking for a mystery.” I said “Really?” and that night I rose up out of a deep sleep at 3 am and thought “Wait a minute. Didn’t I once write a mystery?”
    And I walked into my garage, opened one of those big tupperware containers where I keep old work and it was right on top. Looked like the frigging dead sea scrolls – paper turned yellow, typing barely legible, and it had been printed on a dot matrix printer so the edges of the pages were bumpy and serated.
    But the story was pretty good.
    Pretty good. I could see why it didn’t sell. I’m a far better writer than I was 25 years ago so I set to work on an eviserating re-write. Changed more than I kept. The resultant book is very good. I think my agent will be able to sell it.
    I’ve heard of other writers who went back to early work, cannibalized or culled from it, and created whole new things that had the kernel of the original book.
    So maybe your darling isn’t dead. This is a fairy tale industry. Try to think of her as sleeping.

  10. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 11:13 am on August 23, 2011

    This is a very brave and moving piece. If it makes you feel any better, I endured two (2) years of maddening “we loved it but we have no idea how to market it because it’s weird that it’s two genres at once” rejection letters before my first novel finally sold. I’d long since given up on it and had almost finished my second novel by the time the phone call came.

  11. Kathy Holmes
    at 11:29 am on August 23, 2011

    My paradigm has already shifted, apparently, because when I read the title of this post I thought you were saying that your published novel wasn’t selling in the marketplace – lol! When I got an agent with my third novel I thought, “And it took Nicholas Sparks 4 novels to get an agent.” – lol! Unfortunately, my agent didn’t sell it so I pubbed it myself and with the digital world, it is still selling in the marketplace.

    Like Wendy said, with so many things that can go wrong, we must celebrate what is going right!

    Let us know which way you go…

  12. Alec
    at 11:51 am on August 23, 2011

    I published a book which, due to various factors beyond the book’s control, sank like a stone. My second book, which I guess I’d subconsciously thought would be published, wasn’t, and that hit hard.

    Reading your piece reminded me of what I went through, but I can say, now that distance has deadened the initial panic, that it made me a stronger writer, even, perhaps, a stronger person. I no longer wrote to publish but wrote, as I originally did, as we all should, for fun. If you think something might not be published, if you write without that expectation and hope that it will one day be published–a hope which, I think, every young writer who enters into a workshop harbors, to some degree–then you are writing first and foremost for the story itself, and it will be a better story because of it. Easy to say, hard to implement. And rejection hurts like a bitch. I still haven’t published another book, might never again. Probably not a day will pass when some kind of anger wells up inside. What if my agent sent it out for one more week? What if I changed the title? And you’ll probably write yourself into circles for a while. But when you break through–when you really shed the shell of writing-for-publishing–you will do something that surprises you, that pushes the boundaries not only of your own imagination but our collective imagination. And that, I have to believe, will find its way out into the world somehow.

    Long before any of my own publishing hard knocks, I wrote to one of my favorite writers, DeLillo, and to my surprise he wrote back. His advice applied to what happened to me after my first book came out, and it still applies to everything I do. “Don’t place all your hopes on one book. The ones that follow, in the long scheme of a writer’s life, will eventually count for more. Keep going, keep reading, keep learning.”

  13. Shelley
    at 11:53 am on August 23, 2011

    At least you have an agent.

  14. Sara
    at 12:26 pm on August 23, 2011

    First of all, thank you for sharing this. It’s an act of courage to be so honest and raw and vulnerable. Secondly, I’m so sorry to hear that it’s been so hard. As an aspiring writer, I can totally feel this angst for and with you. Lastly, I can only imagine that nine months seems endless…but I do think there is still MUCH to hope for! I don’t think it’s time to cash out the chips and mourn the loss yet.

    Back in December, Natalie Whipple wrote very bravely about being out on sub for 15 months (and that was 8 months ago!) and sure enough, a few weeks ago, her book sold! Even though I’ve never met her (only read her blog), I was absolutely THRILLED for her. And I hold out the same hope for you.

    Good luck!!

  15. Matt
    at 1:34 pm on August 23, 2011

    “There’s a moment, right before a newborn baby breaks into a wail…” If you can can write like THAT, the fault’s gotta be on them, not you….

    I heard somewhere that when Robert DeNiro was a struggling actor going to auditions he never worried about them, or about getting parts- in fact, he’d apparantly fall fast asleep in his chair, right in front of the directors! He said rejection never bothered him because its was so impersonal- they didn’t know him for more than 5 mins, so why feel rejected?

    I’d like to second (or third) the comments which remark what a brave and moving piece this is- I really enjoyed reading it, it resonated with me, and I hope that you self-publish your novel at least, because I for one (and I’m probably not alone in this) would love to read it!

  16. Linda Lavid
    at 1:39 pm on August 23, 2011

    The best thing you can do is write another book. Then after that, another. With three manuscripts take the world by storm and self-publish. Success in self-publishing is down to two things…a terrific book, followed by others. Approach the situation from a place of empowerment, not fear. And watch the magic.

  17. Lauren
    at 1:40 pm on August 23, 2011

    I happily shelved my first novel. I just couldn’t live with it anymore. (I’ve always thought first novels held more instructional value than actual value anyway.) But, I’m with you – I’d be pretty devastated if my second didn’t sell. Good luck with darling #2.

  18. J.A. Konrath
    at 2:49 pm on August 23, 2011

    Traditional publishing is on its last legs.

    Self-publish it as an ebook.

    I sold eight books to big houses, and I’ve made more in the last six months on ebooks than I made in the previous ten years with the Big 6.

  19. Judy Krueger
    at 3:33 pm on August 23, 2011

    The comments here show such an outpouring of empathy and support from other writers. Puts the lie to all those stories about competitive snarky writers. But it is also interesting how the major reaction to the true emotions you have so honestly revealed is to tell you how you should/could feel about your situation. Though this is obviously well meant my reaction was, wow, I really get how you feel. Over the past few days I have been accepting that a cherished dream of mine is quite probably not going to happen. It is a dream I have been pursuing for 40 years. It hurts like hell in all the ways a feeling of failure can hurt. Someone very close to me was giving me “understanding” and “moral support” by pointing out how it was just the way things go, I didn’t do anything wrong, it might be for the best, blah, blah, blah. Last thing I wanted to hear and no, I didn’t want a hug either. So Edan, I will just say it again. I really get how you feel. And thanks for putting your experience into words.

  20. A.E. Morris
    at 3:46 pm on August 23, 2011

    Condolences, and congratulations. Thanks for a great blog memorializing the season and the sentiment.

    Give yourself permission to enjoy burping the baby, show those incongruous boobs to the man who imagines you as a man, and see if in time the first book becomes the “previously unpublished!” book spanning books four and five when your readership and the reviewers are clamoring for more, and you need a break from success. Cheers!

  21. Don't Shut Your First Book in The Drawer: Saving Your First Novel The Branding Yourself Book blog
    at 4:33 pm on August 23, 2011

    [...] her blog post on TheMillions.com, Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?, she talks about the problems she’s had in getting a publisher to buy her first novel, and [...]

  22. Erik Deckers
    at 4:42 pm on August 23, 2011

    Edan,

    I felt so bad for you, I wrote a new blog post about how you COULD self-publish your first book with a minimal cost, and some extra marketing effort (which you would have to do anyway).

    You can read “Don’t Shut Your First Book in The Drawer: Saving Your First Novel” at http://bit.ly/opZzCI .

  23. JJL
    at 4:43 pm on August 23, 2011

    I can’t imagine that self-publishing your novel as an ebook on Amazon.com, for example, could be prohibitively expensive. There isn’t much design work involved, but you should get a proof-reader (didn’t you say you had a husband?). Several writers used their success at ebook publishing to get themselves book deals at major publishers. On the flip side, many big-name authors are abandoning the publishing houses to self publish.

    If you don’t feel like promoting the book, isn’t it still better to have it available to readers to stumble upon (and hopefully do the promotion work for you afterwards) than to let it languish un-read in a drawer or computer file?

  24. Patrick Brown
    at 4:48 pm on August 23, 2011

    JJL,

    Trust me when I say she doens’t want her husband to proofread it.

  25. Jodi
    at 5:55 pm on August 23, 2011

    Love this post. I’m just beginning my first novel. And the confidence building it took just to get brave enough to say that is staggering. To find myself on the other side of all that work having to bravely “kiss it goodbye” is hard to imagine. Thank you so much for sharing this. Because the only thing I’d hate more than NOT getting my first novel published is letting that rejection stop me from writing the next. Kudos to you for sharing!!!

    And p.s. kudos for finding the most horrible self-publishing disasters imaginable. The last one was just sad. The first one made me laugh out loud. And the third one?Pretty sure I threw up in my mouth a little. Thanks for that. :)

  26. Baxter Clare Trautman
    at 6:04 pm on August 23, 2011

    I had consigned my baby to death, too. But a friend of mine suggested, “Publish it on Smashwords. What the hell? Give it a chance to live before nailing it into a coffin.” I felt just like you about self-publishing (I’m a writer not a copy-editor, PR agent, promoter, designer, etc.) and the stigmas attached (yeah, a lot of dreck out there but a surprising amount of good work, too).

    But I did it. It’s taken some time, no money, and it’s not flying off the ether-shelves but it’s gotten very good reviews. That is tremendously gratifying and encouraging. This way I’ve at least given my kid a chance. It’s out there in the world. An 18-year old with car keys. I’ll help where I can, but now she is in Fate’s hands.

    Hope to see you on Smashwords someday.

    Baxter Clare Trautman, author The River Within

  27. Edan Lepucki
    at 7:53 pm on August 23, 2011

    Thank you, everyone, for your perspectives, encouragement and/or support. I went out on a limb and wrote as honestly as I could about the process, and it’s lovely to have received all this feedback. Thanks for not trolling me, trolls.

    I have many more opinions on self-publishing, which I don’t have time to outline here (see: newborn baby). However, I appreciate all the opinions, and I am never one to rule out an option forever and ever (Except jeggings. You will never ever see me in jeggings ever). Perhaps I will write more extensively about self-publishing and its perceived drawbacks and wondrousness in a later essay.

    Thanks for reading, and happy writing to all!

  28. Celia
    at 12:16 am on August 24, 2011

    I know how you feel. The worst of it is that I’ve shelved that first novel myself. I got to the end of it and knew it wasn’t working. (That process took a few months, tears etc. etc.) It was hard, it was painful and it felt as if I was gnawing my own arm off. But I did it.

    I am making good progress with my second novel and am tucking my chin in and going for it. Best wishes with your project. I am looking forward to reading it. :)

  29. Johnny
    at 5:19 am on August 24, 2011

    It could be worse – you could be one of those writers who does get published but who is then forced to watch in dismay as the marketing team gives it an inappropriate cover and the sales team fails to get it in shops or reviewed, so that after six months you’ve sold almost no copies and effectively advertised to the whole industry that “nobody wants to read your books”. It happens. Publication can kill dreams just as easily as not being published – only more comprehensively. It’s more difficult to pick yourself up after that. believe me.

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  31. Phil
    at 9:24 am on August 24, 2011

    Beautifully written and honest post, Edan. It doesn’t really help to know that others have had similar experiences, but as has been said many times, if you have faith in your novel, eventually it will see the light of day and be read given this new world of self-publishing. Hang in there, best of luck with book 2, and congrats on the newborn!

  32. Sabra Wineteer
    at 10:40 am on August 24, 2011

    Edan,

    I suppose I’m curious about your “failed book” sentiment. Is your novel failed because it didn’t sell or is it failed because you’ve finally come to realize that you’ve written a failed novel? Because I think there’s a difference. And, as Caridad pointed out, you and your novel might simply fall outside the current marketing trend. I’ve seen bona fide failed novels published because the author and the material were “hot” and probably wouldn’t have been published otherwise…

  33. Anne K. Albert
    at 10:40 am on August 24, 2011

    Like so many other authors I have three manuscripts sitting in a drawer, books 4 & 5 are published via a small publisher. I needed that validation, but I’ll venture into self-publishing soon.

    Keep writing, and listen to Mr. Konrath!

  34. karleen koen
    at 12:13 pm on August 24, 2011

    I loved reading your tale of woe, and your comparison of selling the novel and childbirth labor was too true. The whole business of selling is mysterious.

  35. Winston
    at 1:56 pm on August 24, 2011

    While I think you’re correct that there remains a certain stigma regarding self-published books (one that I share to a degree), I’m bothered that you appear comfortable mocking self-published books. By posting the links you did, presumably these books represent your idea that self-publishing is for “bad” writers.

    Criticism is one thing, but I’m never comfortable when one writer bad-mouths the work of another. Stephen King did that to the author of the “Twilight” novels. Literary merits aside, Mr. King’s dismissal of her work reflected poorly on him, not her work. (And frankly, Stephen King is a genre fiction writer; surely “literary” types dismiss his work too.)

    I’ve read some excellent self-published books, and I’ve read some horrible self-published novels, just as I’ve read horrible literary fiction and excellent genre work.

    As a copy editor by trade, I can certainly commiserate with poorly copy edited books. However, sloppy copy editing is not just found in self-published books; examples abound in the “real” publishing world.

  36. Jorge Frisancho
    at 2:06 pm on August 24, 2011

    Why is the book dead to you, though? Is a book dead because it is unpublished? Perhaps the question one should ask in times like your last months seem to have been, is this: Why did you write. Publication, of course, and all that it entails. But, is it there, and only there, that writing is “alive” for you? (And: if the honest answer is yes, perhaps you shouldn’t try a second time –not worth the effort, too much at stake.)

  37. Theresa M. Moore
    at 2:32 pm on August 24, 2011

    Regretably my first book’s manuscript got lost in the move between one house and another and I never saw it again. Oh, yes it went a round of rejection notices and praise-while-not-being-a-fit letters. But its cannibalized soul has been shared between three new books, so I can’t say it’s gone forever. But here’s something I will say to the idea of shelving a book which has not sold:
    “Never give up; never surrender.” Because it never sold in the promotion phase means nothing. People would rather see that the physical exists before they buy, so preordering is nice but not an accurate guage of how well the actual book will do. And there is nothing wrong with tinkering with the thing until it works. Self-publishing is the only way to be sure your book will see print, so don’t be afraid to try it out. Since I started out on my own I have published 14 books, one of them now out of print, and I have never looked back since. It is refreshing to know that you have total control over all aspects of publishing, so that your book looks the way you want it to, you can offer different formats of the content, and so on. Sometimes being traditionally published is not the end to the means, so dust off that thing and republish yourself.

  38. BlurbIsAVerb (Sarah)
    at 4:32 pm on August 24, 2011

    This too shall pass! I predict that I’ll see your name on the spine of a novel in the next couple of years.

  39. Nick Mamatas
    at 6:47 pm on August 24, 2011

    The trick to making a mint in self-publishing is the same trick used in commercial publishing: write a boring thriller.

    I bet our author hasn’t done that.

  40. Scott Anderson
    at 8:44 pm on August 24, 2011

    Take a look at the IsoLibris website, if you believe in your book enough to take a chance, and put up with being edited send it to me, I’m not saying I’ll take it, but I’ll read it.

  41. Colleen Friesen
    at 11:02 pm on August 24, 2011

    “I’ve said my eulogy, eaten the casseroles, wept in the shower, screamed into my pillow. I have willed myself to move on. I must, in order to continue my life as a writer.”

    Too perfect. The entire writing process is such a humbling experience. Thank you for a story that all writers can, unfortunately, relate to.

    Onward I say, ever onward :)

  42. Jim Chevallier
    at 1:01 pm on August 25, 2011

    I had a neighbor once who had been in the same writing program as Chabon and was bitter because, yes, she got her first novel published, but it didn’t sell like Chabon’s.
    I kept thinking: “For Pete’s sake, you got PUBLISHED.”
    You have an agent – a step up the ladder of success that many never reach.
    There are of course frustrations at every step of the process, but it’s important to register the successes as well.
    Certainly I think the basic idea that the first novel is just part of a larger process is an important one. Maybe if the next one sells, they’ll want to see that first one. Though that’s not always a great idea; I adore “Geek Love” but her first novel looks unreadable. Never mind the novel that came before “A Confederacy of Dunces”. (I only saw the film, mind you, but it didn’t make me want to read the book.)

    This said, I think you have some strange ideas on self-publishing. Print on demand costs the cost of a proof copy; ebooks cost nothing at all. And if you’re afraid self-pubilshing will hurt your image, do what authors have done for centuries: use a pen name. Either way, if the book sells, people will be interested in the author and you can decide whether to “decloak”; if it doesn’t, the question is moot.
    No, this is not as satisfying as having a publisher stand up for your work, but it beats burying your baby forever. And maybe getting it “off your plate” so you can focus on the next one.
    Personally, I have a few “traditional” publishing credits in various collections, but I’ve made thousands of dollars from self-publication.

    Meanwhile, think of all those fillmakers who spend years trying to get financing, struggle to pull together the actual production and then… watch the end result sink like a stone in a few days.
    Fiction writers have it easy when you think about it.

  43. sglinert
    at 1:08 pm on August 25, 2011

    As a thoroughly unemployed copy editor/compositor, I would be happy to edit and lay out your book for e-publication and take a small percentage of the sales. I’ve done this with several other authors. Their books weren’t terribly successful, but they didn’t owe me much money, either :)

  44. Neil Marr
    at 4:44 am on August 26, 2011

    Several big-selling authors are good and long-time personal friends of mine, Edan, and most didn’t make it on ms #1. You might be heartened to hear, though, that one of them wrote twenty-seven full novels before he cracked it and immediately became a huge hit … and ALL twenty-seven earlier books on his rejected pile have since been published on the back of continued success and all have done well.

    It’s not the luck of the draw, it’s talent, practice and, mostly, perseverance born of faith in your work that wins the day.

    And there is a middle route you might consider. Several smaller but seriously selective and pro publishers will look at unsolicited submissions that don’t necessarily have agency representation. I’m talking ‘true’ publishers here who will ask for no financial contribution or anything else from an author other than the raw ms and reasonable cooperation through the editorial process, but who freely offer sound professional editing, professional text design and cover art, and everything else they can.

    Their pockets are shallower than those of the big boys, so you should not realistically expect overnight fame and fortune backed by a huge promotion and marketing budget. But you can expect fair but rigorous selectivity of an ms, professional and warm treatment, experience to be gained and respectable publication if your book is accepted.

    I’m afraid our own wee house is closed to new subs until Jan 1 to clear a backlog of releases scheduled for this year and early next (with only a small editorial team we’re limited to a release schedule of between a dozen and twenty new titles a year).

    Meantime, though, if you pop into the ‘For Authors’ section of our website, you’ll find a warts-n-all piece about what a small press can and cannot do for an author. And the submissions guidelines there give a pretty good idea of what a smaller house will need from an unsolicited source. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to post an actual URL in this section, but if you Google my name, you’ll very easily home in.

    If you don’t get a bit by then and decide to give us a whirl, Edan, please feel free to send your sub (synopsis and first two chapters) direct to my own desk (address on site) and remind me of this piece. Even if we can’t go with the book, we should be able to offer sound and helpful advice.

    Good luck and very best wishes. Neil Marr

    PS: And remember what Yogi Bear told his discouraged and hungry wee pal Booboo after yet another picnic basket raid had been foiled by Ranger Smith:: “Cheer up, Booboo. It’s impossible to fail if you don’t stop trying.” Wise advice from a cartoon character, eh? N

  45. Neil Marr
    at 4:52 am on August 26, 2011

    PS: Typo apology. I did, of course, mean in the last paragraph before by signature, ‘if you don’t get a BITE by then … ‘ A quick re-read suggested something altogether different because of a finger-slip on the keyboard in a rush. Sorry, Edan, but I must admit to a chuckle at my own wee blooper. Neil

  46. Candice Roma
    at 8:50 am on August 26, 2011

    I’ve been an editor for almost 10 years, and I’d really like to read your book and give you some feedback. If you got as far as getting an agent, there had to be some merit to the book. He or she thought it could sell. It might have been something as simple as the book was too long or too short or didn’t have a clear enough genre that made publishers pass because they couldn’t take it as is.

    Also a smaller traditional publisher might not be attractive to your agent, but would be very attractive to you. Smaller presses give smaller advances and 15% of small is pretty damn small, so why would an agent bother? You however could resurrect your baby from the ashes.

    Don’t give up quite yet. Please send it to me.
    Candice

  47. These Months of Rejection | Grierson Huffman
    at 9:10 am on August 26, 2011

    [...] The Millions Edan Lepucki’s first novel propels her through the stages of grief. This entry was posted in Writing and tagged edan lepucki, [...]

  48. Recovered! | I Should Be Writing
    at 11:27 am on August 26, 2011

    [...] any more, and quit for about 10 years. Well, in reading the excellent (and very timely) post about what happens to a book when it doesn’t sell at The Millions, I followed another link to Why Do Writers Abandon Novels by Dan Kois.Ah, Dan Kois. [...]

  49. Weekend Reading « Writing and Rambling
    at 1:16 pm on August 26, 2011

    [...] Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell? – A great essay from Edan Lepucki over at The Millions on how to handle it when your manuscript ends up back in that bottom drawer. [...]

  50. What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell? » Adad Press
    at 7:13 pm on August 26, 2011

    [...] and all you’ve received are rejections, is it time to give up or try self-publishing?   According to Edan Lepucki, it’s time to give up and move on.  I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that [...]

  51. Kate
    at 1:50 am on August 27, 2011

    I have to agree with Raymond. I don’t think you can really put the book you love away for GOOD. Maybe put it on a time out for a while as you work on other projects. This book may not be ready to sell now, but who says it won’t if you publish something else?

    I have two book projects. One is my baby and I’m not writing it at the moment. I’m not because I recognize it’s a much, much harder sell. It doesn’t make me love it any less, but I decided to dedicate my time to the one that I think has a better chance. I won’t ever give up on that first book. I’ll go to the grave first.

    You shouldn’t give up on yours either. Maybe a much earned break is what it needs. :)

    Great post though! I’m right there with you on the self-publishing!

  52. thea atkinson
    at 8:18 am on August 28, 2011

    My experience with my agent and ‘almost getting there’ charred my soul too. this is a powerful piece and the writing within must be indicative of your style, your reading tastes, and your love of language. Alice Munro is my hero in many ways and I can see by how you write here, that she must influence you too.

    Self Publishing through ebooks has restored some of the flesh beneath the char.

    I’m so glad I read this. You touched me deeply.

    thankyou

  53. Jeanette Raleigh
    at 3:02 pm on August 28, 2011

    If you consider your novel truly dead and you’ve given up on traditional publishing, post it to Kindle & Nookbooks. Use a pseudonym if you want to keep your real name for the traditional publishing. No cost to post and believe me, it feels good to see the sales.

    Your second novel, third novel, fourth novel–Keep sending those to the publishing houses. In the meanwhile, your first book will give you an audience that you can later (if you choose) tie to your publishing company.

    An “Almost Book” is a book worth publishing. The fact that your agent, a professional in the field, likes it and thinks it worth selling, means that someone on Kindle will, too.

  54. Industry News-August 28 » RWA-WF
    at 5:22 pm on August 28, 2011

    [...] What’s a writer to do when a manuscript doesn’t sell and self-publishing isn’t an option? Edan Lepucki, a writer of fiction and a staff writer for The Millions, moves from grief to acceptance at http://www.themillions.com/2011/08/shutting-the-drawer-what-happens-when-a-book-doesnt-sell.html [...]

  55. Annette Fix
    at 1:28 pm on August 29, 2011

    It saddens me to see you giving up on your story. No writer should ever let the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing machine stop her from sharing her story and reaching her readers. When it comes down to it, the readers have always been and will always be the REAL gatekeepers to publishing success.

    Listen to J.A. Konrath: “Traditional publishing is on its last legs. Self-publish it as an ebook. I sold eight books to big houses, and I’ve made more in the last six months on ebooks than I made in the previous ten years with the Big 6.” The man knows what he’s talking about.

    You don’t need permission anymore. Technology has completely changed the publishing industry playing field. Evolve or perish.

  56. Ed
    at 2:37 pm on August 29, 2011

    Is it possible, and I know I’m going to be criticized here … but is it possible that it isn’t good enough for publication? I think agents and editors are cruel in their ability to spot the flaws and weaknesses of a substandard MS and clearly they didn’t think yours was ready for primetime. This will make you better.

  57. Friday Finds: Rejection, Abandonment & Persistence
    at 2:50 pm on August 29, 2011

    [...] ” I urge my students to go for it and send out their work, that they have to get used to a life of disappointment if they want to be writers. As if one can get used to such a thing.” — Eden Lupucki [via the Millions] [...]

  58. Edan Lepucki
    at 2:54 pm on August 29, 2011

    Ed, I actually prefer your reaction to the droves of people who believe I’m giving up for not self-publishing…

  59. Kill the First Novel? Are You Insane? «
    at 8:49 am on August 30, 2011

    [...] Lepucki, in her recent article in The Millions, briefly plays with the idea of a) showing her cleavage in her author photo or b) falsifying her [...]

  60. Holly LeCraw
    at 10:26 am on August 31, 2011

    Late to the party as usual–sorry about that!

    I just wanted to say I have a novel in a drawer, and not listening to those people who wanted me to keep going, but instead listening to myself and putting it aside, was both one of the hardest and best things I’ve done as a writer.

    You are right to make grief analogies. It’s absolutely grief. In my case the book was one I had worked on for over eight years, through two babies. It was going to prove to the world that I had a brain, that I wasn’t just a mommy. Only it didn’t. So I put it aside and had another baby, and eventually wrote another book, which was published traditionally, and am working on my next one (for which I already have a contract, hallelujah).

    About self-pubbing: I have nothing snarky to say, but if you don’t want to go that route then don’t. There are lots of very good reasons not to. I didn’t want to either. There is a lot of honor in saying this book didn’t make it, and I’m accepting it and moving on.

    Best of luck to you–I am sure you are going to make it.

  61. Best of the Web Book Marketing Tips for the Week of August 29, 2011 - Author Marketing Experts, Inc.
    at 8:01 am on September 2, 2011
  62. Self-Publishing “Lacks the Cool Factor”? But, Hasn’t Independence Always Been Cool? «
    at 10:05 am on November 10, 2011

    [...] After being encouraged in the comments section of one of her earlier self-publishing related articles to give DIY try, Lepucki decides to learn more about how effective it’s been for writers. She [...]

  63. What purpose do book publishers serve? — Tech News and Analysis
    at 6:13 pm on December 1, 2011

    [...] decided not to self-publish her first book. In an earlier essay, Lepucki wrote about how she had given up trying to market her work to publishers, but despite a number of authors describing how easy self-publishing is, she says she has decided [...]

  64. double-leg rotel dip takedown | Sean Blog: Nachos Miles Hack Disc Clank
    at 10:16 pm on December 19, 2011

    [...] What happens when a book doesn’t sell? [...]

  65. restarting from square one « peculiar light
    at 2:46 pm on January 1, 2012

    [...] starts with this post. If you’re not interested in reading it, it’s written by a now-published novelist who [...]

  66. Charlie Bucket Syndrome | BOOK RIOT
    at 12:17 pm on March 2, 2012

    [...] interwebs too, my favorite example being Edan Lepucki’s mordantly funny post for The Millions “Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell.” This piece, however, this piece is about waiting. The seemingly endless, interminable, [...]

  67. Ringing in the New Year… |
    at 2:43 pm on December 31, 2012

    [...] it puttered to a halt and remains shelved for the moment. Coming to terms with that was tough (this article on The Millions sums up my feelings pretty well). People loved the book; publishers didn’t. So that [...]

  68. Anya
    at 4:34 pm on May 21, 2013

    Hang in there! I wrote my first novel at 29. Not published and never will be….thank God. Last year, aged 39, I sold my second novel…and my third. Currently, I am in negotiations to sell my fourth. This is probably depressing for you in a…oh my god, I will slash my wrists if I have to wait another decade. Don’t worry, you won’t have to. I waited nearly 9 years to write the second novel. Get working on yours now and enjoy! A.

  69. Cece Bassey
    at 1:14 pm on June 27, 2013

    This is a very moving article that will stay with me for a long time. I applied for a writing workshop and only knew I was rejected after the dates had pst. I kept hoping I would be reached–I never was. It is your choice eventually, to go self publishing under a pseudonym and a (possible) sex change or to le your baby die. You still love your baby and so did your agent, the idea of it not being good enough is bogus. For books, goodness is in the mind of your readers. I think you should a least let them read it, for a fee or free.

    Congratulations on your new baby, I’ll be rooting for you which ever way you go.

  70. Toby White
    at 12:05 am on July 5, 2013

    sounds like to me your buying into the publishing system. If your book doesn’t sell, get a new agent and try and sell it again.

  71. Weekly Lines: A Write Disappointment – The Foundling
    at 5:22 pm on June 20, 2014

    […] Lepucki writes about burying her first novel after she realized it wasn’t going to sell. Her essay should […]

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