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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 72

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 That is, unpublished.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.

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

  1. 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!

  2. 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.


  3. 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.

  4. 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 […]

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Friday Finds: Rejection, Abandonment & Persistence
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    […] ” 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] […]

  8. 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…

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  10. 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.

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    […] 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 […]

  13. 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 […]

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  16. Charlie Bucket Syndrome | BOOK RIOT
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    […] 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, […]

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  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

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