On Not Selling a Book

This week we’re talking about being on submission and selling our books. I’ve discussed being on submission before. And I think my fellow Debs will have plenty to say on selling books. So I’m going to talk about not selling a book.

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.We constantly hear of famous books that didn’t sell. Gone With the Wind was rejected thirty-eight times before it was published. Yet the fact is they are famous books because, eventually, they did sell. Sometimes, though, books simply don’t sell. Not the first time. Not the thirty-eighth time. Not ever.

This is what happened with my first novel. I was passionate about my first novel, CONTINUITY, and I believed it had a future as a published book. I had an agent who agreed with me.

When CONTINUITY went out, I was a naive new writer. “Everyone will love my book! Of course it will sell!” was all I could think. I’m usually a worst case scenario–kind of person, but this time I let my optimism get the best of me. My agent has a policy of not sending individual rejections to her authors. She said, “You get more rejections than yeses and it can be very depressing to see them as they come in.” When the process was done, if I wanted to see them, she would send me all the rejections at once. I agreed even though I knew there couldn’t be that many rejections.

Every time the phone rang, I jumped, thinking, “Is this THE call?” I was my former sixteen-year-old self, waiting for the guy I had a crush on to call me. But THE call never came.

Instead, it simply ended. Just like that. No one wanted my book.

“What do we do now?” I asked my agent, hoping she’d say, “These folks have it all wrong! We will find other editors out there who will see the brilliance of this.”

But that’s not what she said. What she said was, “I’m sorry. This book is over.” With the merging of publishing companies and the constant shuffle of editors, the pool to which to submit was exhausted.

HowToHandleRejection-79161I scoured the rejections my agent sent me in one big Word doc, so I could see what the editors had to say, if there was any easy change I could make to have them begging for my novel. Yet there was no one universal fix, no one thing I could change that would make it all better. I was in shock. I was depressed. I ate too many gummy bears and drank too much bourbon. I felt like a huge failure. I now had two choices: self-publish or move on.

I gave real consideration to self-publishing, and I even took a class at Boston’s Grub Street to see if it was the road I wanted to travel. I have friends who have self-published books or who have chosen the hybrid method of publishing, with both great success and great disappointment. In other words, with exactly the same results one gets on the traditional publishing route. However, after thinking about my long-term goals and weighing the pros and cons, I decided this was not to be my path.

So I moved on.

The right thing to have done would have been to jump into that next novel. But I didn’t. I needed a mourning period. I needed a break from my computer and a time to let myself heal. But then it was time to get over myself. It was time to get back to work. Jaded, tired, depressed, I went back to my computer.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. First of all, there’s the daunting task of writing an entirely new, entirely different novel. Second of all, there’s the sound of failure humming in the back of your brain. “No one liked the first one. Why will they like this one?” I had to work twice as hard to drown that noise out, which is why NaNoWriMo was an excellent way for me to write; I had to move so quickly I out-typed the buzz of failure in my ears. This time, I wrote MODERN GIRLS. Like starting any new relationship, it was hard to be trustful of this new novel. What made me think I could get it right this time?

But I wrote. And I finished it. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my agent liked it. Together we went through many rounds of revisions until we felt it was in the best shape possible.

Then she began the submission process. And this time it was pure hell.

This time, I knew better. I was wary. When MODERN GIRLS went out on submission, I knew what was in store. I had lived the process. Instead of blind optimism, I felt total despair. Instead of assuming everyone would want my novel, I assumed no one would want my novel. I felt honest-to-goodness depressed on this submission. What would happen when the second novel was rejected. Did I have it in me to write a third? Could I justify all my writing time for a third novel? My family was (and is) incredibly supportive, but was it fair of me to keep writing when I could be working a paying job or doing something more supportive for the family?

I have a happy ending (or else I wouldn’t be blogging here today!). MODERN GIRLS sold. And it was all the more sweet because of all I had been though to get to that point. Was it so sweet that I’d want it to happen the same way if I could do it again? No, I still wish CONTINUITY had sold. But it didn’t. I moved on. Success came on a second try. But you know what? Despite my doubts, despite my existential crisis, I know myself well enough to know that if success hadn’t come on that second try, I would have retreated to the gummy bears, the bourbon, and eventually made my way back to my computer. The next novel was going to come no matter what.

Putting yourself out there is hard. I want to encourage others on the submission process, whether it’s submitting to agents, to hybrid publishers, to small presses, to contests, to the traditional publishers, to whomever is reading your novel: Keep moving. Your book may sell the first time out. Your book could go to auction. You could be the next Jonathan Franzen or Elizabeth Gilbert.

Or your book might not sell.

If it doesn’t, you have two options: self-publish or move on. Either way, you need to keep writing. Let yourself mourn. It’s okay to be sad. But then, get back to writing.

Keep writing. Keep writing. Keep writing.

Easy to say. Hard to do. But it’s the only path to publication.

Keep writing.

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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This article has 21 Comments

  1. My first (actually second, but who’s counting?) didn’t sell either, and in retrospect I’m glad because my debut is exactly the book I hoped to start my career with. I’m grateful I subscribe to the ABW method (Always Be Writing), because when it didn’t sell and I knew it was time to pull the plug, I was already deep into the next book and that one DID sell. I still think about that first (second) book, but know it has served its purpose — it brought me to my next book, made me a better writer, and toughened me up for submission round 2 (and beyond). No regrets 🙂

    1. I haven’t heard it phrased as ABW, but I absolutely agree! It can be hard to get back there and I’m glad you were into the next book already. I hope that others who don’t sell are able to jump back in as quickly!

  2. This was almost exactly my experience – except for me there was a much longer time between utter rejection and trying again with something new. I truly thought my first book was my one shot at getting published. Rubbish. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but I’m glad now that that first book didn’t sell – because it really doesn’t represent me anymore. It was a painful experience to go through, but I learned so much from it. Like Karma said above, it toughened me up – made me a little wiser about the world and it made it that much sweeter when the second did sell (many years later).

    1. Cheryl, that’s exactly how I felt! It’s so easy to feel like you don’t have another book–at least one worth reading–inside of you. What makes it all harder is that 1) non-writers have a hard time understanding and 2) writers aren’t very open about these failures. We need support groups!

  3. And – it doesn’t get better even AFTER you’ve sold a book, lol. The submission process sucks. This is truth. And the only consolation, the only hope, the only survival method for all of this is to always be writing the next book.

  4. Loved this post! I’m a proud member of team First Book Never Saw The Light of Day. Sometimes I think about the characters and wonder about using them in a new story, or altering the conflict to make the book what it could have been. Maybe someday. For now they’re trapped in Dropbox 🙂

  5. This is such a great post. I remember years ago I read an article in Poets & Writers magazine that compared people who were still writing ten years after they’d started and those who’d given up along the way, and the most determinative factor wasn’t whether they’d been published or not. It was just that the ones who were still writing were still writing. They’d just never quit, and that’s all. ABW is the key!!!

    1. Eileen, I hope so much that you get it the first time out! But on the small chance you don’t, start writing the next one now so you have something already in the works. And if you do sell it, well then your second book is already in the works. 🙂

  6. Jennifer, I was touched by your honest admission of how you felt not having your first novel published. I am not a writer, am a painter, but had those feelings the first time I was rejected for one painting I had put my heart and soul into and no one liked. Not the same I am sure, for writing is a much more arduous process, but I am going to use your acronym with a slight change for me to ABP! And being supported by someone who understands is key, Thanks and Best always to your successes!!!

  7. Great post, and great example of “if you really want something, you’ll find a way.” In your case (and mine, and many other writers), if at first we don’t succeed, we write a second (or third) book, and keep at it. Yay for you, success!!!! 🙂

  8. Another wise and encouraging post, my friend, and probably just what I need to read right now, as I have fully succumbed to “bourbon” (tequila) and despair.

    Someday, somehow, CONTINUITY will see the light of day. It is too good to languish in a metaphorical drawer!! And I am also wildly excited about your NaNoWriMo novel. You are such an inspiring model of ABW! I should put a little statue of you next to my computer.


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