Difficult Conversations II

“I Shopped it Till I Dropped, But Nobody’s Buying”

Let’s start with the obvious: I only take on projects I believe I can sell. So it’s pretty depressing to go through two or three rounds of submissions to publishers and not get any interest. Believe me, this happens. Because of the rapidly changing marketplace, we simply can’t predict success with the accuracy we used to.

It’s tough to have this conversation with an author, because their inevitable and immediate response is, “Aren’t there more publishers you can send it to?”

Usually, by the time we decide we need to have this conversation, the answer is no. Each editor and imprint is looking for certain kinds of books. We can’t just send your manuscript to “everyone,” we can only send it to those who are looking for something like what you’ve got. And that is a finite number.

So what do we do now? There are some variables.

→ If the manuscript got past the editor and on to the editorial team at some houses, maybe even to the pub committee at one or more houses, then we know we were close. We probably got some feedback about why it didn’t get picked up. We’ll move forward based on that feedback. Maybe it’s a rewrite; maybe (with nonfiction) it’s spending a year or so building a platform.

→ If the manuscript never got past an editor, then we know we weren’t even close. But again, we probably received some feedback telling us why the editors didn’t want to champion it. We’ll have to honestly assess if the project is salvageable. The agent will have to decide if it’s worth spending more time on. Remember, the agent may have already gone through one or two rounds of edits (or more) and has been shopping the project for several months, and obviously hasn’t gotten paid. At this point, the agent must ask herself how much more time she’s willing to put into a project that may be a lost cause.

You and your agent will talk about where your project is and what needs to happen next. She may help you through another edit. Or, it would be perfectly reasonable for her to send you off to get the editorial or platform-building help you need, and come back when your project is more saleable.

Or she could tell you she feels you should set this one aside, and she wants to begin working with you on a different project. I’ve done this a couple times and we did sell a project…and eventually went back and sold a revised version of the first one. Sometimes that project you couldn’t sell wasn’t “unsaleable,” but rather not saleable as your first published book. Maybe it’ll work as a second or third book.

If your agent decides to let your project go altogether (and if that’s your only project, she may be letting you go, too) it’s probably because the process of shopping it, getting feedback, exploring the marketplace, etc., has convinced her that it’s not viable for any of the traditional publishers she knows, and it wouldn’t be worth her time to try searching out smaller markets.

Of course, at this point, we’re back to where we were yesterday… you may be able to sell your project on your own to a small indie publisher, or self-epublish it.

Regardless of what you end up doing, this is not a fun place to be.

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  5. Roara on May 23, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    >I liked this post. It scares me to think, as a minimally published writer, that my first book might be a total dog no matter how good the writing turns out because of market shifts. We write for a fickle audience most of the time and it's nice to know there are options with agents. Not just 'it's not saleable kid get outta here.' This describes the kind of agent I want fighting for me when I am ready to put that first book out there.

  6. Bob Mayer on May 18, 2011 at 5:22 PM

    >The most frustrating thing for agents I know is loving a project and not being able to sell it. Often, the lack of sale has nothing to do with the quality of the book. Publishers just don't see how they can "market" it. What's nice now is that there are alternatives.
    The problem, though, is that self-publishing for a new author is as hard at as getting published traditionally. However, if the writing is good, the idea pops, it's a window of opportunity.

  7. Lisa R. on May 18, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    >This post was a lot scarier to me than yesterday's post because this is where I might find myself pretty soon. I've been on submissions since October. I realize that it takes time (and this business is extraordinarily slow) but every month that passes my anxiety goes up just a bit more worrying that I might have to have this very same conversation with my own agent! But I continue to write and am at work on a third novel so if the two that are on submissions now don't work, I'll keep trying!

  8. Lynda Schab on May 18, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    >I haven't read through all the comments, so forgive me if this was asked, but if a manuscript is edited (or re-edited), do you ever submit to a house that's previously rejected it? Does it depend on whether the editor left the door open for resubmission? Or maybe how much was changed? Just curious…

  9. Amber Argyle on May 17, 2011 at 11:04 PM

    >Been there. Done that.

  10. Taz on May 17, 2011 at 10:15 PM

    >Posted at 12am?? Lady, get some rest and stop working so hard for us 🙂

    I love that you tell us this kind of information. For me, at least, makes what I do seem like less of a failure 🙂 It's true that people perish for a lack of knowledge.

    Thank you!

  11. Lisa on May 17, 2011 at 6:44 PM

    >I share the same concern as Rebecca – it’s the time element that’s of concern. Agents cannot be blamed for this, IMHO. Some of my writer friends have been accepted for publication … two years from now! How is that even possible? As Rachelle pointed out, the marketplace is volatile. What are the chances that a certain type of fiction is going to be popular two years from now? There’s a disconnect to this logic. Publishing houses are looking for the next “in thing” … and yet when they find it, they sit on it for a year, after which point the reading public has moved on to the next “in thing.”

    Part of the reason I’ve suspended querying is because I don’t notice agents requesting partials and fulls for contemporary romantic fiction or even women’s fiction. They mostly request paranormal romance, dystopian, MG and masses upon masses of YA. I mean, copious amounts of YA. No wonder so many people are writing it! Logically, then, this is what they think they can sell to publishing houses. It’s just not the right time to seek representation for my genre.

  12. RW Bennett on May 17, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    >Unfortunately, this is a conversation that may may have to be made by an agent to her client more frequently. The market is contracting. But be encouraged by the fact that you were able to hire an agent (especially if the agent is Rachelle). That means you are a good writer. A good writer these days is able to find an audience. One door closes, another opens.

  13. Diane Fordham on May 17, 2011 at 3:14 PM

    >I am really enjoying your blog. Thanks for all the effort you put into it.

  14. Megg Jensen on May 17, 2011 at 2:44 PM

    >This has happened to quite a few of my friends who are repped by agents. I feel bad for everyone involved. A writer's hopes & dreams are always pinned on publication. I'm sure if an agent believed strongly enough in a project to shop it to editors, then s/he must feel bad as well.

    I tried shopping my manuscript to agents and was told repeatedly that the market was too small for my books. I was devastated, but in another way I felt validated too. It wasn't me or my writing, it was the market. I can't imagine how hard it would be find an agent and then be unable to sell a project.

    I did choose to self-publish, but I'm not one of those people chanting that the end is near for paper books. I'm also not trying to burn down the Big Six. It's great to have options when the biggest dream is unattainable (for the moment).

    Good luck to all of you and Rachelle, it's so refreshing to see such an honest post.


  15. The Pen and Ink Blog on May 17, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    >Yup! This conversation can go directly to my nightmare file.

  16. Shelly Goodman Wright on May 17, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    >Dang, I posted under the wrong title. I think my e-mail feed is slow. 🙂

  17. Larry Carney on May 17, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    >Someone pointed out that I have made an error. I tried to post this to Mrs. Murphys' website, but I had some problem posting:

    I would like to offer my sincerest apologies. Due to a case of mistaken identity I wrote some things which do not apply since you are a fellow writer, and not an agent who mocks what we go through to pursue our dreams, as I had thought.

    I sincerely apologize.

  18. Shelly Goodman Wright on May 17, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    I'm so amazed that your blogs are closely related to my life. LOL. I was just talking to a friend of mine who loves to reads. She felt that when authors write one (or two) really good book, the ones that follow are just not done as well.
    I wonder if that's because authors, who have already published, spend less time on rewrites and developing their characters. My first novel is being published early 2012, but it took me eight drafts (the nineth will be the professional draft)to really fine tune the charaters and the plot to land a publishing contract. Once we've gotten that first contract and the book sells, we just pump out a sequel (or stand alone) without going through the same editing process.

    It's like rushing a pot of stew. Maybe if the comments are 'let the pot simmer for awhile, let the jucies mingle together and then go back for a taste'–the story,the plot, or even basic premise of the story, would be much stronger in the next draft.

    Silly, but I know that is how I feel about my writings. I'm currently working on draft three of my sequel novel that I hope to release when the stew is done and delicious. LOL

  19. Rebecca Stroud on May 17, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    >Personally, what I find appalling about the entire traditional publishing process is time. I don't know about everyone else, but I simply don't have years to wait/waste for my work to jump through the myriad of arbitrary hoops required before it gets into a reader's hands…if that ever even happens.

  20. Larry Carney on May 17, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    >I have to strongly disagree with what Mr. Murphy said:

    "I prefer the writer's side of the street than the agent's. It takes a special person to be an agent and one with a tougher skin than a writer."

    Why, exactly! A writer only has to worry about presenting their soul for the entire world to possibly ridicule and scorn, deal with glassy stares and repressed laughter at social events when they respond with, "Oh, I'm a writer," have a built-in platform before even daring to think about getting an agent because marketing dollars aren't there unless your last name is Grisham, and stay up at three in the morning with the only company being the glow of the computer monitor because it's the only time available between juggling family, friends, and their day job to pursue that silly little dream of theirs.

    Oh, yes. It takes an extremely special person to be so thick-headed as to denigrate those whose talent effort, and dreams they make a living from.

    Here might be a good analogy for Mr. Murphy or others to understand why what he said seems so utterly, incomprehensibly disrespectful:

    Imagine being pregnant. Carrying a child around for all that time, dealing with worrisome nights as to what it might one day become, trying to balance your career while making sure that you give equal attention to the proper pre-natal care of your child (and perhaps needing to find a new job so you can do so because the stresses of the job aren't good for the childs' development), and countless other sacrifices until you reach the day of your childs' birth. And then, after the pain of delivering it you can hold it in your arms and do naught but smile and cry at the gift God has given you.

    Now imagine the doctor comes along and says, "Yeah, you need to be a special person and have tougher skin than that to fill my shoes. It's feast or famine for us both, kid. No pregnancies means no food on the table for me."

    And then he proceeds to light up a cigar and blow smoke right in you and your newborns face.

    "You see, I probably spent as much time helping you deliver that kid as you were in labor."

    I don't think it'd be a matter of skin-depth if one responds to the doctor with incredulity and a slight rebuke.

  21. Hilarey Johnson on May 17, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    >Thanks for this series of posts. I think it is better to know about this kind of thing beforehand–rather than learn during the conversation.

  22. Michelle DeRusha@Graceful on May 17, 2011 at 9:34 AM

    >I'm relieved to know that all is not lost if the pub. committee takes a pass on the ms, especially if it's due to platform issues. I had assumed once you played your hand with that particular ms, you were out of luck if you got a "no."

    That said, this post really does compel me to get going on my next book. Now all I have to do is come up with a topic!

  23. Stacey Graham on May 17, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    >This happened with my first book. After several months of going in circles, I proposed another NF book to my agent who then sold it in a matter of weeks.

    Never give up – never give in!

  24. Jeremy Myers on May 17, 2011 at 9:14 AM

    >What is the recommended online platform for an author?

    Daily stats?
    RSS Feed?

  25. Patrice on May 17, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    >I really appreciate being able to see things from an agent's point of view. I'm glad I discovered this blog.

  26. Alexis Grant on May 17, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    >Such honest comments here!

    So here's my question: If you decide to go through with a rewrite, then what would you do with the manuscript? I was under the impression you couldn't submit again to publishers who passed on the project… Is that not true?

    Thanks, Rachelle — Marla's right; you're a gem!

  27. Sharon A. Lavy on May 17, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    >I still love my first story. Love the characters, love the lesson God taught my character (and me- I didn't expect the last benefit.)

    So I pitched it at BlueRidge. And found it really isn't what two of the editors are looking for. But I did get requests for a partial from others.

    Later I approached the two editors and told them my dilemma. My accountant does not want to accept my writing expenses unless I sell. What I need, I told them is a email rejection.

    Did their faces ever light up. A rejection that they can cheerfully write. Another win-win situation.

  28. Sharon A. Lavy on May 17, 2011 at 8:32 AM

    >J.L. Murphey said…I prefer the writer's side of the street than the agent's. It takes a special person to be an agent and one with a tougher skin than a writer.

    I agree. I can never understand where people are coming from when they begrudge an agent their 15%. I feel in most cases the writer gets as much or actually more with an agent and it is a win–win situation.

  29. Wendy Paine Miller on May 17, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    >Such a sweet picture.

    My comment from yesterday applies to this post as well.

    And how cool to read what one of your clients wrote above.
    ~ Wendy

  30. elizabeth seckman on May 17, 2011 at 8:09 AM

    >I blogged about getting published being akin to dating. Not every date is a sure thing, you just keep going out till the stars align and harmony is struck.
    So I guess it's not too hard to accept that staying published is akin to maintaining a happy marriage, you still have to respect your mate and work hard to keep the magic alive.
    Thanks for the honesty.

  31. Beth on May 17, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    >I think one of the nice things about having an agent is that you at least have an advocate who believes in you and is with you in the submission process. Even when it doesn't work out, that's a good thing.

    Writing is simply not an occupation for the easily frustrated. I made it past the editor to the editorial board once, and after three months, it was declined. This was the first editor to look at it, so I was hoping I'd find another home for that manuscript soon. Many agents and publishers later, I'm still trying.

    Publication is an uncertain business.

  32. Sherri on May 17, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    >Man, I'm so there. We went all the way down the list with the first book, so we shelved it and worked on the second. After four years with that agent (in which I wasn't that happy anyway) I ended our contract. Now I'm trying to decide how to proceed. Definitely not an easy place to be.

  33. Marla Taviano on May 17, 2011 at 7:50 AM

    >Rachelle, I know you didn't write this post for me alone, but I imagine I came to mind while you were writing it. (This is NOT the post you want your agent to write with your name in her head.)

    I just want to say THANK YOU for doing everything you can for me. You are a true advocate and wildly unselfish, and you've inspired me to keep plowing ahead despite all obstacles.

    You're a gem.

  34. Kelly Combs on May 17, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    >I am enjoying this week's topics. As a writer, I of course tend to look at things through my own point of view. To see the difficulties from the agent point of view makes the writer/agent situation feel more team oriented.

  35. Catherine West on May 17, 2011 at 7:28 AM

    >No, it's not a fun place to be, but it is a good learning experience. And yes, the key is to keep writing, because you DO get better with each book. Eventually you hope something will give and you'll have the right formula, the right editor and the right agent all at the same time – magic! When that happens, it's a pretty sweet feeling. In the meantime I encourage anyone who is in this spot right now to keep working, writing, learning, praying and believing in yourself. It's way too easy to be discouraged, and not helpful at all. Keep plugging away!

  36. Heather Sunseri on May 17, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    >The comments are bringing out what was so hard for me to learn at first. Keep writing and getting better with every story. Don't thing that just because your first or second story weren't your break-in novel that you're not worthy. Keep writing and give agents and editors more to work with.

  37. Katie Ganshert on May 17, 2011 at 5:50 AM

    >I think this is why I wrote with such a fury that year while I was on submission. I wanted to have more books to submit in case the one didn't sell.

    It was a great experience, because it got me in a rhythm that I want to maintain, even though I have a contract.

  38. Marleen Gagnon on May 17, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    >I know I write what is difficult to sell. I was told that this weekend at the CT Fiction Fest by one agent. Even if it is a difficult genre and hard to sell I want to know if it's a good book. I appreciate that honesty.

  39. Karen on May 17, 2011 at 4:11 AM

    >*and* myself.

  40. Karen on May 17, 2011 at 4:10 AM

    >Really interesting to hear this side of things.

    I'm reassured that at least my novel got past an editorial team and as far as a publishing committee before being turned down. Frustrating for my agent any myself, but on her advice I'm now working on another project she feels may be more marketable.

    And at least I have a 2-book deal in Germany – you wouldn't believe how that keeps me going!

  41. Corrie on May 17, 2011 at 1:10 AM

    >I very much agree with HL Murphey- as hard as it is to be the writer, it's gotta be worse to be the agent in this situation. I'd much rather get the bad news than give it.
    I'm really enjoying this series of posts, for some morbid reason. I think it's like reading 1984 or some other dystopia- just gets all the HORROR out there. 🙂

  42. Natalie Sharpston on May 17, 2011 at 1:02 AM

    >Rachelle, I am grateful to have discovered your blog this early in my writing life. Because you provide gentle, frequent reality checks, I am entering into this commitment with my eyes wide open. I try hard to balance both my optimistic (a.k.a. blissful, idiotic naiveté) and pessimistic (a.k.a. depressingly realistic) outlook on life and land somewhere in the land of cautiously hopeful – thanks, in part, to what I’ve learned on your blog.

    Not sure if you’re a Monty Python fan, but your post reminded me of the “Not Dead Yet” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
    See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGFXGwHsD_A
    The dialogue starts at 0:49 seconds, and goes something like this:

    Black Plague Cart Pusher: “Bring out your dead [manuscripts], bring out your dead [manuscripts]…”
    Townsman: “Here’s one.”
    Old Man [manuscript]: “I’m not dead!”
    Black Plague Cart Pusher: “He said he’s not dead.”
    Townsman: “He will be soon. He’s very ill.”
    Old Man [manuscript]: “I feel fine! I think I’ll go for a walk. I feel happy! I feel happy!”
    Old Man [manuscript] gets bonked over the head by Black Plague Cart Pusher. Now he’s dead.

    It sounds like some manuscripts just go like that.

  43. J.L. Murphey on May 17, 2011 at 12:46 AM

    >The thing most authors don't think about is that you (the agent) work on a commission basis. If you don't sell the book, you don't get paid. Your agent is going to do everything in their power to sell the novel or book to a publisher (sometimes this includes groveling). Having worked on commission, I do know both sides of the street with this one.

    The amount of time an agent spends trying to sell a book (in fast forward mode) is comparable to the time an author takes writing a book. The same effort is expended. It's feast or famine with both.

    I prefer the writer's side of the street than the agent's. It takes a special person to be an agent and one with a tougher skin than a writer.

  44. Keli Gwyn on May 16, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    >I agree with Stephanie that the possibility of having this discussion is scary, but I see a valuable nugget in the post. We writers can't hinge all our hopes on one book.

    I wrote five historical romances and rewrote one of them three times before my awesome agent sold it. There was no guarantee it would sell, and I knew that when she sent it out on submission. However, because I produced multiple manuscripts before selling, I knew that if if this particular book didn't sell I could write more.

    I don't mean to discount the pain a writer and agent experience when a project doesn't pan out they way they hoped. My intention is to offer hope in the face of discouragement. As long as we keep writing, we keep our dreams alive.

  45. Lisa on May 16, 2011 at 11:34 PM

    >Rachelle, when you say “rapidly-changing,” what sort of timeline are you talking about exactly? Has any research been done to determine how to predict future trends in fiction and nonfiction?

    The clients I work with have a very unique and complex way to predict what topics/products are of interest to readers. It's really quite fascinating. Before I pitch, I research the market thoroughly.

    More thoughts on this later … I'm giggling over your picture. Really, you come up with the ***best*** photos for your blogs. 🙂

  46. Stephanie McGee on May 16, 2011 at 11:12 PM

    >I think this is more terrifying to me than the "This one isn't working," of yesterday's post. This one is all that hard work (especially if it's the project you secured your agent with) gone in a heartbeat.

    Obviously I hope this never happens to me, but it's probably inevitable.