When Selling Books is Hard

I’ve written before about the agenting process… culling through submissions, deciding what to represent, getting books polished and ready for submission, submitting them to publishers, negotiating contracts, etc. etc.

But I think when the rubber meets the road is when I know I have a good book that people will like, but publishers aren’t biting. This is when the agent job requires an incredible amount of passion and persistence. Not to mention creativity.

When all the publishers I’ve targeted for a certain book have declined, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. First I talk with the author about why this might be happening. It could be any number of reasons, for example:

→ The book has a fatal flaw in form or content

→ The book has a strong premise but weak execution, or vice versa

→ The market isn’t open to that type of book

→ There are too many books of that type on the market, too much competition, so the bar is very high

→ The publishing industry is in a slower phase than usual, i.e. acquiring fewer books

Right now I’m dealing with all of the above issues on some of the books I’m respresenting. We are trying to determine which obstacles we can overcome, and which we can’t. If there are problems with the book itself, we first have to go in and try to fix the problems. Then I have to find more publishers to whom we can submit.

Sometimes it’s a timing issue. I have one book that we started submitting six months ago and we got nothing but rejections. But I’m seeing some changes on the horizon, whispers on the wind of the social landscape that tells me this book may have it’s time… in a few more months. So we’re doing three things: improving the book, coming up with a better list of publishers, and keeping up with the news to try and determine when the right time will be to send this out again. It’s a waiting game.

Sometimes, especially on fiction, editors just aren’t impressed enough with the writing. That particular book might not end up being published, although I’ll keep trying on behalf of my client. But mostly I’m encouraging my client to work on that second (or third or fourth) book. If I represent them, it’s because I believe they can write publishable books, so we’ll keep going.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the most challenging time for both authors and agents is when the book doesn’t seem to be selling, and the real work begins. Trying to figure out why, and what to do about it.

As you might guess, this is one of the reasons it’s so important that I only take on projects I truly believe in. When it comes to this part, the hard part, my belief in the author and the project will motivate me to keep going, keep pounding the pavement to sell that book… even when I feel like I’m pounding my head against a wall.

I know many of you have been in this situation (or you currently are). If so, take heart: you’re not alone. It’s just one more challenge in this exciting world we call book publishing!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

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!


  1. Mama J on September 18, 2008 at 1:12 PM

    >I am one of the authors in this lack of “bite” situation right now (nonfiction). My book is targeted at a niche market. Now I have another chance to take a look at the book content and marketing strategy. I’ve already reached out to new contacts to gather more input about the subject matter. I’m motivated, rather than de-motivated, because some information is so much better than no information! Thanks, Rachelle for sticking with us.

  2. Tiffany Stuart on September 17, 2008 at 2:51 PM

    >This post speaks honestly about the publishing process and your position as the agent. The paragraph below that you wrote stood out to me. I have my head banging days, weeks and even months.

    “As you might guess, this is one of the reasons it’s so important that I only take on projects I truly believe in. When it comes to this part, the hard part, my belief in the author and the project will motivate me to keep going, keep pounding the pavement to sell that book… even when I feel like I’m pounding my head against a wall.”

    Keep the passion for books!

  3. Timothy Fish on September 17, 2008 at 8:56 AM

    >While I can’t speak concerning Richard’s book, I can understand where the editor might be coming from. Earlier this year, I published a book for a gentleman, knowing that neither one of us would make a profit. I thought the book was well written and “loved it”, but the book fits in a very small niche and the sales figures weren’t there. I had the advantage that I could publish the book on a shoestring budget and not to pay myself a salary. Normal publishers can’t work that way. No matter how good a book is, if it won’t produce tens of thousands of dollars it isn’t a good investment.

  4. JC on September 17, 2008 at 7:09 AM

    >Richard — a publisher said he loved your book, but rejected it becuase it would never sell??? I am confused. If he loved it, one can assume he read it. Does he believe he is the only person on the planet who would read it and love it? I hope you are not giving up on that book and will shop it elsewhere. I’m interested already.

  5. Gwen Stewart on September 17, 2008 at 2:31 AM

    >I think there’s huge sliding scale of subjectivity, and people rely on it based primarily upon their expertise, knowledge, skills, and God-given talent in any one area. The less I know about it, the more I rely on ‘subjectivity’. I’ve never eaten sushi, for example (sorry, Camy 😉 If I tasted it, my opinion would be based on a single bite: do I like it or not? I have no frame of reference to make any other assessment. But if I were a gourmand, I could make that assessment based on a host of other factors.

    I know some amount of subjectivity must come into play for agents/editors, but I never dismissed their assessments based on subjectivity. I’m thinking for them, subjectivity is only part of the equation, as they have infinitely more expertise on which to rely other than, “Do I like it?”. As in “Is it good writing?” and “Will it sell?” and the myriad of little decisions that probably go into those two big questions.

  6. Richard on September 16, 2008 at 9:14 PM

    >One last comment about subjectivity. I had a meeting with the chief editor at a major house at ACFW last year. He said, “Your name is familiar.”
    I reminded him they’d recently requested a full ms. of an earlier novel of mine, then rejected it.
    “Oh, yes,” he smiled. “I loved that book.”
    “Then why did you pass on it?”
    “Oh, it would never sell.”
    So editors have personal likes and dislikes, but their eye also has to be on the bottom line.
    Rejection happens. Sometimes we never know why. It’s frustrating, but that’s life as a writer–or an agent, I guess.

  7. Rosslyn Elliott on September 16, 2008 at 8:38 PM

    >Well, if he/she wanted to be anonymous, I dare not blow his/her cover. That’s also a good excuse not to look extremely foolish if I’m wrong. 🙂

  8. Marla Taviano on September 16, 2008 at 7:38 PM

    >Oooh, I want to know who the anonymous editor is! Do tell!

  9. Nicole on September 16, 2008 at 6:13 PM

    >Gotcha. Think I misunderstood your point.

  10. Rachelle on September 16, 2008 at 6:10 PM

    >Nicole, you’ll notice that I wasn’t talking about published books, nor making a judgment about any published books’ relative merit. I was simply saying that if a project is sent out on submission and editors reject it, then clearly one possible reason is that the proposal and/or manuscript failed to impress them. I am not sure what point you’re trying to make. Mine is simple: One reason books fail to get published by traditional publishers is that they fail to impress publishers. It is no more complicated than that.

  11. Nicole on September 16, 2008 at 5:48 PM

    >Nullify the comment “editors just aren’t impressed enough with the writing”. Not nullifying that you said the comment or explained the comment. Some published books nullify the validity or sovereignty of that admission. I just read two of them. Do I intend to criticize the authors’ writing? No way. But the novels were short, lean, and featured two dimensional characters. I stand by my comment. I agree that subjectivity might be refined in definition by the pros and that it’s critical to find those agents and editors who enjoy the style of our writing, but not all published writing is “impressive”.

  12. Catherine West on September 16, 2008 at 4:31 PM

    >Oh, but I should also have said, while the publishing prize does not come overnight, it is certainly much easier to accept the wait times knowing you have an agent like Rachelle in your corner, doing all she can do to make your dreams a reality.

  13. Rosslyn Elliott on September 16, 2008 at 2:14 PM

    >I really appreciate our anonymous editor’s insightful contribution to this discussion. I also think I can tell by the distinctive authorial voice who this editor may be. (I had initially written much more flattering things about this authorial voice, but I don’t want to be a sycophant, especially when I don’t know this editor personally…yet.) 🙂 I find sycophancy works much better over coffee.

    Which brings me to a future contest suggestion: Rachelle could present us with small chunks of text and challenge us to guess their authors. That would be fun!

  14. Anonymous on September 16, 2008 at 12:59 PM

    >While from a business standpoint there is a bit of that “predicting what the market wants” involved in the life of an agent or editor (I’m speaking from the editor’s perspective, but the agent’s is similar), I think that’s making too much of something that really is quite simple: We pursue that which we love above all else and do our best to give those books shelf space so others can experience what we did – and only after that, if it turns out there is no place for them in the market, do we sadly let go and move to the next thing that we love.

    Sure it’s all about subjectivity, but I would argue it’s a refined subjectivity. A refined subjectivity acts like instinct, chasing the scent of books that compel not merely because the writer followed the rules of good writing or because the books are innately marketable or even because they’re good stories (though these matter), but because they touch deeper places, they trigger something indefinable, drawing out an unassailable heartcry that sounds like “Yes!”

    This is the place where the passion to serve the writer is born. I’m glad there are a variety of agents and editors out there – because different things will trigger that response in each. That’s all the more reason to do your research when pursuing an agent – to find one whose refined subjectivity is in line with the sort of things you’re writing. How do you know? Well, you can’t know, for certain, until you submit your work. But you can get a good general idea by seeing what sorts of books the agent represents.

    And what if there aren’t any agents or editors out there who see your work and hear that heartcry? Does that mean your writing sucks? Perhaps. Probably. Or maybe it just means your work is not going to find a home through traditional publishing circles. You have other options, including simply owning the satisfaction that you followed your own heart’s call and wrote a book.

  15. Timothy Fish on September 16, 2008 at 12:27 PM

    >The goodness of writing is subjective. That means we are aiming a target that isn’t clearly defined, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t miss the mark. We might look at it as if each reader has placed a target in a unique location and we are trying to hit as many of these targets as we can with one shot. If we could see the landscape of targets, I think we would find that there are clusters of targets within a larger clump and then there is a lot of empty area with minimal targets. Bestselling authors have managed to shoot through the center of one of the clusters. Other published authors have hit targets outside the thick clusters, but somewhere in the clump. Then there are authors who shoot where only their mother’s target sits and sometimes they miss.

  16. Todd Tapochon on September 16, 2008 at 12:08 PM

    >Hmmm, pondering the law of subjectivity.

    Perhaps an agent’s prime role is to predict the public’s potential propensity to purchase a published book. In other words, an agent asks, will it sell?

    I saw a Broadway play over the weekend. Many good things were said about the play in its advertisements. There were pretty pictures and nice words in the posters outside the theater. BUT, inside the theater, the seats were 75% vacant, and I soon learned why. Yawn, stretch, snore, it just wasn’t “ready.” I gutted it out to the intermission, but could stay no longer. That show won’t sell, in my humble subjective opinion.

    Would that there had been a better “agent” protecting the theater going public from such plays, at least the ones I attend. In any event, the audience has voted and will vote at the box office as does the reading public at the checkout stand. Ahh, the great role of subjective taste at work in the free market. Is it not this that an agent predicts?

    Just wondering what you think.

  17. Rachelle on September 16, 2008 at 9:45 AM

    Hmmm. Nullify what comment? I meant exactly what I said: “Sometimes editors just aren’t impressed enough with the writing.” And believe me, if ten editors come back saying they don’t click with the material, we’re going to pay attention. And maybe, just maybe, it truly isn’t “good enough” yet. Our job is to make it good enough so that at least ONE editor loves it enough to take a chance on it.

    Subjective? Of course. But we work with what we have.

  18. Nicole on September 16, 2008 at 9:38 AM

    >”Sometimes, especially on fiction, editors just aren’t impressed enough with the writing.”

    We’ve discussed this innumerable times, and you, Rachelle, above all others (seriously) acknowledge the subjectivity of these decisions, but being unimpressed with the writing doesn’t always mean the writing isn’t “good enough”. Those of us who are constantly reading the fiction fare know and can testify that if you, as an agent, have worked with the author to get that thing ready for submission, it’s not a pile of empty words. I think they just throw some of these empty phrases out there because their tastes don’t click with the style or story. I say this only because there are enough mediocre (to my tastes and evaluations) offerings out there to nullify the comment. But this is the reason as you explained that you must be passionate about what you represent.

  19. Cheryl Barker on September 16, 2008 at 9:12 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for a look into what it’s like for an agent when a book isn’t selling. Very interesting to see it from your perspective.

  20. JC on September 16, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >Oh come on. We all know agents walk on water and are the mystic forces between the evil publishers and the virtous would-be-authors.

    Agents are the one ring:

    One agent to sell them all
    One agent to represent them
    One agent to bring them all
    And to the publisher bind them

  21. Anne L.B. on September 16, 2008 at 8:47 AM

    >I don’t get the impression Rachelle is trying to sell herself here, just being candid about the difficulty of her job and the decication she brings to it.

    If my long ago first impression of publishing agents was that they’re simply the door to publishers, it’s not anymore. It’s become obvious that an agent is an author’s invaluable co-worker and comrade on a long and arduous trek, and I suspect this is true on not only book number one but every one that follows.

  22. Inspire on September 16, 2008 at 8:42 AM

    >I see so many writers giving up too soon because they either haven’t been able to acquire an agent or a publishing contract. It takes a great deal of patience and perseverance to be a writer, and for a lot of them they are jumping into submissions too soon.

  23. Deborah Vogts on September 16, 2008 at 8:38 AM

    >Hey gang. I'm not one to post often, but this is a subject I can offer some encouragement in. One year ago, I had hit bottom with my writing. My previous agent had let me go after shopping a series for one year with no takers. Then I went to the ACFW conference and met with so many prayer partners who helped encourage me on this journey. When I returned from conference I started looking for agents again, and that's when Rachelle walked in to my life. 😉 She took me on in February and Zondervan offered me a contract in April on the very same project I'd shopped before. So for me, I think it was a time issue, and having the project in the right hands at the right time. I cannot thank Rachelle enough for her work & her willingness to take on my project. I looking forward to meeting many of you at the ACFW conference. If you see me say hello! 🙂

  24. Chatty Kelly on September 16, 2008 at 8:06 AM

    >Thanks for the great insights. I am enjoying your blog.

  25. lynnrush on September 16, 2008 at 8:06 AM

    >So many times we think “Oh, I got an agent, getting published is a slam dunk now….” Thanks for the reminder, Rachelle. It’s hard work all around–but what great and exciting thing isn’t hard work, right? If it’s God’s plan to get published, awesome, what a great story of perseverance and faith to be shared with all.

    I’m glad there are agents out there that are willing to work hard with their authors, that’s a blessing in itself.

    Thanks for the post.

  26. Rachelle on September 16, 2008 at 7:51 AM

    >Pam, our agency routinely approaches the general market, but it’s not a last resort. It’s a decision made intentionally based on where we think the book might fit. I will blog about this process soon so you’ll have a better understanding of how it works. Great question!

  27. Courtney Walsh on September 16, 2008 at 7:47 AM

    >I feel like right now in every market of every area people are taking a long, hard look at what they are spending money on. I suppose the book industry is no different. We are all make cut-backs, but sadly, this isn’t easy for anyone!

    Thank you for the reminder that the work doesn’t end when an agent is obtained – and for a peek into the massive job that falls on your shoulders once a book is ready to be submitted.

  28. Pam Halter on September 16, 2008 at 7:34 AM

    >When you’ve exhausted every avenue in CBA, do you ever go over to the general market?

  29. Catherine West on September 16, 2008 at 7:14 AM

    >*sticks fingers in ears* lalalalalalalala….
    Okay, folks, THIS IS THE REALITY! While it’s wonderful to be in the position of being able to say “I have an agent!” it doesn’t necessarily mean a published book is just around the corner. Anyone who believes that needs to get over it real quick. This is all part of the long, sometimes grueling process of publication. Sometimes it does happen very quickly but I think most of us can attest to the fact that the norm is more along the lines of months, hopefully not years…
    This is why you must make every effort to attend conferences, meet those editors and convince them that what you have is definitely worth taking a chance on, and if that doesn’t work, throw in a free trip to Bermuda.
    Oh, what? You don’t think I should do that? :0)
    Okay, off to pack!! YAY!

  30. Rob Roush on September 16, 2008 at 7:11 AM

    >Rachelle, I wish I could say this blog is encouraging, and in a sense I can because it’s good to know there are agents like yourself out there working so hard on the authors’ behalf to get a book published.

    On the flip side, knowing there is another hurdle out there taller than the one I’m working to get over isn’t so encouraging. Still I appreciate your input and honesty. Good thing I like a challenge.

  31. Richard on September 16, 2008 at 7:06 AM

    We authors work so hard to acquire representation that we forget it’s not a magic bullet, a guarantee of a “rich and famous” contract. Thanks for reminding us that the author-agent partnership is indeed a true cooperative effort. You feel frustration, just as we do, when editors take a look at our masterworks and decline to offer a contract.
    I know that you’ll be working hard at ACFW on behalf of your clients. Here’s wishing you a productive time…for everyone’s sake.