Difficult Conversations, Part 1

“This book isn’t going to work.”

I know many of you worry that agents gossip about writers behind the scenes. I don’t find this to be true, but what I’ve found is that agents often commiserate with each other about the hard parts of the job (like people in any kind of job). And one of the hard parts is when we need to have a difficult conversation with an author. So this week in my never-ending quest to make you the most informed writers on the planet, I’m going to talk about some of those difficult conversations. I hope that by reading this, you’ll be better prepared and perhaps less devastated if (when?) it happens to you.

Today’s difficult conversation is the one where you’ve written your “next” book—it could be your third or your fifth or your eighth (whatever)—and send it to your agent, or perhaps it’s sent to the publisher. In any case, the agent or editor reads the manuscript and… things aren’t going well.

I know my author is a good writer. As I begin reading, I can tell that, as usual, this book is amazingly written. But when I’m a couple chapters in, I start to wonder about it. A couple more chapters and this foreboding is stealing over me, growing page by page. By the time I’m halfway through the manuscript, there’s this lump in the pit of my stomach. I push myself to continue. By the time I finish, I just know. It’s not going to fly.

It might be the subject matter is all wrong. It might be a genre that’s just too different from what you’ve written previously. It might be the tone is off, or the plot isn’t well constructed, or the characters are cardboard, or you’ve simply strayed too far from the brand you’ve established. Sadly, it might feel like you phoned it in.

Regardless of what the problem is, now a serious internal wrestling sets in, as the agent or editor examines the manuscript and thinks about options. Maybe it just needs a good edit. Maybe it’s not a lost cause. Maybe we can tweak a few things… maybe… maybe…

But finally, we’re forced to admit to ourselves that we simply can’t sell this, and it’s unlikely that an edit will help.

Now we begin to stress about telling the author. After all, you’ve probably agonized for months over this manuscript. You finished it, triumphant, another 85,000 words written! You may even feel like it’s your best book ever. How am I going to tell you it’s not going to work?

I remind myself this doesn’t mean the manuscript will never get published, it just means that now is not the right time. I remind myself that the only reason we need to have this conversation is because it’s my job to help you not only get published, but get well-published. It’s my job to keep my eye on your long-term writing career. And so I can’t be afraid to tell you the hard truth when I believe it’s in your best interest.

I pick up the phone and make the call, and what I wish I could say is, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you.” But I don’t, because I know that no matter how hard it is for me, it’s worse for you.

I’m really sorry to be the bearer of hard truths sometimes.

Q4U: Have you considered that this might happen as part of your publishing journey? How do you think you’d respond?

P.S. Many people’s gut reaction to this is that they’d immediately self publish. I’ve addressed this in the comments. Please see my comment at 8:20 am. Also see Timothy Fish (7:46 am) and agent Michelle Wolfson at 8:08 am.

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Stephanie McGee

    >As an author still working on the book that will be queried with, I worry about this each time I start out on another story. As I've edited this last book that I wrote (I think I'm on round 4 or 5 of edits), I've wondered if the book is the right one to be published with. I think the conversation is at least pretty similar when the book comes back from a beta read and the reader says something's off with the book.

    My response has been to set the project aside and let it stew, talk about it with unbiased parties, and to generally just keep plugging away. I'm finishing up a novella-length story right now and have gotten halfway through world-building for a different story that is floating around.

    This response might change in the day that I have an agent, but probably not drastically. Even with an agent, I'd probably set the book aside at least for a week or two and let it just sit there in the back of my mind while I focus elsewhere. There will always be words in my head that I need to get out on the page. Every word serves to make even those not-quite-right manuscripts better.

  • Dean K Miller

    >Most definitely it will happen, probably more often than not. Perspective is the first key, not taking things personally is the second.
    If you don't have "the conversation" then you are letting both you and the author down. Not what we're after.
    Nobody likes to be a dream crusher, but yet, said author offered the option. It's the author's choice to be crushed or not. Could be just what he needs to hear to improve that book, or start a new project that's been nagging him for awhile.
    Secondly, as you eluded too, maybe now is just not the right time, or the author may feel your off base (probably not), and seeks other counsel. Not so bad. You've done what you are supposed to do. The rest is up to the author.

    I'll respond with how I feel at the moment. Hopefully it's with gratefulnes for the honest opinion, and for opening the door of opportunity to get better. Or I might just cry a lot…

  • Mel

    >I can imagine it but boy would it hurt. So many months and hours of work go into it. But I can imagine how hard it would be to tell the author that it won't work, at least for now.

    Blessings,
    Mel
    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  • Josin L. McQuein

    >In a case like that, provided the author has a decent following from previous works, might it not be possible to make a go of direct-to-Kindle publishing for the novel?

    If it's well written, but just doesn't fit in with the author's other work, maybe his/her readers would buy it just because an author they recognize wrote it.

  • Amber Argyle

    >I'm worried about this right now. Publisher has my second manuscript and I'm waiting on pins and needles.

    Especially because it's quite different from my first book. Darker, older YA, and it deals with some really tough social issues.

    You'd think after you finally break into publishing that it would get easier. It doesn't. It just changes.

    Still, wouldn't go back. Not for anything. :)

  • Lisa

    >I’ve definitely considered that this might happen to me. Hey, it might. And if it does, I’ll definitely self-publish the book under a nom de plume.

    I do hope that writers don’t give up on those books. Hire a book doctor. Hire a ghostwriter (we who fly well under the radar love making authors look good). Spiff it up, self-publish it, and see what happens. There’s a niche for almost everything these days.

    I make it a mission to find the self-pubbed books that could not be sold and which writers published themselves. I can see why, in most cases, they’d get a pass. Either the books are too quiet or too quirky, or there’s subject matter in the plot that’s too risqué or controversial. Several of these are living on my Kindle for Mac at the moment. If TPTB decide that a book won’t appeal to the masses, chances are pretty good I’m going to like it. ☺

  • Corrie

    >It's so great to get this kind of warning before we land in that conversation. The closest conversation I've had happened just tonight actually. My husband finished a manuscript and (essentially) said, "Huh. Maybe if you just rewrote it from X's perspective…?" I said some abrupt things about his understanding of "JUST rewriting," but the sad thing was I immediately recognized how much better it would be! Darn it! :-) I think for now I'll table it and come back in a few months to see if I have the stamina to rewrite. (The horror…)
    It hadn't occurred to me to anticipate the flat no from an agent; I'm glad I read this tonight, puts everything in perspective.

  • Keli Gwyn

    >Amber voiced my thoughts exactly: "You'd think after you finally break into publishing that it would get easier. It doesn't. It just changes.

    Still, wouldn't go back. Not for anything. :)"

    I love what I do, and I keep reminding myself that the best solution to doubts and setbacks is to write right through them.

  • Sally Hepworth

    >This is my worst fear. I guess my response would be to scream and cry and beat my fists against the wall. Then I'd swear black and blue that my agent / editor didn't understand what a good book should look like. Then I'd moan to my friends and my Mum who loved the book. Then, after digesting it for a few days, I'd suck it up and accept that my editor / agent probably know a lot more than I do.

  • Anonymous

    >That first book that you get signed for is the one that has been marinating in the back of your mind for years – it may not be as easy to come up with subsequent books, and may take longer than you think.
    My agent looks at my initial drafts of my first few chapters, so that she can warn me if she sees potential problems before I have spent months and months working on something. But she has a relatively small number of high earning clients to deal with; for an agent with a large number of writers on their books I can see this might be an unmanageable approach.

  • Rosemary Gemmell

    >I guess it's all part of the writing journey. I'd be grateful that an agent can see what's wrong. I don't know what I'd do after that, but it would depend on how much I believed in the book.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I'm of the opinion that we authors know more about how bad a book is than we would care to admit. I've written several books and I've never been surprised at the reception of each. I don't regret writing any of them, but there are some I like better than others. It turns out that my readers seem to agree with me. When one of my faithful readers said that she thought Mother Not Wanted was one of the best of them, I could easily agree. And when a reader said that she found the first four chapters of For the Love of a Devil difficult to read because of how Heather treated her family, I knew exactly what she was talking about. So, if someone tells me a story seems like I phoned it in, I may not want to admit it to them, but I figure what I'll hate most is that they called my hand at something I know I did.

  • Sue Harrison

    >The call my agent had to make in regards to my work was that my genre had died and thatmy publisher would not back my novel with advertising dollars (or excitement). Looking back, I realize that my publisher was very honorable about a difficult situation.

    After that call, I accumulated additional sad calls about my new efforts in different genres not quite getting there. Prayer and the hope I was investing in my WIP ("Next time!") always helped the hurt.

  • Katy McKenna

    >If a writer was under contract to produce this book by a certain date, wouldn't the agent want to turn the book in on time (as a show of good faith), even if there were strong doubts about it? And then receive the bad news through the publisher, who might at least give the author an extended deadline to try to make things right? (I am thinking of an author I know whose agent does not read her manuscripts before submitting them to the publisher. She did have to essentially start over on one book, but it was the publisher who lowered the boom.)

  • Katie Ganshert

    >That would be hard! For the writer and for you. I think though, it's one of those things, that will hurt really, really bad upon hearing it. But with some distance and some time, the writer will start to understand. Sort of like our first book. So many of us are sure our first book is great. We send out queries and discover maybe it's not so great after all. It's a hard, hard thing. But looking back, I'm so happy my first book never saw the light of day.

    Time is always generous when it comes to handing out a healthy dose of perspective.

  • K. Victoria Chase

    >I'm with Josin and Lisa. Go the Kindle/Nook/Smashwords route. If it is well-written, someone will buy it. Someone will buy it even if it isn't. I've read quite a few reviews of a not-so-well-written book that people enjoyed because the story (and their imagination) had potental. You never know, it may create a following and then the author has reached a broader group of readers.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >This is one reason why I’m grateful I’m prolific. I’m not stuck on any one book and ideas for new ones just keep coming. However, as Katie mentioned, it would bite. Plain and simple. For me this is why establishing a relationship with an agent I trust is so important. My agent would know me well enough to know I’m a fighter and I’d get back in the game with another book.
    ~ Wendy

  • Erin MacPherson

    >I'm sure that's SUCH a hard conversation. If it happened to me, I'd be sad and upset, but also (hopefully) realize that it's better to hear it from you than from 40 bad Amazon reviews. I hope I'd have that good of an attitude, at least.

  • Timothy Fish

    >Everyone knows I'm a fan of self-publishing, but I think taking the self-publishing route in a situation like this may just be denial. The only time that self-publishing might help in a situation like this is if the book is targeted at a niche audience that the author happens to be able to reach better than the publisher. If I were the publisher, that is a risk I would be willing to take. A tried author who can reach an audience I can't? That's a no brainer. The author putting out the book anyway isn't going to help. When readers begin thinking that the author is getting lazy, they quit buying the author's books.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Where I am now, I'd like to think that once you have an agent, once you have been published . . . the hardest disappointments connected to writing are over.

    But nothing else in our lives are like that.

  • Michelle Wolfson

    >I know that this is a difficult conversation to hear, but this is one of my least favorite conversations to have as an agent. In reading the comments here, I feel moved to write and say that you should remember that your agent is ON YOUR SIDE. If your agent is saying this, it's not just a question of personal taste, but what we honestly feel is best for your career. When I've had these conversations with my clients–and it's happened many times–it has always been an open, honest discussion about the market, my author's style, brand, career goals, etc. I WANT them to succeed. This is a tough conversation to have, no doubt, but sometimes it's necessary an it's part of the job. My clients count on me to help guide them and I think I'd be doing them a disservice if I just let them put everything they wrote out there without thinking it through strategically. In most cases, we've agreed. But it doesn't make the initial discussion any less difficult.

  • kathy taylor

    >Have totally rewritten a manuscript after getting some wonderful feedback from an author whose work I admire. It's been a long journey, but I've traveled to some beautiful spots.

  • Richard

    >I'm not a writer here, but i do respect those that are, well some anyway. My question is this, could you write a book if you thought it might be very popular and profitable even though you were not into the subject. Be honest now, so does it then just become a job or a source of income. Richard from Lebanon county's Amish community.

  • Rachel Hauck

    >I was at a writer's retreat the first time I heard an author say, "they said my boom was unpublishable." Not one author said it but two!

    My heart feel to the floor of my soul. I was finishing my second book on a 2-book contact with my new publisher AND I was sure this was going to happen to me!

    It didn't but 6 books later, I did write a book that need a major overhaul! I only kept major plot points and the hero's arc. Setting, heroine, everything changed. Butnit was really all for the best.

    I think we et bogged down as authors in the craft or the competition or feelings of inadequacy. We try to hard, or we are so stressed we write "whatever" just to meet our goals.

    For me, I thought I was writing what was planned and discussed but when it hit the pages, it didn't work. I was glad to rewrite it!

    This is a "put on your big pants" game. Have your cry and get back to work.

    Great post Rachelle. Much needed topic!

    Rachel

  • Rachel Hauck

    >*book not boom! LOL (blame the iPad)

  • Taz

    >Ouch. Like, totally. I am always thinking, "But what if it's not good enough???" For something to NOT be good enough, I'd be considering the time spent (and wasted as a result), and once I'd scraped myself off the floor with a Spackle-filler tool, I'd set to work on the next one taking as much note as I could of whatever that missing element was.

    Also, if I was already published more than 3 or 4 times (maybe ten times), I'd consider putting it up for free as an e-book so at least SOMEBODY could get something out of it instead of it taking up space on a back-up drive somewhere beyond the light of day.

    Let's face it. Numbers isn't exactly rivetting, but the people mattered to God enough to be catalogued for all of history. Someone out there has got to love that book of the Bible. I hold onto the hope that even if what I've written only helps one or two people, it's time well spent.

    But ouch, nonetheless, eh?

  • vvdenman.com

    >That would be a huge OUCH, but I'd rather go through the pain than have a mediocre book published without realizing it. That could be a nightmare.

  • Rachelle

    >Josin L. McQuein: "Might it not be possible to make a go of direct-to-Kindle publishing for the novel?" Absolutely, but this is a separate conversation from the "This book's not going to work" conversation. Again, we'll need to strategize what's best for the author's career long term. Do we self-pub now, or wait? If we choose self-pub, does the author use a pseudonym? If the book doesn't fit the author's brand that's already built, or if the book is simply sub-par, do we want that book "out there" with the author's name on it? Will it confuse his/her fan base? If it's not a good book, will it permanently lose some of those fans?

    And then there's the question of marketing. There's no point in putting it for sale if you're not going to spend a certain amount of time doing online marketing for it. Do you have that kind of time, when you need to be writing another book?

    Lots of issues to be considered, and like I said, a separate conversation.

    Lisa 12:52: Hopefully you'd have a discussion with your agent about the pros & cons of immediately self-pubbing that book under a nom de plume. Sometimes it's a defensive reaction; and it may not be the best course. It also may not be an issue of editing. Some books are either not salvagable, or not worth the time and money it would take to salvage them. Also, some books just need to wait until their time is right.

  • Mary Witzl

    >Thank you for posting this. It's easy to forget that delivering bad news can be painful too. I know my agent is on my side. Which is why I'll try to brace myself for tough love, if and when it comes.

  • Connie

    >A friend of mine who's a very successful writer usually gets both her editor and agent to approve a storyline before she finishes the novel so this doesn't happen (or at least not often). She has had them nix novel ideas that varied too much from her brand. Then she moves on to a new idea.

  • Rachelle

    >Katy McKenna: The situation varies depending on if the author is already contracted for the book or not; if it's due to the publisher; if it's being read by the agent or the editor.

    Certainly if it's a contracted book, and the deadline is imminent, then we need to get it to the publisher. But if it's not good, then the conversation I discussed in the post is the same, it's just with the editor instead of the agent.

    But the book might not be contracted yet, as in a case where an author has come to the end of their previous contract and the agent is going to be seeking a new contract for them, either with the same publisher or with a different one. This is a case where the quality of that book is of the utmost importance because the author is looking for a new contract. Decisions must be carefully made, even if it's hard.

  • Jennifer Armintrout

    >This happened to me with a book I turned in to my publisher once upon a time, and while it wasn't fun rewriting an entire book, it would have been a lot less fun to have that subpar book come out while everyone told me it was just great, only to wind up with a bunch of negative reviews and emails. I think authors need to always remember that this is a business, and our passion for our creations absolutely has to come second to good business sense if we want to succeed.

  • Sarah Forgrave

    >Wow, Rachelle, This sounds like a tough conversation for both the author and the editor/agent.

    One question that comes to mind is how this could crop up after the author has written the entire manuscript. I was under the impression that a published author typically submits a proposal and sample chapters before writing the story. Rachel's comment touched on this when she said that sometimes the story she proposes comes out on paper differently.

    I'd be curious to know how often this occurs even after those proposals and sample chapters have been approved.

    Thanks for another great blog post! Off to retweet it… :)

  • Rachelle

    >To everyone saying they'd immediately self publish! Please see my previous comment at 8:20. Also see Timothy Fish (7:46 am) and agent Michelle Wolfson at 8:08 am.

  • Taz

    >All hail the mighty nom de plume :) If it's a dud book, then probably it SHOULD be shelved if not scrapped. If it's a case of genre, rock on pen name.

    To my mind it seems an intimate understanding between agent and writer should be in place, because the agent needs to know not just the author but the industry. For the agent, we ask a lot. For the author, agent knows it's your rep at stake. Us writer types rely that the agent has the wisdom on our behalf, and so much more.

    For author's it's like standing on a street-corner sometimes wearing a sign asking for life-saving help :) But truth is necessary, and it's vital not to buck if the face of it too often! If my agent told me I had a dud, I'd be asking what could be done – if anything.

  • Heather Webb

    >It would break my heart, I'm sure. But that's part of the business and part of the growth for a writer. I would prefer my agent be honest with me so that I don't stray too much from what is marketable.

    Wouldn't a writer working on their 2nd, 3rd, 4th novel, etc., have enough input from their agent before writing an entire novel that isn't marketable anyway?

  • Rachelle

    >Sarah Forgrave: Every situation is different. Sample chapters may have been "approved" but then the book itself didn't pan out.

  • Anonymous

    >This has literally just happened to me. I spent a year writing my second novel and unfortunately my agent just couldn't get on board with it. Was I gutted? Yes. Did I consider quitting? Yes. I had a little pity party that lasted all of about an hour then dusted myself off and wrote an outline for novel number three which she seems to love. I'll stick a bit closer to her while I write this one, but it feels like its going to work. Great article, thanks.

  • Sarah Thomas

    >Do you see "next" books only once they're complete? Or would you work with an author to shape (to some degree) subsequent books? I guess I sort of pictured working with my agent to get advice and feedback all along and along. Seems like this would prevent writing something that just wouldn't sell . . . ?

  • J.M.Cornwell

    >My first response would always be to ask what's wrong and take a look. Sometimes it helps to have a different viewpoint.

    I labored over my latest novel for over two years and the results are different from the original. The same information is there, but the book has more depth. I even put it aside for six months before finishing the edits because I was frustrated.

    Whenever someone tells me something isn't working, that's not a hard conversation but a necessary conversation. Whatever the rush of emotions (anger, fear, hurt, disappointment, etc.), the end results should always move towards a solution even if that solution is dumping the book and starting over. Be sure the author has an idea something's not right, but maybe cannot put a finger on what.

  • Erastes

    >bound to happen to me at some point–i think it's going to happen every time, in fact!

    after i'd behaved like a diva in private–strictly in private I'd re-read it and perhaps work on it.. depending–my genre is quite accepting you see, and then would offer it to another publisher. My particular agent doesn't have a contract with all my work, just a book to book basis.

  • Michael Hyatt

    >As a former editor and agent myself, it always helped me to take the posture of standing for the greatness of my authors or clients. In other words, someone has to stand for their best work and help them give birth to it. It's not because I think they are small, but because I think they are big and can handle it.

  • Dixie

    >Good news is always good, but bad news is an opportunity for growth. I covet an honest evaluation. There are millions of words in the English language – surely I can come up with a more pleasing arrangement if I know what to shoot for. Thanks, Rachelle for your encouragement.

  • Billy Coffey

    >As someone who's been on the receiving end of one of those conversations, I can say it's like getting punched in the gut by a friend and then having that friend help you up and dust you off. It's never easy for either party, but it's always necessary. A good agent isn't just a cheerleader, but a coach as well.

  • Linnette R Mullin

    >Is it inevitable that every writer will face this at some point? Is there a way to avoid writing a book that won't sell? For example, if you want to write a different genre, should you always use a pseudonym? I know Lori Wick has been successful at writing a variety and so has DiAnn Mills.

    I know there's nothing 100%, but surely there are some helpful tips to keep a writer on track. I'm working on my first WIP, so I haven't reached that point in my career yet, but I'd like to be prepared for it.

  • Betsy Cross

    >I'm NOT a published author, but I've always hated criticism! As a dancer I was ripped to shreds by my teachers. They spoiled me! I wouldn't trust anyone I'd hired as a teacher OR publisher if they told me I was wonderful and there wasn't anything to improve! Doesn't mean I can handle it emotionally. But I don't have to let anyone else know that!

  • Astrid Paramita

    >I would first be devastated. I'd be licking my wounds for a couple of minutes, hours, days. Perhaps throw in some curse words in private. Then I would come to my senses, realizing that my dear agent might be right… so I read through the said MS. In the end I know, the agent IS right.

    Maybe someday I could say I loved getting ugly critique. Right now I admit I would prefer praise and good reviews. But I know what I wanted the most is to get better at my craft. And for that, I'll deal with the pain.

  • M.R. Anglin

    >I honestly never thought that would happen. Gee! That's got to be hard to hear. But as someone who stuck her neck out just to have it chopped off by a bad review, I think I could appreciate the conversation. This is a person who is out for your good. It's better to hear tactful bad news from him/her than to hear it from a stranger who just doesn't care . . . or worse, not hear it at all.

  • David A. Todd

    >I suspect in my writing career this conversation would be well into the future. I'd have to have a first book contracted first, and I don't see that happening any time soon. So how would I respond to such a conversation? I suppose it depends on the situation. If this was a book under contract, I'd have to set about doing what was needed so as to not be in breach of contract. If it was a book on spec, I suppose I'd 1) take the advice to heart and see what I could do to improve the book, and 2) find another outlet to publish it.

  • Carol Benedict

    >I'm sure I would be disappointed, but that's just part of doing business. As Booker T. Washington said, “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.”

  • Michael Offutt

    >I would appreciate being told the truth no matter if it is something I want to hear or not. The truth sets you free.

  • Maril Hazlett

    >Oh wow. What a tough conversation! However, those come up in all relationships. Also, I don't think an agent is there just to be a cheerleader. They should help push a writer to do their best work. Sometimes that might not be fun for anyone, but the goal is for the good times to outweigh the rough patches.

    I agree with so many of the points above – and, I would totally react as Sally Hepworth described :) drama first, dealing with it later. I hope I would get to that second stage, anyway. And I hope I would reserve the drama for my mom or my journal, and not take it out on an agent. I hope, I hope, because hearing the bad news would definitely be hard.

    However, as a freelancer, I've had to let story ideas go, too, because I just couldn't get anyone interested (meaning maybe the idea wasn't as great as I thought). And as an unpublished author, I've let several novels go. Hopefully this ratio gets better as you become a better writer, but the odds are likely that it will still happen from time to time.

    And if someone actually tells you that a project won't work, then you are lucky. Publishing a subpar book would even worse than starting over.

  • Jill

    >That would be a tough one for sure, but w/ my general Eeyore attitude in life, I would expect it. I hope for the best and expect the worst–that way I'm never completely crushed. I'm not really like Eeyore, anyway, because I believe that things happen for a reason. God has a better plan than I have.

  • D.J. Hughes

    >Rachelle, I appreciate your commitment to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Yes, those kinds of conversations are difficult to have, probably more so for the recipient. But that kind of gut-honest feedback, when received in the right way, can only serve to help the writer improve his/her craft. Thank you.

    DJ Hughes

  • Serenity Bohon

    >I love this post and the comments it has generated from other agents/editors. I often have to adjust the way I look at writing and publication, and this is such a crucial one. I would much rather be published well than to be published quick. And that should help me deal with these kinds of conversations.

    Incidentally, I'm so thrilled you wrote this post, Rachelle. Your tweet last week that you hated hard convos with your authors had me burning with curiosity as to what those kind of convos might entail and if I should be prepared for them with my agent. Thanks so much for elaborating here.

  • Katherine Hyde

    >I would be grateful that I had someone on my side who was knowledgeable enough and honest enough to give me the hard truth before I invested even MORE time in the book. But I would hope that I might be able to get this kind of feedback at the idea or outline stage rather than after I've written a full draft.

    However, if it were strictly a marketing issue, not a quality issue–outside my "brand," for example–and it was a book I really believed in, I might want to explore other options.

  • Lisa

    >@Timothy and Rachelle,

    I definitely don’t believe that a rejected book should be self-published out of a sense of defensiveness, but out of belief that the book could possibly succeed. As Katherine mentioned above, if it’s a problem with marketing rather than quality, this might be the time to just see what happens in the e-pub market. I want to brand myself as a contemporary romance author, but if I wanted to dabble in paranormal romance or even romantic sci-fi, e-publishing might be a worthy experimental endeavor – as long as I didn’t tell a living soul. ☺

    And Rachelle, you are right. There are some books that are unsalvageable. I was asked to work on a project, and the entire premise of the book was … I can’t say this any other way: it was racist. I knew that no publisher would take it on, and I wasn’t going to, either. On the creepier and slightly nauseating side, there’s actually a hefty niche demand for this specific type of fiction. A lot of it’s been e-published and is highly successful.

  • Chris

    >Great post, Rachelle. This is the biggest fear that we unpublished writers have. I've brought a work in progress into my writers group thinking it was the best thing I'd ever written and they panned it. After my initial shock, I reviewed their written comments and they were absolutely right. As much as people criticize agents, the bottom line is they have the best interests of their client at heart. Having said that, if a writer really believes in a project, he or she should evaluate the criticism, revise as needed, and move forward. We have to get past the initial hurt and do a candid self-diagnosis of our work. The person who is closest to the work can oftentimes be the last one to see any problems with it.

  • Larry Carney

    >I'd ask why. Rachelle gave a few examples, but there might be some other reason that might be specific to your book that you could learn from.

    Also, you could learn a lot about your agent. By knowing how he or she views your work, especially the work that they don't feel they could represent, you'd be that much better at communicating with them going forward about your work.

  • Laila Knight

    >I rewrite just for kicks, so my first reaction would be to try to fix it. If that fails miserably then I would probably break into tears, but only in private…I hope. The only play to move is ahead.

  • Janice Hardy

    >I imagine at some point it's bound to happen to me. Not every book can be a winner. It'll be a let down, but I'd rather my agent tell me right away that the book isn't going to fly. That way I can start on the next one. After discussing with her why she thinks that book didn't work and doing a little strategizing on how to make the next one more marketable of course ;)

  • Mary Vensel White

    >Well I may be idealistic, but I would hope that if you're on your 8th book with an agent, he or she would be willing to take a chance with a book different from the last, or off-"brand." How depressing that thought is, that an author needs to stick to a brand.

  • J.L. Murphey

    >As anyone in ANY business knows…you are only as good as your last (insert whatever here). Even authors, you are judged by your last book or novel. I think it's kinder to say "no deal" than to put out something that is not going to work/sell and it would cause irreputable damage to your career.

    Yes as authors we spend quite a bit of our time, writing, editing, researching, but if it's bad it's bad. Not everything that I write is good, I know this and accept it. Everyone can have a bad day, month, or even years.

    About self publishing- well, there is the rub. Too many authors are just throwing whatever out there. There are a few great self published books, but many are trash which should have stayed under a bed or tucked into a drawer. Horrible to say this about authors, because I am now a self-published author, but it's true. I self-publish to test the market, and then if I'm good enough I MIGHT be found, but I really do not expect it.

    I honestly feel great sorrow for agents and publishers. They do not have an easy job of telling people their babies are ugly.

  • Jessica Thomas

    >Ouch. Tough love is the way to go sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    >My agent has given me me very extensive editorial notes on my second book (much more so than the first.) It requires lots of rewriting, which I'm fine about, because the comments make a lot of sense to me. My question is this– are there agents who just don't want to tell a client something's not good enough and will offer revision notes regardless? (Am feeling lots of self-doubt these days, obviously. Just wondering if I have such a nice agent that he/she didn't want to have that difficult phone call.)

  • Hallie

    >It would be very tough to hear but I would rather hear it and not send out my best work then possibly end my writing career. Hearing the words that this book just isn't "it" are always going to be tough to hear. But I expect that someday when I have an agent, it will be very close partnership and friendship that those words will show he/she cares for me.

    It's tough love but it is what is necessary.

    Great stuff, Rachelle!

  • Alaina

    >It would be hard to set an entire manuscript aside, but at the same time, if someone in the industry is telling me it's not going to work, then I am going to listen.

    I have read authors and totally loved them, just to have them switch up on me and I lost interest. This is not something we want as writers, as we will lose our fan base.

    That is why I prefer to let people read as I am writing. That way I get feedback, and if the story isn't working, I can start over or start something new. I have rewritten about 200 pages before, just to make what I wanted to put out more believable. So, I'd suck it up and move on. It happens. :-)

  • Kimberly Reid

    >I've had this conversation from the writer's side of the table. Since my agent had already sold a book for me, I was shocked. My initial reaction — she was wrong, it just needed some work. I considered self-publishing, but decided to put the book aside for a while and work on something else.

    I'm glad I did. I read that ms. a couple of years later and found my agent was so right. The book was in a new genre for me and it was clear that I didn't understand the genre, hadn't found my voice, hadn't focused the plot, didn't know my characters. It was pretty much a mess.

    I'm glad my agent made that difficult call. I didn't waste time trying to rehab a book that just wasn't going to make it, or possibly slow my career by self-publishing a bad product. Happily, I went on to write a book my agent could sell.

    That's a tough conversation for agent and writer (especially the writer!) but it doesn't mean the end of a career or an agent/author relationship.

  • CraftyMama

    >Love this post. Very interesting and offers lots to think about.

  • Rachelle

    >Anonymous 6:47: Do you have any idea how hard it is to do detailed editorial notes on a book, and how many hours it takes? It's a huge job! Believe me, if your agent could avoid all that work simply with a phone call telling you your manuscript is a dud, she'd do it.

    Don't let your insecurity trump your reason! WHY would anybody go to all that work for an unworthy project? Why waste time (which agents never have enough of) on a project that's a lost cause? Nobody would do that.

    If your agent went to the trouble to do extensive editorial notes, PLEASE appreciate how much that means, how much effort that took, and how much your agent must believe in you. Set your self-doubt aside and do your best with those revisions.

  • Melissa Crandall

    >Great article. I had something in that vein happen with my first solo Star Trek novel. Sent it in on time and got it back with about 40 pages of "corrections" (essentially they felt it wasn't "quite" the novel they'd anticipated) and did an entire manuscript rewrite in two weeks. Taught me a lot and made me a better writer.

    As far as self-publishing goes, I can see both sides. When I failed to sell my novel "Weathercock," I did opt to self-publish and am glad I did. This is a story I believe in profoundly and so far it's done well. Self-marketing is exhausting, but it's part of the game now, whether one self-publishes or not, so maybe it's good that I'm learning it now.
    Whatever route a writer chooses to take, s/he must be ready (and willing) to realize that a story isn't up to snuff, and recognize when it is salvageable and when it isn't. Sometimes you just don't want to let go. That could be stubbornness….or it could mean you have a gem hidden inside all that rock.

  • Rita Monette, Writer

    >I guess my reaction would depend on the "why" it isn't working. If the plot has a problem, etc. I would definately try to rework it. If it's a matter of genre/platform, and I really believed in the story, I'd either go elsewhere or self publish under a different name.

  • elizabeth seckman

    >This really shouldn't be a tough conversation. Well, at least no tougher than having your doctor tell you to lose weight or stop smoking. It's for your own good. I'd hope if I had an agent I could trust, she/he wouldn't let me walk out of the bathroom with my skirt hem tucked up around my waist or let me publish a stinky book that's destined to flop.
    Good friends watch your back…trust them.

  • Anonymous

    >Anonymous 6:47 here…
    Rachelle, thank you so much for responding and saying exactly what I needed to hear–I'm guessing it took my agent 20 hours plus to do multiple reads and do the type of overall analysis and detailed manuscript notes that he/she did. And I know how much stronger my revisions are making my novel. I do appreciate my agent for being so wonderful and yes, self-doubt can't trump reason. Thank you again.

  • Emily Wenstrom

    >One of the reasons I favor traditional publishing is because every once in a while, we all need someone to give us this kind of hard news. It’s impossible for an artist of any kind to look at their own creation objectively. I would genuinely hope that once I get to the point where I’m publishing, I have people around me who will save me from major career mistakes like this before they are public and on the shelf … and who believe in me enough to know that I can create something better!

  • Leigh D’Ansey

    >I'd probably cry then try to keep it all in perspective, then take on feedback and see if it could be fixed, if not get mad, cry, put it away and start again.

  • Haleyknitz

    >when a book doesn't work it means you did something wrong. i've hit this point before, several times actually. once i had to completely start over with new characters, a new setting, and a new plot. so few things remained the same. i still have my old manuscript but MAN IS THE NEW ONE BETTER.

    another example: i started writing and i made the ending happen in the middle. then i kept writing. it started to feel empty and choppy.

    so every time something doesn't work, i go back to the last part that DID work, and i go a different direction. same with writer's block. i start where it was flowing smoothly, and then i change something. both of these cases (a book not working, and writer's block) are my characters' ways of saying "hey, wait, that's not how it goes."

    And they always have the final say.

  • Ioana Savin

    >So far the traditional publishing houses did not contact me, probably because I told them I am underage (just 17). Agents and other publishing companies contacted me but I had no money to publish and the agents did not seem interested when they heard my book is not translated in English. Ouch!!!

  • Rose Green

    >Ioana, "publishers" or "agents" who contact you and want money to publish you are not legitimate. Money flows to the author, not the other way around. So you're probably lucky you didn't end up signing with those people.

    I have known a number of people whose agents have turned down their subsequent works for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it's because of how it fits into the market (ie, it doesn't). Sometimes it's because another book or movie has come out that, while not the same story, is close enough in genre/special characteristics that it won't be able to compete. Sometimes it's…I don't know why. More than once, I've read a ms for an author and it's been my favorite book by them yet, but the agents have nixed it. Sometimes it's because the agent only represents a small slice of what the author writes. I've actually seen this a number of times: agent is mostly a romance agent but skims into YA (which is profitable right now, surely–not to mention the fact that it intersects nicely with romance). But then the author wants to write a boy YA thriller, or a historical YA or something more literary, or *gasp* even a MG. And while it's not out of range for a kidlit author, it's not really where the agent's specialty falls. And that's where hard conversations happen all around.

    I think if you're having this conversation with your agent (speaking from the author's POV), it's important to trust your agent's expertise, but it's also important to find out WHY the book isn't working, so you can forestall issues next time around. Is it the writing? The market? A mismatch of genres between author and agent? Or something else entirely?

    It hurts a lot, though.

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