a guest post by Jessica Stilling
It wasn’t until the last night of my Novel Writing class I taught while working on my upcoming novel Between Before and After, that two students confessed their deepest novel writing secret. We’d been discussing the perils of trying to get published and what it’s like to have an agent for the better part of an hour when one student broke the ice and confessed. Once she’d confessed, two other students came forward and said they too, had dealt with this issue and it too made them feel so much shame. As they spoke up, I realized that I too had dealt with this problem and I too had never mentioned it, not even to my writing students, because I felt the same shame. What did this student say that seemed so shameful and yet, once it was out in the open, so many other students could relate?
“So, I had a book out with an agent once and it died on submission.”
A book “dies on submission” when the book has already gotten an agent who has worked hard on the submission, only to have no one, not a single publisher, bite. Instead of the book deal you’ve always dreamed of, you’re stuck with another, “I’m sorry, this book just isn’t right for, us.”
It feels like such a rejection not only of your book, but of yourself as an author, when a book “dies on submission.” Here you thought you had a shot. You’d worked on your book. You got an agent, (you actually got an agent!) and still the answer is no. To so many struggling writers getting an agent is the holy grail, but what happens when even that holy grail does not deliver?
Once you’ve been told by an agent, “Look, this isn’t going to work, no one is biting,” it can feel like your writing journey is over. You might just want to give up. But just because an agent could not sell your book does not mean that your book is bad or that it’s unsellable. Rest assured that there are other options before scrapping the book completely. While it’s okay to grieve this dream delayed for another day, this is not necessarily a time to wholeheartedly give up.
First Off, Take a Beat, It’s Okay to be Upset
For many authors who’ve finished a novel, acquiring an agent feels like the last step to publication. We are conditioned by the business, our peers, our writing programs, to believe that the natural next step when you finish a novel is to get an agent. We are told that said agent will sell your book, make you a million dollars, and more importantly, secure your place in the literary pantheon. When that doesn’t happen, it can not only be heartbreaking, but it can make you call into question your talent and the merits of the project you worked so hard on. It’s okay to be upset. It’s okay to walk away from your project for a little while. It’s okay to mourn this development but know that you can and should also come back stronger. Just because a major publisher did not pick up your work THIS TIME, doesn’t mean there is no value in it, and it doesn’t mean your book will never see the light of day. It only means you have more work ahead of you. There are things you can do.
Consider Working with an Experienced Editor
Some agents have editors they work with on a regular basis and sometimes those editors will agree to work with individual authors on their books. Doing a full-scale content edit can be daunting and it can get expensive (chances are if the agency couldn’t sell your book, they’re not paying for this edit), but it might be the difference between a book simply dying and a chance at life. I’ve known many agents who’ve secured deals for books that were previously rejected once major rewrites were done.
Consider a Small Press
Just because the major publishers didn’t bite, doesn’t mean no publisher will. Small presses are much more willing to take a chance on an unpublished writer or an unconventional story. They do, however, pay less. This is why agents don’t love to submit to small presses. An agent gets paid when you get paid, and they aren’t interested in sharing 15% of a $1000 advance. But that doesn’t mean that a smaller press can’t publish and market a high-quality book. My first novel Betwixt and Between, died on submission with an agent and a week after I got the call that this wasn’t going to work out, I submitted that book to a small press that sent me a contract and an advance about a week later.
Consider a Media Campaign
If your book didn’t sell in the agent’s first round, it might have less to do with your book and more to do with your media presence. Marketing departments have nearly an equal say when a big press is looking into acquiring an author and sometimes the difference between a yes and a no has more to do with how many followers an author has than the merits of the book. While that can feel unfair, it’s also fixable. Follow more authors, reach out to places where you might make guest posts, get published in smaller journals. Grow your media presence and see where that takes you.
Consider Working On Something Else
It can feel like there’s nothing left to do when a book “dies on submission.” Many authors I know want to just give up when that happens, but this is not a time to stand down. If you’ve evaluated your options and you believe taking a break from this project is what’s best for you, then by all means, take a break. But perhaps a new writing project is the thing you need to get the old writing mojo back. Find a project that inspires you. Do your research. Create your characters. Get lost in that world just as you got lost in the last one. The best cure for a Writing Letdown is a Writing Pick Me Up and there’s nothing better than a great new project to help cheer an author’s spirits.
At the end of the day, just because a bunch of large presses said, “no,” doesn’t mean your author journey is over. It doesn’t even mean that the journey of said book is finished, it just means you have more work to do.
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