The pain of being on submission to publishers or “on sub” is real. And if your book doesn’t sell on submission? Agony. Self-doubt. Loneliness. Even grief. Many writers mourn for those treasured manuscripts that don’t get picked up by Big Five publishers, indies, or presses and start to wonder whether they will ever be traditionally published. And rightly so; it is incredibly difficult to get a good book deal. Still, it’s the thing you want so very desperately for you and your baby (book); possibly even the thing you want most in the world. So to hear no, or worse, get ghosted by editors who you had hoped would absolutely adore your book, is a visceral, poetic agony. It’s heartbreak. Believe me, I’ve been there.
Being on submission to publishers is the worst
If you know, you know (IYKYK). If you don’t, or are maybe going out on submission for the first time, God bless you. Because it is the absolute worst. And perhaps, like falling in love, it is also the best. I’ve written at length about what really happens when your book goes on submission to publishers, but believe me when I say that it is truly one of the weirdest and most unique experiences you can have as a writer.
Getting an agent does not guarantee a book deal
I know this is not something that people like to hear or think about when they’re querying, but it’s a very real fact: finding a literary agent does not guarantee you a book deal. Yes, it gets you that much closer. Yes, it secures you a professional champion who is working hard to make you both money. But no literary agent can guarantee a sale – be very careful of anyone who makes these kinds of promises. And while getting multiple agent offers is wonderful, it is not proportionate to how many editor offers you’ll get while out on submission. Ultimately, while an agent is a crucial partner to have and a passionate advocate for your book and writing career, they cannot account for the market, taste, or timing. Nobody can.
What happens if your book doesn’t sell?
Nothing. Nothing at all. The world carries on turning. Other writers will get book deals around you (do your best to contain your professional jealousy). You have a little cry. You drink some wine. You cuddle your cat. But the cold hard fact is this: most manuscripts – in particular, debut manuscripts – don’t sell. And by debut, I mean the first manuscript that you ever write. Your “first” book is very rarely your first but is sometimes sold further down the line, after you have broken in, and after you’ve given it the time and space it deserves to be worked on. Please avoid editing your manuscript too soon after it doesn’t sell; you’ll just be bitter about it and/or lack confidence. Put it in the proverbial (or real) drawer, lock it, and let it simmer there for a while. You need that creative distance.
If your book doesn’t sell on submission, does that mean it’s a bad book?
No. Maybe. Yes. It could mean anything, honestly. This is publishing, lest we forget! Publishing is fickle and unpredictable and unfair and it doesn’t give a toss if your book doesn’t sell on submission. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your book is bad, but it could mean that the market wasn’t ready, or the timing was bad, or your book didn’t match up to an editor’s tastes. Good luck, timing, a sprinkling of fairy dust, and editor-author chemistry also play a key part in those odds of getting published.
I’m sure you’ve heard this old chestnut before, but it is honestly the best piece of advice I can give you:
WRITE ANOTHER BOOK.
More books equal more manuscripts in your hand and more opportunities to go out on submission to publishers. It’s very easy to say, of course, but much more difficult to do. I find it’s best to completely separate the creative end from the business end. When I write a manuscript, I’m not writing for a future sale or book deal (although I’m hoping those will be happy consequences). I’m writing for myself. Soon, I have ten thousand words. Then twenty. Pretty soon, I’m at the sixty thousand mark, which brings me to the editing phase. Then, beta readers. Then, before I know it, I have eighty thousand plus words and it’s time to shoot it off to my literary agent for editorial notes, and then we’re preparing to go on submission. You shouldn’t even be hanging around waiting for editor responses. You should already be writing the next one, then the next, then the next. That’s what writers do. We persevere. Then it doesn’t become a matter of if you sell, but when.
Control what you can control
Here’s what you can do:
- Write the best book that you can write, that only you can write
- Write a killer query letter to secure a literary agent
- Work with your agent on making your manuscript as polished as it can be
- Buckle up for rejection
- Be kind to yourself
- Embrace editorial feedback, but don’t bow to it
- Never give up, especially if your book doesn’t sell on submission
Here’s what you can’t do:
- Control the submissions process
- Predict the future
Learn from failure
Many authors don’t sell on submission and then go on to have lucrative publishing careers. Some authors go on to sell their manuscripts after years of trying and multiple editor rejections. It happens, especially when all you need is one passionate acquisitions editor to convince her editorial board to give you that one yes.
It takes one yes
Ah, the one yes. The yes that you have been dreaming about. The yes that sings louder than the multiple nos, or the “too quiet” or “didn’t fall in love” or “I don’t know how to publish this in the way the author deserves” near-misses. The yes that mitigates everything else, because it’s the only one that matters. You just need one.
But what really happens if your book doesn’t sell on submission?
Really? This is what happens if your book doesn’t sell on submission: you write another book.