After The First Book Doesn’t Sign or Sell

Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions:

  • What if this book doesn’t land me an agent?
  • Worse, what if I do sign with someone, but then the book never sells?
  • How can I give up this amazing story? I’ve been with this book so long it’s like my kid!
  • Will my agent drop me if I don’t sell?
  • Am I going to be the biggest failure ever if this book isn’t a success?

These fears are absolutely normal. Literally every writer I know has had these fears in some, if not all, stages of the process. Even after you’ve sold one book, it’s easy to worry about the safety of the rest of the series, or of the next book you try to sell.

But what happens when your fears become a reality? What happens when *cue dramatic music* your first book doesn’t sign or sell?

It’s common knowledge that you should always be writing another book during the querying or submissions process. For me this was usually an incentive to hurry up edits on my current project – I was excited about my new story and wanted to get started. But that didn’t mean I loved my current project any less, or had any lowered hopes for its success. I simply couldn’t wait for BOTH books to be successful.

How does it feel to have to give up on a book? I can tell you about this one. For our new followers who don’t know me very well, here’s my story: I was invited to become a founding member of Let The Words Flow based on my minor popularity as a writer on FictionPress. The story I was known for was Nameless, a dystopian-like romance about a world where women were the dominant gender and men were kept as domestic slaves.

This was my first book, and we’d been through writer hell and back. I wrote a trilogy, signed an agent, then put the first book out on submissions. Long story short, it didn’t sell.

It was never really a heart-stopping realization. Submissions takes a long time, and after 9 months or so my agent simply pulled back the manuscript from everyone who’d given a non-response, and that was that. I wasn’t too upset, however, because we had a plan. I spent a long time converting the trilogy into a single book, hoping that would work better. Word came back that the voice was all wrong. It wasn’t really YA. It wasn’t really anything. So I sat down to do voice revisions.

I got to a point and just stopped. It came over me in creeps and shuffles instead of leaps and bounds—This story was NOT going to work for YA as it was. And I’d just spent the last year dedicating the book towards a YA voice and audience.

I’d been with this book for SEVEN years. I had fans. A minor following. I had people waiting on this book and believing in my eventual success. If you’ve been in the position of having to consider letting a book go, I completely empathize. How, after so long, after so much sweat and tears, could I dream of giving up?

Because that’s how I perceived it. Giving up. Admitting I couldn’t do it.

And readers, that’s not what setting a book down is about at all. There are many reasons why books don’t sign or sell. Maybe they’re not reaching the right people. Maybe the market isn’t right. Maybe you haven’t hit the epiphany yet that will allow you to transform your manuscript into something that does work.

During the time I’d been waiting on Nameless, I was also working on another book, my sleeping beauty retelling called A Curse of Rose and Snow. As ACORAS moved towards center-stage at my life, setting down Nameless became less important. Yes, I still loved the story. Yes, I still wanted to publish it one day and give it to my fans, but I had to accept that now was not the time.

But I’ve set down other books with no intention of picking them back up again. Books I wrote before I knew about industry standards, when I didn’t worry about things such as fitting into genres. I wrote two books I basically now consider unpublishable – one was a short story compilation about a fictional town in the South, and the other was a comedic New Adult (which isn’t really an official category yet) about a group of recent college grads opening a coffee shop. Only one I showed to my agent, and neither will ever see the light of day again.

Did it hurt to put down books I’d spent a good chunk of my life on, that I loved with the fierceness a creator has for her creation? Yes. It was hard to accept they weren’t ready—that I wasn’t ready when I wrote them. Will I be able to fix those stories some day? Perhaps. Always remember that setting a story down doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily putting it down for good. You reserve the right to change your mind – either way—at any point in the future.

I know it’s hard. It’s scary. It’s intimidating to have to ‘start over’. I think a lot of writers linger with projects they know in their gut are doomed, because they fear resetting the clock.

But you know what? Plenty of authors don’t sell their first book. Not the first one they write, and not the first one they go on submissions for. Our very own Mandy Hubbard has a heartbreaking yet ultimately heartWARMING story about the books—and versions of books—she’d had to give up before that first contract. Mandy ultimately had to leave her first book behind and focus on revising her second book, which became the very successful Prada and Prejudice.

If you have to set down a book, for whatever reason, know that it will be okay. You will write more books. You are not a one-trick pony. And maybe one day you can go back and fix that book and be successful with it. For example, Jackson Pearce, author of Sisters Red, among others, didn’t publish the first book she ever wrote until 3 books later!

So to answer the questions from above…

What if this book doesn’t land me an agent? You’ll write another book.

Worse, what if I do sign with someone, but then the book never sells? You’ll write another book.

How can I give up this amazing story? I’ve been with this book so long it’s like my kid! You’ll write another book. And hopefully one day the wonderful lessons you learn with your new stories will lead to a rewrite that DOES sell.

Will my agent drop me if I don’t sell? Nope. All that will happen is you’ll write another book.

Am I going to be the biggest failure ever if this book isn’t a success? NO. See the list above. Are any of those people failures? Absolutely not. You want to know all that will happen, honestly? I think you know it already…

You’ll write another book!


12 Responses to After The First Book Doesn’t Sign or Sell

  1. Meredith Mar 21 2012 at 8:08 am #

    Yep, this was me. My first book landed me an agent, but it didn’t sell. And that’s okay. What it did do was give me the confidence to go out a write another book—a better book, IMO. And if this one doesn’t sell, well then I’ll just write another one. If you can learn from an experience, it is most definitely NOT a failure, that’s my motto. 🙂

    • savannahjfoley Mar 21 2012 at 8:19 am #

      So true, Meredith. At least if your book doesn’t sign or sell you’ve gained the experience of writing it.

  2. Julie Mar 21 2012 at 8:11 am #

    Great post! So many people will benefit from reading this, Savannah! 🙂

  3. Meagan Spooner Mar 21 2012 at 8:13 am #

    Great post! My one point of contention, however, is that there’s no guarantee an agent won’t drop a client if a book doesn’t sell–some agents are representing a single book, while some others, despite claiming to represent the author’s whole career, will give up on an author. Not to TOTALLY panic people or anything, but I’ve heard more than one story from writer friends about it happening to them. This is why it’s super important to find respected, reputable agents, and to communicate with your agent when you first sign with him or her. Ask what happens if this first book doesn’t sell. 99% of the time they’ll just say “We’ll sell the next one!” but getting that out there and established is important.

    Okay, end contention. Shelving books is SO. HARD. It’s pretty amazing that you spent so long on one project!

    • savannahjfoley Mar 21 2012 at 8:18 am #

      Thank you for the input! TBH I thought about saying, “Well… unless your agent totally sucks,” but I figured that was something better left unsaid, lol. Thanks for the clarification!

      • Meagan Spooner Mar 21 2012 at 11:57 am #

        Hah! Yeah, maybe it is one of those obvious things… but I found it so horrifying when I heard it for the first time that it definitely left an impression. And left me SO glad I’m with my agent. o_o

  4. Rowenna Mar 21 2012 at 9:29 am #

    Great post–and a perfect, encouraging, realistic chat to leave us on, too 🙂 As writers, we have to accept that we’re working without guarantees–that we’re pouring work and time and love into something that may never sell. And we’re going to do it over and over again. Because while this post was about “what if my FIRST book doesn’t sell” we have to deal with the reality that our first…and second…and tenth books might not sell. I guess that’s why you have to love it for the sake of writing! 🙂

  5. Pamela DuMond Mar 21 2012 at 3:45 pm #

    Great post. (I just followed you on Twitter, btw.)

    My agent was fired, and then my agency fired me because my first book hadn’t sold yet. It was heart-breaking. That first book did go to a small press, was published and is the first in a series. And yes, I’m still writing more books. I do believe it’s a changing landscape in publishing today. Just because your book doesn’t fit what is deemed the current ‘trend’ does not mean your book isn’t good or shouldn’t be published. You just might need to change your expectations of how that will happen.


  6. John Cerutti Mar 21 2012 at 4:18 pm #

    It is a wonderful positive experience to write a book. As a YA writer of one book, two in the works, I have no agent, publisher, or readers.
    But that’s okay. Me, I gave it away! I didn’t want to feel the pain everyone in my writers group was feeling as they “tried to publish” (many of them had published several books.)

  7. Emily Aug 14 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    Thank you. I am exactly in this position. My book didn’t sell. The pain comes from making it 89% of the way to publication and not the whole way. To have come so far but still not finish. But I am writing another book, and I have learned much.

  8. Lucy Dec 14 2021 at 4:06 pm #

    It’s interesting how so many who follow PubCrawl now have zero idea how it started, or the work you, Sarah, and Mandy put in to grow LTWF from the scratch into something big. I didn’t follow LTWF years ago—I was a phoneless preteen then. But I somehow found out about it this year. Amazing how posts from 10 years ago are still so valid for my journey to publication. Reading LTWF has made me laugh and not feel alone, even with ten years old posts. I reread the posts almost daily, especially at times when the path to publication gets tough. I always find peace scrolling through the site, reading QOTW, about you alls publication journeys, decade old comments, Saturday Grab Bag links that still work, etc. it’s amazing. And it’s made it tough for me to follow PubCrawl now. Because I feel like LTWF ladies who formed the foundations of this site have been forgotten or get no credit at all.

    Sarah J Maas’s name I feel should head the distinguished alumni list not be so down the bottom. Savannah’s name definitely should be there. As well as Sammy Bina and Vahini Naidoo.

    I came across this post when wondering what happened to Savannah and why am I seeing no trace of her on PubCrawl? It’s a bit sad to know your books didn’t sign, even though it’s been almost ten years now. And I hope you’ve had a great time since then.


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