Literary Darwinism: When do I give up on my book?

I hear this question a lot. You’ve sent out your manuscript to 10, 20, 30 agents/editors and are awaiting a reply. Or maybe all of them came back as rejections, and you’re wondering whether to hang it up and shove your book under the mattress. You’re looking for a magic number that confirms that your book doesn’t have a chance of being picked up.

In truth, no one can answer that but you because you’re the only one who knows your personal limit. I know successful authors who endured a hundred-some-odd rejections. I always say that it only takes one to hit a bull’s eye. That one agent or that one editor [mainstream] who sees the potential in your work.

Querying is sort of like play the tables at Vegas. You keep playing one more hand because, hey, this might be the one that sends you home a winner. And you keep playing with that mindset until they finally toss you out of the casino wearing only your favorite Vickie Secrets and your lucky Adidas.

Since agents and editors aren’t a casino that sit under one roof, the only thing you have to go on is your collection of rejections. Every author has their personal limit as to how far they’ll go. Some give up at 30 rejections while others are still going strong at 600 rejections [seen it, pinky swear]. IMO, both of those numbers are the extreme; one gave up too soon, and the other has a healthy set of chestnuts.

If you’re unsure as to when it’s time to call it a day, do yourself a favor and base your decision on sound thinking rather than emotion. Writing is emotional enough. But this is a business, and decisions based on emotion aren’t usually to the author’s benefit.

Literary Darwinism

The question of abandoning a book idea should hinge on how well-prepared you are. See, writing doesn’t have an equal playing field, and it’s all about the survival of the fittest. Some people are better writers than others, be it in their plot or raw talent. Some of you know you have a marketable product and stick with it. But you know because you understand the biz.

The more you understand how books are sold and how the marketplace works, the better able you are to know when you’re pushing daisies or whether you’ve got a book worth sticking with. Authors who understand their competition, genre, and readership are able to decide an appropriate number of rejections before they realize that this isn’t the right time or place for their book.

It makes me think of the Great DaVinci Code Tidal Wave. When The DaVinci Code came out, all anyone – agents and editors – saw for a year were Dan Brown knockoffs. Had the beagle been born, she would have drunk herself into a coma. As it was, I had to do it on my own. Not a pretty sight; Captain Morgan’s rum and I are on a permanent vacation from each other.

Most of the writers penning DaVinci Code knockoffs were new and knew nothing about the industry. They didn’t realize that the big houses take about two years to pub a book. Even us small fries take a year. So what’s hot now may be very cold in one or two years. The big guys rushed in and pubbed a lot of knock offs so they could gravy train off Dan Brown’s success. The genre became saturated and we all got to the point where we’d rather have our eyebrows shaved off than look at another Dan Brown wanna be.

But these new authors had no idea, and they continued to push their books to agents and editors for far too long. Had they been more educated about the business, they would have put the ms under the bed and written something else. Collecting hundreds of rejections for something that will probably never see the light of day does nothing for a writer’s confidence.

So when asking yourself  “should I hang this manuscript out to dry?” consider the genre, the marketplace, your competition, and your readership. If you’re doing a teen vampire romance, you shouldn’t be too shocked at the high number of rejections. This is a highly specialized genre right now, and the flood of these queries give agents and editors the pick of the litter.

Mind you, I’m not saying dump the project. I’m saying be realistic and take a giant step back from your emotions. And the only way you can do that is by knowing the industry. The more you know, the better able you are to make intelligent decisions that will enhance your literary career. I’d like to think Darwin would appreciate that.

10 Responses to Literary Darwinism: When do I give up on my book?

  1. Allen Parker says:

    I think this is great advice, but may I add a small idea, as well?

    Putting a manuscript into a drawer is not necessarily the end to that story. Timing is a big factor in the sale of a book. As you said, there are tons of Dan Brown stuff floating around. There is also Harry Potter clones following close behind.

    The secret is to keep writing. Write something else, something unique. IN a few years, all the Harry’s and Dan’s will drop away and you can bring the storyline back, hopefully having learned a thing or two that will make the story even better.

    You aren’t killing off the species, just hibernating it.

    See, that didn’t hurt a bit.

  2. Good thinking, Allen. Again, it’s the idea that the author is hooked into how the industry works and can get a feel for when trends may turn that will make that old Dan Brown wanna be a viable product.

    “Not killing off the species, just hibernating it.”
    Beautifully said!

  3. catwoods says:

    All aspiring writers should read this post, if for no other reason than to see that the industry is bigger than a raw manuscript and a finished product on the shelves.

  4. Voidwalker says:

    “the other has a healthy set of chestnuts.” That’s hilarious!

    Anyway, this post brings up a good point on something I’ve been pondering. My current work in progress (Trueborn) was being set up before this Vampire craze began via S. Meyers. Now the market is flooded with vamp novels and I’m afraid that as I wrap up my own story, it will be just a little too late to really be appreciated. I’m afraid it will be another “I’d rather shave my eyebrows than see another vamp novel” experience for agents that I submit my work to. Would I be way out in left field to think that I should put this project on hold and focus on something else?

  5. Would I be way out in left field to think that I should put this project on hold and focus on something else?

    Voidie, only you can answer that question. This is why it’s vital to understand the business of how books are sold.

    What are the unique elements to your story compared to your competition?

    Analyze the plots of the big sellers. Does yours have the same kind of ” red meat”?

    These are the elements that will turn an agent’s or editor’s head.

    Additionally, look at the sales posted on Publisher’s Marketplace. Are vamp books still being bought by debut authors?

    Talk to bookstore managers. What do they have to say about the genre as a whole? Are they ordering vamp books?

  6. Voidwalker says:

    Thanks for the feedback. There’s so much to consider. I’m not quite to the query stage yet and so much can happen before that, so I’m going to try not to let it overwhelm me for now. That question of riding the vamp success band wagon being good or bad has just been pricking at my mind recently.

  7. Brilliant post. I’m new to your blog but will be back for more!

  8. Welcome, Terresa. We get a little silly sometimes, but I do have a lot of information about the industry from my side of the desk.

  9. I’ve sent about 100 queries out over the last month and I’ve been a good girl: I don’t email if they require snail mail, I don’t snail mail if they require email. I double space on request, and then take all the double spaces out if they want that. I don’t call, I don’t follow up, I don’t wait outside your building in the bushes, and I won’t make eye contact if we happen to be on the same elevator. But if it is alright, I will come back and read your blog because it’s funny! I do have a question though – one guy who wants my complete manuscript also wants a check for $450.00 (annually?) and says this is standard practice. I was wondering if it is, or maybe…I should just forget the writing part, put a website up, declare myself a literary agent and collect checks like this from ambitious authors?

  10. one guy who wants my complete manuscript also wants a check for $450.00 (annually?) and says this is standard practice.
    BULLPUCKY! There is nothing standard about it. Authors never, never, NEVER pay money to anyone. Tell the guy to go blow.

    And please feel free to come back and read. I do try to keep things entertaining and informative. Sometimes I just opt for merely entertaining…

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