Should you finish your book before you try to sell it?

Lots of nonfiction and even some fiction sells before a single word is ever written. Time was, it was reserved mostly for published authors who had a track record. It made sense because editors had a comparison of the author’s writing, and they had a ready-made audience.

Nowadays authors who have no track record are trying to sell their unwritten nonfiction. As an editor, I find this irksome because I’m never quite sure what the end result is going to be. Sure, I look at the chapter outlines and hopefully see a chapter or two, but that’s still not the same as seeing the entire manuscript.

In fact, I find it so irksome that I turned down a project today from a very nice agent who has a very nice client who has a very nice story. It broke my heart, so I’ve asked the beagle to fire up the blender and add an extra hit of beer and grand marnier to the tequila and limeade.

So why did I make that decision? Because the two times I’ve bought unfinished works, I ended up letting them go because the authors didn’t provide me with the story I thought I was getting. See, it’s hideously easy to sell an idea, but it’s quite another to follow through with the end result. I had long conversations with these authors and we were oh-so clear on the vision of the book. When I got the finished product, I wondered who had been at those meetings. In both cases, I had no choice but suggest major overhauls. They both declined to provide those rewrites, saying they were happy with what they’d given me.

So even though I’d spent thousands on cover design, selling it to the sales and marketing guys, getting it into the catalog, writing up marketing and promo materials, I had zippo to show for our efforts.

Unhappy doesn’t begin to describe my emotions.

I understand the logic of selling a book before it’s written. Ostensibly one uses the advance to support oneself while writing the book. It’s also a way of testing the marketplace before investing the time to write the book – a way of saying, “Yeah, ok, I guess it’s a good idea after all.” But in this age of declining advances, most authors still need their day job.  If it doesn’t sell, then no harm, no foul, financially speaking.

But is that necessarily the case? I think back to the agent I turned down today. She might be able to sell it someplace else, and that would be great for the author. But what if she can’t? Will the author just let the idea die? I can’t think of a worse fate than a book unwritten. I mean, the idea was there, burning a hole in his soul, so will he go ahead and write it anyway, or will he just walk away?

I know we could go nuts playing the “what if” game, but what if he writes it? Maybe it will sell…to me or someone else. So I guess the question I’m tossing out into the great Literary Void is this: Is it better to write than to never have written at all?

I know, sounds corny, but I have to consider the literary itch that’s getting scratched by sitting down and writing the book – regardless of whether it sells. Sometimes the satisfaction of accomplishment and completion is enough. I also think about the lessons learned through writing that book – whether it sells or not. As I’ve said before, it’s all a journey, and that includes the manuscripts that might end up under the bed. I can’t help but wonder if authors who seek to hit the bull’s eye every time are shortcutting their efforts by basically saying, “well, I’ll write only what I sold.”

We are mostly a “write on spec” industry these days – meaning that we write our books without the promise publication. We write, we query, we pray to the Literary Cosmic Muffin, and we learn. So if you’re torn between trying to sell your book before writing it, also know that you might be closing some doors. We editors want to see how your stories unfold, the organization, the flow, the pacing, the development. I’ve learned the hard way that chapter outlines look fabo on paper, but they don’t necessarily cut it.

Or am I crazy? (don’t answer that – I’m being rhetorical)

17 Responses to Should you finish your book before you try to sell it?

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    No, you’re quite sane – and wise. What astounds me are the writers who refused to make the changes you suggested because they were happy with their work!

    I mean, if I were lucky enough to have my work bought, I would certainly listen to the professional advice about making any changes that would help…

  2. NinjaFingers says:

    In fiction it’s a lot more clear cut. I have sold one piece before it was written…but solicitations are pretty rare until you’re VERY well known.

    And sometimes it is right to say you won’t make a change. There can and should be dialog with editors, but you need a better reason than that.

  3. Lauren says:

    Definitely sane.

    I have the same problem. Some people who wish to become columnists at BiblioBuffet have fantastic ideas but not the experience to carry them out. It’s painful when I read about their great ideas, become excited, ask for a sample publishable column, and then find myself deflating like a pricked balloon when I read the submission.

    And I hurt for the writer as well as us when I have to send that rejection.

  4. Madison Woods says:

    Because I’ve heard the shopping process is arduous and long, I’ve been tempted to get started while I continue editing my novel. But all the advice from agents’ and editors’ websites recommends to have the book polished and ready to go in case an agent or editor does request the full manuscript, so that’s what I’m doing.

  5. Well, that’s the rub. You can’t predict the query process. If you have a great hook, you could be asked for pages right out of the chute, so it’s foolhardy to assume that you have the time to continue editing while querying.

    I’ve asked for pages any number of times and had the authors write back, embarrassed, to say they were still editing the manuscript and would I mind waiting. Sure, I’ll wait, but I’ll also think they’re a bit unsavvy.

  6. Julie Rowe says:

    The idea is just the beginning. A good book is made up of many elements that are hard to determine from a query letter: voice, style, tone, over arching themes, properly targeted audience, mechanics, characterization, etc…

    Without a completed manuscript how can you evaluate all these elements? You can’t.

  7. And this is why I dislike considering unwritten projects. To date, every one of them have come back to bite me.

  8. I always thought it was a strange double standard for nonfiction and fiction. I guess it depends on the author whether they sell an idea or not, but I certainly have no trouble actually writing something before selling. Other writers? Their mantra is “never write a word that hasn’t been paid for already.” I guess it’s good if you can get it!

  9. Madison Woods says:

    Well, I’m certainly farther along than just developing the idea, and the voice/style etc. is evident in everything I write. From a buyer’s perspective, I can’t imagine putting money or obligation toward something I haven’t seen yet.

    On the other hand, artists and website designers are contracted every day to produce works in the same vein as the previous work they’ve done, so artistic prepayment does happen in other industries aside from non-fiction books.

    It helps to have a portfolio, whether it is writing, artwork, or design.

  10. Well, with all due respect to other industries, that is really an apples/oranges comparison. I submit that a book has different parameters than a website or painting.

  11. Madison Woods says:

    I agree with you completely that I wouldn’t want to buy an unfinished product. What I meant by the assertion was that if you’ve agreed to buy something from a writer you have seen previous work from, like Stephen King or Terry Pratchett, for example, you’d have a good idea of what to expect because of their ‘portfolio’. And in that case, it might be less risky. It was a rather lame apple/orange comparison, but was just an attempt to see both sides of an issue.

  12. Phoenix says:

    Ouch. I’ve been one of those freelancers in “other industries” who won’t write on spec and expects a kill fee if the project doesn’t get used. This is a business on both sides. At some point the “journey” ends and the business of writing begins. In what other careers are people advised that the satisfaction of completion should outweigh the joys of compensation?

    I guess I’m a little defensive because it seems the industry wants authors to be professionals one minute and hobbyists the next.

    Granted, Lynn, your rant was about unproven writers, but what about writers proven in other industries looking to pick up a non-fiction contract? Would you feel the same way?

    What do see being the different parameters between work-for-hire writing in other industries and writing a non-fiction book? That’s probably fodder for a post in itself ;o)

  13. I think “rant” might be a bit strong, Phoenix. Frustration is probably more apt since I’ve been burned several times buying unwritten projects.

    I guess I’m a little defensive because it seems the industry wants authors to be professionals one minute and hobbyists the next.

    I’m not sure where you get this idea. A hobbyist, to me, is someone who doesn’t really care about perfecting their craft. They write for fun and have no grand aspirations for publication or making a career out of writing. The industry isn’t interested in the hobbyist because their intent runs contrary to the demands of being a well-published author.

    What about writers proven in other industries looking to pick up a non-fiction contract? Would you feel the same way?
    Do you mean someone like a songwriter or screenwriter? I would say that my decision would depend on what they’re writing about. If they’re writing about how to write a great song or play, then I’d say they could probably sell the unwritten project. But if the want to write about their lives as a songwriter or screenwriter, then I’m more leery about whether they have the writing talent to pull it off.

    A good songwriter or screenwriter doesn’t always equal a good nonfiction writer. It’s the same with novelists who want to write nonfiction, or the other way around. I’ve read manuscripts by very good nonfiction writers, but their fiction was horrible. Why? Because it uses a different set of skills.

    What do see being the different parameters between work-for-hire writing in other industries and writing a non-fiction book?

    It depends on what “other industries” you’re talking about. This isn’t one-size-fits-all. If you’re talking web design, it’s pretty easy to see immediately whether the designer know what he’s doing ,so you’d hire him based on his ideas and samples.

    A songwriter has to prove his mettle with a song. And I don’t mean to diminish songwriters at all because I’m a huge music fan. But a song is, on average, three minutes long, not a 70,000 word book that needs to have sustained character development, pacing, flow, a well-developed plot that will engage a reader for the entire 70,000 words.

    Same goes for screenwriting. The one consistent problem I’ve had with screenwriters is that they are great at blocking out a scene and developing a good story, but they have a tougher time with pacing, flow, and character development. Many samples I’ve read were flat, listless things. Writing a book requires a different skill set.

    That was why I said this is an apples/orange comparison. There’s no need to feel defensive because I never said any industry is better than the other; they’re just different.

  14. Mary de Laszlo says:

    As a novelist I would much rather write the book first. The ‘exciting idea’ might fizzle out and the book not get finished so I’d rather not show it to anyone, or talk about it much until it is written… and forget about it if it is not!
    I accept that my agent/editor may want changes when it is finished or may not like it at all but I never think writing a book is ‘wasting time’, it’s what I do.

  15. sarahtops42 says:

    I know that this is an old post, but wanted to respond with something I heard fairly recently. That is, a writer usually has to be two people in one body: The person who writes the book and the person who sells it. The commenter Phoenix above me says it seems that the industry wants writers to be professionals one minute and hobbyists the next. I’d argue that the industry wants you to be both.

    The hobbyist (I’m assuming Phoenix meant a hobbyist as someone who loves what they do) writes the book, creates it passionately until creation has finished and then when they’re talking to their agents, they turn into the professional, the one that can sell the book, the one that can make rational decisions about their baby, the one that can turn it into a product. I’d also argue that the professional is also the editor inside the writer, too. The one that can say “This scene isn’t working, let’s cut it.”

    Thanks for the great post x

  16. Hi Sarahtops: I think we may have different definitions of “hobbyist” writers. My definition is what I wrote above:
    A hobbyist, to me, is someone who doesn’t really care about perfecting their craft (for professional purposes). They write for fun and have no grand aspirations for publication or making a career out of writing. The industry isn’t interested in the hobbyist because their intent runs contrary to the demands of being a well-published author.

    So I would disagree that the publishing industry is looking for both because you’re either in this writing game as a professional (and have corresponding aspirations), or you’re a hobbyist who likes to dabble for fun.

    All writers love what they do, so I wouldn’t ascribe that solely to hobbyists.

  17. sarahtops42 says:

    Hi Lynn, thanks for taking the time to respond.

    I was actually referring to what I assumed Phoenix was talking about, from how I read his comment he seemed to think of a hobbyist that way. I actually agree with your definition.

    Perhaps my comment would be better explained by saying that there are two sides of a writer: the side that writes and loves to write and the side that buckles down and edits and sells.

    I have met a few writers who hate what they do because they think it’s all sell, sell, sell and they don’t get to really be creative.

    Thanks again for responding 🙂

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