The Book I Love and Can’t Sell

The best book I’ve ever written hasn’t been published yet.  It hasn’t even been contracted.

This isn’t some lame attempt at metaphysics or inspirational tripe.  I mean this literally.  The book is written, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.  But I can’t sell it, and it’s driving me nuts.  Let me back up briefly to correct something in that first line.  The book has been contracted once, but the publisher went under before the book saw light of day.  It was a small press, sort of.  Certainly it was far smaller than Tor, which has published the rest of my novels.  And we did manage to get the book rights back before the publisher folded.  But reselling the book has been difficult to say the least.

I’m writing about this not because the particulars of the business side of this saga are terribly interesting; really, they’re not.  Rather, I’m writing this post because there’s an emotional dimension to this issue with which I’ve been grappling.

I love this book.  I mean I really love it.  I believe it truly is the best book I’ve ever written.  The narrative just flies, the characters are dearer to me than any I’ve created for other books, the magic system is tremendous fun.  Most of all, I love it because it’s so different from my epic fantasy.  (It’s contemporary fantasy, with a mystery twist and a dark theme.   That’s really all I care to say about it right now.)

The thing is, that difference, which is so central to my feelings about this novel and the volumes I hope will follow, is also the source of my deepest fears about the book.  You have to understand, since my agent and I started trying to resell the thing it’s been rejected many times.  While I love the book, something seems to be giving editors pause.  And I’m starting to wonder about my own perceptions of the novel.  After ten books and several short stories, I’ve become pretty adept at evaluating my own work.  At least I have in traditional fantasy.  But this is . . . different.  What if I can’t judge this work properly because I don’t know the subgenre well enough?

I’ve edited and polished the thing until it shines (though I’ve taken care not to overwork it).  I’ve done one extensive rewrite that improved it quite a bit.  I’ve put it away for months at a time and then gone back to read it thinking that maybe when looking at it fresh I’d see its flaws.  I’ve done this twice, actually.  Upon rereading it both times I was struck again by just how much I love the book.  My agent has always liked the book, but has never loved it as much as I do.  She liked it a good deal more after the rewrite.  My wife, who never liked the concept of the book in the abstract loved it when she read it and agreed it was my best work.  And she’s usually a tough critic.

We’ve all heard the stories of authors whose work was rejected again and again and again until finally it found a home and then went on to be a huge success.  I want to be the guy in that story.  But when do the rejections outweigh my belief in this book?  When do I accept that even though I love it and remain certain that it’s my best work ever, no one else sees it the same way?  I’m not ready to give up on this novel yet.  I still believe it will sell, and I also believe that when it finally hits the shelves it will do well.  But my faith, in this book in particular and in my self-judgment in general, has been shaken by the experience.  And I fear that sometime soon, I’m going to have to let go of this dream.  

So, I guess I’m asking:  When does that time come?  When do I give up and accept that those editors who have rejected it know better than I what’s good and what’s not?  Have any of you faced similar issues in your own work?  Is it possible to love a book too much?  Could it be that in  making the book so special to me, I’ve made it less attractive to others?  I’d be grateful for feedback.

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  1. 1. Joe Iriarte

    I don’t have anything like wisdom to impart, but I think I can empathize. My best short story is one I cannot sell.

    There are a dozen or more reasons why it’s not the same. For one, I haven’t yet sold anything, though I think I’m pretty close. For another, I don’t have editors and agents who are already giving my stuff a long look, and so the rejection may not feel as personal for me as it does for you. My story is still in the slush pile, and I can tell myself that lots of great stories get lost in slush. Also, being a short story instead of a novel, it doesn’t represent the better part of a year’s worth of work.

    But it’s the one thing I’ve written that I feel is actually terrific. I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback on other stories of mine–enough to keep me trying and believing that someday I’ll be published. But most of the time I look at my work and the work of the authors I admire most, and I feel like I don’t belong in the same sandbox with them. My sentences feel clunky and amateurish, and my stories derivative and contrived, by comparison. But this story . . . modesty is a virtue, and yet I have none when it comes to this story. I read it and it takes my breath away and I wonder how the hell I could have written it. I just don’t write this well. I find myself thinking that if I could write this well on anything like a consistent basis, I could never sell anything and still be satisfied, because I’d know I was creating something special, even if nobody else was seeing it. My wife, who doesn’t ordinarily like the subgenre of science fiction this story is written in, thinks it’s the best story she’s ever read by anyone.

    And it’s been rejected by everyone. Among other markets I’ve submitted to, I submitted it to the online slush pile at Baen’s Universe, so I could see what was making it not work for people. It got one glowing review from one guy who seemed to totally get what I was going for, and one or two lukewarm evaluations, and that’s it. I resubmitted it after reworking it a bit, and that was still all I got. Only three people, as far as I know, even read the thing. (I think part of the problem is that, at nine or ten thousand words, it’s longer than anyone wants to spend reading a short story by a nobody.)

    It’s not making me question my judgment–mostly because, again, I don’t believe I write this well. So it’s not like my ego gets in the way of me seeing the flaws. Like you, though, I have put it away for months and taken it out, and been awed anew. I have tried to tweak it, but not felt like I could really do a lot to improve on it. *shrug* Though I’ll keep trying, I’m starting to believe it might be more likely to find a home when I get something else published first.

    :-\

  2. 2. deborahb

    I can’t wait to hear the answers to this one!

    (The tension between self-belief and external ‘evidence’ is something I’m also struggling with…)

  3. 3. C.E. Murphy

    But when do the rejections outweigh my belief in this book?

    Never, man. *Never*. Maybe you put it away for a year, for two years, for five years at a time, but you never give up on it. Semper fidelis, that’s what I say.

    I’ve got a YA novel that I feel similarly about. I love it beyond reason and think it’s not only the best book I’ve ever written, but that I would be content if it’s the best book I ever write. It did the rounds, god, five years ago now, and I got a bunch of complimentary rejections. In my case, they were all along the lines of “the characterization needs work”, and after four or so editors tell you the same thing you start to think that, I donno, maybe the characterization needs work.

    I haven’t had time to go back to it, and, accordingly, it hasn’t been sent out again, but even if it doesn’t pick up a publisher when I get the chance to revise it, I will never. Ever. Give up on that book. Don’t you give up either.

    -Catie

  4. 4. TJ

    If it floats for a little while longer, I’d publish it online. Such a great novel would make even better publicity, and it deserves to be read.
    I don’t think the publishing business always picks the best books, for reasons that are beyond mere mortals speculation. Good luck, and let us know when it’s out, I can’t wait to read it!

  5. 5. Karen Wester Newton

    In his acceptance speech when he won the Hugo for Forever Peace, Joe Haldeman thanked his agent for taking the m.s. of The Forever Wart to “that 18th editor” because the first 17 had all rejected it.

    While it does seem to me that authors aren’t the best judges of their work, if your agent was willing to try to sell this book, it means you’re not the only one who thinks it’s worth something. I wouldn’t give up on it.

  6. 6. Vera Nazarian

    David,

    I am so with you on this. I know how you feel exactly. My poor novel LORDS OF RAINBOW — my masterwork that took me 18 years of my life to write, a book into which I put EVERYTHING, and that I love to death every time I go back and read it over (and the few people who’ve read it also love it) — has been in a similar situation, except that its is even worse — it “sold” to a small press and was promptly neglected into complete obscurity, with no review copies sent out, etc. I think that’s worse than not having sold it at all. In its neglected edition from the small press it sells a handful of copies a year on Amazon. (It has sold maybe 300 copies over all of its “published” existence since 2003). Except, I continue to believe in it, and I know that one day it is going to sell for real to an intelligent major publisher and it is going to be HUGE. Except of course by then I will be dead. :-)

    My point here, I guess is, NEVER ever lose faith and hope in your beloved work.

  7. 7. Tim

    You should go the Corey Doctorow route and publish under Creative Commons. If the book is as good as you say, you’d generate a lot of publicity for your other work. Down the road, you could even publish the novel in print (Creative Commons allows for this sort of thing).

    Sure, in the short run, you’ll be passing on the possibility of getting the work in print. But who knows in the long run. Doctorow turned his mediocre science-fiction into a brand. And that’s what genre novelists are all about, branding =D

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    I’m with Catie on this one. Never give up the ship. I suspect it’s a boat we all spend time in. My best book to date has not yet sold despite great sales on the ones that have. I love it. My agent loves it. My writers group loves it. So far, of all the people who have read it the only ones who haven’t loved it are one beta reader and every editor who has seen it to date. May I just say “Argh!” Yeah, that feels better now. Try it, it might help.

  9. 9. Marie Brennan

    I’ve got one that isn’t my best, but it is dearly-beloved and deserves (I think) to see the light of day. No success so far, but since I’m busy enough with other things, my current plan is to let it sit for a while, then snatch a month or two in my schedule to polish it up and throw it out there again. The market changes; editors come and go. Someone might be out there who wants it.

  10. 10. Matthew Wayne Selznick

    Others have said this, but I’ll add my voice — put the thing out yourself.

    Your book might be your best work… but if you’re the only one who sees it, it might as well be your worst work. I believe it’s not really art until it’s experienced by someone other than the person who created it.

    You have an established audience — let that audience decide how good your book is. Package it as an e-book. Let people download it, and invite them to pay you an amount relative to how much they liked it and / or how much they can afford.

    Consider creating a free podcast edition of the novel and posting it at a site like Podiobooks.com. This is a commitment of time and effort on your part, but a “podiobook” is a great way to build an audience for a book. Folks like Scott Sigler, J.C. Hutchins, Seth Harwood, Mur Lafferty, and yes, myself have used podcasting to build worldwide audiences hungry for more work from us — and willing to buy our work in other media.

    Bottom line is, we’re entering an era when the audience decides what’s good and what isn’t. They vote with their downloads, their comments, their commitment as fans, and yes, their dollars.

    If you think this book is you best work, you owe it to your audience to let them experience it in some form. Don’t wait for a publisher to decide whether or not your fans deserve it.

    Thanks for inspiring my first comment to this blog!

  11. 11. Patricia Bray

    I’m with Catie and the rest–as long as you love this story, you can’t give up on it. Even if you need to set it aside for a while and come back to it later. Markets change, editorial tastes change, and what didn’t sell in 2008 may very well be what they’re looking for a few years down the road.

    As writers, we’ve all been there, or will be there some day.
    Only you can decide where to draw the line– if all of your A-list publishers have passed on the project will you set it aside to come back to it in a year or two? Or do you want to expand your options to look at small presses, or self-publishing?

  12. 12. David B. Coe

    Great comments all, and much appreciated. My inclination is to stick with it, so having all of you say to do exactly that is great. I have considered going the creative commons/e-publishing/podcasting route. For me that’s an unfamiliar and somewhat intimidating part of the publishing world, so I suppose I’d like to feel that I’ve exhausted more traditional avenues before going there. On the other hand, I’d love to put the thing out on my own and show every editor who turned it down what a mistake they’ve made. :)

    I have considered other options as well, including small press, selling and/or publishing it under a pseudonym (so as to preserve the “David B. Coe epic fantasy brand” if such a beast exists). I’ve even considered trying to get it serialized or serializing it myself on my website. At this point, all options are on the table.

    Again, thanks to all for comments left, or comments still to come.

  13. 13. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    Oh, Damn. This is the one you were talking to me about at WFC, isn’t it?

    Well, here are my two cents. You’ve been around the block with your books enough to know that you probably aren’t deluding yourself (even though you might be starting to believe it). If you love this book, you have to persevere. You just have to. Sooner or later it will find its home. I wonder if a more mainstream publisher might take it on. From what I remember of how you described it, I think it’s a possibility.

  14. 14. Robert Walker

    Man, can I identify with this post/thread. While my first novel is currently unpublished, I am struggling with this exact issue. And my feeling is that, since this is, in my opinion, a great novel, I’m not going to give up on it.

    I also appreciate all the comments so far, in that there’s an unfortunate attitude out there that if your work doesn’t sell in the current market then you should give up on it and write something else that *will* sell. What said attitude betrays is both a lack of belief in one’s own work, and the ridiculous notion that we should let a consumerist system/industry decide the quality of our work. My response to that is: bullshit! Sure, there are a lot of writers out there who aren’t as good as they think they are, but what about the novel that actually *is* top quality but doesn’t sell to the current group of agents/editors?

    I could go on and on about this issue, but what I will say is that, as Matthew rightly pointed out, we’re entering a time when an author can bypass that system and let the reading public decide for itself. Are we there yet? No. But, once digital content becomes truly viable, we will be. I don’t think that time is too far off. We, and our work, no longer have to be defeated by a system/industry more concerned about profit than quality material.

    So, yes, if you trust your taste, and believe in the novel, then why should you ever give up on it? Seriously, once e-readers are ubiquitous, you can put it out yourself.

  15. 15. David B. Coe

    Yeah, Di, that’s the one. Same book. I really thought we’d have it contracted by now, but oh well. Thanks for the encouragement. And thanks to you, too, Robert. There may come a time when I’ll have to do without a publisher, and that time may be closer than I care to think. But I’m not sure it’s here quite yet. Still, I’m grateful for the support.

  16. 16. Stephen Dedman

    *Is it possible to love a book too much?*

    It’s possible to love a book so much that you neglect other work. Whether or not you think that’s “too much” is your call.

    *Could it be that in making the book so special to me, I’ve made it less attractive to others?*

    It’s certainly possible – especially if by ‘others’, you mean ‘publishers’ – and for various reasons.

    D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce, among others, could have bowdlerized their own work to get it past the censors; they didn’t. C.S. Lewis hated Tolkien’s elves, but Tolkien ignored this. Stephen Donaldson refused to change Thomas Covenant from a leper to a diabetic at an editor’s request.

    I remember Steve Barnes, on a panel at Worldcon, talking about the arguments he’d had with publishers about the heroes of his novels being black. They said that while they didn’t have a problem with this per se, putting a black man on the cover might reduce sales, but they let him decide. He finally decided that he didn’t want to accept money from anyone who wouldn’t knowingly buy a book that had a black hero, and went with depicting the hero as black on the cover as well as in the text.

    If what’s important to you is that you love the book or are proud of it, rather than the money, then I have no argument with that.

    *When do I give up and accept that those editors who have rejected it know better than I what’s good and what’s not?*

    Never. If need be, wait for new editors, new markets, a change in public taste and/or reading habits.

    *Have any of you faced similar issues in your own work?*

    Yes.

  17. 17. Cat Sparks

    I’ve read the book in question but I have never read any of your fantasy novels so I can’t make a comparison. But I will stick my neck out and say this: I liked it but I didn’t love it.

    Rob has a fantasy novel he’s been trying to sell for more than 20 years. Its been accepted for publication 3 times and three times the (various and reputable) publishers have changed their minds before the presses started to roll. I consider his book to be cursed.

  18. 18. Kate Elliott

    I agree with those who say you can’t (and don’t need to) give up on a story you love.

    I wonder what would happen if you tried to pseudonym route for this book, so as – as you say – to distinguish it from the work you are known for. It might be because it -isn’t – the epic fantasy expected from you.

    Have you tried beta readers, just to get further impressions from *ahem* interested parties?

  19. 19. Kelly McCullough

    Robert Walker @ 14.

    I don’t think you’ll find a whole of the professional writers here who would say give up on a piece and go write something else. You will however probably find near one hundred percent agreement that you should get the finished piece out the door and out looking for a home and…go write something else.

    Even if your first book is truly a work of incredible genius that will someday be considered one of the great classics of the field, you still have to write the next book, and the one after that, and so on.

    And, if you haven’t sold the first book and you really want to build a career in the field, your second book should almost certainly not be a sequel to the first. SFNovelists’ own Mindy Klasky had a great post on this subject a little while back at her LJ:
    http://mindyklasky.livejournal.com/143140.html

  20. 20. Kelly McCullough

    I have got to learn not to post before I’m fully awake. That should have been “a whole _lot_ of the professional” etc. Also, please add comments to flavor.

  21. 21. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comments, Stephen. And Cat, thanks for your honesty. I’d love to hear (perhaps in a private email, as opposed to here, in front of God and everyone) a more detailed response to the book. What kept you from loving it? Also, the book has been revised several times and has undergone a substantial rewrite since the version I gave you. Which is not to say that you’d love it now. Alis, yes, I the pseudonym route is probably my best bet right now. And I could be persuaded to give it to others to read.

  22. 22. Kate Elliott

    *ahem*

    but not until August.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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