Tuesday, June 29, 2010


by Jim
Last week I admitted to having a case of blogger’s block and asked for suggestions for future topics. Thanks to those of you who offered suggestions! Two people wanted to know what happens when we don’t sell a book. And how can I avoid jumping on a topic as upbeat and positive as that?!

So…yes, sometimes agents sign on books and then cannot sell them—usually because the editors who review those submissions are bad and wrong. It’s true! So what happens then? Well…it depends.

Option 1: We recommend to a client that they revise their manuscript according to some specific feedback that we received during the submission process. Sometimes editors offer very constructive feedback. And doors can occasionally be left open by the editor for resubmission should the author rework. There’s nothing wrong with pausing a submission and taking stock of what changes need to be made. As much as we work with clients editorially, sometimes it takes another eye to see a different kind of potential in a manuscript.

Option 2: We recommend that a client table the current project and work on something new. Some books flat out don’t sell. Maybe they’re good novels but not good first novels. Maybe they’re in a genre that’s just glutted in the marketplace. Maybe editors are blind to the genius that we agents have clearly seen in the project and just need the time to recover their sight before we take a project back out at a later date. These things happen. And there’s no shame there. We’re looking to build long term relationships with our clients, and we sign folks on because we believe not just in their project but in them. I’ve had clients who didn’t get a sale until their second or third novel. That’s far from ideal! But it happens sometimes. And in the best agent/client relationships, there is a level of trust and mutual respect—if that is there and two people continue to have faith in each other, you just keep working until you get it right.

Option 3: The least happy of all options. Here’s the thing: the agent/client relationship is a really close one . It depends on a deep level of confidence being felt on both sides. If that confidence is shaken, it can be best to part ways. And that can happen on either side. A client might want to find a new agent to offer a different perspective. Or an agent might be concerned that their vision for how to break the author out has become too murky. You don’t always get it right on the first go, and that’s really unfortunate, but sometimes it just is.

In short, if a book doesn’t sell, you just keep evaluating and asking questions. Why didn’t it sell? Is it the content? Is it the market? Is it the timing? The important thing is that you learn from the experience and you go forward, still chasing publication, still fighting to be heard. This business can require nerves of steel, but the potential reward is great.


  1. My agent has been wonderful...but the first project we worked with didn't sell. The good thing about me, though, is I'm almost sickeningly prolific and I just send her projects, usually 3-5 completed manuscripts, and let her pick whatever. You guys know what sells better than I do and it amazes me that what I think she'll love is usually the one that she says won't work right now. The key is "right now." Someday maybe we can revisit these other manuscripts, hopefully after we sell something else!

  2. I really appreciate your thorough response to this question about what to do when a book project does not sell. Thank you.

  3. Thank you. This is a great post, and I think the only one I've seen recently that talks about what happens if things don't go the way you hope. Good to know the different possibilities. Thanks again for sharing!

  4. You wanna know what books shouldn't be selling? Books by Perez Hilton and Tori Spelling. Whoops -- Check out my rhymes!

  5. Great post, Jim, very detailed and sensitively done - thanks. I really hope when I get an agent that there will be the confidence and belief in each other that you've described.

    Stephanie Faris - appreciate your comment as it's good to know that if you work at project after project, one of them may stick and the best thing to do is to keep writing.

    It's just good to know that sometimes it may not be the book/story that is bad and it could easily be market conditions.

  6. I recently experienced Option 3. Sadly, the loss of confidence was on my agent's side, but not for the reason you might think. One day he woke up and apparently lost his faith in the fiction market. Celebrity and Non-fiction. That was all he could sell, even while being at a top agency (WME). In the end, he made a good business decision, which I respect. And it was good for me, if he no longer believed he could sell what I write. So we patted each other on the back with sincere best wishes and empty promises to buy a round if I'm ever in NY. Back to querying...

  7. Excellent post. You guys are like realtors only with books LOL. *rewriting-- staging the house* *loss of confidence-- try a new realtor* I'll RT this.

  8. It's great to see how this works on the other side. Thank you!

  9. I think some people believe signing with an agent equals an automatic sale. Your post is a good reminder that nothing is guaranteed. Thanks for explaining some of the no-sale reasons from your side of the desk.

  10. Nice post. I never thought about books that didn't sell. I guess I just assumed they all did. Thanks!

  11. Excellent post. Here's an odd question: Say you decide to leave the agent - assuming no animosity, just a mutual decision to separate. And you start seeking new representation. Would it be appropriate or inappropriate to mention this former representation in new queries? I'm not talking about naming the previous agent... rather, something like "I'm formerly agented but am seeking new representation." Would that be a faux pas?

  12. Thank you for an insightful view of the agent and author's perspective on this. Often thought about, but I've never seen anyone blog so clearly and professionally on it.

    Thank you.

  13. It's wonderful to see things broken out this way!

    I had the unique experience of having offers from four different agents a few years ago, and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I can say that I picked wrong. I'm not saying that because the book didn't sell -- though it didn't -- but because it turned out not to be the right fit.

    I was fortunate a year later that one of the original offering agents was still interested, so I signed with her. And though she is the most wonderful agent on the planet, we still struggled for almost two years to land that first sale (a three-book deal, so maybe worth the wait!)

    What I love best about my current agent is that this is very much a team effort. When my book didn't sell, it was never "my fault" or "her fault," but always an opportunity for us to strategize together to figure out where to go next.

    Great blog post on a topic not a lot of people are willing to tackle -- the fact that plenty of wonderful, agented books still don't find homes right away. Thanks for writing this!


  14. Thanks for the post. A question: Would you ever suggest to a client that they put the book up on Kindle and see what happens (ala Konrath)? Or if your client told you he was thinking about going that route, would you support that decision?

  15. Thanks for the great article! I'm only on chapter eight of my first EVER manuscript. In my mind it's awesome but we shall see. Thanks for keeping me grounded with this!

  16. Nice article. Thanks for the insight.


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