Shutting the Drawer: What Happens When a Book Doesn’t Sell?

August 23, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 73 4 min read

In May, after my novel manuscript had been read and rejected by a healthy number of editors, my husband rewrote my author bio. It read as follows:

Edan Lepucki was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1981. He currently lives in East Bushwick.

As an American woman living in an uncool neighborhood in Los Angeles, I thought this hilarious. I also wondered — not entirely seriously, and not entirely in jest — if the revision might help my situation. My situation being that my agent had begun submitting my book nine months prior (not that I was keeping track), and it remained unsold. Admittedly, there had been close calls with two different editors, but, as everyone knows, almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. I was in the same place I’d been back in September. That is, unpublished. The waiting game was starting to char my soul; if you drew a finger across it and put that finger to your tongue, it would taste bitter. Joking with my husband (“Now that I’m nursing, I’ll send them a new author photo, cleavage and all!”) was one of the few coping mechanisms I had left in me.

Now that it’s almost September (“If anyone in publishing actually worked in the summer, I would’ve sold my book by now!”), the jokes aren’t as funny. The truth is, my novel isn’t selling, and it probably won’t. There, I’ve said it. Eventually, a writer must accept rejection, accept the death of her first true darling, and move on. Can I face that sobering reality? Can I put my first book into the drawer, and shut it?


Others have done it before me. There’s a long and rich history of successful writers whose first (second, third…) books didn’t see the light of day. I remember when Myla Goldberg came to speak to the Creative Writing Department at Oberlin. She explained that Bee Season was actually her second novel. “My first,” she told us wide-eyed undergraduates, “you’ll never read.” At twenty, I thought this terribly tragic. In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Dan Kois wrote about novelists who abandoned books for one reason or another: Michael Chabon‘s infamously unfinished tome, Fountain City, for instance, and the burned pages of Gogol and Waugh. But the differences between these authors and myself are important. Firstly, they all had dazzling careers, failed book or not. I can’t (yet…) say the same for myself. Secondly, these authors decided to kill their books, whereas my darling was murdered.

Just let me be dramatic for a moment, okay? Murdered! My book was murdered!

Or was she? A friend pointed out that I was waiting to sell my book to publishers, when I could sell it to readers, all by myself. That’s true, of course. Self-publishing is as easy as it’s ever been, and if done well, it can even be lucrative. But, in most cases, self-published authors spend money, not make it, and they have to be their own editor, copy editor, publicist, and book cover designer (which can lead to this and this and this). I certainly could self-publish my novel, but I don’t have the cash, time, or talent to do it successfully. Plus,  there’s still a stigma to publishing your own writing. Though this is changing, I’ve never been an early adopter. (I used my AOL email account well into the new millennium, y’all; I leave the experiments to the innovative types.) The truth is, I want a reputable publishing house standing behind my book; I want them to tell you it’s good so that I don’t have to.

So, okay, I’m willing to let my book die, if that’s to be its fate. With all my talk of murder and barbecued souls, I’ll be the first to admit I’m letting myself wallow. But can you blame me? I’m grieving nearly five years of hard work. I’m mourning sentences, characters, and scenes that I’m still proud of. Letting go hurts. A lot. A friend of mine once said she didn’t want to write a novel because she couldn’t stand the idea of working for years on a project that might fail. One of my writing students recently told me she’s so afraid her book won’t sell that the very thought makes her hyperventilate. Another friend said she might die if her novel wasn’t published. I identified with all of these confessions. I felt them myself. Not-selling my novel was my biggest fear, and it’s happening. It happened.

(I was in natural, unmedicated labor with my child for 36 hours. For 24 of these hours, my cervix remained only 5 centimeters dilated. No matter how relaxed I remained, how deeply I breathed, there was no progress. None. More than once during the process, I thought, “This is like trying to sell a fucking novel!”)

(There’s a moment, right before a newborn baby breaks into a wail, when his face wrinkles up, collapses in on itself like an imploding building, and sorrow, pure and clean sorrow, sweeps heavy across his features. I know this feeling.)

Goodbye, goodbye, Novel #1.

The thing is, rejection is instructive. Over the past year I’ve learned that hearing “no” doesn’t get easier if the stakes are higher. Reject my piddling short stories and I will barely flinch; mess with my dear book and I’m rendered immediately vulnerable: “immobilized, apologetic,” as Alice Munro writes in her masterful story “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You.” I urge my students to go for it and send out their work, that they have to get used to a life of disappointment if they want to be writers. As if one can get used to such a thing.

I’ve also learned, however, that a thoughtful rejection is a valuable one, especially coming from an overworked, underpaid editor. To have taken the time to read my work, and written feedback — that’s something I appreciate. This is called relationship-building, I am told. I have more than one friend who sold books to editors who rejected their previous one(s).

Lastly, these months of rejection have taught me the difference between being tenacious and being stubborn — and being stubborn and being desperate. My agent can continue to shop my novel around, but I have already attended its funeral. I’ve said my eulogy, eaten the casseroles, wept in the shower, screamed into my pillow. I have willed myself to move on. I must, in order to continue my life as a writer. I haven’t lost my tenacity, I’ve simply refocused it on my next book, which I’m more than halfway done with. (This is the upside of a submission process that takes forever). Novel #2 deserves my full attention and care. Without it, my work — and I — will suffer.

And this new book, it will be published. If it doesn’t, well, I’ll just die.

Image credit: Flickr/nachoeuropa.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.