Not This Book

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

One of the most difficult words for a writer to hear from an agent or from editors who’ve looked at his or her manuscript is, “Not this book.”

I can almost see the words running through the writer’s mind, “What do you mean, ‘Not this book?’ This is the oneย I researched for the better part of five years. This is the manuscript I spent two years writing. I even spend a couple thousand dollars getting it professionally edited before I even showed it to you. ‘Not this book?’ Like I have a whole shelf of manuscripts?”dreamstime_xs_27509416

It feels like that proverbial moment when someone looks at your precious child and pronounces her ugly. But it’s usually not that at all. Let me outline some of the reasons an editor or agent may be meh about your manuscript:

  • The story doesn’t feel fresh. Too many similar stories or books are on the market right now.
  • The book doesn’t fit any recognized genre. Yes, it’s fun to create a genre fusion and yes, if it were successful you might be able to double readership but generally the blending of genres doesn’t work. I mean Christian Erotica isn’t going to be successful any time soon for a number of reasons.
  • The story is just too edgy, too outside of the box. If you are writing in a genre or a category that hasn’t yet found an audience, your book is going to have trouble finding a home. Publishers do not buy books with the hope of finding an audience. They buy books to put in the front of the avid reader groups that already exist.
  • There’s another book too similar already in the pipeline. You couldn’t have possibly known.
  • While the writing’s good, it just doesn’t sing. The market is unbelievably tight these days. Good is not good enough.
  • The subject or era has limited appeal. We don’t know why certain eras in fiction, for instance, just don’t have any traction. But that shifts, so hang on.
  • Let’s be brutally honest here– if your book makes the reader feel guilty or feel pressured, it’s not going to work, no matter how much we think it should. Especially fiction, which is largely entertainment. In other words, if you write about child abduction, horrible physical or sexual abuse, evil in the world– it’s going to make your book a harder sell.
  • The market has moved away from your voice. For instance, if you brought me a sassy Bridget Jones-type manuscript now that Chick Lit is dead, I’d have to turn it down no matter how good it is.

So what’s an author to do when no one wants the book you’ve slaved over?

  • Quit writing. And if you can successfully do this, I’d recommend this as the route you should take. If you are like the rest of the writing world and you can’t quit no matter how much it hurts, read on.
  • Put that manuscript in a drawer and start immediately on the next one. Take all the feedback you received on the first book and apply it to the second. Ask any professional you can corral about your idea for this next book. Try to get feedback on the idea before you commit to writing the whole manuscript.
  • Pull that first manuscript out of the drawer periodically. Polish it up, applying all the new techniques you’ve mastered.
  • When the book you finally end up publishing becomes a hit– maybe your second, your third or your tenth– ย your publisher is going to come looking for anything else you already have. Just this morning I received word that a series my client wrote ten years ago and eventually consigned to a drawer just made it through pub committee at a top publisher. I’m waiting on an offer.
  • Take heart that the market is constantly shifting. What is meh today could be marvelous tomorrow.

So what will you do if the answer to that book you love is, “Not this book?”

36 Responses

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  1. CJ Myerly says:

    I can see how that would be disheartening. I don’t think I could stop writing, no matter what. I definitely see myself moving to my next manuscript, but saving my original for the future.

    • the great thing to remember about the book world now is that there are so many different ways to get stories into the world. so a book that may not find a traditional home, may find great success in the indie world.

  2. Didn’t write it for the publishers or the reading public or the critics. I know now that I wrote it to reach one person who might find Christ because of, say, an offbeat story about a German POW in New Mexico who has the gift of healing…and then LOSES it.
    * Too ill to say more, but glad I wrote “The Last Indian War”. It was worth it, because a beta reader already hit the illumination. Job jobbed, and we won.

    • Wendy, please pardon flippant tone. Not intended. Just have to find something in writing TLIW that justified the time, and it did bring a Beta faith. One person, yeah, was worth it.
      * Won’t get agented,won’t get contracted, won’t win awards. But I’d do it again. The walk was worth the blisters.

      • “The walk was worth the blisters.” Well said, Andrew!
        * I’d rant, rave, cry and, in the end, tell God, “Well, that was an interesting learning experience. What’s next?” God doesn’t check out while I pitch my fit. Nope, he stands patiently to the side and the moment I’m ready, he wraps me in the security blanket of his loving arms and lets me sniffle and sob onto his glorious robe.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        That one saved soul is a grater prize than all the Christys, Carols, and Pulitzers combined. Without even publishing it, you reached the pinnacle of success, Andrew.

      • Beautiful perspective, Andrew. And I love the testimony about the power of words. Your words.

  3. Kit Tosello says:

    My WIP, which is my first novel, could easily fall into the first category. Yes, it’s been done, yet it’s the kind of Women’s fiction I want to read. It’s the story that’s floated through my days and nights for several years while I’ve studied and practiced the craft. I can’t imagine setting it aside because I might one day hear the words, “Not this book.” I’m only more determined to make it sing. Advice appreciated here, but I’ve been thinking this means I practice, and pursue critique, and rewrite until I hear someone say, “This is a classic plot but it’s somehow fresh.”

  4. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Thanks Wendy.
    Hmmm, Not this book? My answer (personally), I keep writing. Take a break while reading other authors in the same genre. Then, go back to the manuscript for more fine tuning. Then repeat. I know it sounds a bit robotic. But one must have some order and stability in his work.
    Bless you ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Listening to my favorite authors share their experiences lets me know I’d probably have their same reaction–I’d probably cry a day or two, and then roll up my sleeves and get back at it. No one is exempt, but there is something so sweet about second chances and placing all your trust in God’s timing. And congratulations on that ten-years-ago series making it thru pub committee. That sounds like an amazing testimony in the making.

  6. I’m gonna toss out a guess that the response of “But God gave me this book in an email and it’ll sell 2 billion copies” is NOT the answer?
    Winds change all the time, ask any sailor. The key, for me, to survive this gig is to listen to my agent, to remain flexible, and to never hang my self worth and happiness on a contract.
    Lately, my mindset has been “keep your hand to the plow, don’t look back, follow the Lord’s leading”.
    Sure, “not this book” will hurt, but it’s not fatal, and it’s not exactly gonna break me.
    Think of it this way, emeralds and rubies are a different colour, but they’re still breath-taking.

  7. I think that it is common in this era for the first submitted manuscript not to be the one that gets an author through the door.

    The manuscript that got me my agent is not the one that got my foot in the publishing door. I recently signed my second traditional contract and, again, the manuscript I started with is not part of it I always tell prospective writers to a.) have something in your back pocket b.) be malleable

    There is a chance that an editor will like your voice; but just cannot sell the “book of your heart.” in that case, write another book of your heart. The moment your agent sends one book on submission, immediately write another. Secondly, be willing to listen to your agent as well as discover how you can use a passion and tweak it into something new. For example, I am obsessed with American Revolutionary history to the point where I was beginning to write a novel set during the Revolutionary Wars in Boston when I got sidetracked by my first traditional contract. Now, I am still writing about Boston but this time in the 1930s (a time period I never suspected). I am able to infuse this new series –however different—with a flavour of my original research. Manage your expectations and be willing to re-purpose research material and turn it into something new.

    In my experience, it wasn’t the book; rather my brand and voice that helped me . And if you can establish that and be willing to work with it, you can find brand new opportunities.

    • Wise words here, Rachel. I loved what you said here: “There is a chance that an editor will like your voice; but just cannot sell the โ€œbook of your heart.โ€ in that case, write another book of your heart.”
      *Makes a lot of sense. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Oh goodness, I hope this is true “what is meh today could be marvelous tomorrow” I am reworking something I started nine years ago. Today, I want to make it fabulous!

  9. Never quit. Not writing, not anything. Let it be death that takes the tools from your hands.
    * The mylar bubble of ego is inflated by success, but character is forged under the hammer-blows of failure, and tempered in the flaming retort of rejection.

    • and Andrew something I always found helpful was to use the word “pass” instead of “rejection.” Rejection is strong and often connotes something personal. While writing is a personal endeavour, there are a million and one reasons editors and agents “pass” on books that have nothing to do with you personally.

      So every time my agent forwarded me one of those emails that my book was “not the book” a publisher needed, I kept it in a “pass” folder. One little tweak really helped my attitude ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Rachel, what a great idea! The first agent to whom I submitted “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” was Rachelle gardner (before she was with Books and Such), and she sent me a ‘pass’ email that was nonetheless gracious and encouraging.
        * That one little word, ‘pass’, may have kept me in the game when self-confidence but a green and tentative shoot.

      • Peggy Booher says:

        Rachel,
        Your “one little tweak” is helpful for me to remember. Thanks!

    • Peggy Booher says:

      Andrew,
      Some qualities emerging from the ” hammer-blows” and ” flaming retorts” are: patience, persistence, and humility. God values each one highly, and how glad He must be when we make progress in those areas!

  10. It is a blow to hear your book doesn’t make the cut, but those last words, “Take heart that the market is constantly shifting. What is meh today could be marvelous tomorrow.” is what gives us hope. In the mean time, we keep writing.
    Most of us have more than one story to tell. No matter how attached we are to that current story. So I jump on litrejections.com for some encouragement and move on to the next project.

    Your explanations and encouragement are helpful. Thanks, Wendy!

  11. I am astonished to be reading this on your blog today, Wendy. Less than 12 hours ago, my wife and I were relaxing in the hot tub and I told her of my decision to shelve my current manuscript and focus my efforts on the one I have in the works. If I can get one accepted by a publishing house, when they ask, “What else do you have in the wings,” I can present a handful of ideas, along with a second completed manuscript. And here, today, I see you saying exactly that. It’s almost spooky.

    • Seems like God always gives us just what we need right when we need it. ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Shelli, you’re so right…and sometimes God gives others the part of us they need, when they need it…even if it means we may not like it at the time.
        * If ‘Blessed Are the Pure Of Heart” had become the enormous success I hoped it would back in 2008, my life would have been very different. And I would not have been there to pick up Denali The Happy Husky on the deserted road where she’d been dumped, Barb would not have rescued Bella The Miracle Dog from the ditch in which she was drowning with a broken back, and The Little Girls (Ridgeback twins Reebok and Josie, aka “THEM!”) would not have made it past their last ‘please adopt us!’ event at Wal-Mart.
        * For me it would have been personal achievement and financial gain. For them it was life itself that hung in the balance, and I do not resent for a moment the road I am on.

  12. Thank you for your wise words of encouragement, dear Wendy. This post is a perfect example of why I keep reading the Books and Such blog.
    I’m holding onto and revising old projects while working on new ones. I’ll never forget a blog post a successful writer posted about an editor asking what else she had. She handed him a manuscript he had previously rejected; it got published. ๐Ÿ™‚ I love happy endings. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott described in detail the journey of a rewrite that landed her a contract.
    Real writers don’t quit; real writers rewrite.
    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

    • One thing that many successful authors seem to have in common is rejection before success. Their hard times before the good are an encouragement to this girl. I’m glad they share their personal stories, too.

  13. Wendy, such a great post. I imagine most authors have heard some version of “Not this book,” at some point in their careers. Even in trying to gain agency representation we hear this. I am in the camp as most in the comments. I keep moving forward.
    *For me, one book seemed promising, but I learned it was not quite ready. I have sought out mentorship from a multi-published author, learned a lot in the process and am using the things I’ve learned to craft a new story. Keep moving forward. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Mary Kay Moody says:

    What will I do? Keep learning, keep networking, and keep WRITING!

    Thanks, Wendy, for your sharing your insight on this along with the encouraging reminder that “the market is constantly shifting.”

  15. Jerusha Agen says:

    I’ve had that “meh” reaction to a manuscript I loved, Wendy. My response has been to wait a while, knowing that in God’s timing and His providence, the novel will fulfill its purpose some day. Even if its purpose is only what it taught me in the writing.

  16. My response should be: Alright, what’s next on the plate, Lord? And I’d patiently work and wait and grow and learn.
    And in that time, make a few awesome friends.

  17. I LOVE your first tip – quit (if you can.) My second extended (3 hour drive to airport) conversation about writing with a very successful author was stunning in that he spent much of the time asking “Why do you really want to do this?” I then spent the 3 hour drive back home thinking and praying about it.

    I then wrote him a short email saying how much the process had already changed me, and if it could change one more person half that much it was all worth it. He replied that was what he wanted to hear, he loved the idea, and he’d endorse the book.

    Would my life be easier if I didn’t moonlight in ministry (Christian film promotion, men’s ministry), writing, and speaking (my first Sunday morning sermon last weekend!)? Yes it would be easier, but it would be worth it.

  18. I am currently in the revising / fleshing out stage of my first novel so I’ve not had this response in so many words. When I began the writing process, my desire was to write a great first book, but I wasn’t sure I would have the heart to write another if the first was unpublishable for whatever reason. Now, some sixty thousand words later, I can’t imagine stopping after one. Whether my WIP is ever published or not, it won’t be the end of my writing.

    My answer to your question. If the response to my query is “Not this book” and I’m given a reason why, I’ll evaluate whether it is something that I can and should improve. If yes, then I’ll get to work. If no, then (perhaps after a bit of mourning) I’ll continue on with the next project for the time being and hope the time comes when I can pull that first manuscript back out.

    “What is meh today could be marvelous tomorrow”
    So true! Thanks for that reminder!