When Your Proposal Doesn’t Sell

by Steve Laube

Unhappy young business man looking away

It happens. Despite all efforts and good intentions not every proposal we shop will end up being contracted by a major publisher. Of course our agency tries our best to keep that from happening. We carefully choose which projects and authors we represent. We work with our clients to create and develop top notch proposals. And our success rate is extremely high.

But that success rate is not 100%.

Here are a few examples of projects that I represented in years past that did not sell to a major publisher (and are ones that I still think are great projects):

The autobiography of a well-known former NFL coach who became a follower of Christ late in life. He now devotes considerable time to prison ministry. The story gave deep background into his time in the NFL.

An extraordinary graphic novel series. It was ahead of its time and no publisher was willing to take the obvious risk to produce and distribute the project. The author/artist later found his own backing and formed a company to create the material. They found a non-traditional distributor and ended ups selling over 250,000 units.

An already self-published book on the importance of character in a person’s life, what is it and how to cultivate it. The author was a judge and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in his state. His credentials were impeccable. He was “media-ready” and spoke regularly on the topic.

A supernatural fiction manuscript that caught my eye for its great storyline and wonderful storytelling. The combination of being a debut author and having a thinly veiled science-fiction thread caused it to rejected by everyone. The author shelved it and wrote another novel, which didn’t sell. The author shelved that one and began writing non-fiction where the author has become quite successful.

The above examples are from the past, but you may be wondering what happened last year. In 2012 my personal clients had seven projects that did not find a publisher. On the other hand my clients did secure sixty-three new book contracts. My clients and I have to live with that percentage, but I wish it were higher.

So what do you do if your project doesn’t capture a publisher’s attention?

Try Again
See the fourth example above where the author did not give up. Even switched to a different discipline entirely and found the perfect outlet for his talent. This is the most common solution for professional writers. Tears of frustration may be shed, but they step back and come up with a new idea.

Do-it-yourself
Let me reiterate that self-publishing is always an option a) If you have an audience to which to sell the idea b) you have the gumption to be an entrepreneur and sell your project and c) you have the money to invest in making it an excellent final product. The first example above is what this author did. He was well loved in his community, even did local TV commercials, and thus had a ready-made market for his story. This is a perfect example of where self-publishing makes a lot of sense.

Find Another Option
The second example above illustrates this. The author did not take no for an answer and ended up with a company behind his work.

The judge, example three above, retired from his position and continued to speak and influence those around him. He also continued to sell his self-published book to his listening audience. He was no worse off than before he approached me for representation. He gave it a shot and it didn’t work out.

Or do as one lady did at a writers conference. During her 15 minute writers conference appointment she asked me point-blank, “Do I have what it takes to be a successful writer?” I stammered a bit not wanting to hurt her feelings, “You have the foundation of a good story but it is going to take a lot of work to get it ready to be competitive. ” She thanked me and abruptly ended the meeting. Later that afternoon she came bounding up to me full of smiles. She proclaimed, “I quit! I called my husband and told him I’m quitting this writing stuff and I’m going to take up knitting instead. I’m so happy! Thank you for telling me how much work it was going to take. I’d rather spend that time doing something I know I will enjoy.” The moral of that story is to ask yourself the ultimate question of whether you are willing to continue to work hard in order to overcome any objections to your next idea.

Your Turn:
Any stories you wish to share?

15 Responses to When Your Proposal Doesn’t Sell

  1. Connie Almony February 11, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Love that last example. So true! If you love knitting more, you should knit! But if you love writing enough, you’ll take the time to continue to hone the craft. I don’t knit, so I guess I’ll keep writing.

  2. V.V. Denman February 11, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    Sometimes I wish I liked knitting.

  3. Diana Harkness February 11, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    I love many things beside writing, but writing pulls me in to a place where I am constantly challenged. How boring life would be without challenge. . . or risk. No one achieves success without risk. I would have to be close to death to settle for anything less than the challenge of becoming the best writer I can be and the risk of publishing what I write. If my novel is deemed solid but no one wants it, I am loathe to self-publish, but if there is no other option that is one I am willing to consider.

  4. Robin Bayne February 11, 2013 at 6:48 am #

    Have to agree with VV.

  5. Rick Barry February 11, 2013 at 7:47 am #

    I’m convinced that not every person who enjoys picturing his/her name on the cover of a book is cut out for the long haul required to succeed at writing. This reminds me of a WW II vet I once interviewed. He told me the majority of his buddies in the Air Corps had wanted to become pilots. However, not everyone had what it takes to fly a bomber. The other nine men per plane ended up as navigators, radiomen, and gunners–which were also vital roles, just not the jobs they originally hoped for.

    Lesson? If at first you don’t succeed, either get more training or re-target your goals.

  6. Jeanne T February 11, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Thanks for the reminder that life doesn’t end with a “no” to a proposal. “What’s next?” seems to be the question to ask to determine how to proceed. Figuring out motives and heart desires seems like it can also help in deciding what the next step is.

    I’m not a knitter either, but i love that the lady in your final example let go of a “should” and pursued her “want,” if that makes sense. ;)

  7. Meghan Carver February 11, 2013 at 8:42 am #

    Now I understand a bit more Tamela’s question on FB. If an industry professional said your story needed A LOT more work to sell, would you keep going, work on something else, or quit? The lawyer in me answered with more questions — how much is A LOT, and is there a contract at the end of all that work? But if a publisher rejects it? With your options, I would try again, perhaps a different genre. All based on the wisdom of my agent.

  8. Jan Cline February 11, 2013 at 8:43 am #

    We sure do put blinders on don’t we? It’s always a joy for me as a conference director to hear comments of how God spoke to someone concerning what they are supposed to write or if they were supposed to continue writing at all. I remember one gentleman coming up to me with tears in his eyes, telling me how much he loved the conference. He said he now knew he was just supposed to write for his own pleasure and for family. He was happy about it. He was open to hear the truth and not many are.

  9. Heather Day Gilbert February 11, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

    Thank you, Tamela. This post was very timely for me. I’m one of those who got rejected once, wrote another book, still out on submission, then wrote another one. Lawsie, I WISH knitting was my “thing!” I can’t seem to stop writing!

    • Heather Day Gilbert February 11, 2013 at 2:09 pm #

      And oops–Tamela posted this on FB and I assumed she wrote it! Sorry about that. Thanks for the post, STEVE!

  10. Jan Thompson February 11, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    Thanks, Steve, for this reality check. That’s one reason I read good agent blogs. To get the truth about the publishing industry. It’s hard work.

    This cracked me up: “I’m quitting this writing stuff and I’m going to take up knitting instead.”

    To each her own. Knitting is a nightmare for me. I can’t figure it out, no matter how much I tried to learn. My mother can knit with her eyes closed. I can’t knit with my eyes open. For me, writing is waaaaaayyyy easier and more a lot more fun than knitting!

    So I write.

  11. Peter DeHaan February 11, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    Wisely, she didn’t follow the advice to “stick to your knitting” — but she did return to it.

    Thanks for a delightful story.

  12. Rita Gerlach February 14, 2013 at 10:16 am #

    Back in the year 2000, I was taken in by a pod publisher. Awful cover, no editing, and the layout of the book sloppy. I was wet behind the ears and didn’t know what I was getting into. The book went out of print in 2005. My agent said she couldn’t sell it because publishers rarely will reissue a book, especially one with low sales. Last summer, I self-published The Rebel’s Pledge to Kindle and CreateSpace. It’s done extremely well in sales, and hit #1 in its genre for free ebooks when I offered it.
    My point is, if you love to write, write. Commit your work to the Lord and he will direct your path. It’s all in His timing.

    • Heather Day Gilbert February 14, 2013 at 10:18 am #

      Rita, HOW encouraging! What a hopeful comment for aspiring authors. And so glad your book is doing so well!

  13. Terrance Leon Austin May 6, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

    Very Informative Steve. Thanks for sharing your story Rita. It is great that many more aspiring authors are trusting GOD for direction in their writing careers.

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