When Persistence Becomes a Vice

It’s all very well to declare that getting published isn’t a crap shoot–that smart and persistent writers with marketable manuscripts have a very reasonable chance of landing a publishing contract. But what if you’ve been submitting a manuscript you’re convinced is marketable–a manuscript that has gotten compliments and encouragement not just from your friends and beta readers, but from agents and/or editors–and you still can’t find representation or publication?

One of the ways writers can sabotage themselves is to pin all their hopes on a single work. I hear surprisingly often from writers who are in this position–who’ve been doggedly submitting the same novel for years, and simply cannot abandon it, despite being unable to attract interest from a reputable agent or publisher. They continually research new agents and publishers; they regularly rework their query letters; they even rework the manuscript itself. They do everything they can think of to maximize their chances–except give up on a non-selling book. Some even stop writing, convinced that until they can sell this manuscript it’s pointless to produce another.

This is when persistence, otherwise the writer’s friend, becomes a vice. There are many reasons why your manuscript may not be selling–perhaps it’s good, but not quite good enough. Perhaps it’s out of step with current publishing trends. Perhaps it’s one of those quirky cross-genre efforts that publishers can’t figure out how to market. At some point, though, continuing to query a non-selling work ceases to be a submission strategy, and becomes stagnation–especially if you allow it to sidetrack your writing.

Putting your writing on hold while submitting is absolutely one of the worst things you can do. Writers are like sharks; they can only survive by moving forward. The only way to increase your chance of publication is to progress as a writer, and the only way to progress as a writer is to write. Each manuscript you produce is likely to be better than the last. Remember, also, that many writers don’t break in with their first book, or even their second or third. I know of one New York Times best selling author who produced three unsuccessful novels before she finally wrote the one that landed the agent who found the publisher that launched her career.

Another danger of getting stuck on one manuscript: winding up with a questionable agent or publisher. The more rejections you’ve racked up, the more frustration you’ve endured, the more vulnerable you may be to the false praise of a scammer, or the false hope of an amateur.

Abandoning a book is extremely painful. I know–I’ve been there. Unfortunately, there’s no formula to tell you when enough is enough, or how many rejections you must endure before you decide to stop (although if you’ve been querying for five years–and I’ve heard from people who’ve been trying for even longer–you’ve probably gone past the limit).

Try to retain perspective–if your goal was a Tier 1 agent and you now find yourself considering obscure agents with dubious track records, it may be time to re-assess. Or consider changing strategies–instead of querying agents, try approaching reputable smaller publishers that will accept submissions direct from authors; instead of submitting to print-first publishers, consider reputable epublishers. At some point, though, you will need to confront the possibility that it may not be worth continuing to submit a work that’s consistently getting rejected.

And whatever you do, don’t give up on your writing. Even if you can’t bring yourself to give up on your cherished manuscript, don’t allow the hope and frustration of the submission process to immobilize you. Keep moving forward.


  1. How about self-publishing? I have friends who opted to self-publish on Amazon rather than submit their work to agents or publishers. The great thing about all this technology is now writers can be publishers too. We can get our work out there, whether or not publishers/agents believe in the validity of the work. Thanks for a good post and discussion.

  2. No one here seems to be considering the option of e-publishing and/or self-publishing, and marketing your book yourself…online. If the problem is that your book falls into a crack between genres, you can do the work yourself to find the niche that the publishers can't be bothered to search for, and market directly to that group. Then you can move on smartly with your next book, having done something proactive with your first.
    Authors are often hesitant to do this because they feel future publishers may be prejudiced against them. Well, that may have some validity in this week's market, but the industry is changing, folks, and rapidly. Before long, publishers will not be able to afford to get pouty about that, especially if you do a good job and can prove that you've created a fan base for yourself.

  3. Very sound advice. If you write something else and sell it, then if your first novel may suddenly seem more marketable.

  4. Anonymous, literary agents were not yet the norm in early 20th-century England. They are currently the norm in 21st-century England, Canada, and the US (I can't speak for the other countries that publish English-language literature). So Tolkien's not having an agent isn't at all relevant to writers of today.

    The other thing is that Tolkien was fairly well-known as an academic, which may actually have been a hindrance to him rather than a help. Since his other published writing had been quite esoteric stuff about Anglo-Saxon philology, that may have spooked publishers about the possibility of his finding a mass audience.

  5. Many mentions of Tolkien. But are they applicable here? First of all, publication of the LotR was delayed for years because of WWII. After the war there was a shortage of paper, an expensive commodity in those days. The book was also rejected firstly by the publisher who had requested it in the first place, Allen and Unwin, then Collins. Finally, on the strength of The Hobbit, Unwin finally agreed to publish it in 1954, although an internal memorandum stated that the company ran a risk of losing thousands of pounds on it (a fortune in those days). Even so, the book was not an immediate success, only making it big in the USA eight years after publication. So Tolkien is actually the opposite of what is advocated in this post! And he never had an agent either, negotiating directly with the publisher!

  6. I had two projects like this. TWICE. Way back in the early 1990s it was my first book. The second book was back in 2004. I kept getting positve responses in rejection letters from agents but couldn't sell the project. So I Stayed with it and stayed with it for years, revising, rewriting until I realized I was just scared. I learned from both experiences A book failing to sell isn't what keeps a writer continuing to work on a rejected book, oftentimes it's fear of going forward in their writing careers. Many writers feel if this book won't sell, then there's no chance for anything else to sell so they polish and polish until they take the shine off their stories.

    I find persistence with a project is sometimes motivated by fear. Fear that by ending the failed project means that a writer will have to start a new project. Starting a new story is hardest part of a writing anything, especially a novel. Starting a new project means meeting new characters and a writer must allow themselves to be vulnerable while developing these new characters and exploring their new world. It can be very hard to let a book go, but it's necessary for a writer to do this if they wish to grow in their craft.

    If a writer has a strong connection to the characters in the previous story, revising and submitting that "dead" book over and over is a way of coming back to see those old friends. Even though the book is constantly being rejected, The writer can continue having a relationship with the old characters they've grown close to. This co-dependent relationship can stifle a writer's career and keep them from growing in their craft.

    The way I moved on from said projects was to start a new project. Another way I killed an unsellable project books is to self-publish them POD. In my eyes once a book is "published" It's "in the can" and I moved on to the next writing project.

    If one book doesn't sell, then yeah, move on to the next project. Best advice: Once a writer finishes a manuscript draft, print it out save it to a USB stick and stick em' in a drawer for six months. In that time start another story.

  7. Just to point out, re: Tolkien: taking years to complete a book is one thing. Submitting a book for years without success is another. I'd never fault a writer for taking a long time to perfect a manuscript (I'm a very slow writer myself)–it's stubbornly banging your head against an unyielding wall of rejection once the manuscript is complete that's the problem.

    Here's a link to Nicola's post–well worth reading.

  8. I persisted for 10 long lonely years with my MS until finally getting lucky. It is now published and out there with the rest. Persistence is the key. If you know your MS is worthy of publishing, keep looking for that one editor out there who will take a long hard look at your MS. I did and it was worth the wait…

  9. Quite right. I blogged similarly recently, after being harangued by a woman who a) refused to understand why her book had been rejected by 100 publishers and b) was shocked when i asked her what she was writing while submitting that one. "God, I'm not doing that again!" she said. So, she's not a writer.

  10. PS But I do like Tara's story about Tolkien!

    PPS And I've just heard that Sarah Blake of The Postmistress said she took EIGHT YEARS to write the novel before it was accepted by Penguin.

    PPPS But I'm still putting this ms aside if it doesn't get accepted after this round of revisions and submissions. Because, as I said earlier, I'm now ready to move on and let it go!


  11. Excellent advice, and exactly what I need to read right now. I was in that loop and have decided that this revision is the last on this ms. If it doesn't sell this time, it's enough! Time to move on. I'm *ready* to move on, and that's important too.

  12. Luckily, I'd written more words while querying and trying to decide what was best for my book – my debut is published, but, I also had more to hit the ground running right off the bat.

    It becomes just a little more difficult to write once you've been published than before you have -you need to become a better manager of time – just because of the need to promo and market and etc! So, write write write and write some more! It'll take your mind off the query process (mostly!) and perhaps remind you why you are doing this.

  13. A writer whose fourth or fifth work finds a publisher and a following may well be able to go back to those earlier works, apply the savvy picked up along the way, and convince the publisher to take a chance on them. So abandoning a work doesn't mean forever.

  14. The best advice I was ever given about trying to sell a novel, was to write short stories. That way you improve your craft. What I learned made my novel even better!

  15. Totally agree. Take your first novel and just stick it in a drawer somewhere. Or better still, the compost heap. Then begin a better one.

  16. Important advice. It's hard to let go, but sometimes we must. Later the book may be a mine for great characters or short stories.

  17. A novel I finished considerably more than five years ago is going to be hitting Walmart shelves at the end of this month. It's my debut novel. So yes, it can happen.

    But I'm glad I finished another book before I sold my first. Because the real problem with obsessing about one book isn't just how stuck you get.

    It's that once you sell your editor (or agent) is going to need you to write another book in anything from six months to a year.

    If you have only ever finished one book and have lavished years on getting every character, scene and phrase just right, the challenge of writing the next book to a tight deadline might be more than you can handle–and the more money you got as an advance for that unwritten second novel, the more terrifying the process can be.

    So the more experience you can get before you have to deal with deadlines and pressure and living up to a reputation, the happier you will be.

  18. Super post. I felt myself obsessing over my manuscript and finally epublished the dang-old thing myself. Only now do I feel free to work on my new project.

  19. I agree a writer shouldn't replace writing with querying. That's sad.

    And I know many a "frozen" writer, who has one crappy mss and won't move on.

    95% of the time, this is the right advice.


    Tolkien basically had only one book — Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and the Simirillian are all part of the same story. Sometimes it's worth taking the time to get a story right, without giving a damn about current publishing trends.

    Sometimes one story is so large, it fills a lifetime.

  20. Great advice.
    I also found that, after a breakthrough, some of my previously rejected stories suddenly found homes.
    So, hang on to them, but keep writing.

  21. Sage advice as always. I just received an advanced submission (for an upcoming conference) from a writer who has been pushing this same manuscript for five years. FIVE YEARS. And she has yet to implement any of the editing suggestions I gave. I wonder why she insists on having me review her work. Good thing I kept the notes from previous years.

    If you can't sell it, please…write something else.

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