Canceling My Book Deal Was the Best Career Move I’ve Ever Made
A contract that doesn't suit your needs or expectations could be worse than no book deal at all
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
I started querying agents for my memoir, Negative Space, in 2012, after two years of writing and revising. I got a few rounds of passes, including several friendly rejections in which agents said they just didn’t “know how to sell” my book. I heard this refrain enough times that I started considering the small press route—my book was not the most commercial, and maybe these agents were right that it wasn’t destined for a major house. I was blending reporting and memoir and visual art, and I understood why my project might be hard to fit neatly into a marketing niche. But maybe there was a small press out there that would be excited about my weird little project. That’s what small presses are all about, after all—taking risks that the big houses aren’t nimble enough for—and that’s why they put out some of the freshest and most exciting books.
But that route wasn’t easy either. By the time I got an offer from a small press in 2016, I’d received almost 50 rejections from agents and small presses alike, and rewritten the entire manuscript four more times. I was in that headspace that I think every writer reaches at one point or another where I was starting to wonder if the whole endeavor had been a waste of time—if maybe this book would end up in a drawer and nobody would ever read it, and perhaps I should just cut my losses and move on to a new and more sellable project.
I was so used to rejection that I had to read the offer email multiple times before it sunk in: this press really wanted to publish my book! I was so grateful to have finally received a “yes” after four years of “no” that I decided to overlook the fact that I’d never heard of this particular small press until I found them on Poets & Writers’ master list of small presses, and that I’d never heard of any of their books, either. The publisher was upfront with me that they were a small operation and didn’t offer much publicity support. But that was okay—I lived in New York City and felt well-connected enough to run my own publicity campaign. And if I started saving right away, I might even be able to hire an independent publicist. The publisher also told me that they didn’t have a distribution partner, and that if I wanted to get my book into stores I’d have to do the legwork myself. That gave me a little more pause, since distribution was further outside my wheelhouse than publicity, but I wasn’t going to let a logistical challenge like that keep me from my dream of seeing my book published. I accepted the offer, deciding I’d cross the distribution bridge when I got to it.
All of that is to say: I settled. I won’t name the press here because the specific press is beside the point—the point is that not all small presses are created equal, and I should have gotten clearer on what exactly I expected and wanted from a publisher, and done the research to figure out which presses could and couldn’t provide those things. The arrangement this press was offering would have been fine if all I wanted was to have my book printed so I could say I’d published a book, and so copies would be available for my friends and family. But I had bigger ambitions than that—I wanted this to be the first book of many, and I wanted it to make at least a small mark. Still, I was so used to getting the door slammed in my face, it seemed absurd that I might decline to walk through this one that was finally open to me. I think this is a common author mindset: we get into a groove of asking to be let in, a groove so deep it becomes single-minded desperation. We become so fixated on getting the “yes” that we lose sight of the big picture, the real point: finding a publisher that will be a good steward for the work we’ve poured our heart and soul into. Someone we can trust with our life’s work.
During the six months that I waited for edits from this publisher, I focused on building my platform. I pitched essays to high-profile outlets, I went to readings, I spent time interacting with writers I admired on Twitter. I convinced myself I could do my own publicity and marketing and distribution. I knew it wasn’t ideal, but, I figured, I was an unknown debut author with a hybrid memoir—I had to take what I could get.
Then, at the end of those six months, I discovered that my publisher wasn’t actually planning to send me edits, but was putting the version of the manuscript that I’d submitted directly into layout. That was the last straw. I felt like the book was in good shape, but I’d still been looking forward to some editorial guidance after so long on my own. And if they weren’t going to provide editorial feedback in addition to not helping with marketing and publicity, or handling distribution, what the hell were they doing for me, exactly? With what they were offering, I may as well have self-published, and if I was going to do that, why did I just spend four years getting rejected?
The rationalizations I’d made to convince myself to take this deal crumbled under this latest development. I knew I couldn’t publish with this press—that if I did, my book would wither on the vine, fading into obscurity before it even launched. A bad book deal, I understood finally, was worse than no book deal at all.
The process of cancelling the deal wasn’t as logistically complex or fraught as I thought it would be—no money had changed hands yet, and an email saying I wished to void our contract was enough to do so. The publisher was understanding—it was clear I was looking for more than she could offer, and she didn’t want to go forward knowing I’d be frustrated and resentful any more than I did. But despite the lack of legal hoops to jump through, canceling the deal was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life—professional or otherwise. I knew there was a real chance I’d never get another offer. That my book might end up in a drawer after all, that there was a version of the future in which I’d deeply regret this decision, and wish I’d taken a less-than-ideal deal and just made it work. I was so anxious I had trouble sleeping, constant heartburn, several new grey hairs, and a few uncontrollable crying jags. But I knew there was another version of the future in which I bided my time and eventually found a publisher that would do my book justice. I knew I had to do the scary thing and stand up for my book, because nobody else would if I didn’t.
I gave myself a little time to sulk and mourn, and then I went back to revising my manuscript. The horror I’d felt at the idea of the current version being put directly into layout was a sure sign that it wasn’t actually finished yet, so I dove back in to push it as far as I possibly could on my own. Then I took a writing workshop, paid for a manuscript review from an author I admire, and revised some more. And during the two more years I spent revising, I was also slowly and meticulously building a new list of small presses to submit to.
Now I knew what to look for in a small press. This time, I was clear on the fact that while micro-presses are great for some writers and some books, I was looking for a more robust small press that could offer more support. This time, before adding a small press to my query list, I researched their three most recent titles in my genre, making sure they had at least a dozen or so reviews on Amazon (an imperfect indication of popularity, but still a sign that the books were actually being read) and at least a couple of trade reviews. I only submitted to presses that were part of SPD or IPG (national distributors that make books easy for bookstores to order). I prioritized presses with a robust social media presence, and presses that had published books I was familiar with. That last one was harder the first time around because I was newer to the literary world and figured that just because I hadn’t heard of a book didn’t mean it hadn’t made a mark—but the additional time spent revising and familiarizing myself with the small press landscape helped with that: I was way more plugged in now, and knew way more small press authors, so I had a clearer sense of who was who and which presses were able to generate buzz for their authors. I took my time researching and honing a list, and rather than submitting to every press I could find like I did the previous time, I submitted to a targeted list of about 20 small presses that I knew I would be proud to sign with. I also included on that list small presses that were running contests with well-known memoirists serving as guest judges—winning a contest adds a little extra publicity boost to a debut title, and if an author I respected had agreed to attach their name to a press, that was a major point in favor of the press’ credibility.
Three years after I canceled my first book deal, I ended up winning second place in one of those contests, which came with an offer of publication. This time around, I knew I wasn’t settling—I had found a press that has a distribution partner, and offers publicity support, and has a solid reputation and smart editors. And it turned out my book also needed those extra years to develop—the version I submitted to my eventual actual publisher was unrecognizable from the version that almost went straight into layout at the other press.
I know now that it would have been worth waiting another decade if that’s what it took—that as desperate as we sometimes feel for a “yes” when all we’re hearing is “no,” at the end of the day we, the authors, are the ones bringing the goods to the table. If you put everything you’ve got into writing the best book you can, you can’t just hand it over to anyone. It will always be worth it to hold out for the publisher that will champion your work, send it out into the world with the best chance of success, and fight for its success alongside you.
My book is finally on its way out into the world, nine years after I thought it was done and started querying that first time; eleven years after I started writing it. I don’t know what will happen—it could still be a flop, after all of this. But no matter what, I’ll know I gave it the best fighting chance of reaching readers who will cherish it, and that I made the right call holding out for the right deal.