Your Book Might Not Sell, and You Have to Live With That
I didn't write my book for the money, but I wasn't really prepared for it to go nowhere
A few years ago I started collaborating with a client on her first book. When we signed the papers, in addition to including the fee structure and the schedule, I added one important stipulation: There is no guarantee that this book will sell.
My client signed the papers but I knew that that line meant nothing to her. She assumed—still assumes—that if she writes a good enough proposal that it will sell, that she’ll have readers, the same way you think If I take all the requisite courses, I’ll graduate. She’s often talking about her hypothetical readers—not a reader, as in the hypothetical one she envisions as she writes, but her readers, real people who will go to a bookstore and purchase the book with her name embossed on the front and photograph on the back flap.
I admire her confidence—or perhaps it’s simply her ignorance—but I can’t help but brace myself. When she launches into one of her oh, but how will people react to me writing about—I often stop her: Please don’t worry about that now, write what you want to write, we will worry about selling later. She claims to hear me—oh, of course, I know that, this has been such a wonderful experience either way!—but I can tell that she doesn’t really believe me. She doesn’t yet know that you can have a compelling story, a strong voice, a well-known name, maybe even many publications under your belt, and still not sell a book you’ve spent years of your life on. (I say this, of course, having absolutely no idea whether her book will sell. I hope it will; I think it should. But I know that it might not.)
Over and over, I remind her that she needs to write the book because she wants to write the book, not because she wants to sell the book. They are two separate things, you know this, right? I tell her again and again. The satisfaction is in the writing.
That’s exactly what I told myself for a decade while I worked on my first book. That’s exactly what I was told to focus on while in graduate school. But at a certain point it’s hard to convince yourself that you’re doing this thing day after day, year after year, and that you don’t actually care whether anything happens to it.
Here’s the central, inescapable conundrum any person writing a book faces: In order to keep fear at bay, you have to imagine that you are doing this for yourself alone—for the deep, creative satisfaction of committing to, and executing, a vision over the long haul. You dig and dig and dig and write with as much honesty and grit and bravery as you can, pretending no one will ever see it.
But in order to keep going—to put in the hours day after day for years—you have to believe, somewhere inside you, that it will eventually exist outside the confines of your mind and your computer. That it will, in other words, sell.
This means you have to willfully ignore the reality of publishing. You have to forget that it is, in fact, extremely hard to sell a book. That the chances of it happening are slim, and that the reasons it does or doesn’t sell might have little to do with the quality of the book itself.
The question is: how do you sustain all these realities at once, for years on end?
And what happens when the book you pretended you were writing for you but secretly hoped, secretly believed would sell, actually doesn’t?
During the two years I spent at Columbia getting my MFA in nonfiction, there was very little talk of what happened when the doors to the workshop rooms opened and we were let loose into the publishing world. At school, we were in an incubator where we were to focus exclusively on the writing itself and not worry about anything unrelated to craft. This was part of the program’s philosophical approach, one it was easy to get behind: Craft is the most important part after all. Without it you can’t sell a damn thing.
We knew deep down that this was an enormous, expensive luxury and we took full advantage, reading three books a week, producing thousands of awful and then less-awful pages and then pretty good pages that no one but us would ever see. We were never supposed to write for the marketplace, or really even think about the marketplace, even though many of us had gone into tremendous debt to be there. It was irrelevant anyway, and maybe even a relief. Good literature, we assumed, floated to the top, or something like that.
Write the book you needed to read that didn’t exist. I don’t know how many times this was said, but that’s what we tried to do, all the while not talking about whether said book would sell. We did talk a lot about what was a book and what was—as one of my favorite professors put it—an “‘ook.” We put our heads down and dug into draft #872, trying to turn our ‘ooks into books.
But as the exit sign got closer, a lot of us started to panic. Well, this was fun, but now what? Does it really not matter if anything comes of this?
Here’s what happened to my book, in brief:
During graduate school, I knew that what I wanted to write was longer than an essay, but doubted whether I could actually write a book. During my second semester one of my professors looked at the mass of material I had so far and said, “This is a book. Get to it. You’re no spring chicken!” (I was 32.) So I wrote the book, my thesis, all 360 pages of it, which was a memoir about the back injury that ended my career as a professional dancer and the unconventional journey I went on to heal my body. It was nothing I could sell, but it was a start.
Over the course of the next eight years—during which time I got married, moved across the world twice, had a baby, and kept trying to prioritize the book while also struggling to make a living—I had three different agents try to sell it. The first signed me too early, before there was even a book there, and then quit agenting. The second tried to sell it on proposal when I was eight months pregnant, and the last tried to sell two-thirds of the manuscript, even though the whole thing was written, when my daughter was four.
The last two agents sent it out, as one often does, in a small batch, to ensure that if changes needed to be made, we wouldn’t have exhausted every publisher already. The responses were lovely and kind (“beautiful writing,” “what a story,” “I love her voice”) but the editors rejected it nonetheless. They couldn’t quite put their finger on the problem, but it was there. The ones who actually read the book—not the proposal—said it was “too quiet,” which is code for “won’t sell.”
My third agent and I regrouped. No big deal! This happens all the time. She suggested a massive rewrite, one that involved adding another story line. I didn’t quite see how it fit inside the book I’d already written, but was willing to take a stab at.
It took me nine months to figure out that I didn’t, in fact, want to take a stab at it. My total avoidance of it told me all I needed to know.
I was exaggerating when I said that there was never any talk during grad school of selling our books. There was Sam Freedman’s famed Book Proposal class at Columbia’s Journalism School, which some of us took. Other times, selling or not selling our books was chalked up to whether or not we’d finished what we started. “Ninety percent of you will never sell a book,” we were told to audible gasps. Then came the punchline: “Because most of you will never finish one.”
And issues related to the marketplace seeped through the cracks in odd moments. For example: early on in my second year—after reading perhaps two of my workshop submissions, totaling 60 or so pages—one of my mentors asked me, “How are we going to get Melanie Thernstrom to blurb your book?” Thernstrom had just published a massive nonfiction book about pain, which was a central part of my book. My book wasn’t even a full thesis yet, just a collection of chapters that didn’t yet have a proper shape. I knew there was a story there—I’d lived it, I knew its contours well—but I was swimming around in the material, trying to find my way, trying to believe that I could one day craft it into something that came to 300 coherent, magnificent pages. And now we were thinking about blurbs?
This comment almost single-handedly got me through the next two years of writing it. This was going somewhere, there would be an actual jacket cover that necessitated a blurb. A real jacket cover!
The only other time this came up was during my thesis conference when one of the readers, a writer whose work I deeply admired, wrote in her comments, “When she sells this book—and I mean when not if….”
That comment, too, kept me going for another few years. All this time I was spending away from my baby, sneaking time away from paid work, declining full-time jobs and asking my husband to foot the bulk of the bills for just a little while longer, believing in this dream: it would come to something.
It somehow didn’t matter to me that, by then, I regularly sold essays, had worked as a magazine editor for years, and had landed college teaching gigs. Selling my book was the only thing that made me believe I had made it. Selling my book meant that I wasn’t crazy, that I wasn’t just another person writing my novel.
But also—and this is something we rarely talk about—it meant I’d make actual money for all this time I’d put in. That my skills and hard work would be compensated. It meant that this had been a worthy investment, and not just for my soul.
After my agent suggested the massive change I couldn’t wrap my head around, I called that same mentor, the one who’d imagined a Thernstrom blurb, for advice. I was sure she’d tell me to persevere, to keep working on it—she was, after all, the one who’d said we had to finish, the one who’d told me repeatedly I was telling a unique story.
Instead, she heard me out and asked, “Are you working on anything else?”
“Anything else?” I asked, confused. “Like, another book?”
It had taken everything I had to write this book. No, I didn’t have anything else. At least nothing else that was remotely presentable.
“Maybe you should consider moving on.”
I hadn’t written the first one to sell it. I’d written it—like most people write books—because I needed to. Because I needed that much space to explore the issues I was grappling with: losing dance, the thing I loved most on earth, and my easy relationship to my body. I needed to explore the reality of pain, injury, identity, growing up, the frailty and resilience of the body, a swerve that comes out of nowhere, the sad fact that our parents—and doctors—can’t always protect us. I knew, in my bones, that while my story was mine alone, I was touching on universal themes. Who cared whether the reader knew the first thing about dance?
I also wanted to write a good book—I wanted to find the right structure, tone, narrative arc. To make a beautiful piece of art.
I did not write it to sell it, and I certainly didn’t write it to make a lot of money. But any time you devote years and years to something, you of course want to feel that the work has not been (that horrible phrase) in vain.
Now she was suggesting I move on?
The truth is that books have a shelf life. By the time I called my mentor for advice, the book had already started to feel dead to me, inanimate. I could almost see it drifting off to sea on a little raft and I just didn’t have it in me to dive in after it. So I didn’t.
At a certain point, I realized that I could spend the rest of my life rewriting this one book or move onto another one, hoping I still had the courage to try again.
Then last summer, years after I thought I’d basically let that first book go and didn’t care about it not selling anymore, I saw on Twitter that a similar book had been sold. I sobbed in the bathroom for hours, totally undone. It felt, momentarily, like I’d wasted ten years of my working life, like a fool, and here was the proof. All this time someone else was doing it better and she hadn’t failed. She didn’t need to turn to her husband, and say sorry, I guess it didn’t pay off in the end. Maybe I should just do something else?
Yes, most writers have a dreaded drawer book or two, the ones that taught us about perseverance, about structure and arc and voice and the difficulty of crafting a story out of the mess of life or our imaginations; about keeping your butt in the chair, about returning even when you think it’s hopeless, about drowning out the voices that say, this fucking sucks, you suck, this will never work, as well as the ones that say, you’re a fucking genius.
I have, ten years after starting the first one, finally started on a new book. All the work I put into my first one is informing this new project. But this attempt feels different, and I don’t think it’s just because what I’m trying to do artistically is so unfamiliar.
I think it’s because on some level I’ve let go of the idea of selling it at all, which is a small sadness at the heart of it. But it’s also a relief, at least in working on it day to day.
Which is to say: the very thing that kept me going the first time—one day this will sell!—is precisely the kind of commentary I’m avoiding altogether this time. On this project I’ve sought out almost no feedback. Every time I think about sending a piece of it to my agent, I stop myself. I want to protect it, and myself—to keep us in this cocoon for as long as it takes.
I know, for real now, that believing in something has nothing to do with selling it. I know that putting that pressure on the material doesn’t help. I know, of course, that the satisfaction is in the work itself—in making your mind and heart do the puzzling through, the hard labor, to take on another intellectual challenge—not in its complete, out-in-the-world form.
But, I must point out, this is often said by people whose books exist in that out-in-the-world form, who can compare the experiences.
Still, I will say that making anything at all is terrifying. Pouring your life for so long into something that never comes to official, physical fruition is a distinct kind of shame. A broken-heartedness. A feeling of failure you need to keep at bay if you want to keep going. It’s knowing that the money you thought you’d contribute to your family had to come from elsewhere (which was always going to be the case anyway), not from The Big Thing you devoted so much of your life to, The Big Thing you swore would one day pay off—not with millions, never with that, but with just enough to say: see, I’m working, too; here’s my part. This was never a hobby.
But pouring your life into something you care about is also distinctly human. It’s being brave, it’s going for something even when you have no possible way of knowing whether it’ll work out, or even knowing what “working out” means.
Does it mean finishing it? Liking it? Feeling challenged intellectually? Moved by your choices? Pushed artistically? Does it mean you didn’t pack it in? Does it mean you actually did become a better writer during all that time you spent moving commas around and rearranging the sections and fleshing out characters and trying to think up new structural fixes while swimming endless laps in the pool, your mind unencumbered and searching?
What kind of payoff are we looking for? Because I think I am, in fact, finding something these days just by showing up and wrestling with my hopes and my sadness, with my skills and my blind spots, with each word I set down. I am, dare I say, enjoying it, even a little.
Maybe “having it all work out” simply means you’re ready to try again, to let your heart be broken, to wade down into the depths with no guarantee that you will swim up to the surface with gold in hand.
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