When is it time to give up?

In thinking of what to write about today while my computer is down and I can’t access all of my blog notes, it occurred to me that I should ask a question to our readers that I ask myself often in the line of duty, or in publishing terms, in my life as an agent.

I have been known to go to the end of the earth for an author or a project I love, and one of my first blog posts ever was about the sale of a book that took me 54 publishers to find a home. It’s since gone on to sell over 200,000 copies (if only every publishing story had such a happy ending).

In part this commitment (sometimes verging on insanity) stems from the fact that it takes a lot for me to sign something up these days and if I do, it means either I really love it or I think I’m going to be able to sell it, or hopefully both. And in part it’s because I really just don’t like giving up. It often becomes a mission for me to try to come up with a creative alternative to a book that might not be working as well as I’d hoped. We invest so much time in the development of our projects that I hate to admit failure and say I can’t sell something. Maybe that’s why I’m in the middle of vetting two contracts from publishers we’ve never done business with before!

It’s a trait that often serves me and my clients well, but sometimes backfires too and there does come a time when it really is time to give up and move on. I’m wondering what that time looks like for all of you in your writing life. I know it depends on where you are in your process, but, for example, do you try 5 agents, 10, 20, more? If you get an agent and they submit your book and it isn’t selling, would you rather rethink that book if you get consistent feedback or try something different altogether? How many projects have you stopped when you realized it just wasn’t going to work?

There’s no magic number or answer, and it’s different for each author and each project, but I am curious to hear what you all think about this topic and what your answer is to the question “When is it time to give up?”. And when I say give up, I mean on a particular project, not the dream of being published, which you should never give up on!

17 Responses to When is it time to give up?

  1. RamseyH says:

    I think the real question is, what manuscript CAN’T you give up on? That’s the one you need to be writing.

  2. I think it’s realistic to shelve a project to work on something new. You never know if later a chance might come up to revisit the old project, polish it up, try again. For me, I had to move on to something else because I’m fairly new at this, and I found myself getting stuck fixing lots of rookie mistakes and not getting anywhere. With the new story I started, I have more experience on how to start it better and not have to backtrack as much.

    Joining a critique group has helped. As a writer, sometimes our lonely island of ideas need a realistic punch in the face.

  3. I haven’t even begun querying yet, so all my thoughts on when to give up there are theoretical, but I’ve shelved books when it became apparent they weren’t working. I’d still like to go back to them someday (and redo them from scratch), but at the time it was clear I could do better work on different projects. So I guess in any situation, it depends on context, but when it becomes clear the energy could be better spent elsewhere, it’s time to move on.

  4. C. says:

    When you have queried –

    EVERY agent who represents the genre.

    EVERY publishing house that represents the genre and accepts unsolicited queries.

    And then rewritten the manuscript COMPLETELY (so completely no one would recognize it) and repeated the above process.

    If you still find yourself rejected then, you’ll hopefully have accumulated thick skin, some good advice and a healthy thirst for revenge.

    Using those three awesome tools, you’ll start working on the next one.

    …and repeat.

    I sold my first manuscript, but if I hadn’t, I most definitely would have gone the above route.

  5. ryan field says:

    Just keep writing and trying to find an audience. I see so many authors working on just one book when they should be thinking about how many books they are going to write. Only a select few will have one or two big books. The majority of the authors out there need to focus on more than one project…and know when to leave a book that’s not going to sell.

  6. If I still believe in a project, have put it through the process of critique, beta readers, professional edit, et al, and still have passion for it, I keep going. But I also like to be learning new things, challenging myself to improve, and working on something fresh. At some point I look back at an earlier ms and realize it is no longer my best work. Then it’s time to shelve it.

  7. V. Lynn Burgess says:

    Hi Stacey,

    This topic caught my attention right away. A good write.

    I like that you trust your gut and work hard to sell the story.

    Fear is paralyzing. Many companies are taking less risks and I think this may be the root cause rather than an inability to sell a book. There are reasons why you need to be vetting the new publishers. Reputation means everything and what are theirs?

    My queries are exclusive. As a client, I’d want your take on why the book is hard to sell. What are the rejection reasons? Sometimes we need our colleagues take on the situation–What would you do? I am unfamiliar with your kind of work flow & if you’re able to share with a colleague. Get their feedback too. Trust your gut. You’ve been in this market and an expert now too. Good luck with your decision. I wish the best for you and your client.

  8. Hillsy says:

    I’ll quote Heinlein’s 5th rule: You must keep it on the market until it’s sold

    Rob Sawyers’ notes on Heinlein’s 5 rules: Very sage stuff

    Basically it’s what C said….try everywhere. Though like Sawyer (see link) I’d have an amendment. By the time you’ve exauhsted all revenue streams you should probably have written something else, so shelve the one that isn’t selling and send out the new one.

    Rinse. Repeat.

  9. Nicole says:

    Well, Stacey. As a very fortunate beneficiary of your commitment/insanity, I would have to say that, for me, the time to give up (or at least shelve a project) is when feedback from different editors (or the agent) is starting to sound eerily similar.

    This is something I frequently focus on with writing students who are having their work peer reviewed: Yes, as the writer you have the option of ignoring feedback with which you don’t agree. However, if more than one person mentions the same issue(s), odds are there’s still more work to be done.

    That doesn’t make hitting the pause button on a beloved project any easier though.

  10. Sarah Henson says:

    I continue until I’ve exhausted all possibilities. ‘Til I’ve queried every agent in my genre, pursued every glimmer of hope, and revised until I can’t type another word. I have shelved a manuscript after a handful of queries because I realized that not only does the manuscript need a lot more work, it doesn’t fit in the current market. One day I’ll revisit it and start revising again. The manuscript I’m querying now I one that I totally believe in, so I’ll keep going until I’ve done everything I possibly can. Only then will I put it aside and let it rest.

    My energies are not wholly consumed by that one project, however. While I’m querying it, I’m writing another. It’s a sequel to the first, but I’m writing it to stand alone in case the first doesn’t go anywhere. I can’t bring myself to give up on this story though, and until I’ve gotten a rejection from every single person who might be interested there’s always the chance there’s someone out there who will believe in it enough not to give up either.

  11. Andrea says:

    Good question. I guess I wouldn´t give up as long as I still believed in my own work. If I´d get specific feedback on the story´s shortcomings that makes sense to me and I´d know these shortcomings couldn´t be fixed, I think I´d give up and concentrate on something else. I try not to identify myself with my work and always look for ways to improve my writing. Hopefully this attitude will get me published one day. If not, then at least I´ve tried and had a good time entertaining myself with my own stories…

  12. Thomas Wolf says:

    This is a great question. And as Stacey points out, it’s relevant for both writers and agents–and thus, for the relationship between writers and agents.

    All of us hope to find an agent who has a commitment–a commitment “sometimes verging on insanity”–to support our work and to sell our projects. That said, I understand (as all writers must) that agents have limited time and must keep selling projects in order to stay in business. Writers have more leeway (since none of us should reasonably expect to make a living through writing alone); we can be passionate about the work we’ve done, or plan to, until we drop dead–and I mean that literally.

    But it also helps to have some discipline about what to pursue, and how to allocate one’s time and energies.

    I often put aside shorter pieces–essays or short stories–because with those projects I can grasp pretty quickly whether the idea, or my approach to it, is working. Sometimes I can go back to it, sometimes it’s best just to forget about it.

    Books are different. The first book was hard to sell (and even harder to write), but my co-author and I were persistent because we knew the material was good and we trusted our ability to figure out how to tell the story. We approached agents, and despite many encouraging words from several of them, we had to take the project to publishers without representation.

    I’m working on two books now. One is under contract to a university press–again, it was sold without an agent. The other book–still unsold–is about the 1932 baseball season. I have worked almost five years on the project, and I believe it will eventually find the right publisher. I am lucky to have an agent who believes in the project. But I also know it’s my job to accept her guidance in terms of shaping the book and proposal so that she can match my idea with a publisher who will see the potential worth of the book.

    If a book doesn’t sell, would I rethink it? Yes, definitely. But after spending five years researching, thinking, and writing, would I give up? I’d have to say no.

  13. Bethany Neal says:

    I too am quite tenacious in the never-giving-up game. Comfort in moving on generally comes when I’ve become emerged in my next project. I don’t think I’d ever truly give up on a past novel I’d written, but I can get to a point where I’m OK(ish) w/letting my next novel in line be the one to take the glory aka get published. ‘Cause it will be happen–between the 2 of us, it will!


  14. Peter J. Fusco says:

    For me it’s when the characters stop talking, not just to me, but to each other too. I know it’s time to say, “goodbye” to everyone when they’ve gone silent in my head, when there’s no one waking me up in the middle of the night to have his or her say. It’s actually quite sad, especially after you’ve developed a rather deep and abiding relationship with one or two, or all of them. You know what I mean, I’m sure. When the woman you constructed, and fell in love with, is no longer there, no longer waiting for you in the morning, no longer being funny and tender and loving, when you can’t watch as she’s brushing her hair, or applying the lipstick she asked if you liked, that’s when it’s time to give up. The saddest part about it is a piece of you dies every time it happens, and it becomes oh, so very hard to begin again. But that’s why we write, isn’t it? We love the heartache. We love the anxiety. We love.

  15. Stacey says:

    A belated but heartfelt thank you to all who weighed in on this topic, with a special nod to my clients who shared their thoughts. Glad to see this was something worth further discussion, and look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you.

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