How Many Manuscripts Does It Take?

The “Your Questions Answered” Series

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I was wondering about debut novelists. I think sometimes readers (and writers) are under the misconception that debut novelists are signed with an agent or a publishing house with their first completed manuscript. But the more I read, listen, talk to other writers, I’m learning how rare it is for that to happen. Would you be able to compile an average on how many manuscripts it took for a writer before they were signed by your agency? Or how many completed manuscripts it took before they were able to sign a contract with a publishing house? And if writers have been able to sign with an agent with their first completed manuscript, what set it apart?

Great questions! I’ll confine my comments to fiction.

I can’t offer an agency average, but I can tell you that I wrote at least four or five novels before Barbour published my “first” book. I always stress to writers that no writing is wasted. I learned with each project!

Autobiographical

In reviewing submissions as an agent, I sense that many authors’ first novels are autobiographical. Writing a story based on your life is an excellent exercise to work through emotions and excise hurts. However, you’ll need to move well beyond your life story if you want a career.

Variety

Very few novelists sell the first manuscript they write because they need time to mature and grow in craft. To pursue a serious career as a novelist, I recommend that authors consider filing away that first book and pitching their second or even third novel to agents. Also, show us where you’d like to go with your career by offering ideas for a couple of other projects. 

Guidance

One massive benefit of signing with an agent is that we help writers interpret rejection letters. We know how to read those and use that information to encourage or discourage authors regarding particular houses. So, yes, even an author with an agent may need more than one chance with a publishing house.

Persistence

Keep reading, writing, learning, and persisting. Knowledge plus determination are two keys to success.

Your turn:

Do you have an amazing publishing story to share?

How many books did you write before you were published?

If you are waiting to be published, how many books have you written so far?

For the entire series, click here: “Your Questions Answered.”

31 Responses to How Many Manuscripts Does It Take?

  1. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 29, 2020 at 4:53 am #

    How many books will it take
    to get you through TradPub’s door
    with that lucky, lucky break?
    Just one more, babe just one more.
    Talent’s there, of that, no question,
    but your skill, it must be honed;
    so here is modest suggestion:
    write until you’re feeling stoned.
    Don’t look at me, so disbelievin’,
    shaking straight or curly locks;
    wwhen I say ‘stoned’, it’s like St. Stephen
    with your muse a-throwing rocks,
    and this is how you’ll come to know
    if down this path you want to go.

    • Avatar
      Frank October 29, 2020 at 6:36 am #

      I know it is hard. but proof reading is required. “When” has only ONE “w.” I make many mistakes, hopefully they are becoming fewer. Just trying to help.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser October 29, 2020 at 10:12 am #

        Frank, yeah, I noticed that…right after I pressed ‘submit’.

        Embarrassing! (And I nearly spelled that with one ‘r’, then figured I’d best check…)

  2. Avatar
    Terry Whalin October 29, 2020 at 5:05 am #

    Tamela,

    I’ve interviewed many bestselling novelists and repeatedly they tell me their first novel (and often several novels) are still sitting in their computer–unpublished. Your experience is duplicated with many others. You have to plow forward and write several before one of them gets published. It’s a process and at times a painful process to reach the goal of getting your novel published.

    Terry
    author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

    • Avatar
      Audra Sanlyn October 29, 2020 at 8:01 am #

      Thank you for answering these questions. My first book has been filed away because it was terrible and the second was a nonfiction family project that has been self-published. I definitely learned a lot from both and hope that this third will be able to go through a traditional publisher.

  3. Avatar
    JeannieDelahunt October 29, 2020 at 5:17 am #

    Very encouraging and helpful information. Thank you!!!

  4. Avatar
    DAMON J GRAY October 29, 2020 at 5:31 am #

    >If you are waiting to be published, how many books have you written so far?

    I’ve completed three manuscripts and am waist-deep in a fourth one. I believe the key (for me, at least) is to write. That’s what writers do. If I write because I’m a writer, then that is success. If it advances the kingdom of God, that is the fulfillment of a goal. If it is published and sells a half-million copies, that is a serendipitous success, and an incentive to keep doing what I would do anyway.

    • Avatar
      Kate Angelo October 29, 2020 at 7:10 am #

      Now, this is a comment I love! Great insight.

    • Avatar
      Karen Procopio October 29, 2020 at 8:15 am #

      May I print and laminate this precious tidbit? Thank you!

  5. Avatar
    Toni Wilbarger October 29, 2020 at 6:07 am #

    I’ve written three novels so far, but I count it as four. An agent took the time to write a long letter about the things she would change in my last manuscript. Things like changing from multiple viewpoint characters to a single viewpoint. Changing a character’s profession. After the initial “what does she know” response, I gave it more thought. Then I sat down and did what she asked. Basically, it’s a whole new novel, one that placed in the semi-finals in two contests and runner up in another. I’m now ready to submit the novel, and I am writing a sequel based on a different character’s viewpoint.

    • Avatar
      Kate Angelo October 29, 2020 at 7:13 am #

      I keyed in on your point about bypassing the “what does she know” thoughts, and really taking the advice that’s being given. My CP’s offer great advice that sometimes does not fit with my book, but the longer I consider what they are saying, the more I realize that I need to listen. I need to write with the reader in mind, and not just tell a story for myself.

    • Avatar
      OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU October 29, 2020 at 3:49 pm #

      What is wrong with having multi view point characters? Is this a good thing or not? Did your agent frown at it because it did not fit the genre or just what?!!

  6. Avatar
    Stephanie Daniels October 29, 2020 at 6:15 am #

    Thank you so much for answering this question. Valuable advice.

  7. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson October 29, 2020 at 6:15 am #

    I’m working on my sixth novel. I rewrote the first one twice and rewrote the fourth one once. I’m waiting for a response from submitting the fifth while working on the sixth. God’s timing is always perfect, but that doesn’t make the waiting any easier. Ha!

  8. Avatar
    Abby Martin October 29, 2020 at 6:38 am #

    I’ve been writing since 2014 (non, fiction, and poetry). I finished my second novel in 2018 (first wrote it in 2017), polished it in 2019.
    My first novel right now (first written in 2017, when I was 16) is on life support. It has no detail, it is flat. So, I am working to revamp it and rewrite it.
    I also have a non-fiction I finished in summer 2020 (wrote in 2019). 🙂

    • Avatar
      Abby Martin October 29, 2020 at 7:33 am #

      Oh, I’m not published. Forgot to mention that! After the election, I will begin my search.

  9. Avatar
    Richard Mabry October 29, 2020 at 7:20 am #

    Four years, four books (and revisions), forty rejections before I had my first novel published. Never give up, never give up, never give up.

    • Avatar
      Martha Rogers October 29, 2020 at 10:10 am #

      So right on, Richard. My first manuscript I submitted in 1993 was rejected so many times and went through too many revisions to count before it was finally published this past year. It’s worth the wait and the time and the rejections.

  10. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks October 29, 2020 at 8:02 am #

    It was my fourth manuscript that found a home with a small press. I have written eighteen manuscripts and am about to jump into number nineteen for NaNoWriMo this year. I am still looking for an agent and a publishing home for my children’s books. So yeah, long journey.

  11. Avatar
    Carrie Stuart Parks October 29, 2020 at 9:09 am #

    My first novel got me an agent and 14 rejection letters. I put it on the back burner, rolled up my proverbial sleeves, and wrote the second. Lost my first agent, got a new one, and sold that second ms at auction with two of the “big five” in a three book deal.

    Here’s the “rest of the story.” It took me 7 years to write that first novel–which I later re-wrote to become book #2 in the series. My mentor was Frank Peretti. I attended over fifteen writer’s conferences, read over 80 books on the craft, and took countless on-line courses. Writing is a craft that takes years to learn–and that learning is a life-long endeavor. Thank you for the article!

  12. Avatar
    Martha Rogers October 29, 2020 at 10:05 am #

    As Tamela can attest, it took years and several manuscripts before I had one ready for her and then for a publisher. My first novel was written and completed my freshman year in college, and I sometimes look at it now and see how it could never have been published as it was written. I’ve learned a lot since then through conferences and writing groups. Perseverance is the key as well as learning from rejections.

  13. Avatar
    Felicity October 29, 2020 at 11:04 am #

    I’ve heard it takes 4-6 books to be ready. I’m on my third book 🙂 my question, though, is are these first number of books first drafts or been through multiple edits?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray October 29, 2020 at 12:45 pm #

      There’s no firm answer on that. Some people can write a novel that’s practically ready for submission on a rough draft. Trust me, those people are few. Others need multiple edits. Keep going!

  14. Avatar
    Kathryn Drinkwater October 29, 2020 at 11:45 am #

    My story is God allowed me the blessing of having my first book accepted by Scholastic NZ.
    It was my first children’s novel, however I had put in years of preparation before I wrote it. I completed a comprehensive writing course that guaranteed me I would earn my course fee back by the time I’d completed the course, or they would refund the fee. That proved true, I received payments from magazines for articles and a short story, before I’d finished the course.
    When I wrote my children’s novel my first goal was I wanted to change, ‘one day I’ll write a book’, to ‘I have written a book’. I wrote it for a competition. I ensured I followed the instructions in my writing course material. It didn’t get a place but it was in the top 10 and came back with judge’s feedback. I made the suggested improvements and sent it to Scholastic NZ. It took ages as it went through meeting processes etc but months later I had a yes. Praise God!
    Even so, I lost the plot (excuse the pun) on the sequel and it wasn’t accepted. I’m still working on it.
    Although I had the blessing of a first acceptance on my first book, and it was with a big publisher, the selling and marketing side wasn’t as easy as I expected. It took 3 years to sell one print run of 3000 books. Then it stayed out of print for years.
    My good news now though, is they are planning a reprint in March. This is my opportunity to be more determined on the selling side. The book title is Dog Tucker. I’m praying it will make it further than just NZ and Australia this time, so keep an eye out for it. 😊 Everyone’s path is unique so never give up.

  15. Avatar
    Cindi October 29, 2020 at 12:36 pm #

    This is so encouraging! Thanks!

  16. Avatar
    OLUSOLA SOPHIA ANYANWU October 29, 2020 at 4:02 pm #

    God bless you for this interesting post! I have self published 6! My 7th got rejected but without any feedback. The most important thing a writer can receive on getting a rejection letter is a feedback that would greatly help. However, I have noticed that writing a lot and attending workshops improves me a lot in my craft as a writer. Perseverance and patience is key but waiting for God’s time is the best. It will surely come!

  17. Avatar
    Christine L. Henderson October 30, 2020 at 6:49 pm #

    I do weekly interviews with published authors and I would have to say at least 90% of them have their first try at a novel hidden in a closet never to see the light of publication!

    My first attempt was a tongue-in-cheek look at real estate. My friends loved it, but I laugh when I look at it and wonder how did I think it was ready for publication.

  18. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. November 1, 2020 at 4:18 pm #

    Hi Tamela:
    I have written a dissertation which was published. After 400 pages with it, I had a false sense of security about my writing. I switched gears and wrote three novels and two self-help books, none of which have been published yet but I am still learning through blogs like the ones posted by the Laube Agency and am constantly reading books on how to write by published authors. I realize that I have a lot to learn and am focused on learning how to do this successfully.

  19. Avatar
    Stephan November 5, 2020 at 10:17 am #

    Thank you Tamela, and for the interesting responses.

    Maybe I missed out on this one : What would you say is the average number of submissions before stopping a project?

  20. Avatar
    Christine Dillon November 15, 2020 at 8:55 pm #

    For fiction, two practise novels which I plan to revisit in about 18 months, when I finish the sixth of the published novels.
    For non-fiction, my second was accepted by a traditional publisher but the third went to a bigger publisher.

    So much to learn. I felt like I did 3 Masters degrees at the same time – writing + marketing + self-publishing/business. Exhausting but also stimulating. Officially 4 novels and 4 non-fiction released but there were lots of other projects/bits and pieces too (magazine articles, poetry, prayer diaries …).

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