When Your Proposal Doesn’t Sell

It happens. Despite all efforts and good intentions, not every proposal we shop will end up being contracted by a major publisher. Of course, our agency tries our best to keep that from happening. We carefully choose which projects and authors we represent. We work with our clients to create and develop top-notch proposals. And our success rate is extremely high.

But that success rate is not 100%.

Here are four examples of projects I represented in years past that did not sell to a major publisher (but great projects nonetheless):

  1. The autobiography of a well-known, former NFL coach who became a follower of Christ late in life. In his later years, he devoted considerable time to prison ministry. The story gave deep background into his time in the NFL.
  2. An extraordinary graphic novel series. It was ahead of its time, but no publisher was willing to take the obvious risk to produce and distribute the project. The author-artist later found his own backing and formed a company to create the material. They found a nontraditional distributor and ended up selling more than 250,000 units.
  3. An already self-published book on the importance of character in a person’s life, what it is and how to cultivate it. The author was a judge and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in his state. His credentials were impeccable. He was media-ready and spoke regularly on the topic.
  4. A supernatural fiction manuscript that caught my eye for its great story line and wonderful storytelling. The combination of being a debut author and having a thinly veiled science-fiction thread caused it to be rejected by everyone. The author shelved it and wrote another novel, which didn’t sell. The author shelved that one and began writing nonfiction where the author has become quite successful.

So what do you do if your project doesn’t capture a major publisher’s attention?

Try Again
See the fourth example above where the author did not give up, even switched to a different discipline entirely and found the perfect outlet for his talent. This is the most-common solution for professional writers. Tears of frustration may be shed, but they step back and come up with a new idea.

There’s more to this story! After developing a following as a nonfiction writer and a platform, I sold that original novel to a publisher nine years after the original attempt. Then seven years after that the author was able to publish yet another novel.

Do It Yourself
Let me reiterate that self-publishing is always an option if (a) you have an audience to which to sell the book, (b) you have the gumption to be an entrepreneur and sell your project successfully, and (c) you have the money to invest in making it an excellent final product. The first example above is what this author did. He was well loved in his community, even did local TV commercials, and thus had a ready-made market for his story. (He passed away a couple of years after publishing his book, but it remains in print to this day.) This is a perfect example of where self-publishing makes a lot of sense.

Find Another Way–Anything Is Possible
The second example above illustrates this strategy. The author did not take no for an answer and ended up with a company behind his work.

The judge, example three above, retired from his position and continued to speak and influence those around him. He continued to sell his self-published book to his listening audience. He was no worse off than before he approached me for representation. He gave it a shot, and it didn’t work out.

Or do as one lady did at a writers conference. During her 15-minute writers conference appointment, she asked me point-blank, “Do I have what it takes to be a successful writer?” I stammered a bit, not wanting to hurt her feelings. “You have the foundation of a good story, but it is going to take a lot of work to get it ready to be competitive.” She thanked me and abruptly ended the meeting. Later that afternoon she came bounding up to me full of smiles. She proclaimed, “I quit! I called my husband and told him I’m quitting this writing stuff and taking up knitting instead. I’m so happy! Thank you for telling me how much work it was going to take. I’d rather spend that time doing something I know I will enjoy.” The moral of that story is to ask yourself the ultimate question of whether you are willing to continue to work hard in order to overcome any objections to your next idea.


[A version of this post ran in February 2013. It has been thoroughly revised and updated.]

11 Responses to When Your Proposal Doesn’t Sell

  1. Wendy May 10, 2021 at 5:20 am #

    I’m a woman on a mission; God has taught me to persevere. I’ll do my best, then trust Him to work out the details. I’ve seen Him do amazing things in the details.

  2. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 10, 2021 at 6:27 am #

    Do not despair when cherished dreams
    seem to come apart,
    for only at road’s end, it seems
    does the true work start
    that carries you through parts unknown,
    through challenges and trials,
    and while you feel you walk alone
    down the dimming miles
    there’s Someone always at your side
    (look quick, and catch a peek!)
    through desert and through forest ride
    to help find what true heart seeks;
    not earthly hopes’ bright distant loom,
    but the promise of the Empty Tomb.

  3. Ellen Engbers May 10, 2021 at 7:32 am #

    What a great post! Your examples are wonderful and the last story made me chuckle. I could imagine the scenario and the huge relief in the woman’s voice. The article: Ten Things to Quit Right Now, was also very useful. I printed it off just to keep it in sight.
    God bless all of you for the way you consistently share for our benefit.
    Appreciate it very much!

  4. Louise Sedgwick May 10, 2021 at 8:29 am #

    You and your team do a masterful job of encouraging aspiring authors while keeping our feet on the ground. Thank you for your investment in us. It is a gift.

  5. Elliott Slaughter May 10, 2021 at 8:40 am #

    > … and having a thinly veiled science-fiction thread caused it to be rejected by everyone.

    Wow, I’d like to know more about that one. Is having a science-fiction thread (or novel) something that’s objectionable?

    • Steve Laube May 10, 2021 at 2:58 pm #

      Science Fiction and Fantasy have been a struggle to sell in our market for decades. There are always exceptions. Ted Dekker and Stephen Lawhead are two. Some put Left Behind into the speculative category. And since “supernatural” is under the speculative umbrella, Frank Peretti has had evident success. Plus there have been successful YA novels in the fantasy category (Mary Weber, Lisa Bergren, and Nadine Brandes to name just three.)

      But in general it’s been difficult. It is one reason why I own and operate Enclave Publishing (www.enclavepublishing.com) as an outlet for these kind of stories. Enclave does 12 new titles each year with traditional print runs and publishing support. Check them out.

      So Elliott. Yes, having a “thinly veiled science fiction thread” made it harder for that story to be received. But it was ultimately published and is still available.

  6. Paula Geister May 10, 2021 at 12:08 pm #

    Thank you for always giving the straight-up ‘stuff’ about publishing.

    If I were to interpret using emojis the message I’m getting here, they would be (in order):
    *happy face* Yay! More good advice from Steve.
    *sad face* Well, this doesn’t look good.
    *happy face* Great! Good ideas for moving forward. Or finding new ways other than writing to make a difference.
    *thinking face* Okay, what do I do now?
    *praying hands* “God, I need to talk to you.”

    • Steve Laube May 10, 2021 at 2:59 pm #

      Very clever. I think this is my first experience seeing a series of emojis spelled out.

      “thumbs up”

  7. Kristen Joy Wilks May 10, 2021 at 2:10 pm #

    These are sobering examples as they all look so great, but no one said it would be easy. If writing is what you love, you keep going, if not, pursue other ways to create art.

  8. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 10, 2021 at 3:04 pm #

    Thank you for the encouragement, Steve!

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