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I recently read this answer, which suggested that an author's first novel will be rejected, and the publisher will instead get the author to write the novel they want to publish, assuming they feel the author's writing has potential. This is bad news for me, as I have an entire universe mapped out with endless novel series, which I intend on publishing. If the publisher is just going to reject the first one and tell me to write something else, then how can I ever publish what I want to?

Is this true? Do publishers/agents frequently reject first-time novels, and instead get you to write the novel they want to publish? If this is the case, what can I do to get what I want to write published?

Note: I'm aware of self-publishing and how it works, so please don't make that the answer to the second part of the question if there's another option. If there's nothing I can do, and publishers will always force me to write what they want, then I'll look at self-publishing.

  • I'm confused that after my (admittedly quick - so I may have missed it...) scan of the answers so far, none of them seem to address the fact that the answer that OP is referencing doesn't really say what he says it does. They say that if the author's first book doesn't manage to sell, the agent may ask if the author has another idea, then work with them to make sure that one has a better chance. That's quite different to telling them what to write... – TheNovelFactory Sep 18 '18 at 13:50
  • I'm talking about the answer you link to in your question... – TheNovelFactory Sep 20 '18 at 10:40
  • @TheNovelFactory My mistake. I'm looking specifically at the second to last paragraph in that answer. It says that aspiring writers have reported that their first book is not publishable, and (specifically in the last line of the paragraph) that publishers then 'begin to work with you to develop the book they want you to write'. That's where I'm coming from. It's possible that he just chose bad wording, but it doesn't sound like it. – Thomas Myron Sep 20 '18 at 19:04
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    Fair enough. I can see how that is ambiguous. My interpretation, based on anecdotes from authors, would be as my comment above, that the agent might nudge the author in a particular direction, but it would be one that the author was already considering among their options. I.e. If the author had just written a crime novel and was considering trying a YA novel or another crime novel, the agent would advise on what was more likely to sell, or better to build the authors reputation etc. They wouldn't 'tell' them what to write in the sense of dictating the story, genre, etc. Hope that helps. – TheNovelFactory Sep 24 '18 at 11:21
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A

This answer has been given multiple times before on this site, and it was consistently met with reservation and disbelief. Yet it is what I have learned from published authors:

First novels are consistently rejected because they lack quality.

Writing is something that you have to learn. And it is something that you learn through practice, that is, by writing. Therefore, in the course of learning to write, you write many texts that are not the works of a master (and publishable) but exercises (and not worthy of publication). That is why your first submissions will most likely be rejected, and it is also why those that don't give up after a few rejections but keep writing will most of them eventually get published (!).

The downside is that many of your early ideas will be badly executed and either remain unpublished for ever or you will have to rewrite them once you have achieved (publishable) mastery.

There are two common approaches to this:

  1. Write another book until one gets published. If you still feel for your first stories, rewrite them and publish them later.

  2. Keep rewriting your first novel until it gets published. (You may grow tired of your story while you do this.)


A survey of 200 traditionally published authors found that on average they had written 3.24 books before they got published.

While zero books before publication happens, and not infrequently, you shouldn't plan on being one of them. Mostly (I found) those are writers with long years of practice writing non-fiction (e.g. journalists) or other kinds of fiction (e.g. screenwriters, short-story writers, etc.).


B

I have never heard of a publisher rejecting a novel and telling the writer what to write. It may happen, but what usually happens is one of the following:

  • silent rejection (99.9%)

    The agent or publisher specifies in their submission guidelines that when they don't reply after a certain time it means that they were not interested. This is the common "reply" today.

  • signalling interest in further submissions

    Sometimes a publisher or agent will see so much potential in your work that they ask you to send in your next manuscript.

  • I've been practicing my writing by writing fan fiction for eight years. Is that likely to count in my favor, or not be considered as 'official' practice? – Thomas Myron Sep 15 '18 at 17:50
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    @ThomasMyron I wrote fan fiction for around six years, but ultimately learned very little because consumers of fan fiction lack standards. It took some brutal beta readers for me to even begin on my journey of improvement. – Matthew Dave Sep 15 '18 at 18:06
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    @ThomasMyron The "3.24 books before they got published" isn't some sort of bullet point on the publisher's checklist. There isn't anyone keeping track of "official" practice. The 3.24 books is simply a measure of author experience. -- Does fan fiction "count" as experience? Well, maybe. It depends on how seriously the author approached it, how much critical feedback they got in that time, and how much effort they put into seriously improving their craft, versus simply turning the crank on low-effort schlock. – R.M. Sep 15 '18 at 18:06
  • @MatthewDave I've taken the time to seriously work on improving my writing, and I've also found an incredible proofreader who isn't afraid to tell me what he thinks and fill the page with red. I do see what you are saying though. – Thomas Myron Sep 15 '18 at 18:32
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    @ThomasMyron - This publisher is renowned for producing heavily formulaic books at a considerable rate. He didn't ask for a formula, it's simply that all of their books (regardless of writer) follow the same formula. Essentially you're ghosting for a writer whose sole existence is simply a front for an interchangeable team. – Valorum Sep 15 '18 at 22:35
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Terry's answer aligns with my knowledge, but here's a little more I'd add that is relevant to your question.

Writers I know who have been agented are asked to revise their manuscripts before the manuscript is sent to publishing houses. I believe it was GGX or Galastel that explained: At the query stage you are competing largely with un-agented writers. At the agented stage, you are competing with published authors.

So, the agent may well request rewrites. But you still need a perfect novel going into your query stage.

Some writers I know write the query letter first, as odd as that sounds, because the query letter is what draws eyes to the novel as often as not. Then, with a top notch query in hand (and again, it was written with no constraints because no book existed as yet, except perhaps as concept) the novel is written. It sounds odd, but I've seen it work.

Agents read thousands of queries each year. Agents are human. Query letters bleed together. It might make sense to write the query first and make sure it kills.

(I'm on my 26th re-write of my first novel. Early rewrites were learning the technical details. Later rewrites had to do with story structure. Later rewrites addressed beta comments. Later rewrites were simply for flow and eloquence or based off of 'craft books' (Manuscript Makeover is a good one.) Current rewrite is following a new craft book dealing with emotional subtext. The idea of emotional subtext was nowhere on my radar in draft 1, or 6, or 9. I have at least two more re-writes in my future: Another beta read, another edit for flow.)

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    Each to their own, but that "26th re-write" part there reminded me of Synecdoche New York, I must say. It also reminded me of Kenneth Branagh's comment on Shakespearean adaptations: "You don't finish them; you abandon them" – Digital Dracula Sep 15 '18 at 17:17
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    @DigitalDracula It cracks me up that I am on my 26th rewrite. :-) I can't wait to be on the 35th. – DPT Sep 15 '18 at 17:27
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    Must have been GGX. I've only managed to publish a couple of short stories in online anthologies so far. – Galastel Sep 15 '18 at 17:47
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    I'd be interested in learning more about this concept of 'emotional subtext'. Care to outline the concept briefly? – Thomas Myron Sep 15 '18 at 17:53
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    Mercedes Lackey famously rewrote her first trilogy seventeen times. You're not alone. :) – Lauren Ipsum Sep 16 '18 at 0:09
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If an agent/publisher is interested enough in the novel you submitted to get into business with you, why on earth would s/he not try to sell it? Conversely, if the novel (whether first, third, or 34th) is - according to their opinion - not marketable or whatever, they wouldn't even pay any attention to you.

2

Here is a different perspective:

Miranda is a literary agent. She reads your query letter, and she thinks you are describing a book with an interesting premise, and she could probably sell it. Agents work within professional networks, and she has ideas of specific people working for publishers that would like that kind of book.

So Miranda asks for samples, or even for your book to read.

But then, after she has read enough of it, she feels like it starts poorly, or too slowly, or seems off on a tangent. Perhaps it is boring her, there is too much exposition, too much stuff to memorize. For whatever reason, your book is not living up to your query letter, and she can't sell it.

But she has invested some time in reading your stuff, and she thinks it is salvageable, so instead of just throwing it away, she invests another hour in you, by telling you what she expects, and what she (as a professional) thinks is wrong with your book. And if you fix those things, she would give you another read.

Basically Miranda is telling you that your query letter does not match your book, or your book as written will not get published. So if you want to sell, here are some ways you could change what you have done to turn this book into something she could sell.

You can ignore her, but other agents are likely to feel the same. If you are so much in love with your writing that you cannot bring yourself to overhaul it, then your best bet is self-publishing.

Or you can interpret her advice. Understand that your query letter worked but your book did not, it bored her. So see if there is a way to fix the book and reconcile whatever issues were mentioned, perhaps with drastic changes to your text but without any drastic changes to your characters or plot.

For example, there is nothing sacrosanct about your opening; I've never read a story that could not open at an earlier time, and I've read MANY stories that could have opened at a later time. Openings are key and too often filled with boring expository crap (boring because we don't care anything at all about the characters involved, or there are NO characters involved, or there is nothing really happening to engage the imagination of the reader and keep them reading to see what happens).

There is a difference between Miranda effectively telling you to deliver the product you promised in your query letter, and telling you to write something completely different. Yes, she is telling you to write "what she wants", but what she wants is what you promised, and in her view that is not what you sent.

I would add also, it is true she may expect a certain formula, but that is not out of rote. Miranda isn't a machine, she is a thinking person with experience in what works in fiction, and sells. The working "formulas" are not something devised up front and then for no good reason everybody agreed to abide by them. No, they were derived by analysis of centuries of works that had grown very popular, and when publishing became a real thing, stories that sold blockbusters. Studying great stories to see what they have in common has led us to certain formulas to emulate them, and perhaps increase our chances of success. The Three Act Structure, The Hero's Journey, various categorizations of plots (3 or 7 or 21 or 35, depending on how much detail is considered by the categorizations).

So Miranda knows both how stories work and the difference between good prose and bad; and so do the publishers. If she gives you advice to follow a formula, it is because she thinks your work doesn't follow a structure she knows can sell, and that a publisher would accept. So again she is trying to help, for free, by giving you a structure that is currently selling.

We should not be offended by such efforts. At worst, it is like a sincere friend giving you unhelpful advice. But it is worth keeping in mind that if you are not feeling well, and your friend is actually a practicing doctor, perhaps your friend knows something you don't.

If you are rejected or given a list of suggested changes and invited to resubmit, then I'd at least take them seriously enough to realize perhaps something DOES need to be fixed, realize that rejection is a symptom of an underlying weakness in how you are presenting your story.

EDIT, in response to OP comment.

OP: I just don't want the publisher saying they won't publish book A, but if I write the book they've thought of, then they'll publish that. I want to write the books. I do not want to write someone else's book.

It makes no sense for a publisher to do that. If they don't think they can sell the book you DID write, why would they think you would do a good job on their book idea? If anybody did that, they are an egotistical outlier, you can reject them with confidence that you will find nearly all agents and publishers are driven by sales, sales, sales, not ego, they are not there to get their own books written by authors they don't even think they can sell.

I suspect if anybody told you that, what they meant was the publisher wants you to write books for their market in the style they already know sells. If you submit to a Romance publisher and he comes back and says "I like your writing, but you need to do X, Y and Z to turn this into a Romance," then you just made a mistake; your book is not a Romance and you shouldn't be trying to sell it as one. Drop that idea, sell your book as something else.

Agents and Publishers are in it for the money. They DO have niches of particular kinds of stories they like; some more "templated" than others, just ignore those that want to shoehorn you into their genre expectations. If they reject you, it is because they don't think your writing can make them money in their particular genre, their customer base won't buy it. That rejection doesn't necessarily mean you are a bad writer, it could mean you need to find a publisher with a different customer base. This is true even within a niche. JK Rowling was rejected by a dozen YA publishers before one liked the first Harry Potter book. One even told her she should take some writing classes.

  • I most certainly expect the agent to suggest any number of revisions. I just don't want the publisher saying they won't publish book A, but if I write the book they've thought of, then they'll publish that. I want to write the books. I do not want to write someone else's book. That's all I'm about here. – Thomas Myron Sep 16 '18 at 23:06
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From the point of view of a publisher's agent (from talking to a friend who was one), they tend to specialise in one particular area, because they work by networking and that helps. Because life is a lottery as far as writers are concerned, they bombard as many publishers as they can find with their sample chapters. And so publishers are fed up asking for specific material and getting submissions irrelevant to what they asked for. Hence the high reject rate. They also have to publish only works that they think will sell, which means unsellable work that's otherwise good will also get rejected.

0

This is not some unwritten rule. It just so happens that most first novels are not good enough to publish. We all think we'll be the exception to the rule, but 99% of us aren't. I know it was a rude awakening for me when the first novel I poured my heart and soul into was rejected. That doesn't mean you might not be that one writer out of a hundred (note: these numbers are wholly rhetorical). And it definitely doesn't mean you shouldn't try to be that writer. But you also shouldn't feel defeated if you aren't.

It would be very unusual for a modern publisher to tell a rejected author what to write, because it's a buyer's market. There are enough writers out there whose writing is both market-targeted and well-polished that publishers these days won't even touch anything that isn't 100% ready to go, even if it shows potential. They also won't touch anything that doesn't seem likely to sell. Be aware --if your book isn't something a publisher would buy, it's also not likely to sell itself as a self-published book. Don't self-publish unless you are a good, enthusiastic and dedicated salesperson and self-promoter.

What is more typical is that you learn things from the process of writing a book and getting it rejected that can go into your next book --both about writing itself, and about the business and the market. But don't think this means your worldbuilding will be wasted. Your second novel might be a completely reimagined version of your first.

  • You and others have talked about the 'next book', but what if that's not an option for me, for whatever reason? Isn't it just as feasible to take all advice and tweak the current book until a publisher/agent agrees to go with it? Unless there's something inherently wrong with the plot as a whole, can't I just continue rewriting the same story until it works? – Thomas Myron Sep 17 '18 at 19:00
  • You can, but you might not want to. I worked and reworked my first novel for years, until I finally realized that it had some deep-seated fatal flaws. I might revisit it in the future, but if so, it will probably be a completely new book in many ways. It's kind of like cooking --there are things you can do to fix up a dish that is basically sound, but beyond a certain point, adding spices or water or oil still isn't going to make it tasty. // It took me over a decade to come to grips with the fact that not everything I write is publishable --and that's OK. It's all still worthwhile work. – Chris Sunami Sep 17 '18 at 19:39
  • @ThomasMyron When you say "that's not an option for me," you're really saying "I only have one book in me, and if it doesn't get published, that's it for me as a writer." It also suggests that you don't have enough distance from your work to be ruthless about cutting the stuff that isn't working. (I'm saying all this from experience, here.) // That's not to say that the time I spent trying to fix my first book was wasted. It taught me what I needed to build in from the start for my next one. – Chris Sunami Sep 17 '18 at 19:58
  • It's not that I only have one book. I have an infinite number of books. I do, however, have a single series with infinite books, and only one starting point. – Thomas Myron Sep 17 '18 at 20:09
  • If I read you correctly, it's not that you've submitted a book and had it rejected --you're just worried about that happening. Look, maybe your first book IS good enough. Or maybe you can get it there. There's no rule or policy that prevents it. You should submit it and see what happens. – Chris Sunami Sep 17 '18 at 20:33

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