I turned down my book publishing deal. And it’s ok.

The title is a spoiler alert for my blog: I was offered a publishing contract, with traditional, print books and audio books and all! But, it simply wasn’t a good deal for me. Sometimes it works out that way. I definitely view it through my glass that’s half-full of hydrating optimism: now, the door is wide open for a better deal. I waffled on writing about this at all, but in industries where the process is everything but transparent, someone usually ends up getting screwed. My husband and I talk about this all the time, in terms of women getting shafted in the paycheck, or passed over for promotions, etc. If women (and men, too!) fostered a more open conversation about money, we’d be more confident with the subject, and therefore armed to get the salary and raises we deserve!

That may have seemed like a tangent, but hear me out: I only ever read articles about “Yay! I got my agent/book deal!” or “Screw the traditional publishing industry!” The daily trudge doesn’t get a spotlight. But maybe more burgeoning writers will feel encouraged if we understand the normalcy that is the roller coaster of submitting your work to agents and publishers.

I’ve been submitting queries to publishers and agents since last September. I’ve wanted to blog about this experience, because reading honest accounts of other writers’ experiences has helped me in the INCREDIBLY opaque process of finding success in the traditional publishing industry. But each bump into an unexpected setback makes me feel discouraged–like, DEEPLY discouraged–and I think, “Why should I write about something I’m not succeeding in?” And, frankly, in a society where whining is glorified more than success, I didn’t want to join the fray. And I’m a little superstitious. I told some people early on that I was set to negotiate a book contract, and it worried me: what if announcing such a thing too early soured the cosmic deal? And maybe it did. But, probably not.

This morning, I read an article about American Dirt, a novel that received a seven-figure advance and is now causing heaping shitloads of controversy among those who are offended, and those who put the book on their best-selling/book club lists, heralding it as a shining star. (Oh, and spoiler alert: the lists are bought. Not a jaded statement; read up on it.) I don’t have an opinion about American Dirt. I haven’t read it, and I won’t join the fray in forming opinions built on the shaky, popsicle-stick foundation of other people’s opinions. But reading about the seven-figure advance and thinking about how the hell the publishing industry works at least made me think, “You know what? I’ll get off my dejected ass and write about my own querying efforts.”

First things first: I’m gettin’ a lot of rejections. Like, a lot. In fact, my rejections are piling up at a rate that’s made me start to measure success by the kinds of rejections I get, like:

Oh, that’s an impersonal form email: -1 point (x 40. That’s -40 points.)

Hey, one agent asked for the first 30 pages! (Admittedly, the messaging was more mixed than awkward trail mix full of dried apricot bits and coconut flakes: ‘The writing is unique … which is more unusual than you might think, but it starts out slow, and I doubt I will want to add it to my list.” But, hey! It was a request for more manuscript!): 5 points

WHOA, a small publisher just offered to publish my book! That’s gotta be worth at least 1,000 points, right? Definitely worth 1,000 points.

…. And… the contract they sent was the worst, most baffling, most constrictive and grabby document I’ve ever seen. They wanted rights in perpetuity, there was no reversion clause (and no budging on this in negotiations). They sneakily tried to take way too much money from subsidiary deals. Admittedly, the small advance was more than I’d hoped for, but as the contract was written, I’d never, ever earn out. So I’d be selling my book–forever–for a paltry advance. So, after consulting the legal team after joining the Author’s Guild (a decision I agonized over … the author’s community at large is very mixed on the Guild), boldly asking another published writer for her take on the contract (she told me to run away) and, again, boldly asking for advice from another agent (not the trail mix agent) who had expressed interest but (sort of) declined to represent the book (she politely gave me enough points of advice on negotiating the contract that I recognized she was telling me it was a BAD contract,) I turned down the publisher. Oh, and if you’re thinking you want a traditional publisher so you don’t have to worry your pretty head about things like contracts and marketing … think again. Start with this book.

If the above paragraph was painful to read, with all its parentheticals, commas, ellipses and general angst, then I’ve imparted one small part of my discomfort in trying to wade through the contract.

I tried to entice the helpful agent. After all, she had been so helpful! But she made two appointments to phone conference with me, only to stand me up twice. Once with an excuse and once, well … crickets. Ghosted!

So, I had girded my loins for all the things I thought could happen: the silence of the void, outright rejection, dreaded form letters, even well-meaning yet discouraging criticisms of my work. And I got some of that. And it sucked, even though I was as prepared as a writer can be for those constant bruises: death by a thousand tiny ego hits.

I was not prepared for the emotional roller coaster: “Holy shit! Someone wants to pay me for my work!” crashing to: “Nope, they want to steal my work. But, legally.” And then: “Yay! All is saved, because maybe I’ll get an agent out of this steaming mess!” to … feeling like I’m all dressed up for prom, waiting on the front porch, 80s-movie style, with my date a no-show.

The optimistic takeaways here, because my Mama taught me to wield optimism like a shining weapon of aggression: I didn’t sign my soul away for a couple of paltry thousand dollars, on a deal I knew in my gut was bad. And, hey, a couple of agents liked my quirky, Appalachian magical realism yarn. There are more agents out there! But wait, you might ask, why are you still trying? You got beat up! Your experiences so far have been truly, deeply crappy! That’s true, theoretical reader. And many writers in my position have gone on to self publish, or give it all up altogether, and maybe I’ll join their ranks. We’ll see. But I’d like to step into traditional publishing. I’d like to experience working with an editor, and a book designer, and see what that world is all about. I’d love an agent who does what good ones do: acts as a career coach, and a creative business partner in this crazy industry.

And if the magic sauce that makes a publisher pay out seven figures in a gamble that my book will rake in the cash doesn’t splort all over me, well … I’ll cross that sauce-bridge when I get there.

I’m off to tighten my steel-plated loin-girdle. I’m going to send out more queries, and get my ass kicked a few more times.

6 responses to “I turned down my book publishing deal. And it’s ok.”

  1. I’ve been published traditionally 4 times and self published. I am dithering over putting the work in on a new proposal for my agent. Why? Because I HATE the traditional publishing process/scene. It’s totally disheartening, threatening, disappointing and you lose your sweated out labor forever (and don’t earn anything). It’s really just vanity. My self published book has earned me much more. Soooo I’m struggling to face down ego issues, pride, etc etc and just say…..”I don’t need that vanity carrot- no thanks.”
    (Just in case you want another perspective😉)


    • Thank you for sharing this perspective! Unfortunately, I’ve read many other author experiences that sound like yours. It’d be nice if the industry as a whole were more author-friendly.


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