At the SCBWI conference I attended last weekend, author Kathi Appelt said something during the Q&A session that has stuck with me.
"50% of publishing is a crapshoot."
Can I get an amen? At its core, publishing is a business—and it's a hard-to-predict business at that. Some books on submission sell in a matter of days. Some books take over a year to sell. And some books—for some reason or another—only receive polite rejections. So...why do some books land a publishing deal while others languish in submission land?
Honestly, it could be a lot of different reasons. Maybe you write in a genre that is overly saturated at the moment. Or maybe your book needs another revision. Like Kathi said, publishing can be a crapshoot--sometimes good books sell big but sometimes good books get shelved. It's just the way this competitive industry works.
Here are a few reasons I've noticed why a book may not sell:
1.) Your book needs more revisions.
Pretty much all of the agented writers I've spoken to have completed at least one round of revisions with their agents before they go out on submission. (Sometimes two rounds, sometimes three). Despite all of this editing, however, a manuscript might not hit the right notes with editors once it goes out on sub.
But this is something that can be fixed! If editors cite the same feedback during your first round of subs, you and your agent may want to tackle some more revisions before submitting to more editors. And who knows? Your book could go on to sell really quickly after it has been edited!
2.) Your book has bad timing.
At the conference last Saturday, agent Rosemary Stimola was asked what happens when a book of hers fails to sell. Rosemary cited that sometimes a book doesn't sell simply due to timing. She gave a quick example: let's say you write a YA paranormal. It goes out on submission, but unfortunately editors have gotten their fill of paranormal and are now looking for contemporary. Or maybe an editor really loves your book but her list is already stacked with enough paranormal novels.
If this happens, Rosemary stated that the manuscript will become "dormant but not dead." Since the manuscript itself is sound, she would plan on shelving this book for now and coming back to it later when paranormals are hot again. (Haha, when are paranormals NOT hot? They seem to sell like hot cakes!)
3.) Your book doesn't have the right advocate.
If your book fails to sell, there's also the possibility that you and your agent aren't the best fit. Maybe your agent has the right connections--but not in your genre. Or maybe your agent doesn't have enough experience. Case in point, agent Mary Kole (who used to write YA lit) mentions in this blog post how she and her agent weren't the right fit:
Looking back on it now, I realize [my manuscript] was not as strong as it needed to be, writing-wise. It wasn’t “editor ready.” And I had gone with an agent who had limited experience in the kidlit market. Nothing against her, of course, but I don’t know if we did the strongest revision possible together.
Of course, there is no guarantee that Mary's book would have sold with a more experienced agent but it seems like the manuscript would have had a better chance.
4.) Your book is...who knows?
Ultimately, your book may not sell because of one of these aforementioned reasons or it may not sell due to a combination of them all. Maybe your agent is too inexperienced and your book needs revisions and you write in a saturated genre. Or maybe, just maybe, your manuscript isn't up to snuff just yet. Which happens!
A lot of successful writers have had to shelve their first books on submission but have gone onto sell their second or third book. Sometimes a book is good enough to land an agent but for some reason it gets lost in the sea of editorial submissions.
At the end of the day, I think Kathi Appelt's statement is apt: 50% of publishing is a crapshoot! Good books sell every day. Good books get shelved every day. It happens. But here's what you can do as a writer: write another good book, edit this book like crazy, and get the book out there on sub. You can control your plot, your characters, your craft. The rest of the stuff? It's kind of out of your hands.
So go write more books!