Pub Rants

Third Time (Or Fourth) Might Be The Charm

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STATUS: Tech day at the Agency. I finally bought a new Tablet PC and my tech person had to get it up to speed. I can’t wait to use it.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? JACK & DIANE by John Mellencamp

I was reading the Romance Writers Report last week (for those of you who don’t know, this is the official magazine of Romance Writers of America). In the mag, they have a first sales column where writers get to announce their first sale.

Okay, sounds like Deal Lunch but for romance. But what I love about this column is that oftentimes, the writers will share how many manuscripts they wrote before finally selling that debut novel.

And let me tell you, it is never novel number one.

How many manuscripts, on average, do you think writers tend to write before selling?

If I do the math (and this isn’t scientific in anyway because I’m only using one column and not gathering statistics from let’s say all last year’s issues), the average comes out to about four.

Yep, most authors, on average, wrote four novels before selling.

And this probably holds true for more than just romance. Just chat with published authors and most will tell you they have a manuscript or two under the bed gathering dust.

So I guess what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t give up or lose faith if novel number one doesn’t go anywhere.

41 Responses

  1. KingM said:

    Sounds about right. I’ve written seven and just recently had a break-through on the agent front. But of these seven, I wrote three at a young enough age that they probably count only insofar as they taught me how to put together sentences and construct scenes.

    The thing is, I don’t know anyone who can write a novel knowing it’s going to end up as a trunk novel some day. We have to believe, however foolishly, that the current book is going to be the one. It’s hard enough to write one book on spec, but to accept that you’ll write four to sell one…that’s tough.

  2. 2readornot said:

    I’ve written well over four (in fact, more than double that) — however, I’m close (I hope) to getting an agent with number four 😉 I’ve learned a ton through each one — but I think it took me this long to find my voice, my stride…and I could probably revise all the earlier ones — if I wanted to 😉

  3. ORION said:

    OK, I wrote four but it was my third one that got me my agent and sold. Number one will be reworked at some point as I (and others) still love the premise.

  4. Kimber An said:

    Actually, I’ve written about 20 novels expecting all but the STAR CAPTAINS’ DAUGHTER to go into the trunk. And that includes its sequels which will never see the light of day unless the original flies. Why? Because it was fun!

    Knowing what I know now about this business, I can see that several of the 20 have potential. I’ll be Slashing & Burning them to that end. Yes, Orion, that includes the one with the iceworms in Alaska.

    For the record, I’ve destroyed or deleted all but five (I think) because I have them logged away in my imagination anyway. Why clutter up the house with them?

  5. Moose said:

    As I stare at the cobbled-together mess of novel number one, I find that very reassuring. I am nothing if not stubborn. I WILL DO IT! IF IT TAKES ME TWELVE MORE YEARS AND TWELVE MORE NOVELS, I WILL DO IT! (I will also yell at you in caps, apparently. Sorry. : )

    Thanks for the words of encouragement!

  6. Jana DeLeon said:

    Add me to the “fourth sold” list. Based on most of my friends or cp’s, I’d say four or more is probably the norm. Unless you take the perfectionist who revises the same first book for two or three years – and I have a couple of friends/cps that went that route also.

    Hey, whatever works!

  7. Anonymous said:


    *rips hair out*

    What??!! I’m on my second one! I’m such a slow writer, too! The first one was like 50,000 words long and that took me like a YEAR.

    That means that the odds are saying I need to wait like three more years…


  8. Siren Cristy said:

    I have to be honest, that really isn’t very encouraging. In fact, it simply makes me wonder why I’m working so diligently to make my current manuscript as perfect as possible. So my friends and family, who support anything I do, will tell me how wonderful it is?

    Now sheesh, if you’re counting tripe I wrote very early on in my writing career, then I’m probably well within the average, but it’s not as if I actually attempted to publish those stories!

  9. Terri Brisbin said:

    When I attended my first NJRW meeting about 10 years ago, I asked every published author there how many manuscripts they’d written and submitted before selling The completely unscientific results were 5-6, so I was prepared to write and try to sell at least that many before getting frustrated about it. I figured I had to continue to learn and refine my skills, learn the market, and plan my career and if it took 5-6 books, well that was okay.

    So, I was really surprised when I got THE CALL from an editor on my second manuscript — so surprised that I almost tried to talk her out of making an offer for it! LOL! Luckily, she’d dealt with hysterical first time authors before and I found an agent before I said anything really stupid.


  10. Jill Christine said:

    I’d believe it. I’m shopping around Number Three and writing Number Four. Now Four’ll probably get a big head and start thumbing her nose at poor Three. “See? Gonna be me, not you. Four rules and Three drools.”

    (Meanwhile, One is caged in the basement, never to see the light of day again.)

    For most writers, breaking into the business requires a couple of stumbles. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from each of my missteps. I’ve gotten a lot more positive feedback from agents about Number Three than I received for my earlier projects, so at least I’m going in the right direction. If Number Four’s the magic manuscript, well, I won’t complain about being average.

  11. katiesandwich said:

    wThank you, debby g! I was starting to go nutso! I think kingm is right. We have to believe that this book is the one, can’t let ourselves believe that it’ll end up unpublished (although we do have to be ready to face the rejection if it comes). Someone else said that this news was depressing, and I agree, but I’m thankful for your honesty, as always. I’m just not ready to accept that my characters will never see the light of day.

    Also, I have a question for anyone who’s willing to put in their two cents. I’ve never reached the end of a novel before, expect for my current WIP, which I’m revising. I’ve come close with an unfinished novel that still is about 100,000 words. And I have another novel that I got about halfway finished with. In both cases, I knew the endings, but the middles just got so jumbled that I set them aside and never went back to them. So do these count as my “in the drawer” novels, even though I never reached the end? If so, that makes my current novel #3, and I’ll feel a lot more hopeful!

  12. Kimber An said:

    This is discussed on the forums regularly at

    The method that works for me is going through and outlining the novel, at least through the jumbled parts. That way I can clearly see what all the plot threads are, figure out which ones to untangle and which ones to Slash & Burn.

  13. Anonymous said:

    Might it not also be the case that the first few novels written just aren’t a match for the list of agents queried vs. they are unpublishable?

    I’ve had novels 2, 3, and 4 (the first was nonfiction)under consideration by different agents at any given time over the past several years, sometimes all at once. Even the nonfiction garnered a couple calls and requests for material.

    At this point, I don’t know which one of mine will land me representation, but just because one does and the others don’t isn’t necessarily because they’re poorly written.

    Lots of times, yes, the first few are the “rehearsal” novels, but I’m willing to bet plenty of writers have two or three or four manuscripts that simply made the rounds and for subjective reasons or lack of market, didn’t make it.

    Seems like if you want to stack the odds in your favor, you ought to write several great novels and just keep shopping them all around as much as possible.

    Sometimes I just get frustrated hearing that the first few novels have to gather dust. I don’t think it’s always because of poor writing. Ok, off the rant box now.

  14. Manic Mom said:

    Are the odds better if your first novel has made it to an agent and is being sent to publishers?

    (Fingers crossed and eyes squinched tight praying Kristin says, “Sure, it’s guaranteed to sell!” LOLOLOLOL!)

  15. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Really, Jana? I had you down as one of two people I knew who sold their first!

    In my completely unscientific surveys on the matter, I’ve come up with four, too. But when I made the mistake of saying “yeah, I wrote four other books first, hear that’s about average” on my blog last year, I was attacked by a bunch of people who took that to mean that their first (2nd, 3rd) novels WEREN’T going to make it, or that they were losers because they were working on their twelfth. To which I say, no.

    however many it takes. The process is so different for every novel and every writer that the statistic becomes meaningless on a case by case basis.

    While my agent was selling what would eventually be my fifth, my second, revised at editor’s request, was being passed up the ranks elsewhere (I had to withdraw it due to scheduling concerns).

    The only thing to take from it is that it’s OKAY if at first you don’t succeed.

  16. Jana DeLeon said:

    Thanks, Diana, for holding me at such lofty heights. 🙂 But no, I had to find my place and I did that by writing books – very different books. The first was a mystery, more chick-litty in tone, the second was a straight romance, the third another romance. Finally, I realized I wanted both mystery and romance and that’s when the hybrid was born.

    And I can only speak for myself when I say that my previous works were simply not good enough for publication. It wasn’t an issue of market. But I learned a lot writing them.

    As Diana said – don’t take stock in the statistics. It will only make you crazy. Everyone’s journey is different.

  17. Deb said:

    Man, I’m glad I didn’t know this when I was making my first serious attempt to sell a book.

    That book, I think it was #5 or 6 that I actually finished, sold to the first place I pitched it.

    Nor was it the piece I thought would sell first. That one is under consideration, having been “no-thanks”ed several times. Who can say what’s gonna engage an agent/editor and what’s gonna make them shrug and pass? After 16.5 novels written and three sold, I can’t say I have any better handle on that than when I first started submitting.

    But I think I’m a better writer than I was then. The failed books teach me more than the ones I sell.

  18. clarice s. said:

    I’m up to Novel #16, but like katiesandwich, several of those don’t have endings, and were shelved without being taken through any sort of editing process. Editing Novel #16 has made me realize that while I know a whole lot about how to write a fairly clean first draft, hammering down the loose nails to produce a SPARKLING manuscript from a decent, readable one.

    My fear is that I’ll have to go through four (or more) of these intense editing processes to get to the point where I’m publishable. I hope not, but editing Novel #16 has given me a distinct lost-in-the-wilderness feeling that I don’t usually get while I’m writing.

  19. Patrick McNamara said:

    I’m currently reworking my fourth “full-length” novel (not including YA and children’s stories). I’ve rewritten all my earlier novels and constantly resubmit them. I’ve found that with one of them it appears the concept is making it hard to sell. It’s hard to fix a story when the concept is a problem. But I’m getting a better understanding of what is marketable. When I’m finished with this one I think I’m going to work on a historical romance which I’ve been developing; I would never have guesses when I started that I would even attempt such a thing.

  20. Julie Leto said:

    Add me to the list of fourth book sold. I’m currently rewriting the third one…it will become my twenty-eighth published next year with the same characters and basic plot, but entirely different concept and MUCH better writing. The first two are pretty much a lost cause.

    Not knocking those who have sold their first novel, but if your first novel has been polished until it shines and rejected everywhere, it’s time to move on to the next project. In fact, novel number two should be in production a week after you’ve sent one out the door.

  21. Janny said:

    Actually, I think 4 is an optimistic estimate, but that’s because I’m counting from the first rudimentary scrabblings on paper (or the screen, for those of us who started writing on typewriters!). And I’m also in the group who, when asked about how many manuscripts I’ve written, says, “That depends. Do I count the one I’ve rewritten 8 times as 8 separate books?” 🙂

    I was finding the exact opposite in the RWR columns for awhile…people who claimed they had finished two manuscripts before they sold, or they’d been writing for less than five years. The only question at that point became whether I’d go out back and jump off something high myself, or take those people outside and throttle them, first…

    In my more lucid moments, I also will admit I assume that the answers given in the RWR on how long people have been writing and how many manuscripts they’ve completed may have about as much connection to reality as the weight most of us list on our driver’s licenses. :-)(In other words, I[‘m suspicious that some of the answers may be…slightly…adjusted.)

    Or does that make me slightly cynical?

    Ah, well.

  22. Anonymous said:

    There’s a saying that everyone has a million words of crap in them that they have to get out before they can write anything good. A completed novel probably represents at least twice as many words actually written. Add in some short stories and all the isolated scenes and false starts that never went anywhere–three or four novels comes pretty close to a million words.

  23. Mark said:

    My current book is a second novel, but fifth book. The first three were nonfiction and two are still making the rounds.

  24. strangunddurm said:

    My first book is my first, second and third book. I wrote the silly thing three different times.

    I had one agent tell me, very plainly, that that first book had no business seeing the light of day. I had an editor ask me why I was writing at all. I once laid all my rejection notices out in the hallway, and they made three solid rows, including one that went clear down the steps.

    It’s now been published by a nice medium-sized press and is doing quite well for itself. I’m writing the next one now.

    The moral: Do not rely on agents, editors, published authors, Strunk, White, mummy, daddy and the family dog to tell you if you are a Real Writer or not. Although the industry makes it seem otherwise, that’s always up to you.


  25. billstephens said:

    Let me suggest a different approach. Rather than letting your early manuscripts molder away under the bed, get one you’re proud of out and dust it off. Set up a Blog similar to . On this blog I’ve serialized HORIZONS PAST for free to anybody who wants to read it.

    I then promote it on I’m very pleased with the response from industry people. I know all of you out there are great writers, but I’m afraid today it’s all about visibility.

  26. Anonymous said:

    I’d have to say that my first two novels (three if you count the one that will never see the light of day) were truly teaching/learning novels. I was still in love with my own words then, and I used many of them 😉

    Number four was the novel where I found my rhythm — I tend to write a novel in three to six weeks, depending on what else is happening in my life…then I revise until I get ideas for the next one.

    It’s been nine months since I wrote the ‘final’ (ha-ha) draft of number four, and when I dusted it off to send to an agent who requested it (from blurbs), I was astonished at how, um, well, not good it was. So I rewrote about 2/3s of it in three days — and off it went!

    Based on that and other recent revisions, I’d have to say that it took me about three or four books before I found my voice, my style. I’m sure it doesn’t take everyone that long, however 🙂

  27. Anonymous said:

    So, in other words, it’s not even worth my time (or anyone’s time) to even bother shopping novels #1 through #3 around. Just write them and move on and forget ever trying to shop them.

  28. Anonymous said:

    So, in other words, it’s not even worth my time (or anyone’s time) to even bother shopping novels #1 through #3 around. Just write them and move on and forget ever trying to shop them.

    I think some people are forgetting that this number is an average. Which means some people break through with their fourth book, and some with their first, and some with their twelfth. The point is, don’t be discouraged if your first (or second, or third, or eleventh) doesn’t make it, because many people have kept writing and succeeded. But you won’t know which one is going to make it unless you try!

  29. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Exactly, Anonymous at 7:59!

    Why do people insist upon universalizing every single thing an agent says. The earlier commenter who said you have to act as if every book is going to be the one or you won’t be able to power thorugh is right. I wrote every book, revised every book, lovingly created a marketing package for every book, and sent it off into the world. I gave them each a chance to catch the industry’s eye.

    And then I moved on to the next book. And the next book. And the next.

    Saying, “Okay, since this agent on her blog said it’s going to take me four books to get published, I’ll just take my three crappiest ideas and slop out 400 pages each. And THEN I’ll start REALLY writing.” No. Ain’t gonna work like that. No one has said, “there’s no point marketing books 1-3.” No one at all.

    Just 1) be prepared not to give up if the first book doesn’t get published and 2) moving on is a good thing, because either way, you’re going to have to write more than one book anyway, right? (Unless you are Harper Lee.)

  30. Julie Leto said:

    I have no doubt that the lessons I learned in writing, critiquing, revising, submitting, etc. of my first three books gave me the skills to write, critique, revise, submit and SELL book number four. I also learned about the business during this time, made contacts, read contracts, etc that made that first sale something I could be proud of. You have to pay your dues, people…it’s just the way it is.

  31. Anonymous said:

    No, I am very aware that it was an average. And I’m not universalizing. I’m simply pointing out what can be inferred from the post. Granted, it’s not the intentional inference – but intentional or not, someone could mistakenly interpret this blog entry just as I stated earlier (stated rather sardonically also).

  32. Diana Peterfreund said:

    Well, I’m not quite sure how someone can infer, “don’t bother shopping anything until your fourth book” from “you shouldn’t give up or lose faith if novel number one doesn’t go anywhere.”

    Those are two entirely different sentiments.

  33. B.E. Sanderson said:

    I’m in the middle of editing #3. So, just skip it and concentrate on writing #4? (Please note: Tongue firmly in cheek here.)

    Point is, folks, WRITE. And when you think you’re finished with one book? WRITE. And while you’re editing? WRITE.

    Thank, Kristin. Good post once again.

  34. Kathleen Dante said:

    I think it would be more accurate to say that it’s *unusual* to sell novel number one. Previous RWRs had reports of first sales of first full-length manuscripts completed:
    3/06 – 2
    4/06 – 1
    6/06 – 2
    7/06 – 6, which included mine

    And to Janny, the manuscript I sold really was my first full-length. I started writing it July 2003, finished it March 2005, and sold it November 2005. It ended up at 538 pages and had to be cut down to ~400 pages, but that was the only major revision I did.

    However, my experience doesn’t negate Kristin’s advice. Some people start writing only when they feel they’re ready. Lest that come across as arrogant, let me add that when I started my first full-length manuscript, I wasn’t sure I could go the distance.

  35. Anonymous said:

    to diana peterfreund: why are you always chiming in and giving your two cents on an agent’s site that’s not your own?

  36. Allison Brennan said:

    I sold my fifth completed manuscript. The first three are garbage. The fourth I’m dying to rewrite because I think it’s a great premise with terrific characters, but it’s in a way different subgenre . . . we’ll see what happens with it down the road.

    But I started over 100 novels before I finished one. That has to count for something! 😉

  37. jaylake said:

    I wrote seven novels and about four hundred short stories before I sold my first novel to a New York house. In the mean time I’d done a lot of selling in the independent press, and had some big hits on short fiction, been up for some awards, etc., but it was many years and words of work before I got on the Tor list.

  38. David Louis Edelman said:

    I was lucky enough to sell my first novel. But when you realize that I took about four years and somewhere between five to seven drafts to finish it, it doesn’t sound quite as lucky.