The Gift of No

By Art Edwards


You’ve submitted your novel manuscript for six months, a year, two years. You’ve submitted it to ten, 50, 100 literary agents. You’ve submitted it to five, 15, 25 publishing companies. And all you’ve gotten for these efforts—when people have bothered to respond—is many clever and not-so-clever variations on “no.”

Well, all is not lost. It’s 2013, which means you can self-publish your novel. For a small fee—or even for free—you can publish an e-book or print-on-demand title and have it distributed to many of the same markets popular writers enjoy. No more do you have to rely on the publishing elite to get your work out there. You can do it yourself, and you never have to hear “no” again.

I’ve employed the path of self-publication twice over the past decade. I’ve made sales, read to captive audiences, received fan mail. My first novel was nominated for an award. My second novel was an award winner. And after a few bumps financially, the second edition of my first novel has been profitable. I should be the last person in the world to tell you not to extend your middle finger to traditional publishing and go it alone.

Only don’t.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want you to partake in the same process I’ve enjoyed?

Maybe I do want you to partake in it, and maybe you should eventually, but I want you to consider one other possibility before going the self-publishing route. I want you to consider putting your book away—as in don’t read it, edit it, or think about it—for six months.

Writers have done this for centuries to make their work better, but especially in the 21st century, with so many publishing options out there, great writers must be masters at knowing when their work is ready. That’s impossible to tell when you’ve been knee-deep in it for so long. Put your book in a drawer, or in a folder on your computer that you won’t be tempted to open any time soon. Go and write something else. Go and do anything else. Your dream of seeing your name along the spine of a book—or as the author of a book with his own Amazon page—isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I can all but guarantee it will only get cheaper and easier to self-publish.

Setting your novel aside for six months separates you from your notions of it. It empties your head of all you think your book is and allows you, six months later, to see it for what it really is. There may not be a more useful book revising tool.

I started submitting my third novel, Badge, on November 18, 2010. I know the date because it was the day after Patti Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. I’d been working on Badge, my third rock novel, for four years, and seeing the success of the likes of Smith, along with the success of rock novels like A Visit from the Goon Squad, had me thinking the industry might be looking for something like Badge. I sent out one query to an agent that day. After hearing nothing, I started sending out queries in earnest the following January, in chunks of five agents at a time, stopping when I reached 50. Over the next few months, I received several requests for partials and fulls, I fulfilled those requests, and I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

By July, after many rejections and non-responses, it was clear nothing was going to happen quickly with Badge. So, time to self-publish, right? I could have, but I wasn’t ready to give up on traditional publishing yet. It had only been six or eight months. I knew writers who’d submitted their novels for years before being accepted.

I decided instead to have another look at Badge. I found three literate people who were willing to be readers, I printed each of them a copy, and one for myself. We all read it and got together to discuss it.

What came out of that critique circle was revelatory. Two of the three readers didn’t like the main character, Badge, in a fundamental way. They thought he was kind of a jerk, and too aggressive with some of the other characters. All of this dissing reminded me of a comment from an agent with whom I’d developed a relationship over the years. He said his biggest obstacle to liking Badge was “Badge himself,” calling him a “Henry Higgins type” and believing he acted more like a petulant 25-year-old than the 38-year-old he was supposed to be. Despite having already submitted the novel query to dozens of agents, I still had work to do.

I spent the next few months going through my novel, finding the scenes where he was less than empathetic and rewriting them. Then I went through it again, making sure none of these new additions knocked other parts out of key. In the end, I had a new, improved version, and in January 2012, I was ready to re-engage with the publishing world.

I searched out more agents and sent them queries. I got a nice percentage of requests for partials and fulls, so I knew my query was doing its job. I also sent about a dozen queries to small publishers, and I applied to a half-dozen novel contests. And I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

When I got tired of waiting I sent out more queries: agents, publishers … anywhere I felt Badge might find a home. By the summer of 2012, I’d received answers from every query I could reasonably expect an answer from, and the answer was still no. 122 agents. 16 indie publishers. Six contests. I’d spent six years writing this novel, almost two submitting it, and about fifteen with the novel as the primary focus of my writing life, and with the exception of one finalist slot in a contest, no one wanted anything to do with it.

There’s part of me that doesn’t take this rejection as a judgment of my work. I write what can be described as Rock Lit, and that’s not the kind of thing traditional publishing gets excited about. The only money-making category where Badge might possibly fit is literary fiction, and no one’s calling my work literary. I think of my novels as written for a commercial audience, but the industry obviously doesn’t agree.

So, now it’s definitely time to self-publish, right? Absolutely nobody wants my novel, so go out there and prove to the world just how awesome and marketable it is. And keep all the spoils.

I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I’ve decided I’m not going to self-publish Badge right now.

Why not?

One reason is that I suspect its self-pub path would closely mirror that of my first two novels. There would be a nice flurry of books sold at first, then the momentum would die. I might get some good reviews. I know a few of my readers would be happy, but in the end I’d have a third novel that’s plenty good to my mind but didn’t get the marketing push it deserved.

But the main reason I’m not self-publishing Badge is this: I believe it simply isn’t good enough yet. Not that it doesn’t have value. I believe it’s not good enough for how off-genre it is. So, unless my protagonist suddenly grows a pair of fangs, I need to make it better.

This past summer, I enlisted a couple of new readers to read Badge along with me, and I got critiques from both. They (thankfully) found Badge empathetic, but both wanted the novel leaner and meaner, with less backstory, and both had ideas to make the plot more compelling. I’ve already made the backstory cuts, and I’ve pinpointed the places for plot changes, edits I’ll delve into over the next month or two. This has been painful work, but on another level it’s been a relief. My novel is getting better again, so much so I shudder to think it ever went out before these edits took place.

You might not believe me, but right now I feel my novel having been rejected across the board is a kind of gift. Not because I can now go out and become the next big self-publishing success, but because it gives me the chance to see it with fresh eyes, after a long period of not seeing it at all, and to improve it. The more times I revise Badge, the better it will be. I bet the same would go for your book.

And if your book is that good, it can only mean good things for its publication.

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ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

6 responses to “The Gift of No”

  1. “It’s 2012”?

    You’re right about the flaw of self-publishing. I’m all for it except that writers are, as William Burroughs once said, notoriously bad judges of their own work. I haven’t written a thing in my life that couldn’t have been improved by a few more drafts. I doubt more than a handful of writers have, though.

    “Setting your novel aside for six months separates you from your notions of it… There may not be a more useful book revising tool.”

    This is also great advice. Definitely it allows you to view your work more as someone else would, but still it doesn’t quite bridge the gap and an editor is pretty much always needed.

    Anyway, cool essay and best of luck with your book!

    • Art Edwards says:

      It’s so hard to know. The best answer is to have someone else tell you it’s ready, and the best someone is someone who’s putting their money where their mouth is. The longer I wait, the more determined I am to wait for the latter.

  2. jmblaine says:

    I just love that you show
    enough insight & humility
    to say
    “I will use this time to revise again.”

    Self-publishing is great — in certain situations.
    Writers are rarely marketers.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Who would ever argue that cheap and easy self-pubbing shouldn’t exist? It’s very important to us as artists that it does. You always have to be able to take it to the people and let them decide. Still, it’s hardly the answer for every situation.

      Knock ’em dead, kid.


  3. JSBreukelaar says:

    Thanks for those insights, Art. You’ve obviously walked the walk.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks, JS.

      I just think a lot of what we love about writing gets lost in publishing. Did I start doing this to get some pretty good book published? Hell no. What’s the point? It’s not going to pay my way, so why not take ten years and make it da bomb?

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