Shelving a Book

dawn frederick

You’ve written a book, and maybe you’re approaching agents, or perhaps you already have an agent and it’s being pitched to publishers. So far it has been a sea of rejections, very typical in publishing, and unfortunately it feels like you’re “stuck.” This is a normal feeling, please never assume it equates to failure. 

This may be a gentle nudge to reassess, to determine if it’s time to shelve the book and to stop submitting it for consideration. It’s never an easy decision, but it’s a normal experience for established writers AND new writers. No one is left out of this conundrum.

In an ideal world, every single book idea will find a home, and it will eventually be published. The reality is that not every idea will find a publishing home. Maybe it’s due to the timeliness of the idea, or perhaps too many books of similar nature have been slated to be published already (or are currently published). It could also be that the industry isn’t leaning into books of that type. (Ex: have you heard of any editors asking for dystopian books lately?) Or your book is just not fully ready, which is always a possibility. 

There’s no specific standard for when to shelve a book, so here are a few things worth considering:

1. The current market – Many years ago, sparkling vampires won the young adult world over. Now it seems publishing wouldn’t come near an idea like that. It’s not that readers aren’t reading vampire books, as there are still books being published (at a lower volume) with this trope vs. the large number of titles that were published after the sparkling vampires.

If your book is in an already crowded market (in regard to theme/topic), and you’ve already received many rejections, it may be time to look at the competition for your book. Talk to a librarian or bookseller about books in that category; assess if it’s possible your book is too similar to the books that are already published (or coming out in the near future).

The flipside: If this is the book you 100% believe should get published, it’s essential that the story and narrative is distinct enough (and well-told), so that editors and agents will take the time to request it. It’s always beneficial to slow down, reevaluate the book, and see how it places in the current market.

2. Timing is everything – Publishing always goes through phases, of which I’ve often seen numerous queries for ideas that line up to current events, of which people have already gotten publishing deals around those ideas. When I teach, I sometimes refer to when the world was supposed to end on 12/21/12. It was fascinating to see so many queries from writers about this day, including how to prepare for it. In fact, I was receiving queries up to December 2012 around this topic. The reality is that these books would’ve never been published…and they weren’t. 

Writing to a trend is not to any author’s advantage. But also writing a book that has a potentially small window of attention will generally not gain the attention of a traditional publisher. It takes one to two years after signing the publishing contract before the book will reach readers. This means it may be easier to go the indie route, due to the small window of time. Or writing the book well in advance (while writing a good book no less), so that the publisher can have the necessary time to give attention to publishing and promoting the book well in advance of the potential trend. 

The flipside: Write the best book that is in you. No trends are required.

3. Ensure the idea is completed – Many authors who’ve recently finished a book will immediately reach out to agents. The reality is that the first, second, or even third draft is generally not ready for pitching, let alone will the early drafts be ready for publishers. A good practice is to take a break from the book between drafts, so that it can be edited with fresh eyes. It could be referred to as a temporary “shelving” – be it a few months or longer. 

Agents and editors expect (and hope) that any writer will take the appropriate steps to ensure their book is the best it can be. We assume if someone has pitched an idea, that it has been through many drafts and that it has been fully researched and fleshed out. We don’t have lots of free time to ask for revised manuscripts with every idea that is pitched. Only a small number of writers will receive an R&R, it’s to any writer’s benefit to slow down and query with a book that is fully baked. 

The flipside: Generally better-prepared ideas will receive more requests, less rejections.

One of my favorite conversations when the “The Call” happens is talking about the other ideas an author has beyond the book they’ve pitched. Many agents, me included, want to work with an author for the long-term. There’s a good chance that your first book may never win an agent over, but your second, third, or beyond, could possible open up a conversation around those shelved ideas. 

Put your best foot, or in this case, book, forward. 


Dawn Michelle Frederick is the owner/literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, established in 2008. She brings a broad knowledge of the book business to the table, bringing multiple years of experience as a bookseller in independent, chain, and specialty stores; sales, marketing, and book development experience; previously a literary agent at Sebastian Literary Agency. She has a B.S. in Human Ecology, and a M.S. in Information Sciences. Dawn co-founded the MN Publishing Tweet Up, is the current President of the Twin Cities Advisory Council for MPR, a member of the BOD for Loft Literary, and a teaching artist at Loft Literary. You can find her on Twitter at @redsofaliterary.