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The Blessing of Writing an Unsalable Book

The Blessing of Writing an Unsalable Book

“Your first book goes in a drawer.”

This was a phrase I learned almost as soon as I entered the publishing business.

Among book industry pros, it’s commonly understood that first-time authors may need to “cleanse the palate” with an unpublishable manuscript before they write their first masterwork.

That first book, as the saying goes, belongs in a drawer.

The concept seemed cruel to me at the time. You write a whole, entire book—and then nobody ever sees it?? What a waste, I thought. How depressing.

Twenty years and hundreds of authors later, I see it very differently.

I’ve learned a whole lot about how the book industry works. I’ve also learned a whole lot about how the human psyche—and its softer counterpart, the human heart—work.

The book industry is just that: an industry. A business. It’s populated by wonderful loving people whose jobs depend on publishing books that are going to sell many copies.

Sales is the bottom line. It has to be. Your heart, by contrast, cares not at all about sales. In fact, your heart is likely writing in order to achieve goals that have nothing to do with book sales. The most common goal I see my clients’ hearts seeking? Processing a lifetime of experience.

Making sense of the roller coaster ride.

Digesting the trauma.

Learning to forgive.

Tip-toeing toward letting go.

As it turns out, our hearts are really freaking smart. They know that writing is an excellent way to unfreeze stuck memories, to metabolize painful feelings and—in a hyphenated word—to self-liberate.

So if you’re writing a book like this, a first book that hangs on your story, it’s totally effing fine if it doesn’t turn out to be your “gift to the world.” 

It may be your gift to yourself—and that’s much more important.

If this sounds like you, I need you to listen closely. This is not a failure. This is not about you “not being good enough.” It’s about you getting ready for what’s coming next.

Clearing the pipeline so Life can fill it with something new.

Your being is replete with story—brimming over with your precious experience. Until you release these words onto the page, you may not be able to do the most important thing an author can do: Step into the experience of the reader.

Which is what you have to do, if and when you want your book to unfurl into the world beyond you.

Writing is a radical processing practice. And seeing your own story at a distance—reading it as words on a page—is a radical act of letting go. In this way, writing a book before you write “the book” may be essential. It may not be optional. It may be the only thing you can write, right now.

Again, if this sounds like you, I’m here to give you total permission.

You can trust this process. You can trust it, I promise.

Committing your raw story to the page may be the one and only way to get from where you are to becoming a published author, for writing the first book teaches you who you are as a writer. It helps you see your story up close and personal. Conversely, it can give you a much-needed distance. So the story itself loses some of its bite, its terrifying charge.

This book is not, however, required publishing.

In many cases, it’s not going to be a good fit for a traditional house. These houses—these businesses—need to know your book will sell lots o’ copies.

What the publishers know is that most life stories need to be hammered and forged over and over before they are ready for a wide readership. (If you want to know more about what publishers are looking for when they’re looking for memoir, read about that here.)

If this is your story’s first outing, it’s probably not meant for agents and publishers. (Not to mention critics and strangers.) There is no shame in this. Critics and strangers and agents and publishers are not the reader this particular book cares about.

This first book saves its sexiest moves for its core audience; its ideal reader. And to this reader, your shining personal story is gold. It’s a #1 bestseller, a prizewinner, an uncontested Best Book of the Year.

That reader is—can you guess?—YOU.

And you, my love? You are so important.

(Important enough to write a whole book for? Yes, yes and yes again.)

Write it, because you have to. You need the storage space these words are currently occupying. But once you’ve written it, treat it with the reverence of a newborn child. (You wouldn’t hand your infant to “just anyone,” would you?) Keep this book—your first book, the book of the story of your life—utterly safe.

Whether it’s a short story or an epic adventure; whether you’ve written it exactly as it happened or fictionalized it to get yourself some distance. This story is for you.

Once you’ve squeezed the last drops of wisdom from your holy life, you can decide what comes next.

Ask yourself, “Do I want this book to go walking out in the world without me?”

If the answer is yes, self-publish it. Wrap it in a gorgeous cover and give it a breathtaking title and hand it out to those you love—and who love you in return. Those for whom you are as interesting as a celebrity.

Bless it and ask it to help, inspire and heal others the way the writing of it has helped, inspired and healed you.

But you may also look at your completed draft and say, “This is mine alone.”

Contrary to what I assumed when I first got into the book business, this is not a waste. It is not depressing. It’s part of the journey of becoming the person you most want to be.

And this, my friend, is where you find a drawer.

Not just any drawer; one that’s the perfect size and shape for your brave and beautiful book.

Line it with organic cotton, or brightly dyed silk. Spritz it with lavender or vanilla. Tuck a chunk of amethyst in the corner, if crystals are your thing. (A simple rock from your beloved garden, if not.)  Layer in some crushed bay leaves, picked off the tree outside your childhood home.

Precious things from your journey, to represent the preciousness of this book.

And then, with great reverence and honoring of the process it has birthed in you, place your first book in its forever home.

Take a deep breath for the heartbreak, and the beauty.

Take a deep breath for the love it took to walk the path of your life.

(And then to walk it again, in the writing of it.)

And take a deep breath for the letting go.

And then, when the time is right, sit back down at your computer and ask yourself what you’ve learned that will help someone else.

Then write a book for a wide and reachable audience. To us—your readers—it will be utterly worth the wait.


10 thoughts on “The Blessing of Writing an Unsalable Book”

    • I’m so happy to hear this was helpful, Elizabeth! I find the shift in perceptions can make all the difference in the world! Love+Books, Kelly

  1. So very happy to benefit from your blog, your book (oh yes.) your comments on the FB writing workshop page and your twenty some years publisher’s wisdom.
    Thank you!

  2. Now I can exhale! This insight has provided freedom and helped me understand the unexplainable pressure I’ve been feeling for many years. My joy of writing has a home on every page and a place within every book, even if it’s only place is on my coffee table. Thank you.

    • Yay for the exhale, Sylvia!! “My joy of writing has a home on every page and a place within every book, even if it’s only place is on my coffee table.” YES YES YES! Thank you for sharing your insight with us. Love+Books, Kelly

  3. True Dat! My first book was/is a novel- a fictionalized version of my ‘lateral drift’ through mid-life. It’s been in a drawer for 15 years. Based on your advice, I may just go the self-publishing route which I did with my last book 0 a therapeutic yoga book for kids. I’m now working on a non-fiction inspirational personal growth book and if I can’t get a traditional publisher, I’ll self-publish that one too 🙂

    • Lovely, Beth! You’re a great example of how that first book may not be an author’s first book to hit the bookshelf. This is such a common phenomenon but few aspiring authors know it. Too often they stop writing after the first book doesn’t make it to the shelf. Thank you for setting a great example of how the process of authoring is a journey with many different eras. Love+Books, Kelly


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