Turning Down a Book Deal

by Michael Harvkey

On the night of the Columbia MFA thesis readings in 2004, I signed with a literary agent—the first of many mistakes I would make trying to publish my first book. That night, basking in the sunset glow of a life-changing MFA, I had no way of knowing that the road to publication, for all but a lucky few, could be so treacherous—an enormous uphill slog marked by potholes, dead ends, and few guard rails.

Despite one of my professor’s best efforts to educate her students about the business of writing, few of us graduated with even an intern’s awareness of the way publishing worked, let alone what it would take to become a part of it. Half a decade (and even more mistakes) later, I still knew precious little about publishing when the economic collapse forced me into my first full-time job in over a decade—the fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly.

While I was certainly lucky to land the job in the middle of the worst downturn in almost a century, it made me wish for a time machine set to those unfettered, hopeful days of the MFA. What I didn’t know then was that the job I feared would keep me from finishing my book would afford me just the opposite: an insider’s knowledge of the publishing industry, and with it the understanding of how to not just publish my book, but how to do it on my own terms.

I don’t know how other MFA programs shepherd their graduates into the real world, but the way Columbia does it—with tented readings attended by industry pros—makes you feel like a real writer, and a rock star. The night I read, an agent offered representation. But instead of feeling like I’d arrived, I just felt weird. There was zero connection between us. When we spoke about my thesis, a slim collection of stories I was working to finish, her eyes glazed over.

Even so, I swept my concerns aside and signed. No one else was interested, a situation I couldn’t imagine changing. But it did change, and soon: Only a few months later I got a call from the agent who’d sold Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Though I felt a good connection with her, I also really wanted a deal. If I made a change now, who knew how long I’d have to wait, or who I’d piss off. So I made another mistake: I told Dave Eggers’s agent I was taken.

It wasn’t only this problem of personal connection that troubled me. It was the course that my new agent set me on by telling me that publishers don’t buy short story collections. “Come up with an idea for a novel,” she said, and we’d go after a two-book deal. Instead of pausing to consider my options, I said, “No problem!”

But there was a problem: The last four years I’d focused exclusively on short stories. A novel was a different beast entirely—one that takes time, and can’t be forced; one that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t ready to face. Panicked, I adapted a failed screenplay into a book proposal. Though the proposal outlined a novel I didn’t want to write, I pushed my concerns aside one more time in the relentless pursuit of a deal.

Eight weeks passed before I got any news on the submission. There was interest from a major house. The first thing the editor said was, “I love your stories.” The second thing was, “I hate your proposal.” She laughed when I said, “Me too!” By then an idea had begun to emerge that I was actually excited about. I shared it and she got excited too.

But the way she spoke about my stories was troubling. We didn’t see eye-to-eye. I would later learn that this experience—a writer and editor not seeing the work in the same way—is all too common. But at the time, the mismatch just filled me with dread. Again, it seemed, I had only one option—and it was a bad one. Yet it was an option, something I knew I was lucky to get. We ended the call with her making an offer—for a two-book deal—and me making a promise to get her a new proposal. I was about to join the Published Authors Club.

My agent leveraged the offer into more interest and I met with other editors, including one at a fabulous literary imprint. The first thing the editor said was, “I’ve only been interested in two books this year, and yours is one of them.” The second thing was, “We don’t make offers on proposals.” But he wanted to work with me to get a hundred pages in shape. With that, he told me, he could petition the board for an offer. There was no guarantee, but he was confident. I felt an immediate connection with this editor. I liked how he talked about my stories. At the time I didn’t realize just how important it is for a writer to be on the same page as his agent and editor, but I’ve since learned that it is literally everything. Without it a writer is lost.

I’d hit a fork in the road: One path led to a major house publishing two of my books—an actual deal. The other led to a fabulous imprint possibly publishing two of my books. Less than a year out of the MFA, I faced my third difficult decision. All I had to do now was not make another mistake.

So I turned down the deal. My writer friends called it a “bold move.” In private, I’m sure they called it something else. But it was the first mistake I didn’t make.

In the mid-2000s, before the economic apocalypse drove publishing back to the stone age, the two-book deal was the most popular accessory: In those days, it seemed as if every writer had one. And while such a deal can be a good fit for an established writer, it’s a danger for a writer just starting out—especially one fresh from an MFA program, whose focus has been entirely on the short form. Soon after leaving Columbia, two of my friends—both amazing short story writers—signed two-book deals. Both saw their collections published to great acclaim. Both turned in novels that would be rejected by their editors. One of these writers attempted another, which was also rejected, and began to entertain a third before giving up on—or “breaking”—the deal. To this day, neither writer has published another book.

The same thing could have easily happened to me. Or even worse. Every editor I met told me they would publish my collection after the novel. It’s increasingly difficult and costly to grab people’s attention. Publishers don’t want to do that work all over again for the second book, so publishing the stories—already finished—a year later saves time and money, and keeps the writer in the spotlight.

But I knew that writing my first novel would eat up more than the year or two the contract allowed for. I wasn’t offered enough money to write full time; I would have had to continue working as a freelance animator, which meant, when I had a gig, twelve-hour days. That schedule hardly left time to eat, let alone write. To fulfill the contract I would have turned in an early, unrealized draft—something that, if it got published, I almost certainly wouldn’t be proud of.

The more likely scenario, though, would have been breaking the deal, because the editor who’d made the offer of a two-book-deal left within a year. I would have been handed off to someone who hadn’t acquired my books. My messy novel would have been rejected, my collection published without enthusiasm—or not published at all. Had my agent been able to get me out of the deal, I would have been left with one useless book, seen by publishers as “tainted,” and one unfinished one.

After saying no to the deal I sat down and filled the recycling bin with crumpled page after page in an effort to discover my novel. Months passed. I flipped the calendar to 2006. At every stage the editor at the fabulous imprint gave me feedback. It usually went like this: “I know you’ve got a novel in you but this ain’t it.” He bought me lunch, drinks, and invited me to literary events, fast-tracking my membership into the Club. I felt like a rock star again. Though it took a full year, I finally had the first hundred pages of what would become my novel, In the Course of Human Events. I eagerly awaited the editor’s feedback.

What came, however, was less helpful: “I’m leaving publishing,” he wrote. Soon after, my agent left the agency. Suddenly it seemed like I’d gotten a ride in that time machine after all. There I was, back in 2004, standing at the bottom of that treacherous hill.


The Japanese have a phrase: oshi shinobu. It means to persevere through great challenge. You might have heard its contraction—Osu!—being shouted in dojos with much enthusiasm. I thought about this phrase anytime I pondered my sad turn of fortune, as I saw it. In three years, I’d gone from a young, hopeful writer with an agent, an offer, and an attentive editor-in-waiting, to an increasingly out-of-work freelancer wrestling with a coming-of-age novel that would ask readers to sympathize with a character who, as it turns out, was a budding white supremacist. I’d lost faith in and shelved my short story collection. Everyone who’d expressed interest in my work had left publishing. Then my wife and I bought our first apartment, a tiny studio in Brooklyn, New York. Then the economy tanked. Then my freelance work dried up. My MFA honeymoon was over. It was time to face reality. It was time to get a real job.

When I joined Publishers Weekly in the summer of 2010, I went from an unpublished writer to an industry insider. While many writers would kill for a job like fiction reviews editor, I wasn’t one of them. All I could think about was how hard it would be to write around the structured hours of full-time employment. The outgoing editor’s description of my position only made matters worse: “Having your head dunked in the toilet of contemporary fiction on a weekly basis,” he called it. But what seemed like a major blow to my writing was actually a great gift.

Not only did I get to know people in publishing, from top agents and editors to journalists covering books (contacts every writer dreams of making), I also acquired a perspective that few unpublished authors ever get. From the inside I saw what books were being bought and which authors got attention. I saw the result of choices both good and bad. Being on the receiving end of several petitions for book or author coverage every single day, I learned what makes a pitch stand out. And reading several forthcoming debut novels each month clarified why my own wasn’t working.

Already having had an agent, listing Columbia and Publishers Weekly on my CV, and having turned down a book deal didn’t make getting a new agent any easier. Twice I approached agents with my novel, including Dave Eggers’s agent, who’d been interested in my short stories, and Bill Clegg, who’d given me notes on an earlier draft. Both times everyone (almost forty agents in all) passed, including Bill, but he always gave me great feedback. He read like an editor, with insight that cut right to the problems. I took his notes to heart, and got back to work, again. For a whole year, two or three nights a week, I punched out of Publishers Weekly at 5 PM, shot an espresso, and spent the evening performing surgery on my novel. The next time I gave it to Bill, three years had passed since his first read. This time he said, “I’m in.” Of course he added, “Still, I think there is work to be done.”

Starting out, I made one mistake after another, in part because I felt like representation was a favor (rather than viewing the agent as a person working on my behalf), and if I did anything to seem ungrateful I might lose it. Almost a decade later I possessed an understanding of the business that few unpublished writers had. I kept tabs on editors, took note of what books they bought. I helped shape and specialize my submission list.

When my manuscript went out this time, in 2012, everything was different. A third of the editors who received it knew me personally; every editor at least knew of me. While this familiarity didn’t sway any fence-sitters to buy my book, it did make the submission something of a priority.

Back in 2005, two months passed before I heard a peep. This time? Four days. But the best thing about what had changed is that this time I had a solid grasp of the industry. I understood how the submission process actually worked—what went into it, and what to expect. Specifically, I learned to thoroughly research agents and presses, to find the ones that seemed like a good fit for my work. I catered my query letters to specific agents and editors based on their interests, rather than just sending my proposal to every big name I’d ever heard. I learned to talk honestly about my work, and to seek out agents and editors who would do the same.

Most important, I learned to take my time—rather than bending to the pressure to publish—and write a book I was proud of. Going out with a manuscript will never be a stress-free endeavor, but this time I felt like a participant in the process, rather than someone it was happening to.

In the Course of Human Events traces a young man’s brutal transformation from aimless loner to radical anti-government extremist at the hands of a charismatic karate teacher. Outside of the nightly news, it’s not the most mainstream of topics. Most of the editors attached to major houses worried that the subject matter would be a hard sell—not to readers, but within the house itself. What a debut author wants is an enthusiastic team, not a lone wolf trying to convince the pack. One of the best steps I took when I met with interested editors was asking each one to describe my book to me as they would to a friend. Hearing someone else pitch me my own novel made it immediately clear who got it and who didn’t.

As fiction reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, I met often with publicists to go over their upcoming lists. The publicist would instruct me to “turn to page three” in the catalogue and then speak enthusiastically about their lead title. Then they’d say, “Turn to page 21.” Flip, flip, flip we’d go, past book after book, to the next most important title on their list. Rarely would we discuss more than a half-dozen titles in all.

After these meetings, if I had time, I’d flip back through the catalogue to the few dozen books the publicists had skipped. The unpublished author in me took note. After waiting so long to publish the way I wanted to, I’d be damned if my book was going to end up buried in the flip. So when I spoke with editors, I also asked them where they saw my novel fitting into their list. Liz Parker, then director of the independent publisher Soft Skull Press, said, “Lead title” without hesitation. She spoke about my book in a way I found honest and accurate. She was enthusiastic. And she didn’t have to convince anyone else. I signed with her the next day.

Once a writer is set upon a path, it can be hard to get off it. The team you choose to help you get published should see you as the writer you are, not the writer they want you to be, the writer they could more easily sell, or even the writer you think you are but actually aren’t. When I turned down that deal in 2005, I suspected as much, and ten years later I know it without a doubt: Publishing a book your agent or editor isn’t enthusiastic about, a book you aren’t ready for, or, perhaps most important, a book you’re not proud of, can be worse than not publishing a book at all.

This article originally appeared in Poets & Writers magazine