Knowing when to quit

Something that thankfully doesn’t come up often is knowing when to quit a book. This is not something you should ever do lightly, but it’s also important to know when you should say “This is just not working out. I think I need to leave this project.”

Some of the reasons you might want to quit a project are:

  • You won’t be able to finish the book in any reasonable amount of time. This may be because you’ve got too much going on in the rest of your professional life (you just had a new contract land in your lap or a promotion happened at your day job) or your personal life (deaths, divorce, illness, and accident are the biggies).
  • You and the editor aren’t clicking. This isn’t a frequent problem, but there are times when you and the acquisitions editor are getting along like cats and dogs. This better not be something casual. Just being uncomfortable with your editor isn’t good enough: a good editor will make you work hard and will also kick your ass when it needs kicking. That’s their job and you should accept this gratefully because they’re usually doing it to make you a better author now and in the future. But if there’s a lot of friction–and I mean a lot of friction–and you’re absolutely certain that it’s not you and there’s nothing you can do about it, you may want to consider leaving a book.

    I’ve almost always had good editors, but there’ve been one or two pills over the years. The worst was legendary in the business for her unprofessional behavior. I’d already passed once on doing a book with her after she’d phoned me directly and tried to get me to disregard my agent’s advice. I inherited her only after the great editor I’d had on a book got laid off mid-project and his work was reassigned to existing staff. I described her as a “bullet,” someone who sits in her chamber waiting to be fired. She got laid off about a year later and is out of the business now. There was many a dry eye in the house when this happened.
  • When you can’t get the support you were banking on. None of us are in this business for our health. We’re writing books for the money. If you’re writing a book based on the idea that you’re going to get support during or after a book and you don’t, you may have a problem. If you were depending on information from the company, advance PR such as email blasts or prominent blurbs on their website, chapter reviews, or other marketing, and the company completely fails to come through, you may be in a no-win situation. If you go from “Oh, we’re really keen to do a book!” to “We’ll get back to you with an answer,” it may be time to leave.

So what do you do if you can’t win? Or the book can’t be completed in a timely fashion or you’ll spend every cent you have just to complete a book that won’t pay you a dime? You need to talk to your agent (if you have one) first and find out if there are options. Your agent will give you the benefit of their experience. That’s what your agent is there for, after all; s/he is your mouthpiece. If you’re dealing directly with the publisher, you need to let them know what’s happening as professionally as possible and with a minimum of drama.

Leaving a book project is not something you do casually, ever. But if it’s going to cost you a fortune just to stay on the project or you’re not going to be able to finish it for other reasons, it’s best to bow out as gracefully as you can.

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