When you’re an unpublished writer, the incentives involved in writing a novel on spec (i.e. writing it and then trying to sell it) are simple. You write the best novel you can, you work on it as much as you can, and then you send it out to agents and subsequently to publishers, and it gets rejected. You repeat this ad nauseum until something sells.
But when you’ve published, the incentives are slightly different. Because now you know the publication process. You know that if you get an agent, they’re going to want edits, and if the book sells, the editor will want even more edits. So it’s a little hard to polish the book and make it perfect before sending it to your agent and/or editor, because you’re like, why not work with them to make it better? Why do all this work on your own?
The problem…is…and I don’t know how to put this delicately…once the book is out of your hands, anything can happen. For one thing, the agent and/or editor can be like, “This is crap” and reject it summarily without giving you another chance. And, just as likely, they’ll form some snap judgement of your intentions and then for the rest of the book drafting process you’ll need to try and make sure their vision isn’t affecting yours.
So there’s an incentive to finish it up to the highest degree of polish before sending it out. But when you’ve sold books you also realize that…sometimes no degree of polish can make a book sell. It’s simply not the right time for this book. Moreover, and this is something few people don’t talk about, but there’s also a degree to which being less-finished actually makes a book more likely to sell. Many agents and almost all editors like to put their stamp on a book, and they often won’t buy a book unless they have some editorial vision for it. They want to come in with some sense of how they can make it better. Moreover, because the public often responds better to messier, less-finished books, because they are (paradoxically) an easier read, a messier book can seem more marketable and feel like it has mass appeal. And then there’s the final factor, which is, the more work you put into a book, the clearer it often gets, and that very clarity can sometimes make it unpalatable. If you’re trying to say something difficult and unpopular, then in early drafts, you might only make tiny nods towards that difficult thing. But in later drafts, the difficulty might be unavoidable. All of this is to say, it’s sometimes better to send out less-finished work.
Moreover, there’s just the opportunity cost. Finishing a book to your fullest satisfaction can take three or four years. While finishing it to just the level needed to get a new agent or sell to a publisher might only take six months. Either way, you’ll do two years of revision with the agent and/or publisher, so if you send out the less-finished book and it sells, you’re saving many years of your life (as opposed to sending out a more finished book that doesn’t sell).
There’s not an easy answer to the conundrum of how hard to work on a book. I think it depends on your experiences as an author. If you’ve had the experience of putting in four years, writing a book that you’re proud of, and having it not sell or even get an agent, then you’re unlikely to do that again. But if you’ve had the experience (as I have) of sending out underbaked work and having it be poorly-received, or of feeling like it doesn’t find quite the right home, then you’re likely to put in more work.
Still, it’s difficult. I just did another complete draft of The Lonely Years, and the temptation to send it out to agents is extreme. I do think the book could get representation. And that agent will want edits, so I could do all this work after I get someone. But…I don’t know. I like working on my own. Ideally I’d have an agent with whom revision is more of a dialogue: a sophisticated reader who trusts me and my own aesthetic judgement. But you don’t always get that. I want to spend as much time as possible with my book before allowing other voices to influence me.
Anyway, what I tell myself is that I’m revising the book not just to sell, but to last. There’s a level beyond which a book is salable, but you want more than that.* You want the book to do things nobody asked it to do. For myself, the thing I like best in a book is for it to be exquisitely constructed: for me to have the feeling that every part has a purpose. The downside of this is that books can end up feeling overdetermined, where the same themes are being hammered in by every character and situation. But to me good construction means you barely even feel the way all the parts fit together, and sometimes things don’t even feel like they fit. This is not the sort of thing an editor or agent can really do. I mean, generally speaking, there’s a lot that they can’t do. I strongly believe in the value of comments and criticism–to date I’ve had something like ten people give comments on this manuscript–but I also believe that you read the comments once or maybe twice, and then you put them aside and don’t refer to them again. But that’s not a luxury you have when it comes to criticism from the people in ‘your’ corner. In fact, once you get published, it can be very hard to recover that feeling of freedom, and it’s only once it finally comes back that you realize how precious and fleeting it can be.
*The problem, of course, is that a book might be salable, but still not sell. You could do all this work, write a book for the ages, but nobody ever publishes it. And there’s really no way of avoiding this fate. It’s entirely out of your hands. Personally, the books I’m proudest of are the ones that sold, but I’m very aware, from the example of my friends, that selling isn’t guaranteed. And I, personally, have been on submission three times with three different manuscripts that didn’t sell, so believe me I know what it’s like to hear only crickets.