So Your Book's Been Rejected 900 Times: Six Things to do With a Manuscript No One Wants
By this point, you've walked down publication road long enough to know that it doesn't really head anywhere. The "We're all friends" agent myth has turned to vapor, leaving you with only reality: You're a nobody with no industry contacts and no fan base, selling a product with no natural demand. All you have now is a manuscript representing many months of your life that nobody wants.
So what now? The good news is that you have choices. The bad news is that none of them are great.
What follows is a general overview of what you might do with your rejected fiction manuscript. I am approaching this almost as though it's harm reduction: No value judgments, just a recitation of the facts. All of these are viable paths that offer different benefits and risks.
Six Things to do With Your Rejected Novel
Put it on Ice
In the notoriously slow-moving world of publishing, doing nothing is an option in and of itself. When you've grown tired of being rejected by agents, you can simply put the manuscript aside for a while. This can give you an opportunity to continue to develop and polish it, build up your writing resume, or simply wait for a new opportunity.
Pros: The main upside here is flexibility. There's rarely a need to take immediate action in publishing, so sitting on a manuscript for a while is unlikely to hurt it. Down the line, you'll still have all of the following options, but you'll also have a second chance to secure an agent. Publishing trends wax and wane, and you may well find that novels with your content and themes are suddenly in demand in the years that follow.
Cons: Apart from the tiny risk that you might miss some opportunity, the main downside is fixation. Almost every would-be novelist's first project has two things in common: It's a passion project, and it's terrible. Some people become obsessed with publishing one specific manuscript that has little chance of reaching shelves and waste countless hours on it that could be put to better use on other projects. In such a case, holding on to that manuscript will only feed that obsession, and you'd be better served doing anything with it.
Most people who suffer setbacks in finding an agent will opt to take advantage of the many modern options for self-publishing. They may go for free digital options such as KDP or Smashwords, or they may seek out "hybrid" publishers that offer publication packages at various price points.
Pros: Many of the benefits here are clear - ease of use, absolute creative control, and (most of the time) no one expecting a cut of the profits. While self-published books are still less prestigious than traditionally published ones, the world of self-publishing has shed much of the stigma of the old vanity publishers. What's more, the wealth of options for low-cost freelancers means that the writer no longer has to settle for an inferior product. There are art, design, and editing options to fit most budgets. Finally, the success of some high-profile self-published authors demonstrates that it is possible to transition from self-publishing to traditional publishing.
Cons: Let's get this out of the way first: Your odds of even minor success as a self-published author are vanishingly slim. There's simply too much competition for a market that's still pretty small. If you're not already famous for something non-writing related and/or working in an underserved niche, then your only hope to be noticed is to spend money on (often dubious) marketing and promotion. If you're neither popular nor affluent, then you're going to have to sell hard to pretty much everyone you've ever met. And while we're talking money, let's talk about those piecemeal editorial services: Many of those low-cost freelancers aren't even worth the pittance they're charging, and those "hybrid" publishing packages are often grotesquely overpriced. In the end, you may end up spending thousands of dollars on a book that doesn't earn a cent.
There's a big world outside of the Big Five. Some publishers allow authors to submit manuscripts directly without an agent, including a few big genre publishers and a lot of small presses and specialty publishers.
Pros: Submitting to a publisher isn't that different from querying an agent, so you're probably already familiar with the process by now - you just need to find the right market. These days there's a small press for just about everyone but the path is especially suitable for writers in certain genres, notably romance, science fiction and fantasy. Small presses generally don't pay advances so you're unlikely to make much money unless your novel becomes a bestseller, but there is a definite prestige bonus to publishing this way. Being able to call yourself a "published novelist" opens a lot of doors - you can get money and exposure by writing articles for writer's publications, and it may even help you with agents if you choose to go for the Big Five later on.
Cons: While it may save you a step, going directly to publishers is not automatically a sure bet. Bigger publishers who take direct submissions are still far more likely to talk to agents than to writers, to the point where your odds of publication may be lower if you go it alone. Small presses are easier, but are also riskier. Marketing support at most small presses is minimal, giving you only a marginal boost in visibility compared to what you'd get if you published yourself. Small presses are also notoriously ephemeral markets, prone to going out of business without warning and leaving their authors in limbo. If you choose to approach a small press, make sure to vet them carefully first - go with well-established publishers with no history of shady business practices.
Set it Free
Given the small monetary awards offered by most novels, some authors opt to give their works away for free in order to maximize exposure. This can take many forms - serializing the work on one's own blog, posting it to a fiction site such as Wattpad or one of its competitors, making it a zero-cost download via a self-publishing site, or offering it as a bonus in exchange for subscribing to a newsletter or email updates.
Pros: In a marketplace where brand awareness is paramount, a free work can generate more value than a premium work. Free works tend to spread much faster, especially if it's Creative Commons. More awareness means more fans, which can greatly boost future efforts to secure an agent or self-publish for money. Remarkably, there are even ways to generate money from free books, potentially as much (if not more) than one could make from selling a cheap ebook. These methods can include conventional monetization techniques (read: ads), driving attention to premium products (e.g. Making the first book in a series free), offering subscriptions, or using the monetization options available on many current fiction sites and apps. And let's put this to rest - the risk of anyone "stealing" your free book is effectively zero.
Cons: You are by no means avoiding competition by making your work freely available. If anything, you face the same problems as you would with any other self-publishing approach - you're one person selling a product no one's asking for in a sea of others doing the same thing. Free fiction sites are surprisingly competitive, with a definite tilt towards writers who are already established in those communities. Many of the newer apps - the ones with all of those monetization options - are run by seriously shady companies offering unfriendly contracts, but even the (relatively) honest ones tend to lack sustainable business models, leaving them high-risk options. On a personal level, I could have easily lost The Fabulist when the site hosting the original serial went under. Speaking of which...I've given away a fair number of copies of The Fabulist and Nerd World and my other CC books, but it's hard to say how much - if any - genuine exposure that gave me. Giving away books is playing the long game, and there's no way to know if you'll ever get anything out of it.
Turn it Into Short Fiction
Here's one that people rarely mention: You may be able to turn your manuscript into one or more short stories and then sell those as standalone works. This isn't suitable for all works, but for novels with a loose or episodic structure, it is certainly viable.
Pros: Most would-be novelists completely neglect short fiction, which is a shame as these markets offer unproven writers a chance to make some money and build up some credit. For speculative fiction writers in particular, there's probably a good short story buried in your manuscript that can get a lot more readers in the right market than it ever could as a novel. There's actually a pretty extensive history of short stories forming the basis for full-length novels or even novel series, so this can be an alternate path to break in. But even if it fails to accomplish that, you're still left with a publication credit that can aid you in future attempts to secure representation.
Cons: First off, if you've never dealt with short fiction markets, then brush up because their workings and standards can be very different than those of novels. Second, don't think that you're going to have an easy time - it's actually questionable as to whether major short fiction markets are easier to deal with than agents, but those markets are still tough and getting tougher all the time. But here's the biggest letdown, and I'm speaking from experience here: No matter what they say, most agents are not all that impressed by short fiction credits. I have over 30 myself, including many professional and semipro credits, and this really hasn't moved the needle at all. Even in the best of times, it may be better to view this option as an attempt to recoup a partial victory from a total loss.
Burn it to Ash
When all else fails, you might need to take a radical step: Get rid of it. Delete the backups, shred the hard copies, chuck your notes, and pretend it never existed.
Cons: It's pretty much all downside. You're out all those hours you spent writing and editing the manuscript, with nothing to show for it - no money, no prestige, no fans, no credit. It's the worst choice, except...
Pros: Remember what I said about fixation? This is the only guaranteed cure for that. Anything else you do with a doomed manuscript will, in some way, keep it in your mind. As an unloved $0.99 book on KDP, as a technically-in-print book with some third-rate small press that's never more than six months away from vanishing, as a fragmentary serial on some obscure app, you will always have hope that it will succeed - and that hope may well hold you back. If it's truly your passion project, then maybe you should dispose of it. That way, if that passion returns, you'll have no hope but to rewrite it - as someone older, more experienced, more mature. This new version can't help but be better, and maybe that will be the version that finally wins someone over.