To shelve or not to shelve. Not only is that the question, but it’s a heartbreaking one. If you’re not familiar with the term, in author world, shelving a manuscript means the author has effectively called it quits on getting that project published.
Sometimes, an author may shelve a near complete manuscript because they realize the plot holes are insurmountable. Or, they may shelve a complete project because, after typing THE END, they find they’re not comfortable with sharing that particular work. More often, shelving a manuscript comes at the end of an unsuccessful agent or publisher query cycle.
This is where I’m at with my middle grade superhero manuscript, COLOSSA AND THE BIG KIDS (CATBK for short). I’m at a point where shelving it would be reasonable, but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do. I’m going to share with you the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of my CATBK experience (but in reverse because I like to end on a positive note!), so that if you find yourself at this same point, you’ll give the shelving question due consideration before setting your work aside.
Let’s talk sheer numbers. I’ve put CATBK through two rounds of agent queries, one in 2019 and a second in 2021. In 2019, I queried thirty-five agents and got two full requests. Those turned out to be rejections, but at least there was some interest. In round two—which is still in progress—I’ve sent CATBK to an additional fifty-six agents. Some of those are still out, but everything else is either a rejection or what I call a NRNI: no response = no interest. Another eleven agents on my list are currently closed to submissions, but I plan to query them when they reopen. After that, I will have run through most of the agents who represent CATBK’s category/genre. If none of those show interest, that will be more than one-hundred rejections.
Ugly indeed. Some would say that one-hundred rejections is a sure sign that a project just isn’t publishable, for whatever reason. The next best step? Shelve it, learn from it, and move on to the next project.
It’s not like I haven’t worked to improve the book. Before the first round, I had the query and first five pages reviewed by two industry professionals—a junior agent and a published author—and got a handful of critiques and beta reads. Obviously, that didn’t help. I pulled the book after the lackluster first round performance and sought developmental edits from a children’s book editor. I incorporated much of what she recommended and ran the book through an online editing tool to further polish it. I then got another query critique from another professional children’s editor. She even loved the story enough to refer me to three agents. YAY!
So why is this under the “Bad” heading? Well, see the Ugly section. Even the agents I was referred to passed on my book. Obviously, there’s something still amiss. I suspect it’s the market. The children’s publishing industry is undergoing some changes, and CATBK just isn’t what they want or need right now. Understandable but disappointing on a personal level. Maybe shelving CATBK and moving to a different category is my best authoring route for the time being.
Here’s the thing. I know this project is worthy of publication. It’s worthy of being adored by young readers. I’m not saying it’s perfect (which is a subjective measure because whose standards are being used?), but it is well written. It’s also a clever story. I’ve not seen a similar high-concept hook like this in the children’s market. And while it works as a standalone, it’s got great series potential, with hints of the future books already sprinkled through CATBK. An intrepid and attentive reader will be able to figure out the concepts for the series expansion. And finally—and most importantly—I know the target audience will LOVE this story. They are, after all, what I call the Marvel Generation. They’ve not lived in a time where there hasn’t been a Marvel movie or show on the screens. How is a tween NOT going to love a tiny girl whose superhero growth powers make her just big like us?
The good news is that I have options other than shelving, and I’m going to use them because Colossa’s story is worth it. I can:
– Submit the book to small press publishers who accept unagented submissions. I sent CATBK to one just a few weeks ago, actually.
– Convert the novel into a screenplay and shop that around (it’d make a bangin’ Dreamworks or Pixar movie!)
– Investigate hybrid presses, which are a mix of traditional publication and self-publishing.
– Go all in on self-publishing CATBK, which will require additional editing, design, and marketing.
I’m not yet sure which avenue I’m taking. Maybe multiple ones. Granted, middle grade is a difficult category to self-publish successfully. But then, “success” is another subjective measure, and the only standards I need to use are mine. If I do self-publish, I’ll need to decide if I’m going to invest in expanding it into a series, which will be a ton of time and work. I don’t know if I’m ready for that.
What I do know is this: not every book that fails to get picked up by an agent deserves to be shelved. And in this case, it’s not CATBK, it’s them. So for now, my answer to that opening question is to NOT shelve.