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Mail Call: Should A Writer Finish His/Her Book Before Submitting?

Dear Writer’s Relief,

Should I wait until my book (novel, memoir, or self-help book) is complete before trying to submit to literary agents or publishers?

mail, writer's reliefAt lectures and seminars around the country, this question often pops up among new writers. And while the default answer that’s given is “Yes, you have to finish your book first,” there are actually various scenarios to consider.

We’ll break it down.

Should I complete my novel before querying?

Yes. With novels, “finish first” should be your mantra.

Should I complete my memoir before submitting? 

Generally, memoirs “work” the same way as novels in the publishing industry. So, yes. Finish your memoir before sending it to agents or editors.

Do I have to finish my entire self-help or how-to book?

Actually, in this case you don’t have to complete your nonfiction book before submitting it. But you do need to finish your nonfiction book proposal. And you do need to develop a strong author platform. Both of those things can take time.

Is there any situation in which a writer wouldn’t have to finish a book prior to submitting it for consideration?

It’s common for multipublished novelists to sell via proposal/partial, but first time writers who are working on a novel or memoir generally need to complete their books prior to submitting them. We have heard of writers signing with agents based on nothing more than a single piece in a major newspaper, but that’s extremely rare.

What if I don’t feel like finishing the book (or developing my proposal) first? What if I don’t want to wait that long to get an agent or a book deal? 

Let us tell you a story. Once we had a client sign on here at Writer’s Relief. We adored her book. She told us her novel was complete. When we began helping her query agents, she was surprised that at least half a dozen people requested her full manuscript—and that was only in her first round of submissions.

The problem was that she didn’t actually have her book done. It was only about two-thirds done. She had to go back and tell all those agents that her query letter (which said that the book was ready) wasn’t accurate. In most cases, the industry is too competitive to allow for second chances.

Agents want to move fast on a project once it grabs their attention; delays may cause a dwindling of enthusiasm. Also, if you write to an agent “please wait because I’m finishing the novel,” the agent may assume you’ll just rush through it to finish it (which frequently happens). And that’s bad for craft and for professional relationships.

The same goes for developing a strong proposal, sample chapters, and author platform for a self-help book. Have your ducks in a row before you query. You’ll save yourself a lot of trouble down the line.

Read more: What to do when a literary agent requests your manuscript.

Got a question for Writer’s Relief Mail Call? Send it to info@wrelief.com.

9 Responses to Mail Call: Should A Writer Finish His/Her Book Before Submitting?

  1. My first is finished & self published, will an agent still be interested? I was a librarian and the subject and YA is in high demand! its about Native Americans , young vs old,traditional vs modern Medicines, for Kiowa Indians. There is nothing in Oklahoma like it for YA.on Kiowa. They were Natives here and up into Kansas, it is historical fiction 191 pg.

  2. Hello,

    While I have learned that the information is 100% accurate, I did have an interesting experience with a larger publishing firm.

    I contacted the President of the publishing company and provided a quick overview of me, the storyline, my novel’s goals and the audience for which it was intended. He responded with interest requesting I send a few chapters to review for consideration. After review, again, enthusiasm. The end result was a request to review the manuscript in a polished and complete condition.

    It is important to note I only attempted this on one occasion. A good friend and best-selling author strongly rebuked my actions. I have, therefore, vacated that sandbox!:)

  3. Well said, gentlemen. Any authour who gets published, and makes money off his/her book, would write that book and have people read it for free. Or even pay to write it. That’s the truth. The best writers get the money after the fact that they have written a good book, and enjoyed writing a good book.

  4. Thank you WR for this wonderful platform you’re using to elevate,motivate and mentor writers. Just lhke you rightly said,the sure bet is to get your book complete before seeking literary agents

  5. I’ve heard that your book should be finished; I’ve heard that it doesn’t have to be finished. I’ve always wondered what the correct answer was. I think I’ll take WR’s advice; you guys are like the fountain of knowledge!

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