Trunk Novels Are An Endangered Species

This is a guest post from J Daniel Sawyer. It’s a little stronger than articles I personally write, but I respect Dan and he has written a hell of a lot of fiction so has way more experience than me. I interviewed him about his prolific word count here.

*Everything I’m about to say applies only to original fiction. Fan fiction is not legal to write, much less sell, so don’t even ask.*

A couple weeks ago a blog post started to make the rounds about putting a project in the drawer–a project that the author had spent years writing, looking for an agent on, and then having their agent search for a publisher. Now that the agent had declared the book dead, the author was talking about the grief and disappointment about putting the novel away, forever.

Yes, the author considered self publishing, but didn’t want to invest the large amounts of time and money that are allegedly required.

For this author, it is now officially what authors call a “trunk novel.” One that’s been officially abandoned.

Authors have always had trunk novels: either the ones they never finished (and thus aren’t suitable in any case), ones they finished very early in their writing career (and are virtually unreadable), and ones they never sold (but are perfectly servicable pieces of fiction).

But the world has changed, and now, not to put too fine a point on it, keeping a completed and coherent trunk novel (or short story) in the trunk is a mistake. It’s bad business. It’s simply…well…dumb.


If you keep a completed novel on your trunk–or burn it, as melodramatic authors have done in ages past–you’re leaving money on the table. Fact is that there are enough readers out there that almost any competently written story (and many that aren’t) will strike close to the heart of someone. Sure, if it doesn’t strike close to many hearts it won’t make much money, but even content farm books make some money.

And believe me, a book has to sell REALLY badly to fail to earn a profit as an indie ebook.

It takes fifteen minutes on a good day, forty-five on a bad day, to format an ebook. Add another twenty minutes to three hours to do cover art (and, if you’re licensing artwork, anywhere from $5 to $500), depending on what kind of an anal-retentive nutcase you are (I speak here mainly of myself), another hour to write your cover copy, create your tag cloud, and upload it to all the relevant markets, and you’re done. So, once you’ve had a bit of practice, you’re looking at a worst case of a work day invested, plus $500.

Of course, this doesn’t count the time you spent writing and proofreading and (if you’re a new writer who hasn’t learned better yet, “polishing” every sentence of) the book. That’s because those are your sunk costs which you’re gonna incur whether you go indie or sell on to legacy. So it’s not honest to include that cost in a calculation of whether to go indie or trunk a novel. The sheer sunk cost of the writing should make this decision easy: after all, would YOU work somewhere for several months, but then NOT go pickup your paycheck when they called and told you they don’t have your mailing address?

So, let’s say that when you do your bookeeping, you value your labor at $50/hr. That means, worst case, you’re into the book for $900 ($500 for VERY expensive art, and $400 for your time) , and probably a lot less. Since your ebook will be available forever, you’re going to make a profit on it even if it only sells one copy a month for the rest of your life (assuming you don’t have a reckless driving habit or a terminal disease).

If this is the case, then why do people not self-pub their trunk novels?

That’s an easy one. Ego.

The ego comes in a couple different packages, which mostly boil down to two sorts. And one of them is really, really unhealthy.

This unhealthy sort says: “If I self-publish I’m a failure/admitting I’m not good enough.” I’m not sure I can do justice to the different flavors of bullshit that go into this, but I’m gonna give it the old college try.

First, it’s childish. Children seek the approval of others to know they’re okay. This move makes your self-worth as an author–your professional self-respect–subject to the tastes of a small segment of the potential market. Books are rejected all the time for issues that have nothing to do with the quality of the prose or the storytelling–reasons having to do with marketing considerations, corporate policy, budget, the personal tastes of the editors, and the mood they were in the day they read the proposal/sample/manuscript.

Second, it’s a shield for unacknowledged insecurity. The fear that it might not sell oozes out the sides of a lot of mouths that utter this excuse. Hey, writers are afraid no one will like them. I get it. Even the truly egotistical among us have bouts with insecurity. But if self-pubbing is too ego-bruising, you really should be seeing a therapist rather than trying to win the approval of an agent or an editor. At least with a therapist, transference and projection are expected.

Third, it’s class warfare bullshit. The arts establishment in the western world is easily the most elitist bastion of cultural snobbery outside of the Skull and Bones fraternity or the legislative branch of the European Union. The people who sit at the top (critics, editors, and financiers) like being the ones who rule one thing in order, another out of order, according to their own tastes and politics, and have the world follow suit. It may be true that your trunk novel is a steaming pile of pig’s vomit, but if it connects with 1/1000th of 1% of readers, then for them it was a great book. To hell with the critics. (And if you’re worried about it damaging your brand, use a pen name).

Fourth, it reveals a slave’s mentality. If you’ve confused success with a particular business model (such as legacy publishing) with “legitimacy” or “being a REAL writer,” you’re thinking like a slave. A REAL writer is one who writes. A pro is one works his or her ass off to build virtuosity as an artist and a craftsman, who learns their business and exploits their properties in whatever markets they can gain access to. That includes finding end runs around roadblocks, and not letting your career and income be subject to the prejudices of less adaptable folk.

A healthy ego, on the other hand, is one that stands up for itself. It’s the master of its own destiny rather than the victim of circumstance,
and there are a couple reasons that come out of a healthy ego that some people decide not to publish a trunk novel:

1) The novel is very early, and virtually unreadable We’ve all got one or two of these. But if you’ve got more than one or two or maybe three, you may want to solicit the opinion of a trusted first reader to see if you’re not just fooling yourself. It may not be the best work you”ll ever do, but if it tells a competent story, there’s no reason to let it sit in the drawer. If you’re afraid of upsetting your regular fans who are used to the higher standards you set far later in your career, you can always use a pseudonym. Even Heinlein, Bradbury, and Silverberg used this trick for stories they felt weren’t up to their usual standards. With rare exceptions, none of them ever sat on their stories–they kept all stories on the market till they sold (even if they never sold).

2) The novel is ethically/politically/socially inconvenient It’s not uncommon to undergo one or two full-fledged worldview shifts in a lifetime, particularly if you’re a very inquisitive person. You may be a dyed-in-the-wool hunter who becomes a vegan, or a committed Scientologist who converts to Islam. In these cases, you can wind up with stories that are perfectly acceptable craft-wise, and would do well in your original community, but that are too didactic or specialized for a broad audience, or which espouse values which you now find morally objectionable. Or perhaps it’s a story dealing with radical ideas to which you are sympathetic, but which would damage your relationship with your readers (or your friends) if you published it under your own name.

These kinds of stories are sticky–do you publish them under a pseudonym? Do you plunder them for future stories? Do you abandon them entirely? The right decision probably varies with each story. I certainly have a handful of properties (that the betas really liked) that I wrote when I was writing theologically-driven religious stories. Since I’m now an out-of-the-closet atheist, I haven’t quite figured out what to do with those old stories yet.

— — —

For these reasons, and others, I think the time of the trunk novel is over. There’s no financial reason to trunk a novel. There’s no artistic reason to do so. There are damn few ethical reasons. It’s a concept that belongs on the scrapheap of history, to an era of publishing that’s now over, and ain’t coming back. There are only two people that matter in publishing now: The author, and the reader. If you find an audience, you’ve done your job. If you don’t, then learn to do it better–you’ll find them eventually, if you stick with it.

Do you have a trunk novel? What are you going to do with it?

J. Daniel Sawyer is a hat-wearing, obsessive-compulsive nutcase attempting to write his way out of the loony bin. He’s the author of The Clarke Lantham Mysteries, the award-nominated The Antithesis Progression series of SF spy novels, as well as numerous fiction podcasts including Sculpting God, and Down From Ten. Lacking in personal qualities things that make for respectable character (such as the ability to sit still and shut up), he’s forced to channel his lack of decorum into the fields of photography, a/v production, and writing for outfits like LinuxJournal and the occasional speculative fiction anthology.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons Ruby Blossom

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  1. says

    Excellent post! I agree there has to be a market for most every novel and now, with self-pub, there’s no excuse for not finding your market. I love your straightforward appraoch to this topic. I’m sitting at my laptop applauding you for writing on a topic that hasn’t been overdone. Very refreshing!

  2. says

    I never thought of my decades-old YA as a trunk novel, but I suppose it is. I had an e-pub editor friend want me to resurrect it eight or ten years ago, but when I pulled it out, I could see exactly why editors had rejected it and I wanted to work on new stuff, not go back to it. But if it has any merit at all, it would be worth a quick editing run through and pubbing as an e-book. Under a pen name, of course!

  3. says

    Heya Joanna!

    Thanks for printing this despite the surly tone–I just get really bummed when writers sell themselves short. Here’s hoping some of your readers find it useful/helpful :-)

    All the best

  4. says

    For me, the article’s tone is right. I love turning the dilemma on its head. Folks tend to treat the self-publishers as amateurs; however I agree with J. Daniel’s powerful attack.

    The point on the slave mentality is especially relevant for me. I recall how enraged I was when someone suggested I don’t even begin the query-go-round and publish by myself that very week. Then I cooled down, recognized my reaction for what it was, and published.

    Couldn’t be happier.

  5. says

    Fantastic post! I’ve had success with traditionally publishing my non-fiction, but my fiction work is another story. I am preparing to e-publish my first paranormal romance next month. It took a while to get over my ego and make the decision, but now I’m very excited. I feel like I’m the master of my destiny. The manuscript sat in limbo for two years while I tried to get it traditionally published. Now it’s time for it to see the light of day!

  6. says

    The Internet age we live in makes it almost silly to keep books hidden away in the dark.
    If you think your book is that bad, the first step is to realize that not everyone will agree with you. (Nobody agrees on anything.) Get some critiques, or a beta reader, at least, and you’re on your way to putting your book out there.

  7. says

    An excellent post and an excellent point. While not every work is ready for prime time, there are many which are. Given the ease of conversion and formatting for “E” this should be something any writer should consider.

    Thanks for making a good case for it.

  8. says

    Thanks for the post. I agree. There is no good reason to trunk a novel you think is good but I don’t think of self-publishing ebooks as a last resort. For me it’s the opposite. I recently self-published my first two books without first trying to find an agent or traditional publisher. That is my plan A. Plan B, shopping the work to agents, comes into play only if the ebook fails to gain readers. Maybe this is a mistake. I see opinions both ways.

  9. says

    I think there is a place for trunk novels, especially when there are authors in the habit of breaking down older novels for scrap. I often play with themes and ideas, writing a novel and scrapping it before finishing or publishing and then stealing names, ideas, or scenes from the novel for another project. The original idea becomes a trunk novel. If you want to be generous you could call those a prototype of what I later write and send to the market, but they aren’t worth the trouble of cleaning for publication.

    On the other hand, there is no reason for a book or short story that isn’t picked up by the market to sit in a drawer. If I sent something out it’s because I believe the work is good and my readers will enjoy what I’ve written. If it can’t get published in a legacy venue then it’s off to Smashwords I go.

    It’s to the point where I consider taking short stories to the self-publication venues first (although I haven’t tested the idea yet). The average short story earns between $5 and $50 sold to an ezine or magazine. Take the same short story to the self-publishing market and you could earn that much every month even if you sell it for 99 cents.

  10. says

    Great, thought-provoking post – it caused me to have one of those ‘lightbulb’ moments. I have two trunk novels – I call them ‘bottom drawer’ – which earned positive comments from publishers, agents and fellow writers, but not enough for them to be accepted for traditional publication. I had decided they would remain in my bottom drawer – after all, I didn’t want anything that was not representative of my best work, (read “anything less than perfect’) out there in the big wide world. I felt particularly sad about it as one of my novels I did quite a lot of research for, including a week-end in a city a thousand miles away (not to mention the expense) and to think of the years of work put into them amounting to nothing was heartbreaking. Now I can see my decision was made out of a false sense of pride. I’m going to drag them out, do a final edit and put them out as e-books. Thanks so much for the enlightenment!

  11. says

    This post is rough in terms of language—I can almost always do without profanities—but I get the feeling this writer’s abuse is part of his persona—the surface through which his obvious intelligence emerges.

    Correct or not in my psychology, I pushed on to the end, and I’m glad I did, because I ended up feeling inspired and righted by that most-respectful of things: the truth.

  12. Ammy Belle says

    I will read the rest of the article but I just wanted to make one thing clear: Fan Fiction is NOT illegal to write – it would be considered a derivative work and hus protected under most IP laws. Selling it, that’s where the illegality comes round. Just thought I would help you out by correcting that misconception.

    (Onto the rest of the article …)

  13. anonymoose says

    What am I going to do with my trunk novel?

    I’m going to work hard as hell on it, polish it up, run it by a beta reader, and self publish!

    Thanks for this article–it’s put the wind back in my sails. I was ready to give up but I will continue.

  14. says

    I am so very glad to discover I’m NOT the only burr under the saddles of the elitists.

    Every aspiring author should read this. And though I still believe in writing purely for practice, my ambiguity about trunk novels is crushed like a bug.

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