Failing to Sell My First Book Hurt, But In the Long-Run, It Helped My Writing Life

Aaron Gilbreath
14 min readJan 6, 2020

Sometimes the thing we think we want most is the thing that let’s us see what we really need.

My home library helps keep my motivated.

Between my retail day job, my social life and hustling for freelance writing gigs, it took a full year to write my first nonfiction book proposal. It was sixty-eight pages long. “I appreciate a long, detailed proposal,” an editor at one of my favorite big publishing houses told me on the phone. “This is great.” It was called Crowded: Portrait of Life on a Teeming Planet. No publishers bought it.

Crown, Random House, Ecco, Knopf ─ everyone passed. My agent received the no’s over the course of a few days, but I had her send me most of those emails on one. She offers to keep potentially painful emails from clients and simply pass along the gist, but after giving them time to collect, I requested the messages in order to learn where my book stood and how this process worked. My inbox started pinging right before my lunch break at the tea shop where I worked.

I went outside work and sat on some steps, where I read the rejection emails one after another. Editors’ responses mixed glowing praise of my writing style with clear reasons for declining: too ambitious, too diffuse, too similar to other books in the urbanism category. It needed a different framework; needed to make a clearer case; the subject didn’t need a book-length treatment; hopefully he’ll get a nice offer, though. I didn’t doubt they were right. By trying to cover a lot of ground, I might have spread my book too thin. Maybe I didn’t yet know what I was trying to say about crowding because I would discover that while researching the book. That’s how writing essays worked. It was too late now.

I sat and felt that dark, jittery liquifaction you feel when a person you adore breaks up with you and your guts fill with muck and drain of hope, dissolving your dreams and the very idea that you should dream at all.

“Your talent is obvious to anyone and even those that passed,” said my reassuring agent. “Everyone thinks you’re a talent and we will figure this out!!!” She was triaging my bleeding spirit. I trusted and admired her and was grateful for her patient advocacy. But at that point I’d already figured this out: I quit. No more trying to…

Aaron Gilbreath

Essayist, Journalist, Burritoist. Longreads Editor. Writing: Harper’s, NYT, Slate, Paris Review, VQR, Oxford American, Kenyon Review. 3 nonfiction books.