Edan Lepucki, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop in addition to being an acquaintance of mine, recently posted a touching yet brave essay at The Millions about her first novel, which, as she puts it, "isn't selling, and it probably won't." I don't know Edan well but in my few interactions with her I have always found her to be wise and savvy; she launched her own writing workshop in Los Angeles, where she lives, and has been careful not to let the responsibilities of her day job (as a bookseller, I believe) impinge on her time to write. She has a strong publication record for short stories, and the stamp of approval of the most prestigious MFA program in the nation. It seems incredible that no editor has agreed to publish her book yet, but her agent has apparently been shopping it around for a year.
Of course we might put a positive spin on this. Maybe the novel was flawed; maybe not publishing it will end up being for the best. Maybe she'll look up on this ten years from now and laugh that she is so grateful in hindsight this ever happened to her, with the big smile of these women on talk-shows who tell you of that painful disappointment that happened to them but it's all ok because it made them stronger and made them change courses and it all turned out fine in the end, and they were able to use it to their advantage.
But sometimes you just want to yell at life. Because people like Sara Gruen did publish in original paperback before they got their big break, and Gruen polished her skills as a writer while having the validation of seeing her name printed on the cover: yes, she was a real writer vvack then already - not an aspiring one, but one with a publishing credit. (And Edan did publish her novella If you're not yet like me at Flatmancrooked, but it is hard to compare the two, given the far smaller sales prospects offered by a novella.)
Edan also mentions the option of e-publishing on her own, and I agree wit her that it is a hard slog to generate readers' interest. There are quite a few self-published authors on Twitter, for instance, who bombard you or at least me with tweets about their book, and one has the distinct feeling that, if the book was any good, word of mouth would have picked up by now, given all their efforts.
It seems that with a lot of drive and commitment, it certainly is possible to have an e-published or self-published book find an audience, but publishing houses do have credibility in front of the buyers at the bookstores, and it would be nice to have a team on your side, at least a fraction of the time (the rest of the time they would be taking care of all their other authors). I completely understand Edan's choice to "shut the drawer", as she calls it, rather than investing her limited energy (she is working on a second novel and just became a mother) trying to salvage a book that might not be worth her efforts. My first English-language novel is, technically, on a memory stick rather than in a drawer, but for now I'm focusing on my current project and not attempting to ressuscite it. Anyway, I hope Edan's second novel is a smash hit, and I wish her good luck.