What if you finally get your novel published and then it fails miserably in the market? What if it crashes and burns? Will your fiction-writing career be over?
Dale posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi, Randy. Something’s been bugging me for a while now, and people I asked have given me a bunch of different answers; I hope you’d be able to clear this thing for me and those with similar doubts.
Namely, what will it mean for my future fiction-writing career if my first published book ultimately fails (being of course my failure) to make a name for itself, or worse — is a total disaster. I assume (should I write another novel) that agents and editors would then look at my work with this presumption: “I shouldn’t even waste my time looking at a manuscript by someone who failed so gravely the last time.”
How is it? Is an author’s first failure their last? Or perhaps there is a way out to make yet a good name for oneself?
Thank you for your time.
Randy sez: Dale, your fear is every fiction writer’s fear. And with good reason.
Let’s be clear that everything I say here is my opinion only, it could be wrong, yada, yada. There will be some people who wildly disagree with me. But then, I wildly disagree with them, so that’s OK.
My opinion is that editors and agents care most about your most recent book. If it was a success, then that’s great and you’re everybody’s pal. But if it was a miserable failure, then that’s horrible and you’re damaged goods.
Generally, your agent won’t abandon you after a book crashes and burns. But he will be doing damage control when he goes to sell your next book. Your agent will make the case that your book failed because:
- Your publisher gave it a lousy cover.
- Your publisher failed to send out review copies.
- Your publisher dropped the ball on distribution.
- Your publisher screwed up on pre-sales.
- Your book came out too early.
- Your book came out too late.
- Your publisher had a dispute with a major retailer and didn’t get copies into any of that retailer’s stores.
- A thousand other excuses.
Any of these could be correct. I have seen books fail for each of these reasons. I’ve seen books fail spectacularly when several of these things happened together. I’ve seen really excellent, brilliant writers have a massive book failure because their publisher screwed up.
But none of that matters, because everybody knows it’s the author’s fault.
Yeah, that sucks, but that’s the way things are. If your book fails, you get the blame.
So what are you supposed to do about it?
I suppose you could quit the fiction writing game, but if writing is in your blood, then you’re not going to do that because you can’t. When fiction writing is in your blood, you’re going to write fiction because that’s just what you do and you can’t help yourself. Quitting is not an option.
You could accept a smaller advance from a smaller publisher and hope that your next book does well and you can rebuild your career. That’s a live option, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you have another miserable failure, then you’d have to step down to an even smaller publisher and an even smaller advance. In principle, you could circle the drain two or three times before you finally go out.
You could adopt a pseudonym and start your publishing career over, either in a new category or in the same category. There is nothing wrong with this option. In fact, you can make a case that even if your career is going great guns, you should use a pseudonym if you radically change brands. That way, you don’t confuse your readers. If you’ve been publishing serial-killer novels under the name Hack Slade, and you switch gears to writing sweet Amish romances under that same name, expect a wee little bit of astonishment and confusion from your fans.
You could bail out of the traditional publishing game altogether and become an indie author. Then you aren’t beholden to any publisher. You don’t have to convince the gatekeepers that you’re worthy of being published. You just publish. You become your own boss. You make the decisions. You get the money and the glory if it succeeds. This is a viable option, and plenty of authors have done this. I know authors who’ve gone indie precisely for this reason.
There are people who will tell you not to worry about all this. If you’re good, then your books will just magically sell well and you’ll do just fine.
I don’t believe this, for a couple of reasons:
- The publishing industry is the opposite of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average). In the publishing industry, MOST books sell worse than average. You might think this is statistically impossible, but it’s true, because book sales don’t follow a bell-shaped curve. If book sales followed a bell-shaped curve, then about half the books would sell better than average and half would sell worse. But the actual sales curve is horribly lopsided. The James Pattersons and Dan Browns of the world pull the average up massively. MOST books sell far below average.
- Publishers are made up of humans, and humans make mistakes, and sometimes they totally screw up a book. I’ve seen it happen to brilliant authors. Odds are good that if you write more than a dozen books, one of them will tank because the publisher dropped the ball.
Let’s be clear that I’m not anti-publisher. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met in the publishing industry are smart and decent and hard-working (with a few exceptions).
I’m not anti-publisher. I’m pro-author. And the fact is that authors have a tough time in this industry. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s a subject for another day, but it’s possible to write a good, solid book and have it sell poorly.
When that happens, the author always gets the blame. Always. Always. Always.
Write that down: “Always.”
Oh, did I mention that the author always gets the blame?
The solution is NOT for us to fall down weeping incoherently or to wring our hands helplessly.
Authors are not children. We don’t have complete control of our situation, but we have three things under our control:
- Develop your craft as well as you can.
- Develop your marketing skills as well as you can.
- Take complete responsibility for your writing career.
We can’t afford to complain when things go bad. And things are almost guaranteed to go bad. Crap happens. A lot.
I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: There has never been a better time to be an author. We are living in the Golden Age For Authors.
We authors have more options than ever. We can work with a traditional publisher. We can go indie. We can be hybrid authors. We can do what we want, write what we want, sell to a world-wide market at little cost and little effort.
Yes, when things go wrong, we get the blame.
But when things go right, we get the credit.
Don’t worry about what can go wrong.
Dream about what can go right.
And then go make it happen.
Dale, I hope you feel a bit better about your future. Just saying it out loud has been good for me. It’s reminded me that yeah, I’m the person driving the bus. I’m in control of my career. And you’re in control of yours.
Go to it.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Sherri Wilson Johnson says
Thanks, Randy! This is an awesome and encouraging post!
Thank you, Randy. This sheds more light on the options we really have, when driving this particular bus :).
Sylvia Thompson says
A novel started and finished is awesome; that’s the goal. Marketing is a total different skill set and Randy demonstrates how it’s done with his fab. service. When success arrives with another novel they will want this one! Think of it as one in reserve for the future! Most small businesses fail in the first year – persistence pays of so don’t defeat yourself with despair! Thanks Randy for a super site!
Kim Miller says
Randy, your comment that ‘authors are not children’ puts me in mind of its corollary, ‘books are not children.’ If a book fails it is not really the death of our first born.
The author’s creed ‘kill your darlings’ is a reminder that the characters that we hold most dear to our hearts are also fodder for sacrifice and is the same thing taken a level deeper.
The main thing is that keep on keeping on through the setback.
We can always fantasize that our work will gain it’s due recognition after we are dead. 🙂
Spot. On. Right. On. Write. On. 😉
Robyn LaRue says
It takes some getting used to, at first, the idea that your book is a product, as it is also you in many ways, but it helps to keep things in perspective for sure. I haven’t conquered this fear. I’ll just move ahead in spite of it. 🙂