Success is Messy

I read an article with this title today by Jane Pauley.  It’s another little bit of synchronicity.  I’ve come across this idea several times recently: the reminder that failure isn’t fatal.  It can, in fact, be the first step to success.

Most of us make plans, and plans are good.  But I know from experience that the old saying is true.  And when plans go awry, sometimes the alternative can lead to something extraordinary.

I don’t like to fail.  I don’t know anyone who does.  It’s especially hard when you don’t know why you came up short.  Anyone who’s received a form rejection from an agent or editor knows this.  Yet we persevere.  Persistence is honored.  “You haven’t failed until you’ve given up!”  So we examine our manuscripts for ways to improve them and then send them out again.

This failure to sell on the first or second or third try is a good thing.  Really.  Pretty much every new author out there in the history of writing (myself included) believed their first manuscript was great.  Getting rejected gave us the chance to take that second or third or fourth look at it, to make it better.

After a while though, it’s as good as you can make it without working the life out of it.  All you can do then is keep sending it out until it finds someone (an editor or agent) who will love it as much as you do, while working on the next project.

Or you can self publish, either digitally or POD or both.

Some people consider this a kind of failure because they think only naive and desperate losers who can’t get published the traditional way self-publish.  This is an insidious argument because most of us start out seeking to be traditionally published and we’d be pretty happy if we were offered a contract.  But not selling to a traditional publisher does not make all other alternatives into failure.

It’s good to have a plan, but sometimes well-laid plans don’t work out.  Someone moves your cheese. Is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results  insanity or perseverance?  (We’ve all heard the stories about how a Big Name Author collected a bazillion rejections before hitting it big, after all.)

What do you think?  Is self-publishing a concession of defeat or a clever adaptation to reality?


Filed under Life, writing

3 responses to “Success is Messy

  1. Is self-publishing a concession of defeat or a clever adaptation to reality?

    I reject your false dichotomy!

    More seriously, though, I do. I mean, when you take a business decision that may or may not make sense depending on the circumstances at hand and cast it as a hard-and-fast binary — and a harsh one to boot — then, well, I get suspicious. Because life is a continuum, and contingent. Validation and glass slippers, to use previous language, are irrelevant, when the issue at hand is what’s the best way to get the stories you want to tell (be they fiction or non-fiction, prose or with line-breaks) into the hands and minds of the people you want to read them.

    I sounds, honestly, like you’re on an extended campaign to talk yourself into believing that self-publishing is the right decision for your novels. It may be — honestly, I don’t know, but I’m dubious given I’ve yet to see any self-published fiction I’ve wanted to buy without a pre-existing personal connection with the author. But as I said, I don’t know. E-publishers are definitely viable, but even their market is smaller than the big six traditional publishers and many small presses. It may be worth trying it, either with one right now as an experiment or after exhausting other options. But it would be neither a “defeat” or “clever adaptation.” It’s simply one more way to throw spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks — one that’s further across the kitchen than other means.

    (Disclosure: I’m working on self-publishing something right now. I’ll be shocked if I even sell 100 copies. I’ve no illusions, though, that I’m doing it for anything but the love. Given the content, I want it to not look professional — thus self-pubbing.)


    • Thanks for commenting, Larry.

      Actually, I quite agree with you — this is a false dichotomy. There are too many people talking about this subject from the extremes of the spectrum already. Mea culpa. I like the succinct way you put it: Life is a continuum and contingent. 🙂

      I did start out exploring whether self-publishing was right for my books, but I’ve made my decision. Now I’m exploring the dilemmas that those thinking about self-publishing may face, and intermittently pushing back against some of the unspoken assumptions and oft repeated truisms authors have been handed. Many ARE true, but they aren’t the whole story any longer, now that technology is finally offering viable alternatives. I say “viable” cautiously, because like any business decision, self-publishing requires due diligence. (There are predatory self-publishing companies out there just as there are bad contracts offered by traditional publishers. Author beware.)

      Part of that due diligence is understanding market share and knowing what your own goals are for success. You’re correct, ebooks are a small percentage of total book sales and there are few outstanding self-published books. Traditional publishers do winnow out a lot of chaff. It’s not hard to understand why self-published books as a whole suffer from a reputation of being not so good, since readers effectively become the ones sifting through the slush-pile. But there are still good reasons to self-publish (as you’ve found) and there are many success stories of good books finding an audience.

      I’m curious what you mean when you say you “want [your book] to not look professional?” Why ensure that you’ll sell fewer than 100 copies by handicapping it?

      • Because it is a work of amateur scholarship (translations of Japanese poetry) and I want to clearly signal this — that it is not the work of a professional in the field. At best a journeyman, but really it’s more the level of a senior honors thesis.


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