Feb 19

Failing Gracefully as a Writer

No one wants to talk about failure. Writing bloggers and how-to authors everywhere make their livings by promising success — follow this strategy, take these classes, Tweet this many times/day, Facebook with your fans…and you’ll sell thousands of books and readers will love you. The strategies are as numerous as there are bloggers…or would-be writers.

And yet, the cold, hard truth of the matter is that the chance of failing in this business is very real. And the reason is pretty simple: some things are just not within your control as a writer. Some things are in your control. The quality of your writing. Your cover art. Your formatting. Your platform. Your book blurb. Your social media presence. But ultimately, your success lies in the hands of your readers…and sometimes readers just don’t like what you have to offer. And there’s nothing you can do about that…except write something new.

Reality Check

There has been a flurry of discussion recently over Hugh Howey’s author earnings report (and new AuthorEarnings site), which demonstrated, if nothing else, that Indie publishing is finally coming into its own. In his article “Do Hugh Howey’s AuthorEarnings Add Up?”, Porter Anderson brings a bit of healthy skepticism to the findings, encouraging authors to weigh the information to make informed decisions. And he quotes from an article by author David Kazzie to reinforce the point. Kazzie responds to Hugh Howey’s glowing optimism with this:

The reason that I argue that Hugh’s contention is wrong is simple, and it is this: there is one thing I’ve done in self-publishing that Hugh really hasn’t. And that is fail spectacularly.

If you read the rest of Kazzie’s article (which I strongly recommend), he chronicles his heartbreak over watching his book languish for eight months on Amazon…something that many self-published authors who are not Hugh Howey can certainly relate to. Kazzie credits his ultimate success to a strategy for using KDP Select that is now defunct — reinforcing the point that many vogue book marketing strategies are often already behind the times.

Ultimately, when it comes to self-publishing success, both Kazzie and Howey have to tip their hats, at least in part, to Lady Luck.


Some books hit the jackpot. They strike just the right nerve in the audience at exactly the right moment — the stars align, and success is born. And after that, success comes easier.

But what if the stars don’t align?

You put in hundreds of hours on a book. You pour your heart and soul into it, holding nothing back. You may even spend a small fortune to do the cover right and get a professional editor to ensure a quality product. And then it sits there, and you watch it, as Kazzie says, “wither away on the vine.” You know in the core of your being that it’s good. But no one cares.

Very few have the courage to admit it, but it is shatteringly difficult to put yourself back together again when your hopes and expectations have been obliterated by negative reviews and less than meager sales. Saying you need a thick skin as a writer doesn’t even begin to approach the truth.

Kazzie concludes his post with this well-articulated gem:

I agree, Hugh. Self-publishing is just as legitimate a way to succeed as a writer as traditional publishing. And it’s just as legitimate a way to fail.

Finally, someone’s talking about the reality of failing as a writer.

Where Do We Go from Here?

When you fail spectacularly, you have a choice. Do you pick up the shards of your dreams and crawl back to your desk and write your next book? Or do you chunk them in the wastebasket and move on to a new dream?

I think the Olympics can teach us a valuable lesson here. I love watching the Olympics. These athletes are at the absolute top of their game. They train for hours a day, they sweat, they bleed, they fall and get back up…fall and get back up…fall and get back up. They try again, and again, and again…until one day they are standing on the Olympic stage, in front of the world, taking their one shot at gold.

And sometimes they fall.

Many of these athletes will come back. They will collect themselves and work for four more years to up their game. And then they will try again. But some don’t. And it’s the same for writers.

We work for a year (more or less) on a project, perfecting it and polishing it. And then we publish. We take that mad gamble and put it all on the line. And sometimes we succeed…but sometimes we fail, and all those hopes and dreams are shattered.


When you fail, what will you do?

It comes down to why you started writing in the first place, I think. If you write because it’s in your blood and you could no sooner stop writing than you could stop breathing, then you’ll drag your broken self back into that chair and begin again. You let the past be the past. You don’t forget the pain of falling, but you don’t let it scare you away from the slopes. You become wiser. You adapt and try something new. And you coax that spark of belief in yourself and in your writing back into a little blaze.

But whatever you do, don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that there’s some magic formula out there that will guarantee success. It’s just not true. You can write a brilliant novel with perfect cover art and flawless editing that sees all of 100 total sales and garners three 1-star reviews (out of a total of 6 reviews) from readers who just don’t like that kind of book and feel passionately enough about it to share it with the world. It happens.

But is that the end of your story?

Bottom Line

If you don’t want failing to destroy your writing career, you have to get clear about your goals as a writer…and you have to get clear about why you are writing in the first place. (I hate to break it to you, but if you’re in this because you think it’s glamorous or an easy way to make a million, you’re in the wrong career.)

Once you’re clear about your goals, you need to dispassionately and critically consider your options for reaching your goal. Are you best served by self-publishing? Are you best served by finding an agent and pursuing a traditional deal? Or are you best served by a hybrid of the two?

And there’s one other thing you must understand.

Writing books is one thing. Selling books is something altogether different. Writing is an art. Selling is a business. And for most of us, that’s where we run into trouble. We don’t treat this like a business. We don’t market like a business. We often look for what seems like the easiest formula for success and try that, rather than cultivating the business skills and savvy that will make us successful long-term. And when that formula fails, we’re in a tailspin until the next scheme comes along.

Get off the roller coaster and roll up your sleeves. Invest the time in teaching yourself about marketing and the ins and outs of this business, just like you would if you were opening up a coffee shop or a bookstore. You’re an author and an entrepreneur, and you have to have a long-term vision of your career and your success.

With that perspective, failure is just another bend in the road we travel…not the end.

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Photo Credits:

Four Leaf Clover 068: cygnus921 / Foter / CC BY

broken glass: davetoaster / Foter / CC BY


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  1. Lev Raphael

    I’ve known writing was a business since I published my first book with St. Martin’s Press, but 24 books later, I know that we have even less control that the author suggests. We have control of our craft and of our reaction to failure. You do not have control of your platform in this sense: many other people will have the same platform only bigger. And if you go indie or have a good publisher who gives you real cover input, the cover doesn’t guarantee anything. Neither does developing a social media presence because there will always be more people with FB and Twitter fans/followers and that whole perspective is already old news. We write because we love it, we have something to say. We can hire publicists and go on blog tours and spend tens of thousands on marketing and promotion and it can be a waste of time and money. But we keep writing if we’re stubborn and dedicated and, yes, obsessed.

    1. skvalenzuela

      Lev, I couldn’t agree more. Passion is at the heart of this business — and in that sense, we are successful as long as we keep writing no matter what happens! But making this a business is tough…and I think many people don’t have a sense of just how tough it is!

      1. Lev Raphael

        And like a business, it has tremendous possibilities: for success, for failure! And no amount of market research, promotion, or anything else can guarantee an outcome. You enter this fields, you give up control.

        1. J. Leigh

          I’ve been working at a small business for 4 1/2 years now, and I’m always struck by the similarities between what it takes to make that company successful, and what it takes to make writing successful. In both cases, it’s a lot of slogging through disappointments, frustrations and annoyances…doing the work you never wanted to do, picking yourself up after something fell through. And that perseverance is something I admire so much in entrepreneurs and writers alike. Like you said, Lev, they give up control and never know if all the tears and sweat and frustrations will ever pay off in the end….but they do it anyway. And that is awesome.

  2. LKWatts

    What a spectacular post! ‘The Success of Failure’ – I love it! And yes, I agree with you entirely about the Olympics. I consider myself to be an Olympic writer, ha ha.

    1. skvalenzuela

      Thanks, LK! I’m an Olympic writer too…we just get back up and keep working hard…every single day!

    2. Lev Raphael

      No sequins for me, though. 🙂

  3. J. Leigh

    I think this is one of those things too, where authors feel like this almost a taboo topic…as if they can’t even discuss the frustrations or the possibility of failure unless they want to jinx their careers.

    It really reminds me of the “everybody’s life looks so much better than mine on Facebook” phenomenon. We all hear the success stories. We read Hugh Howey’s awesome and dazzling report on the success of indie authors and we cheer and feel giddy with excitement….and then we look at those numbers and look around and think, “Gee, if so many indie authors are doing so well, what’s wrong with me? I must be THE ONLY ONE who doesn’t see these results…” And then we’re afraid to talk about it because, after all, it’s kind of like being the one guy in the dorm who doesn’t have a girlfriend.

    But if I’ve learned anything about indie authors, it’s that we’re a pretty supportive and close-knit crowd. Indie authors really do love helping each other out, encouraging each other…(and telling you about how they were in that same predicament just a while back SO OFTEN you just kind of want to smack whoever says it…..politely, of course…:) ) Anyway, I think this was an awesome blog post because it is a topic we should talk about, given how supportive and tight we all are. We should be able to remind each other that it doesn’t do us any favors to compare our paths to success (or our vision of success!) with anyone else’s. And if we’re serious about the business of writing, we need to be in it for the long haul, through all the ups and downs and frustrations and little successes…just like any other entrepreneur.

  4. Gayle Robinson

    I loved the Winter Olympics, it gave me that jolt I needed to keep going. When you hear about the Olympians competing in two Olympics before finally getting a medal, you can’t help but push yourself harder. I’m not free-falling down a steep mountain, although that’s what the writing business often feels like when you keep getting rejection letters. But that’s like any small business, you may have a rough few years in the beginning, but if you keep on going it may grow into several chains.

    It’s the passion and the determination that drives us. I can’t imagine doing anything else. Is it worth the pain? I’ll let you know. But for now this is my road, and I’m going to see how far it takes me. I’m glad too hear from your comments that I have plenty of company.

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