Here is a call for those of us involved in writing - and perhaps in all sectors of the book industry - to speak openly about failure and its ubiquity.
Five minutes on twitter would show up a lot of authors and would-be authors feeling upset about how rigorous the querying process is. I have been paying particular attention to people's comments about the impossible odds of getting a publisher for a book, or of getting an agent; about failure and rejection. There is a pervasive perception that lots of people have a smooth road, a clear career trajectory and that overnight successes are just that.
I like to speak publicly about failure, because most of what we do in life, from sex to politics to friendship, to meringues (that might just be my meringues) to drafting a book, is absolutely mired in failure - and I say that with good cheer and to help liberate you from your eviscerating perfectionism. More specifically, failure is hardwired into creative endeavour and I propose this: that to drive a sustainable, resilient, and emotionally healthy industry, we speak more openly about it. Also, that as creatives, we better understand that failure inevitably comes from such endeavour - and it takes courage to work in this way in a pressured and highly competitive arena.
Moreover, it seems to me as an author, albeit quite a new one, that the publishing industry is predicated on failure; if, as I am informed, figures alone show the vast majority of publishing is a failure riding off a few mega-successes. Books do not sell; advances are not earned out; the publisher takes the hit. But in this, it is not unique as an industry. I am interested to see some voices from the independent presses criticising the bigger houses for not taking risks and for having damaging business models. I have been so lucky to have found good readers for my work at independent presses, but I would hope that publishers large and small want to find new voices, so is it possible that any combative attitude (going either way) could be part of the issue too? Could it not be possible for smaller and bigger publishers to work together more and for them to be more accepting of one another’s business models, thus adding to the sustainability of what we do? While we are doing it, we might say openly that failure is endemic in all this, support one another, and work on ameliorating what, to an outsider, might seem divisive and confusing.
My own story as an author is full of failure, yet when I write about it, people are surprised. I believe it ought to be possible to reframe and redefine failure as part of driving a healthy creative environment and a dynamic and workable business model. Those overnight successes I repeatedly see mentioned? I bet a lot of them consist of manuscripts stuffed in drawers and valium. You see others saying big advances ruin the industry, but then I would always tell you to look at more than one source of information because sometimes the sources are less than credible; also, to look at the whole picture. That could help, too.
I told you I was quite a new author. I am five years in: four of my books have been published, two are currently on submission and I am approaching final edits on a new novel. I am currently writing book eight. I know that is not bad for five years, but I did not write before that because I have a calamitous past which devastated my self-confidence. Now words come in a torrent: any success has grown in failure and failure enriches it.
Also, those eight books. Two are now between publishers, which is a euphemistic way of saying out of print, and of the two which were turned down last year - the same year I had a novel and a collection of short stories published - one is on submission and the other will probably never see the light of day. 90,000 words which will go in a drawer. Until that overnight success perhaps!
I have met brilliant, life-changing people as well as a few curmudgeons - those who told me I should not write about any success because it looked like bragging; I have missed most long listings and not got any funding or residencies I applied for. I have failed epically and sometimes been so stressed I have nearly given up. And yet, and yet. On the back of that line of failures - AND of being failed - I aim to build a joyful and sustainable success. Let us do it together, with open conversations, good cheer and, where necessary, détente.
Anna Vaught is a novelist, short story writer, editor, mentor, English teacher and mental health campaigner. Her third and fourth books, Saving Lucia (Bluemoose) and Famished (Influx) were published in 2020.