What to do when your heart breaks…

If you want to get your work published, there are two tricky things to accept. The first is that there is a lot of waiting – I do believe particularly at the moment; I am absolutely sure people are fatigued and I know I certainly am – and the other one is that your work is going to get rejected and, quite possibly, it is going to keep happening. Also, it may be that after feeling jubilant because you got an agent, your longed-for publication never happens. No-one buys.

I have written about rejection a good bit before – here: https://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/fail-again-fail-better-1260011 – and I offer a section here:

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.

So there are some initial thoughts: it happens to everyone, but it is hard and, yes, it can break your heart. How? Because you may think that getting an agent – or perhaps an indie publisher which does not require agent representation – is the time you have made it. No, alas. It means you are on your way. Yes, your book might sell and you have a wonderful smooth road and great sales. Or, as happens in many cases, your agent sends the book out and it does not sell. The reality is this. Most people trying to get an agent or an indie publisher are not successful. Then when they are, an agent may not be able to place a book or sales may be very poor – although there is a caveat with the latter (indie press) here: is it because you needed to be more realistic about the reach or because, frankly, your book just was not promoted much or just not liked much? I know, harsh. But this is an industry in which there are no guarantees. Agents do NOT sell all the books they send out on submission and that – maybe after years of trying to get an agent – can be really upsetting.

I understand. But let’s help you, my darlings, right?

First of all, I was shown this brilliant and encouraging post earlier. Do read what author Gareth P. Jones has to say. https://t.co/fIiLoqutIh?amp=1 It gives you tips on what to do with the book which do not place and offers thoughts from a range of authors. What do they have in common? I bet you can guess!

Then, let me tell you what I have done and what I am doing. It’s frank. I am also going to tell you about books that were actually published.

My first two books. 2016 and 2018. Rights retrieved. These books were well received by a knot of readers but pretty invisible, often out of stock and in very few bookshops. I have now put them to one side, while working on a bilingual edition for one and expanding the other. Wasted? NO. And I learned a lot, too.

Books 3 and 4. 2020. Came out at start of pandemic and during second lockdown. Awful timing but I made the best of it and I hope they will have a long life; I have my own imaginative ideas for things connected with them and have been offered – am still being offered – work because of them. Both second books for these two publishers were turned down. I felt very sad. Well, I got rejected. The first was a complex novel of historical fiction; I decided to use three sections of it as short stories. Two have been published; one to come. The second I offered to someone else – with my agent’s blessing; its predecessor had been agented – and it’s coming out next year.

BUT because I felt sad about it all, I channelled all that into a new novel. That went on agent submission last week. Because I felt frustrated I channelled THAT into a non-fiction proposal and that is currently on submission. I have got to be honest. We have given it until December to sell. It has not sold yet and it has been out since February this year. Feedback is exemplary: this does not guarantee a sale. Tough, but that’s the way it is. That done, I began pitching boldly and, frankly, properly above my weight. Some pitches were rejected, but this push still got me writing some pieces for the national press and a monthly column in The Bookseller. And finally – see this is what happens when I feel sad and my heart gets heavy – I took some ideas from my first and second book (ideas this time, not actually text) and my journal entries, and wrote three essays plus a proposal and sent out the backbone of a memoir to some of my favourite indies. Now, as I wait – and I KNOW the whole lot could not sell – I am writing a novella; a ghost story and have just submitted an ACE – Arts Council – application to enable me to write a book about writing, in the context of reframing and adjusting productivity.

So, in brief, yes your heart may break. You may have spent years writing your book, it is so important to you and no-one will publish it. That hurts: of course it does. To me, the key is that you must try not to take this personally and, also, try not to feel persecuted because that will stymie your creativity. Instead?

Keep writing. Be working on the next thing, ready to share and submit. If you find you’re too upset, try to up your reading and, also, maybe try writing something in a different genre. You never know. Then, if you are down, ask for help from the writing community. You are not weak, disloyal or a whinger: you are saying, Okay, what ought I to do? You are asking for professional support. Then, if you don’t know a group of writers, why not start one? Look, if someone as socially gauche as yours truly can do it, so can you! It can be a temporary or evolving group, too. Perhaps online and for those working towards publication of their first novel. Or put together a twitter chat or anything you like where those whose books did not find a publisher when they went on agent submission – for example – can just get together for a chat. How about that?

Ultimately, keep it moving and keep talking: those are your keys.

Good luck x

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