Wednesday, 8 February 2017

F is for FAILURE

      Half a lifetime ago I was talking with a publisher about manuscripts he had turned down, and lived to regret it. 'There have been a few,' he admitted, 'but there's one that takes the prize. A woman sent us a sentimental story about rescuing an orphan lioncub, rearing it and returning it to the wild. Sloppy stuff, quite uncommercial, of course. We had no hesitation about turning it down, as did other publishers.' Born Free did eventually get into print - and it's still in print, 51 years later. Not only that, it had several sequels, was adapted for film and television and sold goodness knows how many million copies. But, more importantly, the book made a significant contribution to the campaign for wildlife conservation.
      Hang on a minute! This is supposed to be about failure, isn't it? Yes, and once upon a time Born Free was a failure, a fate it looked like sharing with the vast majority of manuscripts that get written. For the brutal fact is that far too many books are written and they can't all be best-sellers. Every one starts out as someone's brainchild and 99% will either never get into print or, if they do, their shelf life will be measured in months rather than years.
     Who is responsible for handing the black spot to your masterpiece? In the first instance, the publisher who sends it back with a polite, complimentary but firm 'not for us'. Nowadays you can save yourself this stomach-sinking disappointment by publishing the thing yourself or entrusting it to one of the numerous 'print on demand' operatives (See 'P is for Publisher'). But if you've crossed that hurdle and actually seen your dog-eared treasure transmuted into a real book with a glossy cover and your publisher has done his damnedest to promote it and it doesn't skyrocket into the dazzling bestseller cosmos, who's responsible? The promoters. There are lots of them around only too ready to trumpet your praises across the vastness of cyberspace - for a fee. You can, of course, prod all your friends and relatives to write glowing Amazon reviews. But chances are your mould-breaking novel will still not take off. Ultimately, the arbiters of success or failure are the public - or, to be more precise, that tiny portion of the public who actually comprise your potential niche market (See N is for Niche Market). There are bands of enthusiasts, such as Goodreads, who do their level best to raise the profile of new books but they only reach a few thousand followers who are avid readers anyway. They don't connect with the bookshop browser looking for a birthday present for Grandma or the traveller seeking something to make an airline flight remotely endurable. So, when it comes down to it, the people who will decide that your book is a failure are your fellow human beings. And they will do so, not because they don't like you, or they don't like your work. They will not ignore you out of unkindness, but simply because they have never heard of you. They have become accustomed to being sold to - noisily, frequently, through every medium the ad-men can devise, and there's no way you or I can compete with the sellers of cars and insurance and toilet rolls.
    STOP! If you are about to delete this 'depressing' and 'negative' post, hang on a moment. I'm not banging on about failure to annoy you. There are many writers who get disheartened or give up because they never realised how hard it was going to be to get published and stay published. It's important to understand the realities of the book world before we enter it. We need to assess the height and configuration of the mountain before we choose our equipment or work out the route of our ascent. One last statistic to drive home the point - PLR. In Britain authors of books in libraries receive an annual payment based on the numbers of their books that are borrowed. In 2016, 22,202 authors shared the pot, receiving between £1 and £6,600 each. Those hitting the six-and-half-grand jackpot accounted for 0.9% of the total - and they included writers of cook books, DIY manuals, etc. Most authors didn't make it into three figures. 
     The importance of failure is what we learn from it: (a) Persistence is obvious. Joy Adamson was incredibly self-opinionated and refused to take no for an answer. (b) Passion was what drove her. She didn't 'devise' a story to make money. The story drove her: it was a tale she believed had to be told. (c) Period. The 1960s saw the emergence of independent nations. Africa was in the news. Millions of people wanted to know about its land, its people, its wildlife. As any established author will tell you, there is no 'secret of success'. But there is a secret of failure and it's this: failure makes us take a hard, honest look at ourselves and ask 'Do I have the necessary mix of compulsion and calculation - the compulsion that drives me to share a story that must be told and the calculation to discern whether there are enough people out there ready to hear that story, and, if so, how to reach them.'


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