The Failed Novelist


Oh writers, what’s with all the judgement?  And where is all the tolerance??  This week saw the anonymous letter from a ‘failed novelist’ in The Guardian in which (what we assume) a female writer described her experience of trying to get published.

Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

But I’m scarred.

Despite having an agent and interest from publishers, in the end, a deal never materialised for a ‘bewildering’ number of reasons.  It was stark, bitter and sad – all of the things you feel when you watch your dreams shatter.  My first thought was, another one bites the dust and all thanks to the seemingly arbitrary process of submitting to publishers.  She is not the first writer to give up and I’m sure she won’t be the last.  To be honest, I would have given up too, if not for self-publishing, but more on that anon.

Reaction was mixed.  It’s obviously a topic that exercised a lot of established writers who have been through the rejection process and got to the other side.  Female authors such as J K Rowling and Joanne Harris offered encouragement, telling authors never to give up, because the next book might just be the one to bring success.  Also, not to view all of the hard work, countless manuscripts and years of honing your craft as a waste.  But then came the riposte, again in The Guardian, from a male author, David Barnett.

Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.

Wow.  That’s one hell of a back-handed compliment!  Can you imagine reading that after  writing such an honest and soul-baring piece about your disillusionment with the publishing world?  From a ‘successfully published’ author?  Obviously a student from the school of tough love, it seemed this author was taking the opportunity to tell everybody about how brilliant he was at sucking up rejection and that ‘real’ writers need to embrace it, or how will they ever cope with bad reviews?  I found his approach a bit predictable and dare I say it, ‘mansplainey’, but he did go on to make some very valid points.

Yes, there are those hip young writers who get picked up for a three-book deal on the basis of a single chapter – but they make the news because they are the exception, not the rule.

It’s true, the papers love a six-figure publishing deal and can’t wait to tell us all about it.  And why are they always the age at which I was probably playing drinking games and wearing a toga?  He’s right, this is absolutely the exception, so indulging in the Cinderella complex that you will somehow be spotted and picked-up by one of the big five (or is it six) is like sitting around waiting to win the publishing lottery, without having bought a ticket!

It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author.

Again, so true.  Most author bios (including my own) talk about how we’ve been writing stories since we were kids.  Just because you love (and have always loved) writing, does not mean the publishing industry will grant your wishes.  They have their own agenda and a seemingly unlimited pool of talent to choose from.  They might take on as few as one or two new authors per year.  They might have had enough of girls on public transport, just as you’re putting the finishing touches to your story about a girl on a bus (or is she?  do we really believe her??)  A lot of it is luck and timing, the rest is hard work and resilience.  But the part I can absolutely empathise with is the loss of control.  If you want writing to become your career, it’s very difficult (and frustrating) to put your destiny in the hands of other people.  It’s not like any other profession because the application process is a complete guessing game.  And the waiting, great Odin’s raven, the waiting!!  All of that time, wondering if you’re life is going to be changed, or if you dreams will be shot down by a rejection.

This is why the self-publishing revolution is the most important thing to happen to the publishing industry.  Of course, it’s nothing new.  Authors have been self-publishing for years (Dickens, Whitman, Proust, Potter), but the digital age has made it so much easier to reach your audience and to become a professional authorpreneur.  In fact, numerous people mentioned self-publishing in the comments section, but some writers still see it as a failure greater than not being published at all.  I find this attitude bemusing and to use one of Barnett’s words ‘entitled’.  I’m sure there are many traditionally published authors who look down their noses at self-published authors (just like they are doing to this woman, who hasn’t kept calm and carried on in the face of rejection) and like to perpetuate the myth that there’s so much rubbish out there (which is equally true of traditionally published books).  However, self-publishing is simply another avenue for authors to get their work out there, to build their audience and if successful, perhaps even sign with a traditional publisher for their subsequent books.  Many authors have taken this route and become hybrid authors, using each platform as equally valid routes to market.

Most importantly, it gives the author some modicum of control over their destiny.  Your book might still bomb, just as it might with a publisher, but at least you are not locked out of the party entirely.  I know how she feels, but pursuing your dreams means being flexible and finding more than one way to skin a cat.  Yes, failure is a part of the process and it can be the catalyst to push you on to fail better.  But that doesn’t need to be where the story ends.  I have a feeling this writer will be back, a little bruised but a lot more determined.  I commend her for writing that article and for being so honest about her feelings.  Obviously, it’s quite a while since Barnett has been rejected by a publisher, so perhaps he has forgotten how raw those feelings can be, when you’re just at the beginning of your career and feeling as though you’re going nowhere, while watching other people make it.  It’s hard, let’s be honest.  But he’s right; for most writers, this is the journey.

All in all, I think it’s a good discussion to have, because new writers need to be made more aware of what is actually involved in the process.  We are blinded by the ‘supermodels’ of writing, who get those haute couture deals before the age of 21.  We do need to ground ourselves in reality and the only way to do that is by taking the mystique out of the writing and publishing process, by having conversations like this.  But we also need to respect each other’s journey and stop explaining to people how they should feel about something.  One thing is for sure, being a writer is not an easy road to riches, fame or success.  So yes, you do need to love it and most importantly, (as translated in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale) Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

18 thoughts on “The Failed Novelist

    1. Thanks Christine 🙂 Ah sure we’re all in the trenches (but some of us are staring at the stars!) which is why I think we should all be encouraging each other, not judging or calling people quitters. Hope all is going well with you!

  1. Great article! My own journey to publication took 11 years, and for a few of those, I lost all confidence and locked my work away in a drawer. I do so hope that anonymous author dusts herself down and gets back in the fray one day.

    1. Thanks Jackie, I hope so too and thanks for sharing some of your story. I think a lot of authors go through that phase, myself included, where you just need a break. It’s a tough old business!

    1. Agree. I have one full novel and two incompletes hiding away on my hard drive, but what I really got from her piece was a sense of despair when it comes to the publishing process. How can you know if you’re good enough or if you should keep going, when agents and publishers tell you they like your writing but you still don’t get the deal? This over-reliance on outside validation can be really crippling for creatives. It’s a toxic relationship where talent doesn’t always equal reward. So yes, I think self-publishing has revolutionised the writing profession and tipped the scales in favour of the writer 🙂

  2. Great article and my, aren’t you prolific! I have on my schedule to delve into one of your novels when I finish this bugger of mine, hopefully this summer. Brava!

    1. Lovely to hear from you Jackie 🙂 Hope all is well with you and that the manuscript is behaving itself. I’m still meaning to read your book too! We’ll get there in the end xxx

  3. Great thoughts, Evie.

    I had mixed feelings when I read that Guardian article. Having been through the same wringer, I really sympathised with how the author felt but also frustrated that they’d given up.

    I think if someone’s a true writer, they’ll keep going even if nobody reads their work at all. We have stories inside us, itching to get out. Whoever they are, if writing is really their calling, I’m sure they’ll give it another shot.

    I feel like that author was more crushed by their dreams and expectations than their actual failure, especially as they were so close to the prize–closer than most writers get.

    1. Hi Niels, good to hear from you 🙂 I completely agree – she (he?) seemed more frustrated with the seemingly arbitrary process of getting published. And you’re right, it must be so much harder to have it all taken away from you when you’re so close. I’ve read about a lot of authors who got an agent and thought that was it – the publishing deal would inevitably follow – and how gutting it is when they can’t place their novel with a publisher. Rejection can be so hard to recover from, I quit writing for about 2 years after my first major one, but I also have a feeling that this writer will come back… eventually. Maybe all of those snide comments will act as reverse psychology!

  4. hi Evie
    I really enjoyed your post and I’d missed the article in the Guardian, so it was good (not really the right word) to read it.
    I’m much further back in the process – I’ve only just started submitting to agents and am thinking I’ll try that for a bit then self publish if it doesn’t work. So far I still love writing and can’t imagine giving that up. However, I can easily imagine giving up trying to find an agent!
    I’m a pretty pragmatic person and did quite a bit of research before I started trying to get published, so I knew when I set out that this was going to be tough. The bit I didn’t expect, and that I’m still struggling with how to respond to, is people who know nothing about any of this and think I’ll be one of the ‘six figure deal overnight’ successes, then accuse me of a lack of self-belief when I try to explain that’s about as likely as winning the lottery. Any tips gratefully received!

    1. Hi Debbie, thanks & glad you enjoyed the post 🙂 You’re right, looking for a traditional publishing deal with one of the big 5 (or is it 6? I can never remember) is a lot like playing the lottery. I could almost hear the frustration in that writer’s words – feeling as though she had done everything she was supposed to do, but she still didn’t win. I thought it was a bit unfair of other (published) authors kicking her when she was down, but for the majority of authors, rejection is an occupational hazard and you have to learn to come back from that. But at least with self-publishing, writers can have some say in their futures and if the middle man isn’t getting your book to the readers, then why not do it yourself?! You will learn so much about publishing and if you find a publisher that you do want to work with in the future, you will bring all of that experience with you. As for people outside of the industry (or muggles, as I like to call them:D) I totally get where you’re coming from. It’s impossible to explain how publishing works; how being a good writer doesn’t always mean you’ll be the next JK Rowling! I know there’s a quote about the futility of trying to explain yourself, but I can’t think of it right now so just say this – the publishing world is in a state of flux right now, so I’m keeping my options open! Which is something I hope the writer from The Guardian will do in the future, because there is definitely more than one way to skin a cat.

  5. Hmmm, Been there. In another country, though. My first book took almost 10 years to get accepted. Then turned into a trilogy and became a best-seller there. Then, repeat. Tried do get it translated and published in America, but read only 2% of the books published here weren’t originally written in English. It sucks. Maybe in 10 more. I’m the meantime, thinking or writing one in this language. Odds are less than 2%. But why bother with chances?

    1. So you’re a 10 year, overnight success!! Congratulations on the trilogy. I think all you can do is go with your gut and write the story you want to write, in whatever language the story demands. It’s true, we have so little control and that odds are so off-putting, but I think you have to be true to yourself 🙂

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