Many years ago, I spent hours and hours and hours listening to tapes about success and failure and the power of positive thinking. And they really were tapes. MP3 downloads weren’t invented yet. But despite all that good advice, for which I paid $4.99 per tape, I failed as an Amway distributor. Failure was a bad word in those days. Failure was for losers and good Amway distributors were winners. Anyone who failed was either lazy or didn’t believe enough in themselves to dig deep enough for success.
What a load of hogwash.
But what a learning experience. While failing as an Amway distributor, I learned not to fear rejection, I learned to approach people higher-up than me who had something I needed, I learned how to eat crackers for dinner at a Denny’s Restaurant in Terre Haute, Indiana, because I couldn’t afford to buy anything from the menu, and I learned how to make tough decisions.
And that leads to my career as an author. Over the eighteen months from September 2016 into March, 2018, I sent queries to around 110 potential agents, looking for a traditional publisher for my second book. Around half sent form rejection responses, the rest didn’t bother to respond at all. A few took the time to write a real letter. Here is the first part of one custom rejection letter from an agent named Robin:
Dear Mr. Scott:
It’s nice of you to contact me regarding representation. I understand that you haven’t sold large quantities of your self-published book. The endeavor ultimately established the sort of readership you’re able to attract for the category in which you’re writing. A less-than-impressive track record makes it far more difficult to interest a major publisher in an author’s subsequent works. Perhaps a freelance book publicist could have been of some assistance to you.
I’ve been stewing about what Robin said for a long time. I know she’s only the messenger, but the message is, we all have exactly one and only one shot at success. If whatever you try doesn’t work the first time, then crawl back under whatever rock you came from, because you’re a loser and nobody bets on losers.
And that might explain why traditional publishing is in a slow decline. I looked up revenue numbers for the big five surviving publishers.
- Penguin Random House revenue declined 9.6 percent in 2016. Revenue dropped again in 2017 from €3,361 million in 2016 to €3,359 million in 2017. See the 2017 Bertelsmann Annual Report–Penguin Random House’s major shareholder–for details.
- In the US, HarperCollins reported a decline in revenue of US$10m ($A12.7m) in the fiscal year ending 30 June, a drop of 0.6% compared to fiscal 2016.
- Simon and Schuster (part of CBS) had $809 million in 2013 revenue, $778 million in 2014, $780 million in 2015, $767 million in 2016, and $830 million in 2017.
- Hachette Livre delivered revenue of €2.289B in 2017, up 1.9% like-for-like over 2016 (up 1.1 % on a consolidated basis). The difference between these two figures reflects a €50M negative foreign exchange effect and a €33M positive scope effect resulting from the consolidation of Perseus, and the acquisitions of Brainbow and Bookouture for Hachette UK.
- Numbers for Macmillan were not easy to find.
Those are the sterile numbers. Here’s a first-hand observation. The world headquarters for Penguin Random House is 1745 Broadway, New York, NY 10019. Back in 2016, I visited a customer in New York City for my day-job and learned Penguin Random House no longer occupies the top floor of its own building. Penguin Random House is hollowing itself out as it lays off people to cut expenses while revenue declines.
By any measure, traditional publishing is declining while the overall market is growing.
Here’s a different perspective on failure. Instead of running away from failure, embrace it. I failed as an Amway distributor, but learned lots of valuable life-lessons. Thomas Edison apparently failed at least 1000 times before inventing his light bulb. When asked about all those failures, he replied, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times. The light bulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.” Here is a website with lots of inspirational examples around failure.
How many of us fell down on our bicycles when the training wheels first came off? How many overcame academic struggles in high school or college? How many athletes struggled before catching fire? How many of today’s famous business leaders succeeded the first time? Ever heard of a company named Traf-O-Data? That company didn’t last long. But the founding team learned lessons and eventually started a new software company. Today, Bill Gates is one of the richest people on the planet and Microsoft is a household name.
That rock better be awfully big for all those losers to crawl back under.
For the risk-averse publishing companies who don’t want to deal with authors who struggled early – if you want to stay relevant, your boards of directors should bring in new leadership before you drive your once-proud companies into the ground.
Oh yeah, my book #2 recently found a publisher. It wasn’t one of the big five and it’s not a traditional publisher. Why not self-publish again? Well, I learned with book #1 that I need help with sales and marketing. I am grateful to the folks at Morgan James Publishing for betting on me. Now, let’s go kick some butt in the marketplace.