Sometimes You Fail. And it Sucks.

FailureI’ve blogged about failure a few times, and I’ve read dozens of other posts about it. As I wrote in this post, “Turns out, everyone and their brother has blogged about failure. And every successful person in history has a quote about it, too.”

But recently, an author wrote poignantly about being in the middle of her personal experience of failure, and it hit me hard.

The author is Alexis Grant, and her post “When You Have to Admit You’ve Failed,” is about the incredible frustration of having an agent shop her book for two years with no success. It occurred to me that I’ve never written about what it feels like, from the agent’s perspective, to “fail” an author.

I was the agent.

And while Alexis feels as if she’s failed, I feel as if I’ve failed her.

When I decided to represent Alexis’s book, it was because I absolutely, wholeheartedly believed in it. I’ve read it repeatedly and enjoyed it every time. It’s an incredible memoir of her solo backpacking trip through Africa, and the adventure of it completely captured me. I’ve been dreaming of my own (someday) African trek ever since.

I completely expected to sell the book to a publisher. I really, really wanted to, because I know people will love it and be inspired by it like I was.

I realize the disappointment Alexis feels is far greater than mine. This was her labor of love, her own personal story. But having committed to it, and invested myself in its success, I am devastated that I didn’t sell it. I feel bad for her. I don’t like having failed her.

I can’t even figure out why it didn’t sell, because I have a pretty good eye for good books, and I know hers is wonderful. Sometimes, it just doesn’t happen.

It’s heartbreaking, because the book deserves to be read by many, many people. But it’s not just emotional, it’s a business failure too. It’s many, many hours spent with no return. Like Alexis says in her post, “this whole process has been HELLA frustrating.”

Here is what I want you to know:

♦ Things that frustrate you in the pursuit of publishing probably frustrate your agent too.

♦ Agents don’t like the waiting game any more than you do.

♦ If the agent can’t sell your book, they may feel a sense of personal and professional failure similar to yours.

What am I going to do with the failure? I listed 5 good responses to failure in this post; my favorite in this case is, “reassess what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Figure out how to do it better next time.”

Alexis has her own plans for bouncing back, and I have no doubt she will. But I will always be sad I couldn’t get her the book deal she wanted.

Have you failed at something important to you? What was your response?

 

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  1. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Thanks Rachelle. The post helped me to keep in mind that failure is defined only by quitting. And from reading this post, Alexis will succeed because she refuses to quit. I will read the book that these publishers refused to represent. More than likely, it will be another success story for Alexis. Keep pressing forward Alexis. This trial is only making you stronger.

  2. Anastasia says:

    A solo backpacking trip through Africa? Sounds like something a travel bookstore I used to work at would sell, but alas, the bookstore is gone.

    My point is, sometimes we’re swept in events larger than ourselves. It’s easy to think of selling something as winning or losing, but the more I think about it in the context of storytelling, the more I think it’s not right. A book is not an Olympic runner. You can’t bet on it to achieve in the world where every rule can be bent. If a story needs to be told, it can be told in other ways, and there is always audience, somewhere. It just needs to be reached.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  3. Micki Street says:

    Thanks for this article Rachelle – it did enlighten me somewhat! I am surprised Alexis book wasn’t picked up – such a shame. I have lived in Africa all my life and worked in the tourism industry before I retired. Thousands of people backpack through Africa every year – to my knowledge, not so many Americans. They’re mostly Brits, and from European countries. It seems a book like Alexis would have been a great asset to future backpackers.

  4. Ian Hardy says:

    Rachelle,

    Thanks for the great blog!

  5. I’m disappointed too. I read the Alexis travel blog post way back and have always looked forward to reading the full memoir. If she decides to self-publish in print or e-book, I’ll be at the front of the line to get my copy.

  6. My hat is off to both of you for striving to reach the pinacle of publishing. To not achieve that end is not failure, so don’t give up. God has something wonderful planned.

  7. Great post. I took stock and realize my average fail rate is about 49%. This may sound bad until I view the success side of the equation. Sometimes our failures take center stage as you pointed out so well. Think of the successes. Thanks again. – John

  8. I have failed at more things than others have failed at. That is the key to my success.

    In other words, as Tom Peters said, “To double your success rate, just double your failure rate.”

    It also is important to pay attention to this wisdom, which will escape most people:

    “Failure lies concealed in every success, and success in every failure.”
    — Eckhart Tolle

    Yes, failure sucks – and it sucks big-time at times. Even so, the ability to experience and celebrate failure is vital if you want to succeed.

    Ernie J. Zelinski
    International Best-Selling Author
    “Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free”
    Author of the Bestseller “How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free”
    (Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
    and the International Bestseller “The Joy of Not Working’
    (Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

  9. There are only two kinds of people in this world, I’d say. There are those of us who’ve failed at something important, and there are the others who’ve never tried anything worth doing.

    Sure, I’ve failed. I fail all the time. I failed at something important yesterday, in fact.

    Thank God for my failures, because they’re my teachers in life.

    – TOSK

  10. Nancy Petralia says:

    Thank you for writing this, Rachelle.

    There are only two blogs that I read every day–yours and Alexis’. Both of you offer straightforward, concrete advice and insight. I’m sad for both of you about Alexis’ book.

    But as her post illustrates, time changes things…your goals, your interests, your energy. I know she’s grown tremendously through this frustrating process. And it takes a real professional like yourself to own up publicly to her own feelings of failure.

    Much SUCCESS to both of you in the future.

  11. Peter DeHaan says:

    I wonder if there’s a third person in this story who feels failure? Might one or more people you pitched the book to feel failure over not being able to convince others in their organization to move forward with the project?

    (As for me, failure only occurs when I stop trying.)

  12. I tried becoming a published fiction author and, so far, I’ve failed. My response is to regroup, get better at writing, and try again. It’s either that or give up and go home. Anyone who’d suggest that is lame and has obviously not read my work. There’s the spark that won’t drown. 😀

  13. Terry Shames says:

    Wrote a book in the late 80s. Instantly got an agent. He “almost” sold it. Then the agent sent it back. Wrote another book. Got a famous agent. A year late she sent it back. Wrote another book. Got a really famous agent. A year later it came back. Took time off to raise a son. Wrote another book. Couldn’t find an agent. Wrote ANOTHER book. This time I decided to target the right agent for me–not just “a well known agent.” She shopped it for two years. About two weeks before I decided to yank it and publish it myself, she sold it to a fine publisher.

    I am so grateful that she had faith in me enough to keep on for a year longer than any of the others.

    It doesn’t always happen–but it can. I’ve known something about failure, and it always feels bad. But perseverance can pay off.

  14. Lorna Suzuki says:

    WOW! Rachelle, just WOW!
    I’ve had two literary agents in the past and my experiences with my former agents left me disheartened with the whole traditional publishing process because they did not put in even half the effort you did for your client!
    In fact, I was left so broken by the process that now, even with a major motion picture trilogy in development and filming slated to start later this year, it’s left me a little gun-shy, even when publisher approach me.
    If I had an agent that put in the effort you had for Alexis, even if you ‘failed’, I would still feel so proud to have had an agent like you in my corner! To me, doing your best is not a fail. 😉

  15. Alana Terry says:

    I suppose that your reaction is the sign of being a good agent. You care enough about the authors you represent that you share their hurt when their projects don’t succeed. If you didn’t invest so much (personally and professionally) into the project, it wouldn’t hurt so much when it didn’t work out. I’m sorry to hear about your discouragement, though, and I’m sure it must be devastating for Alexis. Good luck to you both.

  16. Camille Eide says:

    Thank you, Rachelle, for believing in us enough that you have a personal, business as well as emotional vested interest in us and our work. I am sorry our deals that go flat hurt you too. But I still appreciate your honesty, it helps to know we are having a good cry together. 🙂

  17. Rachelle, I appreciate hearing your side of this story. And my heart goes out to Alexis. I have been there. I am still there. Sometimes I think this is all there is for me, pouring my soul into book after book only to almost make it. Almost, but no contract.

    I’ve had two wonderful agents. The first moved on to other pursuits. I parted ways with the second for reasons too complicated to explain here. But I remember the phone calls from him and hearing the discouragement in his voice. I know he felt the frustration as much as I did, and I’m so grateful that he helped me bear that burden. At the time I was too focused on my own misery to think about what it meant for him. Selfish, I know. That’s why I’m glad you shared this.

    Sometimes I think the writing journey is really the excruciating process of lifting our eyes outward to see the real world.

  18. Jan Thompson says:

    Thanks for sharing, Rachelle. I like this quote from Edison.

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas A. Edison

    There’s a light bulb at the end of the tunnel 🙂

  19. As you know, I get this. Don’t really know what to say except I know from experience that you give it your all. And maybe, just maybe, God has to humble the really awesome people every now and again to keep them grounded. 😉 Hugs!

  20. Rachelle, We see so many success stories, sometimes it’s necessary to balance them with stories of failure. Knowing you as I do, I realize that your sense of frustration undoubtedly matches that of Alexis. Thanks for sharing this.
    And best wishes for both you and Lexi to bounce back.

  21. Dana McNeely says:

    I love all these stories, starting with Rachelle’s and Alexis’. Frankly, I thought agents sold everything they shopped! How naive! I have a similar story. I revised my first finished novel a dozen times, thought it was pretty darn good, and shopped it around. Received one rejection with comments and a request for a full. Started a second novel while waiting to hear on the full. Finally got a response – not as good as I’d hoped, lacks the ‘Wow’ factor, here’s a few suggestion….So kind…but hard to hear. I went into mourning for a month. Then I picked myself up and said, ‘Next?’ I didn’t understand the comments, so I went on an odyssey to figure them out. Got help from a published author friend, craft books, favorite novels. Spent much time in prayer. The novel that is emerging is MUCH better than the last. I needed that failure! And I’m grateful that I received those rejections. I’ll try to remember this when I receive future rejections. 🙂

  22. Peter Frahm says:

    Hi, Rachelle.

    As an instructor at a local community college I have had to issue failing grades to students whose work was not up to snuff. It does bother me, and I always get a second opinion for borderline submissions just to be safe and fair.

    We do need to remember two things regarding failure:
    1) Failure is an event, not a person.
    2) If our work was easy, anyone could do it.

    It’s good to know that there are agents out there who have a conscience. Thanks for posting.

  23. Elissa says:

    This is a platitude, I know, but it’s still true:

    You can’t fail if you don’t try.

    Failure always hurts. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small failure or a large one. But failure is only the end of the road if you allow it to be.

    I read these posts and am inspired by how many people here are not willing to let “failure” stop them. Goals may have to be adjusted, but as many have said, you only fail when you give up entirely.

  24. Alexis Grant says:

    Thanks, Rachelle, for sharing your side and for your encouragement! And thanks, everyone, for your support — love all the thoughtful comments here. Onward!

    @alexisgrant

    • Lisa says:

      Thanks for caring Rachelle, we know you do 🙂

      And Alexis, I love your work. I follow your blog and would read anything you published! You inspire me to keep pressing on.

  25. James Ziskin says:

    Failure may not be the end of Alexis’ story. Consider this:

    In 1991 I wrote a book. I managed to find an agent. I wrote a second and third book. None of them sold, and eventually the agent and I parted company.

    I meant to keep writing, but I had a job that didn’t make that easy. And i was lazy. That first book, and its sisters, sat for 16 years, forgotten for the most part, in a corner of my hard drive. From time to time I would dust them off with the intention of starting the search for a publisher again, but other things got in the way.

    Then I picked up the third book again about six years ago. Rewrote the whole thing, polished it, and edited it again. At least five more times. Then I set out to find an agent. That took the better part of a year and half, but it finally happened. I landed an agent. And a damn good agent from one of the most respected agencies in the business. I thought it would finally happen. I was going to sell a book this time.

    Two years passed with no luck. I sensed my agent was losing faith in the book, so I set out to overhaul the other two books I’d written back in the early ’90s, just as I had with the novel that landed me my agent. It was a long hard slog. Painful. But in the end I felt I’d truly made the books better. My agent loved them. He had a radical suggestion to transform them, though, to make them more marketable. But I was too tired and lazy to pick them up again, so we decided to submit them as they were. A year of positive rejections later, I took my agent’s advice and did the rewrite, changing my hero to a heroine. That was a ton of work, not simply switching the subject pronouns.

    Another year and half passed, and I was about to accept my failure and move on. But suddenly my 20-year odyssey ended. That first book — the one I wrote in 1991 — sold to a great editor. And the joy I felt (and still feel every day) was all the sweeter for the travails of my journey.

    I found success when it was time, not a day sooner.

    And in truth, the game is never over until you stop playing.

    Good luck, Alexis. I’ll look for your memoir somewhere down the road, when it’s time.

    • James, you’re so right that it’s all the sweeter…before a similar thing happened to me, I didn’t really believe it when writers said things like this. I thought I’d be devastated if my book didn’t sell and it’d be too hard to pick myself up and write another one. I was devastated, and it was hard to write another one, but when that one did sell it felt like such a victory. It felt like the journey had tried to bring me down and I’d kept going, despite that.

      • James Ziskin says:

        Natalia,

        Maybe stories like yours and mine are more common than people want to believe. How many writers find agents right off the bat? How many sell their books to the first publisher (and of course in an auction)? We all hope for these results, but the reality is torturously slow. It tests our resolve to continue on this Quixotic path. I’ve come think of myself as a late bloomer. I feel that it’s taken forever to get to this point. But I also trust that this is my time.We all have to trust in that, or at least that our time will come. And of course, just keep writing. A page or two a day at the very least.

        Your blog is great! Congrats in your book. I’ll look for it in 2014. Mine comes out in October 2013.

        Jim

  26. Thank you so much to both of you for sharing this. It’s one of those things that’s not often talked (or blogged) about, which was one of the most frustrating aspects when I was going through it, too. My agent shopped around my first novel for about a year and a half…we kept getting some amazing feedback and almost yes-es, but still no’s. About three months into it I realized that I needed to start working on the next book, not just to keep my mind off being on submission, but to remind myself why I love writing, and to give myself a second source of hope.

    When I sent the second novel to my agent, she suggested we put aside the first one and try shopping the second one around. It helped so much that she didn’t say we were giving up on it; we were just setting it aside. And it turns out, three months later, the new novel sold.

    It’s been wonderful and also a really great lesson I’m happy I got to learn: Failure is only failure if you give up, right?

  27. Kirk Kraft says:

    When the youngest of my four children was diagnosed with a rare liver disease at two months old, my life became more tumultuous than I ever imagined possible. Over the course of five months leading up to a liver transplant, I felt different stages of failure at my inability to be emotionally and physical available for my wife, my kids and my ill daughter. It can be easy to look back and say things weren’t as bad as you thought and that you weren’t really a failure. I guess some part of me still believes I failed but I also realized the experience revealed some positive things as well.

    I know that story’s not writing-related but I convert it to my writing life by simply stating that you can’t succeed without first failing. Rare is the person who does something right the first time they attempt it. I just keep charging ahead to constantly learn, grow and improve.

  28. This happened to me, too, all on the same novel:
    1. An editor requested the full and kept calling to say, “So-and-so is reading it now. Everyone loves it. Hang in there.” Finally the top editor read it and said, “If this were your second novel we’d buy it.” (I told him if this were my second novel I probably wouldn’t need him.)

    2. Got picked up by a young agent and an editor loved it and suggested a rewrite, but her company went through a buyout and my book didn’t make it. The agent got discouraged and quit agenting.

    3. Another agent picked it up and shopped it around for a couple of years, and it never sold.

    I’ve updated it (technology has changed a lot!) and am thinking about self-publishing it.

  29. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I’ve experienced the taste of “why didn’t this book sell” failure. It didn’t make sense to me. It didn’t make sense to my agent. It didn’t make sense to the moms who heard me speak and came up to my book table afterward and said, “Where’s your book on this topic.”
    But it didn’t sell — for reasons I won’t go into here.
    A failure of one dream — publication — that God turned into a bend in the road that became another dream.
    Appreciate your post today — the honesty of it. The encouragement of it.
    And I’m wishing Alexis a new dream.

  30. kim says:

    This is so timely–I too just had to leave an agent after she was unable to sell my memoir. It’s been a year now, and I realized I needed to take back the reigns, re-vision the manuscript and listen to what wants to come out. Because, like you, she loved and believed in the memoir, and so has everyone who had read it.
    It’s been a frustrating mystery, but I’m taking it as a sign that it was the wrong book. I don’t think these things are accidents. We just have to listen for the message.
    Thanks very much for this post, it helps (a bit!)

  31. Lori Potter says:

    Did she decide to self-publish instead? Would that be a good alternative?

    • Sue says:

      I would buy it if she did on the premise alone (and on the fact that an agent felt it was good enough). Love those kinds f books. Surprised that after Wild there wasn’t room for it.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        Hey Lori, and thanks, Sue! You ladies are sweet. I *will* self-publish eventually, but not until I’m ready to put my heart and time into it properly. (More details in the post Rachelle linked to.)

        Thanks for your support,
        Lexi

        • Ann Averill says:

          Ditto, Alexis. Memoirs are my favorite genre, and yours sounds captivating. Don’t give up. I read Wild, but I bet yours is better. Africa! Can’t wait to read it.

          Ann Averill

  32. Jeanne T says:

    Rachelle, my heart is sad for both you and Alexis. What a disappointment. I appreciate your perspective from the agent’s side. As one who hasn’t experienced that disappointment yet, it gives me a more well rounded view of the “fail” part of the publishing process.

    I have failed at something important to me. I give myself time to grieve. I’m learning not to beat myself up over my failure and let myself give up. I’m learning to take the lessons learned in the process of the failure and apply them as I make my next attempt. It takes time to work through a failure, and I give myself permission to take that time rather than rush forward.

  33. Dan Erickson says:

    The problem here is that we might be defining failure wrong. Just because the book did not go to a publisher in two years is not failure. First, the book was written: success. Second, the book was promoted to publishers: success. Third, it’s not over unless all involved give up completely.

    I am self published. I am self promoting. I continue to sell very few copies. But I am selling books. I’ve also recently connected with someone to do the audiobook and will be chatting with an independent film producer next week. I’m don’t have major expectations, but with each step, each day, each word, each book, poem, song, blog post, and share with social media, I feel something growing. The only way I will fail is if I give up completely. And even then, is it failure to have had the experience? I think not.

    • Jamie Beck says:

      Love this reply. Good luck to you!

    • I am not so sure it is good to redefine failure.
      Perhaps redefining success is our most productive action.
      To admit I have failed, to embrace it, is the first step toward moving on, going forward, starting over.
      On the other hand, redefining success and celebrating every little one (for instance, I am self-pubed and amazed that I have sold anything. Selling 20 is a huge success) is very handy for keeping myself honest, caring for myself and being very grateful to God for all the blessings.

    • Love this reply too, and good luck! I did the same thing: after 2 years of not selling even though I had a wonderful agent who loved my book, I went down the self-publishing road…

      I can’t say I don’t regret it, it’s too soon to tell. I would still prefer to be traditionally published but it was better than doing nothing!

  34. Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    Every stranger who hears brief details of my life says, “Oh, you oughta write a book.” But it’s not yet time to tell my story because I don’t have a big enough platform. Maybe I will one day. But first I’ve got to have enough name recognition to sell a memoir.

    I’m sorry you weren’t able to sell Alexis’s story–yet. I’m sorry she feels as if she’s been hitting her head against a wall for two years. I’m also sorry because now I want to read the story of her backtracking trip through Africa too. Maybe, one day the timing will be right, and I’ll have that opportunity. I hope she puts the dream of publication aside but doesn’t bury it.

  35. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you so much for this post, and thank you for caring so much. I’ve been where Alexis is and understand that feeling of sadness and – I guess confusion would be the best word – that accompany that failure-to-launch scenario.

    Here’s what we authors can tell you:

    1. Because you still believe in us and in the work that isn’t selling, we don’t feel like a failure.

    2. Because you share our hurt, we don’t hurt quite as much.

    3. Because you give us plausible options and total support for future projects, our disappointment is not overwhelming.

    Thank you, Rachelle. More than words can say.

  36. While I draw breath – I haven’t yet failed.

    That sounds like one of those hokey insprational posters intended to buck up attitude, but I’ve found that it’s true, for one major reason –

    I make sure that I’m the one who defines failure and success for my hopes and dreams.

    As long as the definition comes from within, I can justify ‘never giving up’.

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