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The Writer's Economy

The Write Way: Dream, Create, Reject, Repeat…



For writers to become any good, we must be allowed to experiment and expected, at times, to fail. We have to try out different stuff if we are ever to write a book of value. These efforts are what I’ve call “necessary failures.” But is embarking on The Great American Failed Novel, one that is never seen in print and never read, an important part of our growth as writers? Should we indulge ourselves in wild endeavours that we later kill?


The technology world has a new notion that it is important to “fail fast” and “fail often.” Astro Teller of Google X*, gave a TED Talk in February in which he encouraged businesses to create environments in which their employees feel comfortable working on big, risky projects, many of which are likely to fail. Google X, a company that has been voted number 1 in Best Companies To Work For seven times over the past ten years, has a unique working environemnt. Teller says, “We spend most of our time breaking things and trying to prove that we’re wrong,” he explains with a joy that makes it clear he loves his job. “We make it safe to fail.”


Teller even rewards his staff for abandoning a project due to evidence of its eventual doom as a product or service. Whoever heard of receiving a bonus for proving your idea is a bad one? And yet, this is exactly what Google X gives its employees who kill their own projects. What are the reasons a project is killed? Too expensive, too unwieldy, doesn’t produce the desired results, atrociously uneconomic, or outright dangerous, to name a few.


Not every business adopts the “fail fast, fail often” model. Despite being reliant on innovation and genius ideas from its authors, publishing is the very opposite. Most authors, lucky enough to be published in the first place, have possibly two books to prove their commercial value. If these books don’t sell well the author may struggle for a contract on the next.


Publishing is a “fail & you’re fired” environment, at least if you are an author. And if we aren’t being warned directly of our tenuous place on a publisher’s list, we can read about our doom every day in the trade papers. I often feel like one of Henry VIII’s wives, just waiting to either be banished from the kingdom or publicly executed.


The Big Picture

Sometimes, you can sell well and still piss off a publisher. If your book doesn’t sell as well as the publisher expects, for example. I remember a good first novel by Douglas Kennedy,  The Big Picture, that was sold for a six figure sum to a major American publisher in the late 1990’s. I loved the book and was surprised when Kennedy told me years later that he’d had a hell of a time after that novel, because while the book had sold very well, it hadn’t made the astronomical numbers that had been expected of it. As a result, he’d had a difficult time getting back into the American market. Since then, of course, he’s sold 14 million copies of his books in 22 languages. He is considered very much a “selling author”, so let that be a lesson in tenacity for writers feeling undervalued. Kennedy won in the end, as talent and hard work usually will, but would a different man have given up? Possibly.


I don’t feel a lack of commercial success is a writer’s fault. Smashword CEO, Mark Coker, tells us, “Publishers can only guess at what books readers want to read and mostly they guess wrong.” So, if they are guessing wrong, how can writers be expected to always guess correctly? We cannot. But it is we who will pay the price for commercial failure.


Some publishers buy books they love, not expecting instant commercial success. Those rare birds include one of publishing’s most acclaimed editors, Nan Talese, whose own imprint is part of the giant Penguin Random House. Nan represents such giant critical and commercial successes as Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, and Pat Conroy. She once cheered me up by saying, “Ian McEwan took many books to get any real sales. I can remember back when he was selling 9,000 copies.”  Sadly, few publishers have the patience of Talese, whose authors adore her and whose books largely succeed. But they are out there, if you are lucky enough to find them.


Creating Our Own “Safe To Fail” Environment

As the reading market dwindles and more books flood the market, we authors may find it difficult to allow ourselves the room we need to invent our best stories and develop our best characters. We may feel led to abandon our attention to language in an effort to produce a page-turner. Or hop onto the latest trend, however little interest we have in fifty shades of ugly.  Ours is not an industry that tolerates failure, but we must give ourselves space to try things out.


The best we can do is create our own Google X environment at home in which the concept of “fail fast, fail often” works well. Google X creates prototypes quickly, figures out what is wrong, then feeds back into the R&D process. They fail again and again until they get to where they want to be and consider the failures badges of honour. This is the “business model” I use for my own writing. I will try something every which way, put it on a shelf and forget about it for awhile, then get it out and re-think it through. I will throw it out, rekindle it, transform it or abandoned it. I am allowed to do anything in my space of invention. And while I don’t congratulate myself for killing a book altogether, I do sometimes breathe a sigh of relief.


Am I doing the right thing?  The economist, and University of Chicago professor, Steven Levitt, thinks that I am. “I always tell my students to fail quickly. The quicker you fail the more chance you have…to eventually find the thing you don’t fail at.”


The Perils Of Ambition


As a writing tutor at the University of Oxford, I’ve often talked with students who were determined they had to complete market-ready books during their master’s study or else their time on our program was wasted. I’ve had to talk students out of their ideas to give themselves four-month deadlines to write a novel start to finish, or who insist they are “writing a bestseller” ,or whose stated goal is to make a living from writing.


“All that is bullshit,” I tell them. “Who is putting such ideas into your head?”


These writers are young, talented and driven, but they often drive themselves right into a wall. The better ones labour ferociously on a scene, revising and re-writing, unable to see the scene’s faults, unable to see how it doesn’t fit into the rest of the novel at all, becoming seduced by the sunk costs of their own labor and now too emotionally attached to the scene to cut it altogether.  The less gifted slop through several hundred pages so impressed by their ability to produce a novel-length manuscript that they will need a dozen or more agent rejections before they ask whether a love story about sea monkeys really has a place in today’s market.


Am I, myself, ever guilty of keeping alive works that ought to be put in a manuscript box and buried in my cupboard? Yes, of course I am, which is why I have a great deal of empathy for these students and all writers. My awareness of my own faults and idiosyncrasies, the touching silliness of my dreams to become better than I can be, my faith that the only talent that can’t be improved is one that never existed in the first place, is what makes me a good (I think) teacher, and causes me to write the very words you are now reading.


*let me help you with that: this is the name of a man followed by his place of employment 

The Writer's Economy

Necessary Failures



In 2006 Hilary Mantel and I went on a book tour together. This was back before she became an untouchably famous, extremely revered double Booker prize winner and was just ordinary famous and touring with her novel, Beyond Black.


I was promoting Daniel Isn’t Talking, my somewhat autobiographical account of the early days of discovering my little boy was autistic. We were an unlikely pair, Hilary with her ghost story of a fortune teller, populated by dead or half-dead people, and me with my difficult drama of a mother’s fears about her small son’s future. But we were very jolly together. Hilary is a warm, loving woman as well as being a splendid writer. And both of us love an audience.


But that was just it—the audience! It was hit and miss. We’d show up to a big room full of pretty flowers and chairs all lined up, and see some empty seats. Actually, quite a number of empty seats. Given Hilary’s draw, you’d expect a full-house.  And where were the men? We had good attendance at the afternoon library events but most of the time we were speaking to all female audiences.


And then we discovered why. The 2006 FIFA World cup was on television. We were competing with the allure of international soccer. Hilary and I had some awareness of  football in the offing—we’d notice the abundance of cars strung with bunting, pubs full with men and the televisions on. We’d simply overlooked its impact on our tour, which was a more quiet success than Hilary is used to.


All of this brings me to my point, which isn’t about soccer and books tours but about publishing a book in the first place: Is there any way we can predict its success?


The queen could die on publication date and every interview you have is wiped off the magazine pages.  A war could break out and the book section of the newspaper goes unread for months. But barring these kind of catastrophes, is there a way of testing out whether your novel is a good idea before you put a year or two (or more) into writing it? This blog, and the one to follow explores this question.


Failure Is Your Friend

Last year, Freakonomics Radio re-broadcasted a podcast called Failure Is Your Friend. The idea was simple, if you can determine early that the task you are about to attempt is a bad idea, you can abandon it quickly. Finding out early saves time, money, energy and heartache. The broadcast used an extreme example of a project that ought to have been abandoned but was not: the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster that resulted in the death of the crew, including a school teacher from New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first civilian in space.


The reason for the disaster? NASA did not test the O-ring seals of its rocket boosters to ensure they would stand up to the unseasonably low temperatures being experienced in Florida that year. Despite warnings from their own engineers that they should abandon the launch, NASA ignored the risk and went ahead on the morning of January 28th, killing seven people and derailing NASA’s space shuttle program for years go come.


Some speculate that NASA continued with the launch due to what is called “go fever”. “Go fever” is the attitude of being in a rush or hurry to move on with, or complete a project, while overlooking potential problems or mistakes.  I see it expressed in novelists and aspiring novelists all the time, including myself. The “sunk cost” we’ve already made in writing a hundred or two hundred pages of a book compel us to continue writing the thing even when it is likely to fail.


When It Comes To Books What Can We Truly Call “Failing”?

Of course, we have to be careful with the term “failure” when talking about contributions to the arts world. A commercial success can be a critical failure and vice versa. A book can receive a whole lot of unfair reviews by people who just don’t get the book at all, and still be a pretty good book.


I am really referring to what I call “practice novels” (it could be “practice non-fiction). These are books we are going to write to completion, or near-completion, even though at some point we may feel they are not publishing-worthy.


Handling big manuscripts is as much of an art as handling a single scene and practicing novel-writing may lead to a few necessary failures, if they can be called failures at all. I’ve written two novels I have no intention of bring to market. They served their purpose of teaching me a bit more about writing and helped me make my way toward something sharper, more vivid, more accurate and alive.


Unfortunately, many writers spend years on manuscripts that ought to be considered “practice novels” or “necessary failures” and then, because the thing has amassed several hundred pages and looks like a viable manuscript all stacked neatly on the desk, they feel an obligation to publish it. Given how little we know about what makes a bestseller, one can understand that they may believe they have as good a chance as anyone (and maybe they do).


OMG, That Was A Bestseller?

That bestsellers can be truly dreadful books is a phenomenon so common there is an entire website and podcast devoted to talking about bad New York Times Bestsellers. The website, run by an aspiring children’s author and a librarian, is called The Worst Bestsellers, and it offers the following warning: If you are a publicist who wants us to review your client’s book, please think twice. If you are an author whose publicist is pitching your book to Worst Bestsellers, you might want to get a new publicist.


It’s a brave endeavor, all that reading of books they hate. I bring it up only to make the obvious point that “failure” is so hard to define when we are talking about books.  If the actor, Rob Lowe, can be a NYT bestseller with Stories I Only Tell My Friends, a title I would like to abridge to read, Stories I only Tell my Friends or Anyone With A Credit Card, why shouldn’t you give your novel about your fifteen cats and their distinct personalities a whirl? If one of your cats becomes a film star you might have a good shot at a bestseller.


I’ve mentioned in my blog Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller that the London literary agent and managing director of Curtis Brown, Jonny Geller, gave a TED talk called What Makes A Bestseller. It was a great title for a talk, and you should definitely listen to what Jonny has to say. However, to my great relief, it was less about making bestsellers and more about writing good books.


Fail Fast, Fail Often

In the end, all we can be expected to do and all that we ought to do is this:  Write good books. If you set out to write a bestseller, or to become famous, or to be recognised as a writer, you’ve taken a step in the wrong direction. You will do better to be rigorous in the practice and improvement of your craft, true to the notion that the only thing that matters is the work. Not what every random reviewer might think of the work, not what you might get paid for the work, or who might make a film of the work, but the work itself.


What is the best thing to do with some of the novels you are likely to write or even finish on the road to becoming a great novelist? Know when to cut your losses. Don’t perform heroics if the novel is dead on the page. Fail quickly and get onto your next project. Be happy you are one step closer to the novel that you always wanted to write.


Or, practice the essential art of revision. All writing is creative, even revision, and improving your ability to detect what is wrong and fixing it may be one of the most valuable skills you develop as a writer. By chance, you may not only breathe life into the work, but envisage it so freshly it metamorphisizes into a hell of a book.


My next blog will look at whether writers ought to adopt Silicon Valley’s idea that we must fail quickly and fail often. If you want to be an innovator, you need to be a allowed to fail. A lot. But how do we determine when a work should be put aside? Or shall we adopt Pablo Picasso‘s notion that, even in the best case, “art is never finished, only abandoned”?