When You Have to Admit You’ve Failed

February 18, 2013

The blogosphere is full of posts about failure. About how you have to face failure if you want to succeed. About how the biggest successes stem from failures. About how no one succeeds without failing.

In fact, I’d even say it’s actually hip to write about failure.

Failure is never, EVER fun.

Failure is never, EVER fun.

But here’s the catch: most bloggers write about failure in retrospect. They write about it long after the failure, once they’re knee-deep in success. Probably because it’s just too painful to write about when you’re IN it, and you can’t really see the positive that comes from that failure until you’ve hit success.

Yet I have vowed to be transparent and honest with you, and so I’m taking the risk of writing about this failure while I’m still IN it. While it’s still happening. While it’s still painful.

What Failure am I Getting at?

The failure is my book.

Yes, that book, the travel memoir about backpacking solo through Africa, the one I spent 2009 writing, and 2010 editing, and the last two years trying to force through the pipes of traditional publishing.

I thought — like so many of you who have tried to publish traditionally — that if I threw myself at this project and gave it everything I had, I would eventually succeed. I tell myself that often, actually. If we didn’t tell ourselves success was attainable, we’d never take the scary risks that result in the biggest wins.

But while I did sign with a literary agent, that’s as far as this book went. We couldn’t convince a publisher to buy it.

Failure.

Not just failure, but a BIG, FAT FAILURE.

I’ve known for a while that this was coming, but it still sucks to write it out like that, to tell this community of writers and go-getters that things didn’t pan out the way I hoped they would.

Except… It’s actually not as bad as bad as I thought it would be. I thought I would feel absolutely horrible when this day came — considering how much work I’ve put into this project and how nervous I was when we began submitting the manuscript to publishers — but I’m not.

Instead, I feel relief.

Why? I feel relieved for two reasons:

First, this whole process has been HELLA frustrating. I’m the kind of person who likes to give it everything I’ve got, likes to move forward on my own terms, and it just wasn’t fun to feel like my book’s success was beyond my control, depending on other people to do their jobs and give their approval.

This made me realize something BIG, something I’ll no doubt write more about on this blog in the near future: I’d rather fail on my own terms than wait indefinitely for someone else’s approval.

Fail on your own terms

I’m a do-er, not a waiter. A go-getter, not a follower. I have managed to circumvent the gatekeepers and idea-stifflers and rule-makers for my career. Why should I rely on them to publish my book?

Second, my goals and desires have changed significantly since I first decided to publish traditionally in 2008. Would I take a publishing deal if one fell in my lap? Sure! But now that several years have passed, that doesn’t feel like my main goal anymore. So much has changed since then: I’ve learned to offer content on my own, create a community around my work, and make a living doing what I enjoy, and self-publishing has a new, stronger appeal.

Self-publishing also no longer carries the stigma it did a few years ago: so much has changed in this space recently that some big-name authors are choosing to self-publish. And because my path has changed, too, this form of content sharing fits well into my career puzzle.

So What’s Next?

I want to get my book out there. I really do. And I truly appreciate all the supportive notes and blog comments and tweets from members of this community who say they want to read it. That means the world to me!

BUT.

I have a gut feeling the book’s not ready. How could it be, if no publisher is willing to bet on it? I believe, in my heart, that my book still needs work.

And no, that’s not me waiting until it’s perfect, being too scared to let go. There is a fine line between perfect and ready, one I’ve had to walk time and time again, for nearly everything I write. In general, I lean toward shipping. But I also believe in following my gut, and my gut tells me it’s not yet time to press publish.

So I need to put in more work before shipping. Yet a rewrite with the help of a proper (and likely expensive) editor will take at least a month or two, and I’m dreaming of pairing that with a Kickstarter campaign. And here’s the cold truth: I simply don’t want to put in that work right now.

Why? Because I’m too excited about my other projects — growing my newsletter, continuing to run my Twitter course, offering webinars, over-delivering for my clients, launching a redesign of this site, and possibly moving forward on another BIG resource for writers in the coming months. I’m SO excited about all of these things that I don’t want to put them aside for a month or more to edit my travel memoir (again).

I can’t do everything. Part of finding happiness in my career is realizing that I can’t follow through on every idea or ambition, especially if I want to do a fabulous job on the projects I already have. I need to train myself to feel satisfied with my choices.

So this is my choice for now. To keep focusing on the projects that excite me most, and let my travel memoir sit for a bit… until I feel so excited about that rewrite that I want to give up something else to make room for it.

In retrospect, maybe this won’t feel like failure. In retrospect, maybe you will all love the book no matter how or when it gets in your hands. (Cue me getting a tiny bit teary.) In retrospect, maybe I’ll feel like it was all worth it.

For now though, it feels like failure. Not an overwhelming, rip-a-hole-in-my-chest failure, but a failure nonetheless.

Yet I see potential for this failure to turn into success. Maybe it will even become the kind of failure I feel grateful for because it led me down a path I might not have otherwise considered.

This is my path — our path. Sometimes we fail. But the only way to turn that failure into something bigger and better is to push through. To recognize that it hurts, that it sucks, that it’s something we don’t want to go through again. Then we try something different, we take a slightly different road, one that’s shaped by what we’ve learned.

And we look forward to the day when we can write, in retrospect, about how we turned that failure into success.

UPDATE: My agent Rachelle posted about how this failure made her feel, too. Rachelle and I have since parted ways.

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68 Replies to “When You Have to Admit You’ve Failed”

  • Alexis, sorry to hear about this frustrating process with your book. I’ve only recently begun writing my own, so I can only imagine coming to the end of this process and then not being able to get it out there into people’s hands. Thanks for your honesty in sharing with us. I think you’re right that the publishing landscape is quite different now so I’m excited to see the finished product one day, however it comes into being!

  • Anne Belov says:

    Hi Alexis,
    Sorry to hear of your frustration on this book project. I believe you are right when you say that it needs more work. (not that I would know, but I think you do.) You’ve been on this path long enough to trust your gut, and I’ve learned from long experience that gut trusting is crucial.
    I think doing a Kickstarter project to get funds for the editing is a great idea, and I can think of few people who are more well equipped to have a successful project on Kickstarter than you. You are right that Kickstarter is a lot of work. Having had 2 successful projects, and and advising on a couple more (one to launch tomorrow) I know it is a ton of work before, during, and after.
    Good luck. It’s not that just because you’ve put so much work into this book already that it is worth continuing, but anything important requires massive work and often reworking. I suspect it will be well worth it.

  • Andrea J says:

    <3 Thank you for being so giving of yourself with others. You're an inspiration to many! xoxo

  • Lisatella says:

    Much wisdom here, as difficult as it was to write this update and come to grips with the whole situation. Go with your gut!

  • Alexis, I’m rewriting my memoir this year. With a fresh set of eyes, and a clearer idea of what the story is about. This post helped me tremendously in making that shift http://motherhoodandwords.com/2012/10/when-the-waiting-pays-off/

    I wish you the best. Here’s to living your life and creating success on your own terms!

  • You rock. And I applause your self-awareness for not wanting to put in the time right now. Your book will be there when you’re ready to give it the attention it deserves.

    Hugs.

  • Susan says:

    Lexi!

    I love the line about happiness and how you can’t follow through on every ambition.

  • Joanna Penn says:

    Hi Lexi,
    I don’t think this is a failure – it’s just going to take time. You don’t want to spend it right now, which I totally get as self-publishing is a big commitment, especially when you have (rightfully) high standards.
    I also think memoirs are best left to marinate – as demonstrated by Wild – Cheryl Strayed, which was published like 15 years or something after she wrote it. You will use this writing eventually so it is certainly not a failure.

  • Ron Cohen says:

    Hang in there, Lexi. Red Smith, the sportswriter who was one of the greatest of wordsmiths, said it best:

    “Writing is easy. First, you open a vein …”

    You know from the brief time you spent with me that all aspects of this craft are difficult: motivating yourself to take the first steps; identifying a subject interesting enough to you and your potential readers to warrant the blood, sweat and tears that lie ahead; doing the hard work of collecting the information you will use — and throwing out, often at great personal distress, what you won’t; then the even harder work of crafting what you have left into something beautiful and moving and satisfying; then the hardest work of all — finding a way to get this precious offspring into the hands of people who will appreciate it, appreciate you, and appreciate what a stupendous achievement it is to get your heart and soul between a book’s covers.

    This, I predict, you will accomplish.

    Love you,

    R

  • JP McLean says:

    As painful as that was, thanks for sharing your story. You may see it as a failure right now, but it’s not: it’s delayed gratification because when you are ready to dedicate the time, it will be a huge success and you won’t feel you have compromised to get there. I’m a big believer in trusting your instincts. Perseverance has paid off in other areas of your career – it will in this respect too. Good luck!

  • CJ says:

    Thank you for the update, I have been wondering about your book. You will know when it is the right time, and you are very well positioned to publish it on your own terms — when it is (and you are) ready. You provide a useful lesson to us all — not to keep all the eggs in the basket of traditional publishing (and just wait around for it to happen) but to build a whole series of exciting projects in order to be poised to take charge of the publishing if/when that becomes the best way to go. I admire all that you have built and am sure that your book will find its way.

  • Hi, Alexis. You speak so much truth in this post. The traditional publishing industry, bless their overworked hearts, are SLOW. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to go through all that work only to have to wait and be rejected. (As a matter of fact, that’s why my blog shares advice for writers who want to self-publish because they just don’t want to deal with the heartbreak of the traditional route.)

    That being said, sometimes a book just isn’t right for the current market, but in the future it will be. You never know where your memoir will end up in the future! You’re doing the right thing by listening to your instincts. Your book will let you know when it’s ready. Best of luck!

  • When I am in the struggle I *always* forget that moment of absolutely pleasure when you finally see the forest for the trees and realize that actually you don’t have to do that. Life is short; I can do something with a much higher pay-back instead. Thanks for the reminder.

  • hannah says:

    If you enjoyed your travels, then it was not – and never will be – a failure. Just an experience that ultimately took you down a different path!

  • We have been working on our memoir for just over 3 years. I am just about to start contacting agents. And I feel you, I have felt like that so many times, when I wasn’t enjoying writing it and had to leave it aside for when I felt that excitement again. Sometimes months would pass.
    I would just work on what excites you and, when you are ready to carry on it will flow naturally.

  • Lisa McKay says:

    Loved this post. So much resonance :). Also think it’s really smart of you to realize that you just don’t want to give the memoir the time and attention it’ll demand right now. If you tried to force it I think everything would just start to feel like drudgery.

  • Jocelyn says:

    Alexis, I’ve admired your writing and your work for a long time — and now I admire you for another reason: having the courage to admit this. My heart goes out to you for what must have been a very heartbreaking experience. I know I would definitely feel upset if this happened to me.

    But I would echo some of the commenters above and note that it’s probably a good thing to let it sit and perhaps revisit it down the road. The time and distance might give you the perspective you need to turn it into something amazing, something that will really take the publishing world by storm.

    Still, you’ve clearly found a sweet spot for yourself and your talents in so many ways. Though perhaps not the success you really wanted (that book deal!), that’s still success. And I have a feeling we’ll be able to expect more great things from you — so don’t stop! 🙂

  • Lauren says:

    Oh! This is so great. I’m working on launching my own copywriting/editing business and most of the time, I feel like I’m failing at everything (not shipping fast enough, not knowing my “process”, not getting back to people quickly enough, etc.

    Thank you for allowing us to see that you are still successful despite setbacks. It’s so, so inspiring for new entrepreneurs.

  • lissie says:

    The publishing world has changed hugely since 2008 – I can’t even imagine why someone would want to wait years to see a book published, even after you finally got it accepted and cede a lot control in terms of book cover, blurb, marketing – in return for what exactly? A month in the bookshops if that, and you still get to do all the marketing? And you get what 10% of the cover price?

    Personally I really have no interest in a trad deal – if they find me and want to make it worth my while – well $$$$ talk, but for the meanwhile I enjoy the control over my own destiny thank you very much.

    I would say though that you should pay for a decent editor and cover designer if you can possibly afford it.

  • I’m so sorry! I’ve had failure in my life, so I know what you’re going through. The good thing is that failure always turns out to be a blessing in the end. Something beyond amazing with come from all of this!

  • Stuart Sweetman says:

    I am looking forward to reading it whenever it comes out 🙂

  • Susan Peters says:

    I admire your ability to make your own opportunities and do what you like to do. I’m sure your book will eventually be published — maybe you are correct, and it needs a little tweaking, or maybe it just isn’t the right time now. So many wonderful books were not picked up quickly by publishers. Best of luck to you in all of your endeavors.

  • dave herrle says:

    love your honesty…

    “Change is always something to celebrate. It lets you know you are still alive.”

    -Dean Carney “Ugly Americans”

  • Jen says:

    Its hard not to see it as a failure but I think it means you need to take a new path. And you are. Definitely, think about the self publishing. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m around to talk about it if you want.

  • Amanda Lewan says:

    Don’t give up on the book! You have wonderful readers who would purchase it in a heartbeat.

    I was reading Anais Nin the other day. Even Henry Miller was frustrated with getting published in his day. At least we have a choice to self publish in our age. And that choice is always an option!

  • C says:

    I think it is very brave of you to share your failure, to admit it, to look towards the future and learning something from it, and to keep on going. when the going gets tough, the tough get going! what an inspirational post. thank you!

  • Love this post, Lexi. Thanks so much for your honestly and the update. It’s awesome that you’ve recognized that the book isn’t ready yet- and smart that you know exactly what you want to focus on right now.

  • There are so many comments on this post. I feel bad for having skipped over them all to leave a comment. But alas, I only have a few minutes and I want to comment.

    I feel your pain. I’m in it right now. I’ve submitted 5 different picture book manuscripts to many, many publishers and agents. I’ve amassed quite an assortment of “good” rejections telling me how wonderful my stories are but that they “don’t fit our list right now” or something similar.

    As I told you in a private email recently, Lexi, I had a meltdown last month when a perfectly lovely, “positive” rejection arrived in my inbox. Why did that one make me cry when none of the others did? Who knows. Straw that broke the camels back, I guess.

    But the next day I got right back on the horse and sent 5 more submissions. And then I got another rejection last week. But I also learned the workshop I’m teaching at a conference of 500 attendees has more than 70 people in it. That’s 70 more people I can meet face-to-face and network with, so who knows, right?

    My big goal right now is publication, so my choices have been focused on that. Yours has shifted. You’ve got to follow your own goals and dreams on your terms. In the meantime… I’ll keep plugging, too.

  • Pushing through with you! And I’m rooting for you!
    ~ Wendy

  • Col Bury says:

    Alexis,

    I’ve been through virtually the same experience over the last three years with a crime novel via an agent. We got close, with glowing praise, but no one bit. I had to start the whole laborious cycle again – in between, work, kids, life – having gone back to the drawing (or writing) board. I’m now coming to the end of rewrite three of novel attempt two. So I’m hopeful he’ll try to find me a publisher again soon. I’m prepared either way, however, as these days, like you say, there are other ways to allow our fledgling books to fly…

    Stick at it. From your post I sense you have what it takes.

    Respect,
    Col

  • Hi, Alexis. I can relate pretty much 100%. We had the same (wonderful!) agent, and I had the same experience. My failure was (kind of) doubled, because one of the biggest reasons we couldn’t sell my book was because I’d already had 4 published and 2 went out of print (or as publishers like to call it, FAILED). Two big fat strikes against me that I can’t erase.

    I’ve since self-published 2 e-books and plan to continue on that path for the foreseeable future. I’ve also started writing/editing for other people, and it’s been kind of fun.

    God has taught me a TON in all of this, and I’ve been able to encourage lots of people by blogging about it while it happens (like you’re doing).

    I hope you do self-publish your book, because travel memoirs are my absolute favorite genre of all time.

  • Hi Alexis,
    I have been there, Lord how I have been there. In 2010, I signed with an agency, with an agent that LOVED my book. We were both devastated when she couldn’t sell it to a publisher. She was confused, I was saddened. We heard the same thing over and over “It’s good, but no one is buying chick lit.” Then my agent left the company and my book was put onto a back shelf at the agency somewhere. in 2011, after a year of nothing, I had had enough. I pulled out my book and went through Amazon Publishing. I found a cover designer, an editor, everything. I took back control and it felt so good. Elly in Bloom debuted in September 2012, and has been doing really well ever since. It was the #1 Bestseller in Kindle Contemporary Fiction, and I have loved getting emails from readers who loved her. I felt like a huge failure when Elly in Bloom failed to sell. But now, I’m having PR agencies reach out to me and agents, and I realized that even though I had a door shut in my face, there was another door in that room. It wasn’t the prettiest door, and it was much harder to open, but it lead to the same place. I wish you the best of luck! Your fail will not last, I promise.

  • Alexis,
    I’d encourage you to give the book to 10 friends. People you think would be in your target audience. People you want to love it. Just print it off on your printer, punch holes in it, put it in 3 ring binders, and give it to a few trusted friends with maybe a questionnaire about strengths/weaknesses, etc.
    I was amazed at the depth of criticism and feedback I received from my well-read friends. Only a couple are writers, but they really hit on the parts they liked, and what parts were slow, didn’t click, unnecessary, etc.
    Before you do a kickstarter campaign, harness the power of those around you. I just heard about you today from Rachelle’s blog, but if you have a following of writers, maybe some of them would want to be beta readers for you.
    The best part is, you can get it out to a few people, then focus on all the other things you want to do while you wait for feedback. Just let this sit for a while. I bet before long you’ll know what’s wrong, what’s weak, what needs work, what would make it just right.
    Best wishes to you. (BTW, I’m going to Kenya this summer, so this book sounds fascinating to me. :))

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Thanks, Charity! I actually have had nearly a dozen beta readers, back before I began the agent search. The process was really helpful! Jealous about Kenya — Sounds wonderful! Thanks for the support.

  • Can’t wait to read the future post, where this post is linked in the one that says…it’s always darkest before the dawn and boy was the sunrise that was to come beautiful!

    I believe God pushes us through the doors we need to go through, not necessarily the ones we want to go through.

  • Anna says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your troubles. I subscribe to Rachelle’s blog; she posted a link here. I thought I might drop you a link to a small publisher who really likes such things as memoirs. My brother’s best friend published such a book of his experiences down in Mexico. Gift of El Tio, if you would like to look it up. I don’t care for memoirs myself and I really liked this book, so that’s saying something. Anyway Check out http://fuzepublishing.com/. I can’t guarantee they have room for you, but they will certainly do you right. Heck, tell ’em I sent you, not that it’ll make that much difference.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Maybe it’s not the book; perhaps it’s the market.

    I predict that one day the book will sell — and a lot of those who said “No” will kick themselves for the opportunity they missed.

  • Thank you for writing from the middle of your pain. As a fellow go-getter, I feel this frustration. I’ve been trying to get published for four years. I think your travel memoir sounds fascinating–SOLO, across Africa! I hope to read it someday.

  • Lee Cart says:

    Hi Alexis, Sorry to hear about your frustrating ride through the publishing process. If you decide to go back to your book and need a new editorial eye to look at it, I offer my services for a reasonable price. Contact me when you’re ready to tackle the project again and I’ll see what I can do for you.
    Best of luck with all your projects.

  • Thank you for the honesty and inspiration – yes, you’re inspiring! I’ve started down the path to traditional publication of my first novel with the certainty that I’ll self-publish if I can’t take “Loop Dee Doo” to market via a literary agent or direct contact with a publisher. The only question is how long do I try? What was the deciding factor for you?

    I think it’s wise to set the book aside and let it percolate until you’re fired up about revisions. My manuscript is currently with six beta readers and the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award second-round judges. I entered the contest as a means to polish my pitch and gather the “oomph” to wrap up the third self-edit.

    Indiegogo is a marvelous mechanism for all sorts of worthy projects. Whether you choose that or another method to get that memoir out there I wish you the best of luck.

  • Yvette says:

    Like every one else, I am thankful for your openness. I actually found this post from your agent’s blog. I wanted to mention something that may not be useful for you at this point, but may be useful for another writer.

    This is just something that I happened to notice: Your agent doesn’t sell books like yours. I looked at her entire list of current and past clients. Non-fiction is not the majority of her work. Furthermore, almost all of her non-fiction books are cute, self-help books or Christian books. She has relationships with publishers who buy those types of books. She probably doesn’t have close relationships with publishers who buy books like yours. She clearly loved it – I read her blog post about it. But that’s not always enough.

    I know that we don’t always have a lot of choice when it comes to finding someone to represent us. But when a writer does have a choice, hire someone who is accustomed to selling what you have to offer. Don’t be their guinea pig.

    Best to you.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Hi Yvette,

      Good insight 🙂 When I signed with my agent a couple of years ago, she was planning to transition into mainstream books, but that plan didn’t hold. That’s part of the reason we’re not working together going forward.

      There are a lot of components to this whole process that I didn’t mention in this blog post — I wanted to make my commentary helpful for me and for others, and venting about what I did wrong or what someone else did wrong wouldn’t have helped me there. But I appreciate you pointing this out, because it shows just a taste of other things that affected the outcome. Thanks!

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  • Alexis says:

    Hang in there, Alexis! God has GREAT PLANS for your life! Read Jeremiah 29:11. 🙂

  • Todd Bowen says:

    Great post Alexis! Thanks for posting. Keep pushing! I’m going to!

    Found the link to your post on Rachelle Gardner’s blog (just in case you were wondering).

    Todd

  • PK Hrezo says:

    Even now, you’re getting recognition you might not once have, because of your so called failure. As they say, failure is the mother of success. And as I like to say, sometimes you have to crawl thru the sh** to get to paradise. (a la Shawshank Redemption)
    Self-pubbing is a viable option that may have big pubbers knocking on your door. It’s a great time to be a writer!
    Great to hear about your pursuit! And wow–trekking Africa by yourself. That is a reward in and of itself. Bravo!

  • Kim Kircher says:

    Ach. Sorry to hear it. Even when we have success, sometimes it feels like failure. Especially when we imagine our book will quickly be in the hands of Oprah and a million others, and it is not. But still, I have to argue with you on one point. You mention that you’re still IN the failure, but I’m not really buying it. Instead you’ve moved past it with all the other things you’re excited about–your newsletter, et al. I think that’s the key to success as a writer. We must move on to the next project even before success or failure is determined in our current one. Otherwise, we might never pick ourselves up off the floor.

    • Alexis Grant says:

      Thanks, Kim! True that I’m focusing on things I’m excited about, rather than moping over the failure. But I do still feel IN it. I feel sad it didn’t work out, which is part of the reason why I feel like I need a break before self-publishing. But yes, so important to focus on things that ARE working. Gotta keep smiling 🙂

  • Very honest, great post. Thanks for sharing.

  • NOAEfame says:

    HI, Alexis sorry to hear your heart ache. I was going to say so much about how you delivered me from the lion’s den two months ago. I do not know if you are ready for such praise. Your honesty has made me your my number 1 fan. Traditional publishing is mostly good for poetry. Poetry saved my life growing up. The good news with me is that my publisher has been reading me for as long I started writing. She knows my weaknesses and that is why we are using their editor. I do not know how far but she has been helpful and communicative with me. I will prefer tradition so that some of my African friends can get some copies too . I have been considerate of those in Africa too for most part; they cannot even get to my blog how much more reading it on line. I will give you detail as times goes on. I appreciate your kindness, and handwork. I feel like this is a blog to answer all my questions. I appreciate it, but you do not sound depress. I will buy any book you put together. You are awesome.

  • SYates says:

    As somebody that has already one book independently (I prefer that to self-) published and is working on the next one I absolutely fail to see why anybody wants to be traditionally published. You have the writing skills plus the social following to help you promote your book, so do yourself a favor and publish it yourself. The best two starting places I know of are Kindle and Createspace (for printed books on Amazon). After you have done that you can always expand your distribution channels. Good luck! SY

  • Tag Goulet says:

    Alexis, you are inspiring. This post, like others on your site is so authentic, wise, and generous in sharing what’s real with your readers. I hope the year ahead is your best so far.

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