Persistence (7 P’s of Publishing: 5 of 8)

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Let’s start by pausing to look at a proverb that you are likely familiar with. It has been traced back to a teacher’s manual written by American educator Thomas H. Palmer in 1840 and a song popularized by William Edward Hickson in 1836.

It’s a lesson you should heed,

Try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed,

Try, try again.

Then your courage should appear,

For if you will persevere,

You will conquer, never fear,

Try, try again.

Once or twice, though you should fail,

Try, try again.

If you would at last prevail,

Try, try again.

If we strive, ’tis no disgrace,

Though we do not win the race;

What should you do in that case?

Try, try again.

If you find your task is hard,

Try, try again.

Time will bring you your reward,

Try, try again.

All that other folk can do,

Why, with patience, should not you?

Only keep this rule in view,

Try, try again.

The same is true for the behind-the-scenes work, and the persistence involved in success.

People only see the end result, the tip of the iceberg, as it were, and not all the behind-the-scenes work.

I spent a good portion of the past twenty years working in the I.T. sector of the book industry, (managing the database for Canada’s largest book retailer, importing data feeds from publishers as well as working at Rakuten Kobo, Canada’s answer to Kindle). Those environments exposed me to strong elements of high tech and start-up culture as well as Agile development, where the mantra for success is to fail fast and fail often.

But it’s not a new concept.

I think about all the mini-failures that go towards putting on a play for public performance. The actor, standing there, missing their cue, a blank look on their face before shouting out, “Line!”

Many mistakes, many failures, many errors happen along the way. It’s part of the process of putting on a show.

When I was in university, I was actively involved with the theater company there. For the hundreds of plays that I worked on during my time there, I saw many of them from the audition and first reading phase, through the scene practices, the costume fitting, the set building, the lighting blocking, the sound cues, the seemingly endless train of rehearsal after rehearsal, until, finally, after months of work, the full dress rehearsal and then opening night.

The audience, of course, only saw the final show, after it was all put together and after most of the errors and messy bits had been tidied up.

One main difference between theater and writing and publishing is that most of that “prior to opening night” work happens within the realm of the mind and the page, and instead of a large crew of actors and backstage folks, there’s usually the writer, one or more editors, perhaps some mentors, advisors, coaches or other professionals, sometimes a publisher and their crew, some first-readers, and maybe an entire cast of voices in various stages of the writer’s mind filling them with self-doubt.

Again, the end result is the published work.

And, occasionally, the end result is the huge success that only the outside world sees.

The outside world never sees the work that went into it.

Nor do they see the multiple failures, false starts, and re-tries that happened along the way.

Because I cut my teeth in writing back before self-publishing was even a viable option, I was trained in the art of persistence as I typed up and packaged my stories and mailed them off to publishers. I remember reading statistics that it took an average of thirteen submissions of a story to different magazines before receiving an acceptance. And, in the tracking that I did for my stories over the years, I found that estimation was pretty accurate. Yes, sometimes I would sell a story on my first submission. But often, it took a half dozen submissions before I made a sale. And, occasionally, twenty or more times of sending the story, getting a rejection, then doing it all over again. The average, I found, was in the twelve to thirteen range.

I took a quick look back at my old tracking documents, and I can see that for at least a dozen of those stories that were eventually published, if I had given up after just one or two rejections, they might never have actually been published. There were only perhaps half a dozen tales that were accepted at the first place I had submitted to.

If I had given up after my first rejection, I might only have published about six short stories, and would never have had enough previously published tales to collect into my 2004 book One Hand Screaming, which was my first foray into self-publishing.

Within the realm of self-publishing, while there aren’t curators and gatekeepers preventing a work from being published, there are roadblocks that come in the way of a work being published but not selling in any sort of “successful” manner. The lack of sales, or lack of positive reviews are among the things that a writer looks at similar to rejection, and some allow that to discourage them to continue, rather than to persist in their writing and publishing.

In the chapter on patience I brought up Hugh Howey and the fact that his breakaway best-selling title, the one optioned by Ridley Scott and where he sold the print-only rights to a major publisher, Wool, was his tenth published book. Not only that, but Howey started writing his first novel when he was twelve years old, and didn’t complete his first draft until he was thirty-three.

Before he stepped away from the writer conference scene, I spent quite a bit of time with Hugh. Both of us traveled in the same writer conference circuits. Also, on one of his trips to Canada, I was his unofficial chauffeur to several Toronto-area visits and speaking engagements, including an intimate evening for writers at the Kobo HQ.

A couple of the analogies that Hugh regularly shared, and which resonated quite effectively with me involved basketball and local bands.

Imagine, Hugh would say, your favorite big-name basketball player attempting to learn to play basketball with a million people watching. Or imagine if the very first pickup game they ever played in was his only chance to land an agent and get signed to the NBA. And yet, this is the type of pressure that writers put on themselves all the time. They forget of the thousands of practice games these NBA all-stars put in, of the dozens of years playing almost every single day of their lives working hard at getting better. These are the things that we don’t see. These are the behind the scenes endless hours of work, and persistence, that led to where they are.

He also talked about local indie bands who would practice in their garage every weekend during high school, then perform, perhaps for free, in local community centres for teen dances, then work for either free drinks or a modest flat fee to perform in various local bars; all the while busting their butts, practicing and working hard without seeing any sort of profit or big break. They persist, they keep at it, and, occasionally, once they sign a big deal or one of their songs hits big, people never see the years of hard work and of not-giving up in the face of adversity. They only hear the #1 single.

I really like those analogies, because they are a reminder of how the success we see comes after a long string of hard work and never giving up.

What if Hugh had given up after his first, or even his second book?

What if J.K. Rowling had given up when, after more than a dozen rejections from publishers, she hadn’t persisted and continued to write her passion project about a young wizard living with muggles who wasn’t aware of his true destiny?

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all,” Rowling says. “In which case, you fail by default.”

Bella Andre, who had been a hard-working mid-list writer producing books with a traditional publisher, received a huge slap in the face when her editor informed her the next three books she had planned centered around the “Sullivan” family she was so keen on writing, were not accepted.

With no contract, she could have given up.

But she didn’t. She worked hard. She persisted. She brought in an 8-figure income from her writing, and, similar to Howey, signed a record-breaking print-only deal that allowed her to keep her digital book rights.

From failure and rejection to success through hard work.

“If you just keep at it,” Andre says, “work long hours, and pay close attention, magic will happen when you least expect it.”

This is a slightly modified version of the chapter “Persistence” from the book The 7 P’s of Publishing Success.

Mark Leslie (Lefebvre) is a writer, bookseller, speaker & book nerd who haunts Southern Ontario and is known as a digital publishing evangelist.

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