Could the expansion of creator tools online, and in particular via social media platforms, offer new publishing potential for a broader range of fiction authors?
I’ve had this question in mind for some time, in considering the ways in which literature is now accessed, and what might be the best way to connect with modern audiences in alignment with how they’re looking to read.
Because the truth is, readers have changed. People used to read books on trains and buses, and get through a few chapters in bed before turning in each night. But the arrival of smartphones has changed this, with everybody now glued to their devices for hours on end, which then reduces the time that they’re willing to spend with books, while concurrently increasing the value proposition that authors then need to communicate to get people to commit to engaging with longer form content.
You need to hook readers in, and the easiest way to do this is to take a topical angle, tying into a prominent discussion or trend. Then, through implicit virtue, you’re bound to get at least some readers to buy and mention your book. But without a topical hook, general fiction now struggles to gain attention, and sales traction as a result.
That’s why literary trends have changed so significantly, with thrillers and historical fiction dominating general reading trends, while literary fiction falls away. Lit fic takes more time and attention, while the faster pace of thrillers aligns better with shortening attention spans.
So what do authors do? If you don’t write within defined genre constraints, and don’t have a specific political angle for your story, how can you gain optimal attention for your work?
The truth may lie in re-imagining how you communicate, with newer, digital styles of publishing potentially providing a better fit with modern readers and their content engagement habits.
That’s why Salman Rushdie’s recent announcement that he’s publishing a new novella on Substack is interesting, with a traditional fiction superstar now looking to an alternative online publishing format to maximize his reach.
Rushdie’s planning to release his latest novella in instalments, via Substack’s newsletter platform. That could see Rushdie publishing a chapter a week, for example, which is not an entirely new concept in itself, but it is interesting given the profile that Rushdie already has, and the fact that even the big names in the field are now considering alternate pathways to audience reach.
As explained by Rushdie:
“I think that new technology always makes possible new art forms, and I think literature has not found its new form in this digital age… Whatever the new thing is that’s going to arise out of this new world, I don’t think we’ve seen it yet.
In some ways, that process is actually taking literature back to its early roots, with classic authors like Dickens and others originally publishing most of their works in serialised form, as a means to attract new readers. Now, it would be scaling things back to hold attention in the same way, with the hopes that these smaller samples of the broader work can attract new audiences – though even then, there is a question around holding reader attention, and whether such process can viably translate into a sustainable form of income through subscriber-based tools.
But I think that Rushdie’s right – literature hasn’t found its right form for modern consumers just yet.
Much of the online literary discussion these days is far less about the writing itself, and far more about the political considerations around such, leading to various debates, but too often the focus shifts away from the content itself, and onto the author and/or the topic, leaving the craft of writing, and actually creating the world of the work, as a side note. Which shouldn’t be the case, but as noted, getting people to actually engage with the work itself is more and more challenging, and in order to facilitate ongoing discussion around literature and writing, we need to find the best ways to connect with readers that will align with their behaviours, essentially making such as engaging as scrolling through non-stop social media feeds.
Nobody knows what that solution will be, but more authors are experimenting with shorter form, digitally accessible formats to maximize audience reach, while establishing community connection around your work can also facilitate more value and engagement.
These are elements that authors in times past have not had to contemplate in the same way, and it can be difficult to change your thinking around how things should work, and the importance of the relationships between publishers and authors in this respect.
But clearly, things are changing, and the authors that can change with those trends, rather than battling against them, are the only ones who stand a chance of winning out.
Otherwise, more and more debut fiction writers will simply fall away, and literary discussion will increasingly shift away from the work, and more towards tangential elements.
Because that’s what’s retaining attention, and while that’s not conducive to literary culture, habitual shifts are what they are. You either listen to that, or write for yourself, and hope that, one day, someone might, maybe, read your stuff.
For all the talk about growing opportunities for creators online, it feels like modern creative outlets, like online video, are far more temporary in nature, while support for traditional arts is becoming even more finite, which limits the scope for getting things like literary works published.
We’ve seen this happen with the film industry – in the mid-nineties, there was a flood of arthouse films, which seemed to thrive alongside more mainstream faire. But as technology advanced, seeing improvements in digital downloads, home cinema systems, improved content access, etc. As this happened, audiences stopped heading to arthouse films at the same rate, and studios eventually stopped funding them as a result, which has since seen the focus shift almost entirely to blockbuster movies instead, with smaller films getting a thin lifeline from Netflix and other outlets, where success, and even broad scale awareness, is largely a crapshoot.
Now we’re in the midst of a similar shift in the literary world. With people now able to access a constant form of entertainment, and distraction, in their pocket at any time, getting people to actually commit to reading a book at all is a far bigger task than it has been previously.
People don’t need a book to read on the train home from work, or to take with them on a road trip, they don’t get through a few chapters before turning off the night light. Instead, they scroll, for hours on end, through an endless and constantly updating stream of snackable, short-form content, which quenches their desire for entertainment, education and escape, without them having to lock in for hundreds of pages.
As a result of this, the big publishing houses are getting more limited in what they publish, and while there are still some interesting titles being released, their potential for success is much lower, and the threshold for a literary career, as such, is far more limited. If you want to make it, you have to sell books, and if you don’t, you won’t be getting that next contract. Your literary career can go from celebration of publication to an abrupt and unceremonious end, very quickly, and just getting that basic awareness, getting people to even pick up our book in the first place, or just know that it exists, is a challenge.
So publishers are getting more limited. If it feels like a lot of the same thing is being published, again and again, that’s because it is, while it’s far easier for the publishing houses to get media coverage, and therefore boost awareness, for stories that touch on topical issues and themes. That’s always been the case to some degree, but now, it seems like a much bigger factor, with media interest, and social media promotion, often hinging on these additional elements.
In the end, this makes the pathway to publishing far more difficult. That’s not to say it can’t be done, there are still various examples of well-written books getting published, despite not having a topical hook or angle. But sales of literary fiction, in particular, are not strong in the AUS market, and peeling people away from their phones long enough to care about your work is a rising challenge.
So what do you do? Should you look to add more topical angles to your projects? Should you lean into what’s trending, or focus on a more specific style or genre in order to boost commercial appeal?
What’s more important – the quality of the writing itself, or the marketability of such?
I don’t know. I don’t think anybody has the answers. But it’s getting harder, and connecting with audiences, despite more avenues than ever for such, is no easy feat.
Should you be actively creating at this time?
In many ways, it seems like the perfect opportunity – people have more time on their hands due to the lockdowns, there are fewer social events to attend, etc. Yet, most people I know are not feeling overly creative, and have struggled to stay focused on fiction work and art.
Why is that?
Because creativity is inspired by our lived experiences, in what we do and see each day. Fiction writers don’t come up with an idea for a story instantaneously, it takes time – it’s various pieces and elements that rattle around inside your head until they coalesce, and the seed of a story is formed.
Right now, it’s hard to be creative because our inputs are reduced, because there are not as many things happening to us personally, which makes it more difficult to gather the various remnants and ponder their meanings and reflections.
Of course, there is a lot happening, in terms of global events. On a broader scale, its one of the busiest periods in history, but those larger scale incidents lack the immediacy required in many cases, to actual feel the emotion of small moments, to understand the scope of the details.
In essence, what I’m saying is that you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re struggling to create right now. If the words aren’t flowing, if the story is not coming together. Because without our usual connection to the broader world, it’s harder to find those small pieces that you’ll need to complete the puzzle of your story.
Writers are observationalists, we pay attention to the details and absorb moments, which we then use to build an understanding of the world, and the worlds that we subsequently create. Without fewer chances to observe, our creativity, understandably, is impacted.
So go easy on yourself, there’s a lot going on, for everyone, and if you’re not feeling it right now, it’ll come back. There’s no need to pressure yourself even further if the creativity feels a little distant.
I haven’t posted anything here in quite some time.
There is a reason for that.
Thriller writer James Patterson recently released the world’s first self-destructing book. It was a gimmick – you could buy the ‘self-destructing’ version of his latest novel, which erased itself after 24 hours, or you could wait another few days and buy it in traditional book form. Patterson’s a former ad guy, so it’s not surprising that he’d come up with something like this, a stunt closely aligned to the next generation’s affections with self-destructing and disappearing content. And while we won’t have a true gauge on how effective this promotion was for some time, it’s definitely gained Patterson a lot of attention which he’d otherwise not have received – so should other writers be considering new publishing options like this?
A Changing Conversation
We’re living in extremely interesting times, from a communications perspective. The advent of social media has changed the way we interact – people are more connected, in terms of both reach and access, than ever before. This connectivity is unprecedented – we don’t know the full effects and implications of this new world, because we’re all in the midst of living in and exploring it. But what we do know is it’s different. People’s habits are changing, audience expectations and evolving, and in this, the whole structure of arts and entertainment is shifting. What we’ve long known to be the way of things is mutating before us.
This is most obvious in publishing, newspapers being the easiest example, with print publications declining as more and more people get their daily news and information online. Books, too, are changing, with Kindles and eReaders becoming more commonplace. The flow-on effect of this is that the traditional publishing model is no longer as profitable – getting a book accepted by a major publisher has always been hard, but with an increasing amount of pressure on the bottom line, the money available for new writers is rapidly drying up. Some of those publishing losses are balanced out by lower costs – an eBook costs nowhere near as much to produce as a physical book, but the return is also diminished, because they can’t charge the same amount for a digital copy. Mostly, the result is flat, there’s really not a heap for publishers to gain from the shift to more electronic readers, but as with newspapers, where traditional outlets are getting beaten is by smaller, more agile competitors who don’t have the overheads and revenue requirements that are strangling the giants. The opportunities for new players – like self-publishers – are greater than ever – though it’s a hard path to reach any sort of significant audience.
The film industry’s facing similar challenges – with more and more films available via illegitimate means so quickly online, we’re seeing fewer arthouse films get picked up by big cinema chains. This is why you’re seeing so many big-budget Hollywood films – remakes of sequels of remakes – over and over, at the movies. Because people can’t replicate the experience of seeing those epic movies at home – advances in home cinema and larger TV screens mean we can get pretty much replicate an arthouse cinema experience in our lounge room. But we can’t do massive sound, we can’t do 3D. As such, Hollywood is taking fewer risks on smaller projects, which means less opportunity for young filmmakers coming through – in the late nineties we had low-budget debuts from Darren Aronofsky (‘Pi’) and Chris Nolan (‘Memento’) that may not have even been released in the modern cinema marketplace. Yet, those are the films that got those guys to where they are now – Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ was a cinematic masterpiece, and Nolan’s now one of the biggest names in movies, fuelled by the success of his Batman trilogy. With Hollywood taking fewer risks in smaller films, we may be missing out on the next generation of great film directors, and with fewer opportunities for up and coming artists, we could, effectively, see a decline in the quality of cinema for years to come. Unless we start looking elsewhere.
The Diversification of Creation
What we have seen in the film industry is that more young artists are branching into new mediums. Where they may not have opportunities in film, more innovative and creative work is coming from platforms like YouTube, Vine and Instagram. Some of these artists have progressed from their online work to cinematic opportunities – Neill Blomkamp, the director of ‘District 9’, got his first big Hollywood break because Peter Jackson saw some of the short films he’d made in his spare time on YouTube. Josh Trank, who directed the excellent ‘Chronicle’ gained recognition through his short films posted online (including this Star Wars ‘found footage’ short). Trank is now slated to direct a new, standalone, Star Wars film, as well as the Fantastic Four reboot. The next wave of film-making talent is more diversified, spread across various mediums, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in new forms – and as these two examples highlight, there can be significant benefits to just being present and proactive, posting content to build your profile and build recognition. While what we know as the traditional progression of film creative is changing, we’re seeing greater opportunities through access to cameras and editing/creation apps – if you’re looking for the directors of tomorrow, you might be better off checking out ‘Best of Vine’ than Sundance (note: one of the films that generated the most buzz at the most recent Sundance was ‘Tangerine’, which was shot almost entirely on an iPhone).
Opportunities in Innovation
So what does this mean for publishing? Really, it means that we need to consider ways to be more innovative with what we do. Patterson’s exploding novel may seem like a pretty gimmicky gimmick, but this is where we need to be looking as the next iteration of book publishing and connecting with our audiences. People these days are seeking more immersive experiences, with websites tied into content and apps tied into social media discussions. As more movie studios tap into this and get better at a 360 degree approach to their content, that immersion will become the expectation, and that expectation will extend to other forms of entertainment media. Exploding books are one thing, as a concept that might get you a bit more attention for your next book launch, but it’s not so much the idea itself that’s interesting about Patterson’s promotion. It’s the fact that an author like Patterson is innovating that’s interesting, and it highlights the need for all authors to consider new platforms, new processes, new ways to engage readers. The opportunities are there, the mediums are available – it may be worth taking the time to consider how to best use them to communicate and connect with your audience.
As I’ve raved about many times, I love the work of Amy Hempel. I came to Amy Hempel via Chuck Palahniuk, which seems an odd connection, but a direct one, Palahniuk also cites Hempel as one of his major influences. If you’re a writer or aspiring writer and you’ve never read any of Hempel’s work, I can’t put enough emphasis on how much I think it’s worth seeking her out – the paperback of her collected stories is less than $13 on Amazon, which is criminally cheap.
Hempel is both entertainer and educator in her writing. You wanna’ learn what show don’t tell means, she’ll teach you. Her stories are stripped down, her sentences constructed carefully, every single word is another brick added to the whole. Even describing her work doesn’t do it justice, so here’s an example of Amy Hempel – this is a complete story, six paragraphs in total. I challenge you not to read it and feel caught up by the strength of it.
The Man in Bogota
The police and emergency service people fail to make a dent. The voice of the pleading spouse does not have the hoped-for effect. The woman remains on the ledge – though not, she threatens, for long.
I imagine that I am the one who must talk the woman down. I see it, and it happens like this.
I tell the woman about a man in Bogota. He was a wealthy man, an industrialist who was kidnapped and held for ransom. It was not a TV drama; his wife could not call the bank and, in twenty-four hours, have one million dollars. It took months. The man had a heart condition, and the kidnappers had to keep the man alive.
Listen to this, I tell the woman on the ledge. His captors made him quit smoking. They changed his diet and made him exercise every day. They held him that way for three months.
When the ransom was paid and the man was released, his doctor looked him over. He found the man to be in excellent health. I tell the woman what the doctor said then – that the kidnap was the best thing to happen to that man.
Maybe this is not a come-down-from-the-ledge story. But I tell it with the thought that the woman on the ledge will ask herself a question, the question that occurred to that man in Bogota. He wondered how we know that what happens to us isn’t good.
More information on Amy Hempel.
I watched a really bad movie last night. The characters were flat stereotypes, the plot went no-where, the progressions felt forced. There was basically nothing about it that was any good from a storytelling perspective. But it was kinda great. Not great in the sense that it was actually worth watching, nor that it was even entertaining, but from a writing perspective and seeing the flaws, there’s a heap you can learn from seeing what not to do. Let me explain what I mean.
When you watch a crappy film you know it. Everyone knows it. You’re not engaged by the characters, the scenes become laughable, there’s clichés aplenty. You know this, but maybe you don’t really analyse it and think about the flaws in specific detail. Most people dismiss a bad film as bad and recall a few horrible moments, but what I try to do is really understand those details, learn about the specific elements that made it so bad. Was it the acting? The story? Why did this scene or that stand out as being overly bad?
There’s a distinct value in experiencing bad storytelling, along with good. Viewing great films or reading great books is inspiring, it showcases those who are the best at the craft and awakens your imagination on what’s possible. Bad storytelling can actually have a similar effect, but in the opposite sense – you watch a bad movie and you can learn almost as much from the mistakes, from what the storytellers have done wrong, if you’re paying attention.
What I try to do is I try to imagine the original premise and how I would have done it differently, how I might have fixed it. Now, of course, my view may not be right either, but making myself think about the story, the plot, the characters, awakens my creative brain and gets me thinking more deeply about my own character development and can help me learn what mistakes to avoid, how to communicate with more subtlety. In fact, I’d say bad storytelling can provide the best education on the exact nature of the ‘show don’t tell’ principle, as this is where you tend to see the most blatant examples of the former, through overt exposition and forced story linkage. But you need to think about why it doesn’t work, what made that progression feel out of place or unnatural.
I watched Gone Girl a while back. From what I’ve been told, the book is very good, but the film, for me, left me feeling unsure about the character motivations and feasibility of the plot in the real world. As with writing, anytime your readers feel compelled to re-read a sentence or second guess a detail, that’s bad, as you’re forcing them to break out of the world you’ve created. Too many such moments, and they’ll detach from the story completely – you need to work to eliminate all moments of uncertainty or jarring, within the rules of the reality you’ve created, to build the most seamless and complete experience for your audience. Gone Girl was an example of this for me – as soon as I found myself questioning the reality of the scene, I was out, the story had lost me, and I didn’t enjoy it as a result.
At the same time, you can also learn from things you don’t necessarily like and try to understand why others might like them. I watched the Twilight saga – all of them – and yeah, I wasn’t a fan. But there was a level of compulsion to them. There were soap opera style elements which, I could see, might align people to the characters and story. Most of the time it bordered on ridiculous, a step away from all-out comedy, but there was a tension there. There was something, whether it worked for me or not.
These are just a couple of examples of how you can learn from storytelling that may not be to your taste. If you find yourself turning on a film or book, think back over why, what were the exact moments or elements that made you second-guess them? Through reflection on the details, you’ll start to see the importance of character consistency and story structure. If you couldn’t believe that a character would act the way they did, what would you have done to amplify the necessary elements to make it feel less jarring if you re-wrote it? If you think the storyline was no good, fix it in your mind, build it yourself, focus on the necessary elements to enhance and improve the believability and authenticity of the piece. How could you make it work?
Some bad films are just bad, I know, but it’s worth considering the elements, as it’s all education, all learning. A story you dislike the most might just hold a key lesson to improve the detail of your own work.
When I signed my first book contract, I figured things would play out like this:
- Book released – tours, interviews talks
- Writing opportunities come my way, doors open
- Sign next book contract, quit job to write
- Be full time author
Because that’s what authors do, right? That’s what all those other authors with books in stores are doing – they’re writing, that’s their job. Right?
Unfortunately, the reality of being a writer is somewhat different. The book was released and I did a few appearances and talks and interviews, which was all great, but it wasn’t an all-encompassing job that took up every moment of my life. I remember I bought a new diary to book in all my upcoming interviews and such, and in the first week there were a few entries. Then there weren’t many the next week, none the next month. Basically, there’s about a six week window of notoriety and coverage, then the world moves on.
Now, there are exceptions, of course, some books go massive, but for the vast majority of writers, your shelf life is pretty finite. It’s many, many months of work – years of work in most cases – then a blip of attention and celebration, then many, many more years of work again. The reality is, most writers don’t make enough money to be writers all the time. I eventually made a reasonable amount from my first book, but it wasn’t enough to justify quitting my job. In fact, in total, it wasn’t even half of my annual income from my regular employment. Even the most successful writers in Australia don’t make a heap of money – Richard Flanagan, who won the Booker Prize this year, he was considering going to work in the mines because times were getting tight. Making money from writing is tough, it’s constant work, and it’s something I didn’t really consider or know anything about going in.
How much is not enough?
A survey conducted earlier this year in the US found that 54% of ‘traditionally published’ authors make, on average, less than $1000 per annum from their writing. The same study found that only 1.3% of traditionally published authors make more than $100,000 a year. In the Australia, according to Payscale.com, the average wage for a writer/author is $32, 803 p.a. That’s actually considerably higher than I’d expect, and what I know from my own experience and authors I speak to. Annabel Smith wrote a good piece on the struggles of Australian authors in a piece for The Wheeler Centre earlier this year, outlining the challenges faced by authors, and the realities we have to confront, including, for most, (as noted by author Ryan O’Neill) that ‘writing must come second to better-paid work’. It’s the commercial reality of doing any art, really – few people ever get the opportunity to have their work published, and even fewer again have any chance of making it big and building a career around that success.
It’s more obvious in the world of music – there are thousands of bands who work tirelessly and do everything they possibly can to get their music released, only to see it burn out quick and they’re back to where they started. The memory of the public is very short, for example, take a look at this chart of Google searches for Radiohead since 2004:
Those two big jumps (M and H) are the releases of their albums ‘In Rainbows’ and ‘King of Limbs’. Those lower scribbles in between, that’s everything else, when no one’s searching for Radiohead and no one really cares what they’re doing. And that’s Radiohead, one of the biggest bands in the world. Your work is only likely to be of significant interest in that short period after release, but you, of course, have to live through the rest of the time, and you need funding to do so – few artists can reach high enough peaks to no longer be concerned by money. Very few. Hardly any. Making money from art means constant work – if you can release work consistently, you increase the chances of being able to create a sustainable career. If you can release high quality work quickly, even better, but for most authors, it takes years to write a book. If it doesn’t sell a heap, not a heap changes, lifestyle-wise, although doors do open and opportunities increase as a result.
Geez, this is all a bit gloomy, isn’t it…
It’s definitely true that being a writer is tough, it’s not likely to be a path be paved with gold. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t do it. Having a book published was my one driving ambition, it was a life dream realised, and I would never play down the significance of it, the achievement I felt, that I still feel as a result. But what I would suggest is that you temper your lifestyle expectations if you want to pursue your art.
And that’s probably not such a bad thing either way – who really cares if you drive a Hyundai or a BMW anyway? If it gets you there, does it really matter? How comfortable do you need to be in a car, how fast do you have to go? As a society, we too often emphasize the importance of material wealth. But rich people get depressed too. They still have problems, different problems to me or you, but issues none the less. I can’t tell you how many highly paid executives I’ve heard talk about how they want to write a book – because money can’t buy them that kind of achievement, can’t give them the status or respect they desire. And if they’re actually able to do it, to become published authors, you know what’ll happen? They’ll find something else they need, some other hole in their life that’s not yet full. Ambition is important, a crucial part of advancing and being more than you are. But you also need to take account of what you do have, what’s available to you right now. Things probably aren’t so bad.
And it’s important to realise what makes you you – what are the things that make you happy or excited? What holds your attention so totally that you don’t even notice the hours slipping by? Those are the things. Those are your things. And if you can find your one thing that you really want to do, that’s what will fulfill you more than anything else. Away from expectations or judgements, you know, in yourself, where you love to be, what you love to do. So do it.
Don’t write expecting to be paid. Don’t create expecting to be praised. Do things because they excite you, because you just have to do it. Get lost in your own world and see what you find every now and then. Allow yourself to be in your stories and creations. Because that will make you happy, which, by extension, will make the people around you, the people who care about you, happy too. Imagine what could be if we could replicate that kind of ripple effect across every person in the world. Creating art is never about making money, it’s something that resides inside you that you need to get out. Getting out is one of the best things you can do, and you should never hold back from doing so. Yeah, making money is hard, but the further you put that out of your mind, the better your work will be. Don’t think about who’ll read your work, who’ll buy it, where it’s going next. Wrap yourself up in the world of your imagination and explore the depth of what you’re capable of. That’s far more valuable, far more likely to be resonant, real, more likely to generate real connection with your audience.
I write because I love writing. If I don’t write, it eats at me and keeps me up at night and annoys my wife (through my grumblings). I end up criticising films for poor transitions and character motivations, like I know better. But you know the best way to show you do know better? Do it yourself.
Like every other writer in the history of time, I’ve copped my fair share of rejection letters. It’s tough to take, every one hurts, but you know what? It’s also inevitable. It happens to everyone. Don’t believe me?
- Stephen King was told that his debut novel ‘Carrie’ would not sell as it’s ‘science fiction which deals with negative utopias’. King had so many rejection letters that he kept them spiked on a nail – till the nail got too full and he needed to buy a spike. He seems to have done alright for himself in the end.
- Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel was not the hugely successful ‘Fight Club’, it was actually his third published novel, called ‘Invisible Monsters’. Invisible Monsters was initially rejected for being ‘too dark and too risky’. Palahniuk wrote ‘Fight Club’ as a response, setting out to make it darker, riskier and more offensive. The book was a best seller, and Invisible Monsters was published on the back of his rise to literary fame.
- Many people have heard JK Rowling’s tale, how it took her seven-years to write her masterpiece ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, which was subsequently rejected by no fewer than 12 individual publishers. Rowling was broke, a single-mother, a divorcee. She was bordering on poverty, and it was only the fact that the eight year-old daughter of the chairman of Bloomsbury read the first chapter of the book and liked it that it ever reached publication. Now, she’s one of the richest authors in the world.
- “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish” – A rejection note sent to J.G. Ballard for his book ‘Crash’. Crash is disturbing, but it sold well and has never been out of print. The book went on to be translated to film by David Cronenberg and was one of the author’s greatest hits.
- Jack Kerouac was told ‘On the Road’ wouldn’t sell and would be savaged by critics in one of the various rejection notes it received. You’ve heard of that book, right? More than 3 million copies have been sold around the world, and it still sells tens of thousands of copies, every year.
There’s a heap of examples of rejection letters online if you need re-assurance, but the fact is publishers don’t always get it right. No one does, art is always subjective, to at least some degree, so it’s virtually impossible for any one person to say, outright, that a piece of writing is no good. It depends on circumstance, on audience, on a bunch of other factors that come into play when assessing, and while there are many people who have an attuned sense of what makes great writing, there will always be some they’ll miss, that just don’t work for them.
So how do you deal with it? How do you take heart and retain the confidence to pick yourself up and try again after literary rejection? Here’s a couple of tips for coping with the dreaded ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter and getting on with what you do.
Don’t take it personal. More often than not, the editor/s will have a specific thing in mind, something that they’re looking for. In this case, you weren’t it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your work is bad. This is particularly true in the case of competitions or journals – sometimes, your work just won’t fit what they’re after. Make sure you read about the judges of competitions, what they like, get an idea of the things they’re interested in. Read about the competition hosts, the competition itself – what are they likely to want to publish as a winner. While objectivity, you’d hope, would be the main driver of any such decision, a local library group whose members are mostly elderly residents is probably not gonna’ select your extreme, cyberpunk masterpiece, no matter how great it is. Make sure you read the journals you submit to, understand what they publish, what they’re looking for. And at the end of the day, don’t take rejection personally. It’s not personal – that piece just didn’t work for what they were after this time. Don’t let it eat away at you and drag you down.
Don’t respond. At least, don’t respond straight away. Your initial reaction will probably be anger and frustration and no matter how you try to hide it, that’ll come across. I was told once that you should ensure you’re 100% confident with the work you submit to journals because if it’s no good and you keep submitting, you can get a reputation, the editors will get to know you and have a negative association before they even begin reading. I don’t necessarily think that’s true -most editors are pretty objective and they read through so much that it’d be hard for them to remember specific names (unless you submitted, like, ten times for every call-out). But one way you can highlight yourself is by responding in anger. Then you’ll be that guy/girl who fired back that one time.
This is true of anything – you should never respond when your emotions are at their highest. When you first receive a rejection letter, and you’re all full-up on frustration and hate, you’re probably gonna’ say something you’ll regret. If you think they’re wrong, you should go prove it – go get published somewhere else and be a success, there’s more than one avenue to take for the literary win.
If you really do have to respond, wait a day, at least, get some perspective, then thank them for their time in assessing your work (it’s always a privilege to have any readers, you need to keep that in mind), and tell them you’ll try again some time. A day later and you’ll feel much more logical, trust me.
Use it as motivation. As noted in the previous point, this is a chance to prove them wrong. Responding and telling them why they’re wrong proves nothing, but showing them why does. Now, I’m not saying you should go and get published then write them a note saying how they were wrong, along with the physical evidence, but shift your mindset from the darkness of rejection and turn that into motivation of future success. If you believe in what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about your work, then you should keep doing it, keep working at it, keep improving and seeking your personal goals. If someone says they’re not interested, fine, seek out someone else who will be and prove to the doubters why they had it wrong. Above all else, you’re writing because it’s who you are, it’s what you do, don’t ever lose sight of that. What other people think can’t change how you feel when doing the work. But rejection is a great source of motivation, to improve, to succeed. Go back and re-assess who you submitted to, see what they’re publishing, learn how to improve your work in-line with where you’d like it to be. Then try again.
Rejection is always hard, in any context. We’ve all suffered through break-ups which leave you devastated and confused. Literary rejection can have the same effect, though (hopefully) on a smaller scale, but the best way to get over it is to look inside yourself, at who you are and what you want to do. What makes you happy? What makes you feel strong, confident, content? That thing that you’re thinking of, that’s what you should be doing, that’s what you need to get back to in order to find happiness within yourself, not someone else. If you’re a writer, you love the work, the research, the plotting, even the editing, because it’s all moving towards making it the best it can be. And that’s incredibly exciting. And yes, you are going to get rejected. But so what? Everyone does. Take it in, action what you can, then go back to doing what you want. Because you never know what’s coming next, what big break could be around the bend. If someone could tell you how to be a success 100% of the time, they would and they’d be a billionaire – because no one can tell you this. There is no definitive path to take. The path to literary success, to any success, is unpredictable. The only guaranteed way to lose is to give up.
A while back, a contact on LinkedIn asked me about how I deal with negative comments on blog posts. I post regularly on LinkedIn, looking at social media marketing and big data, so this was not on the writing posts on this page, but even so, I think it’s a relevant discussion, and one which everyone who posts online is going to deal with at some stage. The fact is not everyone is going to like what you write. This is the same as in regular life – not everyone’s going to like you, no matter how you try. You’ll never please everyone, and while you definitely should read and assess anything and everything that people have taken the time to post in response to your work, you need to also know, within yourself, what the likely outcomes are of your reactions.
‘Never respond to critics’
At one stage in my mentorship which Christos Tsiolkas, Christos advised me to never respond to critical reviews of my work. There’s just no positive outcome, there’s nothing you can say or do that’s going to end up reflecting well on you – if a person says your book is bad and you respond with ‘well you don’t know what you’re talking about’, what then? How will that response reflect on you? Sure, responding might get you some more coverage, maybe it sparks some discussion, some writer taking on his critics, but in the majority of cases in fiction writing you’re debating a difference of opinion. Even if they’ve mis-interpreted your meaning, that’s what they got from your work, that’s the response they had, you can’t really debate that. The unavoidable fact is that the more you put your work out there, the more likely it is that people are going to talk about you – the more people talk, the higher the probability that some of those comments are going to be negative. There’ll always be one. There’ll probably be more than one. The key element to consider is how happy you are with your work – are you, personally, satisfied that you’ve done all you can to make your work the best it can be, the best representation of what you wanted to communicate? From that perspective, you’re better placed to assess whether the critic is raising a valid point worth consideration – you need to be able to assess this for yourself, and think ahead to the most likely outcome of your response or silence. You can’t be sitting over every readers’ shoulder explaining what you meant – people will take what they want from your writing. You have to let them.
‘Always respond to every comment’
Here’s where the non-fiction world differs somewhat – whilst responding to a critic of your fiction work is based purely on a subjective viewpoint, responses and comments on non-fiction work are often based on points of fact, in which case you may need to respond to ensure it’s clear to all that you’ve done the work, that you do know what you’re talking about. The general advice in social media circles is to respond to all comments, positive or negative. But even then, there are some which you just can’t – spammers send through weird things like this:
The article this was posted on was about how social media is ever-evolving. How could I respond to that? What would be the outcome of my response? My judgement in this case was that this wasn’t worth replying to, as there’s nothing to be gained from this – the only possible outcome could be further interactions with what I suspect to be a spammer. So no response.
My basic approach to dealing with negative comments on non-fiction work is stick to logic and avoid emotional response. Emotional response is reactive, so you’re best advised to take a moment to think. You need to appreciate that this person has taken the time to read your piece, that you don’t know what sort of mindset they’re in. From there, you should re-read the comment then only respond if you feel there is likely to be benefit in you doing so. You shouldn’t back away from a challenge – if the commentor is welcoming some sort of debate based on your work, then that’s a great opportunity to generate discussion and make connections with interested parties, but often times that’s not what negative commentors are seeking. Often, they’re just saying things. Understanding which is which is important in your assessment process.
The Comments I’ve Seen
So here’s a few examples of comments on my posts, and how I’ve handled them. This first comment was on a piece about partnerships between social media platforms and tech companies.
The post had more than 3k views and 100 likes, so obviously not everyone shared this commentor’s opinion that it was loaded with jargon. There’s not really anyway I could respond to this, if I say ‘good’ that provides no benefit. I could say it’s not filled with jargon, but I’m not sure it would’ve served much purpose, and the wording of the comment suggest to me that this is not really an opinion based on logic. I chose to ignore in this case.
This next one was on a piece entitled: “What Does a Lack of Social Media Presence Say About Your Brand?”
Obviously this guy felt pretty strongly about it not being relevant – though it is interesting that he read and commented on this piece on a social media network. Again, no response on this one – I doubt that my reasoning would be changing his mind at this stage.
I quite liked this one, and did respond, as per the screenshot. The piece was about how change is constant in the social media space.
Now, admittedly, I’m not sure what the commentor meant about ‘US competitive standing’ – I’m Australian so this wasn’t really in my sphere of thinking when approaching the topic – but my initial response was ‘why comment?’ The post did pretty well, it had been viewed more than 8k times and received a lot of likes, so this was obviously a common thought. To me, this person was just looking to argue, but I felt compelled to respond in this case because I didn’t want to back away from a challenge. In the end, my response is logical, stating my point, avoiding any personal or emotional conflict in my language. Whilst I do think the original comment was baited and attacking in tone, responding in kind is just not going to be beneficial. There was no further correspondence but I was happy with my response.
And then, of course, there are the people who just want to say things. Whether they’re having a bad day or they dislike the topic or they hate the look of your profile photo, some people just want to say things. Take this one for example from a recent piece (not mine) titled ‘Three Unusual Reasons Why Every Professional Should be on Twitter’:
Now, there’s obviously significant evidence to counter this, but even if this was your belief, why comment on a piece about Twitter marketing? Why are you even reading it? Sometimes, people are compelled to say things, no matter what those things are or who they might be broadcast to. If you think it’s worth responding, you should, but there are times when it’s best to just leave them be.
It basically comes down to your own commonsense. You should always read every comment and take in all the info – these people have taken the time to read your work so you owe them the same respect. But you have to consider how your responses are going to be received, remain mindful of the potential outcomes. For fiction, take on board the points raised, consider them, then action them if you feel like there’s something worth investigating to improve your work. If one person comments on a certain aspect that no one else has mentioned, and you don’t necessarily agree with their opinion, then you can leave it. But if two or more people mention the same thing, in isolation from one another, then you need to re-visit and ensure your work best represents what you intended. For non-fiction, respond wherever you can, but only if you think it’s worth doing so.
The worst thing anyone can do is take the comments to heart and give up. Don’t give up. You’re always going to face some level of negativity, it’s important to take it for what it is. It’s one person’s opinion. Don’t take it personal, view it as that, as one person’s thoughts on the work presented, not you personally. Having an idea challenged is actually a great way to solidify and improve your thoughts and processes, we need diverse views to advance our understanding. But also know that sometimes there’s nothing you can say. Either way, every comment is an opportunity to learn.