The heartbreaking existence of a society of failed authors

how to write a novel

I have something to say and I feel it needs to be said, though I’m not sure what exactly it is. On the eve of publishing my first fiction, I’m coming to terms with the potentiality of failure, and it’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever known.

Maybe it’s because I just watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is mostly about how one young man fully observes the passing life of his friend, noticing all of the amazing, but tiny and mostly missed, peculiarities of a single girl.

Life is amazing, if we know where to look.

Everything we do is beautiful.

Or so says the movie.

But the truth is far uglier.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is narrated by a guy who doesn’t appreciate his self-worth. He makes movies for fun and pleasure, and then when he tries to make something meaningful, he fails – until he realizes that the gift is in the effort, not necessarily in the product. Showing up in the hospital with a shitty movie is enough, because it’s about the gesture, the friendship, not the final result.

These are beautiful things that do not apply to the world of struggling authors.

Authors do not create in secret. We don’t hide our efforts, teasing readers to seek us out and discover us. We don’t bury our manuscripts in drawers, to be discovered by close friends and marveled at after we’re gone.

Our writing is not a meaningful gesture of creative energy; a symbol of a life well lived, something beautiful that anyone can appreciate.

For many authors, our books are a mess. The stories aren’t right, the writing is amateurish, the plots lead nowhere, the characters are forgettable.

And it’s heartbreaking.

It’s tragic for me to watch authors build websites and run promotions and ask for likes on their Facebook page, and then to check out their Amazon page and see they’ve published over 10 books but are earning less than $100 a month.

It’s like watching someone die of cancer.

Yes, publishing books can be a form of cancer.

It sucks all the time and energy out of us. It robs us of relationships, activities and adventures, real life experiences, and years of our life. Our stories mutate into glorious movies playing inside our heads that keep us entertained, but nobody else can be bothered to watch.

We invest our time and money on promotion and advertising, but can’t seem to get past 25 reviews even after years of publishing. We fight, tooth and claw, desperate for attention, for a chance, waiting for our miracle cure that will revitalize our passion and make it all worthwhile.

There are extremely few vocations that are as prone to epic failure as writing.

Nearly any other activity can be appreciated for the effort; can be lauded for the attempt.

But it’s hard to give praise to a terrible book, unless you know with absolute certainty that if the writer just keeps writing, they’ll get better. A terrible book is a fun and interesting thing to pull out of a drawer after the author has won fame and success; but when the author has a stack of terrible books, at some point encouragement is no longer the kind response.

It’s like telling a cancer patient, “I’m sure God has a purpose for your suffering.”

This is where, I imagine, most people will become angry at me for being such a pretentious asshole, and claiming to know what qualifies as “terrible” – how dare I judge another author’s work? But it is not the case, as it is with art, that different people will appreciate different things, and that every story should be written even if only one person likes it.

With art, the fingerpainting of a 5-year old can be enjoyed and valued.

But writing takes time and effort to be appreciated. Reading a book is a commitment. 

An investment.

This is how I measure the worth of a book: if a reader can make it through a book without feeling like their time is being wasted, then it is decent. If a reader can make it through and feel like they got some value out of the experience, then it is good.

But if an author can’t find anyone willing to make a commitment to finish a book, without it being a favor to the author, then the book is terrible, because it not only robs the author of their effort, but it also steals time and enjoyment away from everyone else who tries to read it but finds only a frustrating experience.

A terrible book is a black hole.

And it would be OK, if one out of a hundred people were failed novelists. It might be a little awkward sometimes, as that one failed novelist drains the time and energy of the people around them, who uncomfortably feign enjoyment of the book and give the author false hope out of kindness, and encouragement to just keep writing and hope to be recognized someday.

But somewhere in the range of 75% of us want to write a book someday, and of the tens of thousands of authors publishing, 9 out of 10 of us have failed books.

Our society is eating itself alive.

The majority of us are publishing content that nobody wants to consume.

The self-publishing world can feel like a funeral, with everyone commiserating about how hard writing is, or how hard it is to get any visibility or reviews.

And it’s not just self-publishing.

The publishing industry as a whole seems to have given up.

This week I’ve found about a dozen books that were traditionally published and have beautiful covers. These were good books. I even read a few. But they had less than 20 reviews on Amazon, mostly negative ones, and were largely forgotten. Traditional publishers make a big promotional push on launch, but quickly forget about books if they don’t catch on.

The authors get to keep their advance, the books lose money, and are probably pulled from bookstores and pulped. This is true for the majority of published books. If those were my books on Amazon, either as publisher or author – books I was responsible for – there’s no way I would have quit until my page had more reviews. I would have kept promoting them.

(I also see Amazon pages with nearly a thousand reviews, but on the homepage is only the 1 star reviews that have been voted most helpful. Somebody needs to be responsible and fix that shit, but nobody seems to know how, or care enough to bother).

I found a book this week that Taylor Swift mentioned she liked on her blog, but neither the publisher nor the author even seemed aware of it (nor the rest of the world!). I would have used that endorsement to sell a ton of books.

But maybe the books did what they were supposed to do: they earned a little bit of money for the author and publisher; they made a living. They were consumed. And then the author and publisher have to go back to work, and create new books, and publish them, and it’s a never ending cycle. And we butcher trees and fill bookstores and do signings and conferences, and a couple years later the books are selling for a dollar at a discount bookstore and nobody will buy it because it has crappy reviews on Amazon.

This is publishing. With art, you paint one painting and it can exist for a lifetime. Even if sold in a garage sale for five dollars, somebody will hang it up in their house and appreciate it.

But you can spend years on a book, and the end result is something people flip through and refuse to read

But I’m not saying to give up

Writing is a skill worth spending a lifetime to develop.

I’m encouraged every day by authors who have 10 books that aren’t selling, and one that is.

I’m encouraged by the authors with only three books that are making $20,000 a month (there are more of them than you think, I come across new ones all the time).

I’m encouraged by the supportive communities of indie authors who are eager to help each other out and cross-promote, and even by the determined and unwavering confidence of authors who have been failing for years.

I also know this, at least for me:

If my books fail, I will learn to write better books. I will polish my craft. I will study, and reflect, and learn, and improve. Writing is a skill that takes practice. Perhaps publishing failure is inevitable, but the successful authors are those who persevere (this is not always true, but it is sometimes true…)

But I also know, I am writing books for readers, and I’ll keep writing better books that make readers happier. That’s a decision most indie authors refuse (because they write for themselves, first, and try to tap into a genre after it’s all over).

Today I saw this post: how to keep writing when nobody gives a shit.

The obvious answer to the loaded question is, just keep doing it anyway, it doesn’t matter that nobody gives a shit. I think that’s awful advice. Do you enjoy the failure and rejection that comes from writing things nobody gives a shit about? Because it’s a choice. Instead of trying to make people give a shit about your writing (like almost all authors are doing) – why not start writing things people give a shit about.

That’s a whole different conversation. And it starts by asking your readers what they like, not making that choice for them and assuming you’re right.

I’m hoping my books will do well enough to earn a living and support me as a full-time writer by the end of 2016, but right now there’s no way to see into the crystal ball. But if they aren’t, and readers are negatively reviewing them, or not reviewing them at all, I’ll take it as a sign, and fix the PRODUCT before I spend more time or money on marketing.

PS) I’m not saying don’t write what you want to write. Do that first. See if people like it. Promote it. Get it in front of readers. Give it its best chance. If and only if you don’t get the reception you want, your ideal readers don’t give a shit about it, then recognize you’ve made a mistake, and learn from it by writing something more interesting that connects with your readers (if you want to make a living from your writing, or build a platform, or bring joy to more people, etc).


About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Inglath Cooper

    Excellent, Derek! Am listening to your interview on The Author Biz Podcast for the second time through. Lots of good stuff there! Thank you so much for sharing your insights.

  • Travis Luedke

    This is a difficult blog post to read. I work with a group of authors, and I see this EVERY DAY.

    Not saying I’m really successful, because I’m not. I’ve made some money at publishing books, enough to know it is very possible to make a lot more money. I still continue to hone my craft and push forward, putting out more books year by year, looking to audiobooks, reediting newer, better versions of my early works.

    But I see the books that need to be scrapped, that aren’t worth any further time and effort. I have been approached by a number of authors who believe they are ready to publish, who refuse to get critique partners and editors, who won’t listen when you tell them their cover art is horrible, and their blurb is incomprehensible, and their book needs to be rewritten from top to bottom.

    Amazon and ebook retailers empowered the masses … but they have never cared to educate them on the process of writing and publishing an entertaining novel.

    A massive majority of the Indie ebook biz is people who put out books that don’t sell, and its heartbreaking.

    Does this mean the publishing industry is broken?

    I’m not so sure.

    I think it means we are in a phase of great change and upheaval, and the processes by which good books are published are changing. The processes by which good books are discovered are changing. Sometime in the near future, things will start to normalize.

    Until then, I vow to put out the best fiction I possibly can, keep building a fan base and learning how to better publish quality fiction, and that’s all any of us can really do.


  • Never let the marketing get in front of the writing. Listen to people who tell you your stuff stinks. These are simple messages we probably didn’t need repeated before self-publishing. Rejection slips said it all…. That said, I love the idea that art is something you can keep getting better at, and that readers can help you improve. I don’t think I’d be self-publishing now if I didn’t have readers on Wattpad. Without an audience there is no show….

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