Today I’m going to talk about every writer’s greatest fear: The Flop. Failure, at least commercially, is a terrifying monster for most writers. The amount of time, energy, heart, and yes, money, that goes into every book we create is staggering. It makes the sense of success all the sweeter when we see it start to sell, knowing that others are enjoying something we created as well as helping us keep the lights on. When we release to sound of enthusiastic apathy… it’s not quite as enjoyable. A commercial failure is going to happen to any writer if they plug away long enough. Mine happened to be the second book I ever released, Pears and Perils, and while at the time the lackluster sales and absent enthusiasm had me sincerely questioning whether or not I could make this writing thing work, in hindsight I’m actually grateful to have failed so early on.
A very brief touch of historical background for context: In February 2013 I released Super Powered: Year 1, merely to accommodate the requests of readers who wanted portable versions. Within a few months it started to sell far better than I expected, and I started actually thinking about going to the e-book market more frequently. Since I’d written Pears and Perils for that year’s NaNoWriMo, and loved it, it seemed the natural next candidate for release. I let that one come out in June 2013, and while it certainly moved a few copies, to say it came out of the gate as my problem child would be fairly apt.
Most of you already knew all that, but it seemed pertinent to run through for any of our newer readers. The point is, after enjoying unexpected success on my first book release, my second did an excellent job of dashing my hopes and expectations into the ground. Of course we all know things eventually worked out, and other books managed to fill the gap to keep things afloat, but at the time there was a moment where I really wondered if I could make this writing thing work.
So, all of that was about the experience of failing, but that’s not what I promised to talk about, now is it? No, I said this was a blog about why I was glad I failed so early on, and damned if that’s not what I want to deliver on. It is a strange sentiment to express though, isn’t it? I mean, why would anyone be thankful a project they poured themselves into, that they deeply loved, did poorly? There’s a lot of small reasons for it, but a massive one tends to eclipse them all:
It was freeing.
Failure is a lot like sex, in that’s only intimidating until you go through it. After that, there’s no more mystery to the process, you know what you’re in for. In the case of failure, I learned what it was to see something flop, and that it actually was something I could weather. I learned to account for it, plan on the potential, and adjust my expectations accordingly. Knowing what failure felt like, I wasn’t nearly as scared of it as I had been before, and that freed me up to take risks on projects that I knew might never get off the ground.
Let’s look at last year for example. I released NPCs, Fred, and Topher Nightshade. Those books are all wildly different, some niche, some a little more mainstream, and one released through a traditional publishing house. The reason for that spread was that I didn’t really know for sure what would stick, so I placed bets in a lot of different corners. Don’t get me wrong, I liked writing all those books, but when they were done I knew some had different marketability than others. Of the three, NPCs did great, Fred did well, and Topher flopped. That, to me, was a good year from a financial perspective, but it was a fantastic year from a creative one. I got to work on three projects I loved, including one that I pretty much knew from jump wouldn’t go anywhere, yet I was still able to write it. Why?
Because I’d already failed. It wasn’t a scary monster that held sway over me. It didn’t make me back down from writing a book that had me laughing out loud when I came up with some scenes and concepts. And believe it or not, that’s really important.
As someone who lives off their writing, it’s very, very, tempting to look at things only from a fiscal perspective. I love writing anyway, so why not tailor it to projects that I will sell well? And there is some value to that. The reason Fred 2 and NPCs 2 are coming out this year is because they did well, but it’s not the only for that reason. I knew those could be series, and built them appropriately because I wanted to write more, assuming it was viable. Had they been flops too, the chances of sequels would shrink, or at least not have come so soon. But by the same token, I’m also working on a whole new property in Forging Hephaestus, one that has elements that would make a publisher hesitant to touch it, and rightfully so. Yet I’m letting myself get away with it, because I want to. Writing it makes me happy, relaxes me, and feels like a good recharge.
Fiscally, I should be starting on another sequel to one of my proven series, but I’m not doing that. I’m rolling the dice on something new, something that very clearly might be a failure. Here’s the thing though: it can only ever fail commercially. Or, I suppose, critically. What it can’t do is fail for me, because I enjoyed making it, just as I enjoyed all my flops. To this day, I think Pears and Perils might be one of my favorite books I ever wrote. That others didn’t see the appeal doesn’t change me being happy that it exists, and that’s a perspective you can only gain from having experience failure.
This blog by the way, is also my way of finally explaining to everyone why I named my company, Thunder Pear Publishing, after what was one of my least popular characters in one of my least popular books. Having it there helps me keep perspective on what this is really about.