Any author who experiences disappointment is bound to ask the question, “What am I doing wrong?”
Using Rick Warren’s first line of The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you,” might just be one explanation of why it is so hard to get published and succeed at it.
Whether you have already been published or are an aspiring author, the greatest threat to your present or future writing career could be someone else’ less-than-successful performance with a book on the same general topic years before you even started writing your book.
You can surround yourself with all sorts of plaques, posters, verses and quotes about overcoming challenges and you can motivate yourself to press on against all odds. But realizing that many of the challenges and closed doors you face are not of your own making, might provide some solace to your damaged psyche.
“I am sorry, we published a book on that subject five years ago and it didn’t sell well.”
Publishers (and literary agents) have a plaque hanging on their walls too. It reads, “Never, ever make the same mistake twice.”
Agents try to view their work through the eyes of publishers to whom we sell various projects. After all, we want to sell them new books. Publishers tell us certain types of books will or won’t work for them, so we try to honor that as well as we can and send them things that fit what they want. If you send something to an agent on a subject we recently were unable to sell for another author or were told was a “soft” category by a publisher, we will avoid your proposal.
It wasn’t you after all.
Unseen publishing market forces affect you every day. A negative response from an agent or publisher to your proposal is a mix of predisposed opinion and a desire to avoid something bad from happening again. We don’t enjoy not selling a proposal any more than you like rejection.
Publisher’ decisions are heavily influenced by their respective sales departments. In many cases, sales leaders have virtual veto-power over publishing opportunities. Since one of the worst things for a sales person is to be given something to sell that they weren’t able to sell well before, avoidance of possible future failure is a strong influencer of present decisions.
Objectivity is overrated anyway.
Say what you want about trial and error, overcoming adversity, being persistent and unrelenting in your conviction and it being better to have loved and lost, blah, blah, blah. Of all the obstacles you need to overcome to be published, the less-than-successful performance (I am avoiding using the word “failure” in case you didn’t catch that) by someone else will have an effect on the decision related to your proposal.
There’s a person living a thousand miles from you who wrote a similar themed book ten years ago that didn’t sell well, so your proposal is being compared (probably unfairly) to that.
And if you are published and don’t meet expectations, you are putting a hurdle in the way of someone coming behind you. It is a never-ending cycle.
But this is not unique to book publishing.
If you had a bad experience with a car mechanic named “Butch” you probably aren’t going to take your car to the new repair shop that just opened up, “Butch’s Auto Repair” even though it is an entirely different guy. There is no rational reason to make that decision, but we simply cannot put ourselves in a position where something bad would happen again with a guy of the same first name. Sorry Butch.
I am an advocate of realistic thinking based on knowing how things really work, not how we would like them to work. Knowing that authors do not create in isolation is a key element of that. Your book has intense competition. Some of it negative competition.
On top of that, book publishers and agents are part of the “art” world, filled with subjective vision, predisposed thinking and personal preferences.
That’s what you get working with humans.