Friday, 24 August 2012

Fail Fast, Fail Early and Fail Often

In business circles, there is a growing awareness that doing things the way they've always been done won't cut the mustard. The massive layoffs in the video games industry are an acknowledgement that even in an apparently high-tech business, things are changing. For years, console games have got larger and larger, requiring bigger teams and budgets. But suddenly, with gaming spreading across every technology from smartphones to Facebook, it's the smaller teams who have reaped the benefits. How are they doing it? By planning for failure and building it into the way they work. They know that a high percentage of their game ideas will fail, so they aim to find that out quickly and move on before a project costs too much money.

You might argue that trade publishing has always worked like this, spreading its risk by publishing a range of different titles and hoping that one or two of them will go on to become bestsellers. Book budgets have traditionally been modest (unlike for games or Hollywood movies) and therefore in the boom years this was a reasonable approach. The grip of recession has changed things – the midlist is going and publishers are increasingly looking for a few high-profile projects to focus their attention on. This translates to massive auction-driven advances for a few lucky books and accordingly high marketing and publicity budgets to accompany their publication. The digital world is full of people who accept that failure is a given, whereas trade publishing is becoming an increasingly brittle industry where failure can be catastrophic.

You only have to look at Penguin's recent 48% drop in profits to see what a problem this approach can be. The drop was blamed on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey (which is not published by Penguin), clearly demonstrating how one runaway success can distort the market for everyone else. It's also worth remembering the heritage of Fifty Shades of Grey, and how it came out of an e-book environment where speed to market and the responsiveness of the author were all-important to its success. We might still be buying plenty of books from trade publishers, but the whole ship is looking a bit creaky.

With all this in mind, how can authors harness the mantra of "Fail fast, fail early and fail often?" Having received a rejection in the last twenty-four hours, this is an especially relevant question for me. In fact, thus far, my slogan would be more like: "Fail slowly, fail late and fail badly." I tend to spend a long time on each project getting it to be just perfect, and then take rejection quite personally. This is clearly not a great strategy, because an author's life is paved with rejection, little of it intended as a personal insult.

One strategy I'm looking at is working on shorter books. Perhaps not as short as picture books, but you can certainly see how the picture book form allows writers to work on several ideas at once, in order to build up a portfolio. I've also been exploring other forms of media like comics and apps to give me more breadth, and experimenting with new ways of writing. The danger with diversifying, of course, is that you can lose focus and end up throwing a lot of s**t at the wall to see what sticks. Maureen Lynas talked about this (no, not the poo throwing!) in her excellent Slushpile blog post. It took Maureen a long time to find the right area of children's writing to concentrate on, but she won Undiscovered Voices not too long after that, so she must have been doing something right.

Failure is always going to hurt, and for older fiction the only course may be to spend months and years getting a book right. We authors certainly expend huge amounts of time working on spec, with no clear guarantee that we'll receive any revenue at the end of it. But new funding models are appearing every day, with sites like Pubslush promising to free debut authors from the grip of traditional publishing. And for established authors, there's always the option of approaching your agent or editor with pitches and synopses for several projects, so you can see which ones attract interest and which others fall by the wayside. True, this tends to favour plotters over character-led authors, but perhaps in the new landscape of publishing we'll all need to work a little differently.

The future is failure. Embrace it.



  1. I'm super qualified to do well in this failure environment.

  2. As demonstrated by my inability to get the Captcha test right five times with that post...

  3. Thanks for this Nick! Not glad you got a rejection Nick but glad that gets you finding the words for some of my own thoughts and much more interesting ones too. Only teeny query is whether it does favour plotters...FOr younger kids books at least, characters and their development across platforms, seem to be the name of the game.

    1. Thanks, Bridget.

      To clarify - my thinking was more around the process and time required. Plot-driven authors are more likely to be able to write a synopsis upfront, whereas many character-driven authors have to write a whole book to discover their characters and plot.

  4. Great post, and exactly my thinking at the moment. After years of writing older fiction to overwhelming silence from publishers, I decided to bang out a fun project over the lent period. After a quick polish, I've now got two agents wanting 'exclusive' looks at the full MS. Plus, I'm a librarian in the throws of the summer reading challenge at the moment and enthused by all the kids coming to review their shorter books. If you want to entertain the masses, then no one is more enthusiastic that the 5-7 year olds.

  5. Sorry to hear about the rejection, Nick. Maybe you can find more success with shorter books. Worth giving it a go. I think the idea is, like Maureen did, find your voice and what you like writing best and stick at that. I also like the motto, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

  6. This really struck a chord with me Nick - I'm a slow writer too, and there's no doubt that it today's market the speedy writers are doing better than the tortoises. But...I also believe that quality will win in the long term, and that those who rush to publish may succeed now but won't last. I mean, I can't imagine that anyone will be reading 50 Shades of Grey for the quality writing in a year's time...