As I’ve mentioned before — and as Faith and others have mentioned as well — the release of a new book can be incredibly stressful. Of course there is satisfaction in seeing the finished product in print (or ebook format). Writing a book is a big deal. That completed volume represents a tremendous amount of work; it required a huge investment of time, and of emotional and intellectual energy. It represents as well, an admirable accomplishment, and there is nothing wrong with taking pride in that. The problem is, releases are fraught with additional significance. Right or wrong, the success of a new book is judged on a collection of external factors that have little or nothing to do with the work itself, and everything to do with how others receive that work.
Every writer, aspiring or established, knows what I’m talking about. How many of you have finished a book or piece of short fiction and handed it to a friend or loved one to read, only to have them come back with criticisms that you never anticipated? It hurts, doesn’t it? We joke about having someone tell us that “our baby has warts,” but when it actually happens, it’s not a laughing matter. How many of you have sent out stories for possible publication, only to have them come back with polite but unequivocal rejections? That hurts even more. Those of us who are published now understand intimately the pain of these setbacks, because we’ve experienced them all.
The things I (and others in my position) fear at release time are really not so different. Sure, we’re not worrying about rejections at this point — the books have sold to publishers already. But we worry about reviews and we REALLY worry about sales. The hard reality is that a release that doesn’t go well can do more than merely doom the book in question. It can set back one’s career. If the numbers for A Plunder of Souls are weak, my chances of selling additional Thieftaker books to Tor — or to anyone else, for that matter — diminish. If the numbers for the Thieftaker books overall are not strong, my next advance will suffer, or perhaps I won’t receive offers at all.
And as much as I would like to tell you that I ignore bad reviews, the truth is I try to read every critical response to every book I write. I probably shouldn’t but I can’t help myself. As hard as it is to hear criticism, it’s harder still to ignore that criticism knowing that it’s out there for others to read. And I’m not even talking about reader reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites. I just mean the journals, magazines, and content websites that help to form the critical consensus that surrounds most books. Authors are constantly bombarded with other people’s opinions of their work, and try as we might to develop a thick skin and tell ourselves that those critics don’t speak for everyone, each negative word is like a paper cut: They won’t bleed you to death, but they sure as hell sting.
So, what’s an author to do?
I wish I could say that there is some magical elixir for dealing with such worries and hurts. There isn’t. In part it comes back to what I said in the opening paragraph. Writing fiction — short form or novel length — is no small thing, and upon completion of a story or a book we should be able to pause and take pride in the accomplishment. Indeed, we have to be able to do that, because it is the one reward that cannot be taken from us or spoiled by those external factors I mentioned before. There is something to be said for taking satisfaction in work well done, in a challenge met, in a goal achieved.
I have been fortunate in so many respects. I have built a writing career for myself, and every day I feel blessed to be able to make my living, meager though it may be, doing what I love to do: creating worlds and characters and story lines and actually being paid for doing so. It is literally a dream come true. I have also been lucky in that much of my work, the Thieftaker books especially, have been well-received in a critical sense. I don’t know how the sales for A Plunder of Souls will turn out. I don’t know if Tor will want more Thieftaker books after the release next summer of Dead Man’s Reach. But I have come to terms with that uncertainty. I have written the best books I could write. I have realized the vision I first had for this series years ago when the idea for the the Thieftaker series came to me (while reading a footnote about thieftakers in Robert Hughes’s history of Australia, The Fatal Shore). I have worked incredibly hard to ground the books in thorough research, to write them with care and attention to detail, and to bust my butt promoting them. If they succeed commercially, that will be great. If they don’t it won’t be because I did something wrong, but rather because the market simply didn’t take to them as I hoped it would.
And, perhaps, therein lies the elixir after all. As I have said here before, rejections are not notices of failure, but rather are stages in a negotiation. If our story or book is rejected, it doesn’t mean that the piece we wrote sucks, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we suck as well. It means that on this day, for the editor in question, the story did not work. If our piece is met with repeated rejections then, yes, it might mean that the story is flawed in some way. And if we are are fortunate enough to get some editorial feedback, we can try to fix the problem and try again.
But even if a story never sells, that does not mean the story is worthless; it does not mean it has (or we have) failed. Some stories and books never sell. That is a harsh reality. Like so much else I’ve mentioned in this post, it hurts. But still the story is complete, the novel is written. The work was done. It represents the best we could do at that moment with the idea we had. Perhaps it is odd to take satisfaction and even pride in that, but we must. Read the story again; sit down with that book and enjoy the characters and setting and narrative. We created that, and isn’t that kind of cool? I have photographs I have taken that will never earn me a penny, that I will never, ever sell to anyone. But I love them. I think they’re terrific. I use them as background on my computer or as a screen saver. Some I have printed and framed and I hang them on my wall. Where is it written that we can’t take similar pride in our stories, even if in the end they are only there for us to revisit?
Writing is hard. It is hard, hard, hard. Navigating the publishing business is harder still. Not all of us can be bestsellers. Not all of us can be professionals. That is why we say again and again, do this because you love it. Write the stories you need and want to write. The worst thing we can do for you here at MW is coddle you and say, “Of course you’ll meet your goals.” We don’t know if we’ll reach ours; how can we possibly be so arrogant as to assure you that yours are within reach?
The truth is that success has to be self-defined, without relying on the externals. Take pride in the simple accomplishment of artistic creation, of the realization of literary inspiration. That way, if and when the rest of the world sits up and takes notice, their accolades and dollars will be icing on a cake you yourself have baked.
Thank you all for welcoming me back to Magical Words. It’s been great spending this month with you.
D.B. Jackson is also David B. Coe, the award-winning author of more than a dozen fantasy novels. His first two books as D.B. Jackson, the Revolutionary War era urban fantasies, Thieftaker and Thieves’ Quarry, volumes I and II of the Thieftaker Chronicles, are both available from Tor Books in hardcover and paperback. The third volume, A Plunder of Souls, has recently been released in hardcover. The fourth Thieftaker novel, Dead Man’s Reach, is in production and will be out in the summer of 2015. D.B. lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.