Failure

I wrote a book about starting out as a journalist – studying Germany at 16, living in Siberia at 19, then traveling to Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan and Nepal, working as a journalist in Prague and then in the conflicts in Macedonia and Kosovo. Every serious writer thinks they write well. I think people would enjoy my book. Everyone who has read it has said it is good and entertaining and informative. I called it “Border Crossing Lessons.” That was my baby while I struggled with infertility and the adoption applications.

I got a literary agent. It took months of researching agencies and writing carefully worded letters. It was not easy but I got an excellent agent, one of the best. I was so happy. I thought that with a high-powered New-York agent like her, I could not lose. It was only a matter of time and I would be a published author. She said she loved the book, my writing, the story, all of it. She tried 43 publishers over a year, the top publishers, the second level, even the university presses. She networked with all of her powerful connections. They all said it was good writing. They all said “No” – No one knows this woman, she’s not even the slightest bit famous, if we could at least say she was a wildly successful journalist, but she’s nothing, she’s nobody, she has no “platform.” That’s what they call the credibility of celebrity in the publishing industry.

Finally, my agent and I gave up and ended our contract. I was devastated and she was very disappointed. She had put in many weeks work on my book and never got a dime for it. She would only be paid if I am paid. And she never complained. She made a bad bet. That’s all.

Recently, a distant friend who loves my book showed it to a neighbor who is a well-known writer. The writer loved the book as well. She even told my friend, “You should be a book scout!” My friend was elated. I dared to hope again. The friend recommended me to her agent. Initially, the agent loved the book when this successful writer forwarded it to her. But then I notified the agent that my former agent had already tried 43 publishers. The new agent was angry. She said my former agent had gone beyond the call of duty and had tried everything possible, that if anyone could have found a publisher, she would have. She said it is hopeless, no one will ever publish my writing unless I become famous. And she said I am ungrateful for trying anything else after my agent worked so hard at it. I would not have, except for the wild praise of a successful writer.

I would like to shout out that the publishing industry stinks. If everyone loves a book and praises it in the highest terms and the only reason it can’t be published is because the author is not even mildly famous, then there is something wrong with the system. You will probably never see my name on a book or on your Kindle. You will probably never see many other writers who have the magic in their fingers. You will see every musing of celebrities, every whim of politicians, every boast of bankers and top journalists, even every scribble by the relatives of people caught up in tragic national news. Notoriety brings success but not necessarily good writing.

I love the writing of unknown writers. Until now I have sought out unknown writers unconsciously, without realizing that I simply love to read writing that is strong enough to stand on its own without “platform”. Now, I think I will very consciously seek out the books of unknown writers. They are simply more fun to read because they make no excuses, ride on no name dropping. But there are few of them for obvious reasons and apparently, there will be even fewer in the future.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kathy Mangan
    May 20, 2012 @ 16:10:16

    Hi, I think the problem is the culture you are living in.. For a book agent to say . “I am ungrateful for trying anything else after my agent worked so hard at it” I could not imagine that happening back home. I have been reading your posts and I am continually amazed and appalled at the struggles you have with the culture and the expectations. It comes from the previous authoritarian state. if you lived in your home country, you would be encouraged. I have no contacts or network to help you, but I encourage you to try and try again. Just like Colonel Sanders and his Kentucky Fried Chicken. If I don’t succeed with an issue, I keep trying to find someone who listens to me. It may take weeks or months or years. I know that you know that “tomorrow is another day.”

    Keep the faith. You are a good writer.

    Kathy Mangan

    Reply

  2. ariefarnam
    May 20, 2012 @ 19:45:55

    I’m sorry but this is what people who have had all the right connections given to them by the fortunes of their birth tell you, It is a popular myth but it is not true. Publishers want are businesses. They have to make money. So, they only publish things they think will make money. I did try until the very last thing that could possibly be done. There are no other publishers left to try. Yes, I tried Amazon, I know everyone thinks that is the magic bullet. It isn’t. Pop magazines may say “anyone” can be published now. What they mean is that normal people can submit things directly to Amazon and Amazon might publish them. It is the only place you don’t need an agent to submit to. You generally cannot even send things to a real publisher without having an agent.

    Oh, and this was in the US, of course. This is about New York agents and US publishers. It isn’t unreasonable of them to say this. It isn’t mean. It is simply the facts of the business. It is a very competitive business.

    Reply

  3. ariefarnam
    May 21, 2012 @ 05:03:14

    And the issue with that quote is this. Agents only make money, if they sell the book. So, my agent, who only has 15 writers and has an expensive New York office, spent weeks trying to get my book published and never made a cent. It was a bad bet and still she worked hard to the end. With only 15 writers, she certainly can’t afford to do that very often.

    Reply

  4. Julie Farnam
    May 21, 2012 @ 16:12:17

    I’m sad for the disappointment. Regardless of the system and how screwed up it is, all you have to do is read a few Writer’s Almanacs to see people who beat the odds after years of rejections (for centuries). As well as people who went straight to the top from obscurity (not so many years back.) Obviously, it’s harder now. But even the publishing industry has cracks and one of these days, you’ll fall through one, going upwards. Yes, you may be dead by then. Hopefully, not. In any case, the common theme I hear (in Writer’s Almanac bios) is not, “I wrote so I could make a living”. It’s, “I wrote because I had to write”. I hope you keep writing what you have to write. What you write is important, insightful, humane and unique….in a social world that often feels like it’s going backwards in terms of consciousness. It is definitely what I want to read and, as an aside (not that it matters what I believe), I believe doing what we are compelled to do leads us toward our “stars”.

    Reply

  5. ariefarnam
    May 21, 2012 @ 18:09:36

    I think a blog is the modern definition of writing simply because one hs to write. There certainly will never be any money from it. But nice thoughts about writing for the sake of joy skirt the issue. It is obvious that if one is paid to write, on can do it a lot more. There are surely many literary, artistic, scientific and even business geniuses living in the slums of Bangladesh or other similar places, who will never be able to use their talents because they are busy breaking bricks to stave off starvation.

    Still today I was listening to a song “At the Elbe” by Fred Small that has its own special meaning for me because of the places I was and the people I met, my relationship with German culture and with Russian culture. Without those years of living on the edge and striving for the dream of being a professional writer, living on potatoes and cabbage, I would barely understand that song, let alone feel a deep connection to it. So, I decided that I have no regrets about it. I don’t regret having done all the grueling work. Even the miserable times, like trudging down some Ukrainian street looking for a place to sleep in the sleet, were worth it, more than worth it. They were the prize, as silly as that sounds. And that is the key thing. A writer is someone who loves writing for whom the greatest reward of writing is the chance to write all day. I only wish I would have that chance gain someday, but I doubt I ever will.

    Reply

  6. Anne
    May 22, 2012 @ 03:41:21

    You may be tired of hearing people tell you to consider self-publishing, but it’s the best way for an unknown writer to get the attention of the publishers – and sometimes the writer doesn’t even want or need that attention by then. Publishers can’t do much to promote books these days anyway, and self-published books can look so great, that there’s no longer the clear advantage to having a publisher that there once was. You’re clearly a good writer and I am sure you would find a market once the book was out there. I hope you’ll consider it, because I for one would like to read it.

    Reply

  7. Beverly
    May 26, 2012 @ 16:38:23

    As i was reading your description of uour first book, knowing your writing from this blog, i was positively salivating, looking forward to reading it This story is both a sad commentary on what our society values and also a reflection of the large number of books that end up on remainder tables in bookstores – at least they used to. Maybe they don’t any more because the publishing industry accepted the sad truth about the book buying public. Sigh.

    Reply

  8. ariefarnam
    May 26, 2012 @ 18:38:31

    If no one wanted to read my book, then that would be just the way life is. The problem for me is that all the professionals say it is great, very readable and entertaining and all that. My agent certainly thinks people would read it. It doesn’t take that large of a percentage of people reading a book to make it good business, but the publishing industry doesn’t want to take a “risk” on someone who isn’t famous.

    Reply

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