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A novel failure: 4 career lessons I learned from my literary flop

If you’re a distance learner who is thinking about being an entrepreneur after school, failure is going to be part of life. And that’s not a bad thing.

The upside to failure is that it can contain valuable lessons. Such was the case when, during grad school, I released a novel, only to have it be a critical and commercial failure. 

I’m not going to mention its name here since some of the reviews were far from flattering. But I will say that it was a fantasy/sci-fi novel that was over 100,000 words. 

Because of that flop, I learned a lot of valuable lessons as an entrepreneur, some of which are listed here. Whether you plan to start your own business or join someone else’s after college, I think these lessons may be useful to you. 

1. Your product isn’t for everyone

I told everyone about my book. It didn’t matter if they hated sci-fi, fantasy, or reading novels. I figured if they could read, it was for them. But it wasn’t. My novel was for a niche market, for folks who met these specific criteria:

  • They like reading fantasy/sci-fi novels
  • They don’t mind reading the work of an unknown author
  • They enjoy works that are not based on a franchise
  • They don’t mind spending $19 on a novel (my publisher set the price higher than I would have liked) 

I eventually came to realize that “people who can read” is not a realistic target market to focus on. And by focusing on marketing to everyone, I hardly reached anyone.

The fact is, pretty much everything on the market is not for everyone. As you probably know, distance learning isn’t for every high school graduate. People who advertise for distance learning programs are going to market to the folks who see the benefits of such a program. Because that’s who it’s for. And that’s who pays for distance learning.

2. Be wary of potential business partners

I didn’t go the traditional publishing route, meaning I put up some cash for the publisher to publish it, and they supposedly put up a lot more cash to edit, produce, and market the book. I say “supposedly” because, once I was already committed, I learned my editor was terrible. He actually introduced more grammatical and spelling errors than he fixed. I ended up editing and proofreading the whole thing myself. 

In my current business, my business partner is also one of my best friends, so I’m very confident that I’ve picked the right person to start a company with. 

If you can’t go into business with a great friend, at least make sure you have fully vetted them. Talk to people who know them. Look them up online to see if they are who they claim to be. The point is, whether you choose to start a business with someone else during or after your distance learning education, you need to pick the right partner. 

3. Live out your company values

My publisher was named Tate Publishing. They went out of business years ago because their leadership was shady, and they were getting sued to oblivion by all the authors they bamboozled. 

So, why did I go with them as my publisher? Among other reasons, they told me how they were a values-driven company. Nothing wrong with being values-driven, but you have to actually stick to the values for your company to work in the long run.

Unfortunately, Tate lied to their customers and underperformed at the work they were claiming to do. Deception and incompetence don’t make great values for a company to have.

If you set up a company and claim to have certain values, be true to those. You’re not perfect, but you can at least be honest and ethical.

4. Don’t rush the process

I was trying to get my novel out as soon as possible. I wanted to capitalize on having a book signing at my college while I was still a grad student. And I wanted to capitalize on the fact that I was still young enough for people to be impressed that I’d finished a novel. I also figured I should do it before I started my career. 

Looking back, I wish I’d listened to the warnings of an older mentor about doing business with Tate. I wish I’d paid more attention to the online criticisms leveled against the publisher. Had I taken the time to revise the book while waiting for a proper publisher to come along, perhaps it wouldn’t have flopped.

Wrapping up

Consider this quote from Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

I hope you’ll finish your distance learning education strong and start strong with your career of choice. And if you ever plan to publish a book, be careful of the publisher you partner with.