My Name’s Jeff, and I’m a Failure … by Jeff Seymour

Jeff SeymourLast year, I failed hard as a writer.

I did everything right before I self-published Soulwoven. I cultivated an audience, created a marketing plan, wrote a solid book that I was happy with and that got good reviews, arranged an eye-catching cover and a professional interior, networked, tweeted, Facebooked, pushed. That first book did okay, but it was on life support toward the end of the year. Because I’d done everything right though, I had its sequel ready to go. It was an even better book than the first. It got better reviews. It dealt with serious issues. It was good art. It made a Best of 2014 list. It mattered. I pushed some more.

Thud, went my sales. We don’t care about your books, said the world. You’re going to bankrupt your family and destroy your life, whispered my fear and my self-doubt, and I had very little to say back to them.

I was not prepared for this. I’d told my wife, years before, that the hardest thing for me to handle as a writer would be a low-to-moderate level of success—enough to know there wasn’t some secret ingredient I was missing or some great conspiracy I wasn’t involved in, but not enough to justify the massive investment in time and money I’d put into becoming a writer. It was hard. Things got very, very dark for a while.

Soulwoven by Jeff SeymourBy the spring, I was still struggling. Writing was painful, because there seemed to be no point in pushing through. Getting out of bed was painful, because all my hopes for the future had been tied up in succeeding commercially as a writer and that path seemed closed to me forever. Worse, I felt I had to lie profusely about how I was doing. Nobody wants to hear a writer talk about their problems. We’re supposed to project an image of success until we become successful, and only then do our struggles (safely in the past, allegedly) become acceptable conversation.

I thought that was pretty unhealthy, so I decided to hurl an axe through the image of Jeff the Successful Indie Author. I proposed a panel on failure and self-doubt for Colorado Gold 2015. I didn’t know anyone interested in similarly tomahawking their successful image, so I shared the idea with an RMFW loop to see if any other authors wanted to join me.

People came out of the woodwork. I had more volunteers than I could fit on a panel, and in September we’re going to sit down and have an honest conversation about failure, what it looks like for different people, what it feels like for different people, and how to live through it and keep working.

I hope you’ll join us. Failing is part of making art, and preparing yourself for it is as important a step in learning to be a writer as figuring out where to put the commas, discovering what makes a character come alive on the page, or seeing the structures that underlie stories and learning how to work with them.

My name’s Jeff. I’m a failure, and it’s okay if you are too. We can hang out and be friends, and I won’t think less of you for failing or suggest ways you can be successful if you just do things the right way. See you at conference; I’ll be the one in the black-and-neon-green toe shoes.

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Author and editor Jeff Seymour has been creating speculative fiction since he was a teenager. His writing covers genres from magical realism and horror to science fiction and epic fantasy. Jeff’s nonfiction has appeared in Clarkesworld Magazine and on the website Fantasy Faction, and his series Soulwoven got over a million reads online before being self-published in 2014. As a freelance editor, he helped Harlequin’s digital-first imprint Carina Press build its science fiction and fantasy line, and he has worked on titles for the Nelson Literary Agency Digital Liaison Platform and bestselling indie authors. In his free time, Jeff blogs about writing and editing, pretends he knows anything about raising two energetic cats, and dreams.

You can find Jeff on Twitter, Facebook, and at jeff-seymour.com, and you can buy his books on Amazon and at most other major online retailers.

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23 thoughts on “My Name’s Jeff, and I’m a Failure … by Jeff Seymour

  1. Great post, Jeff! I’ve Indie Pubbed two books now and both aren’t as financially successful as I’d hoped. It helps to know I’m not the only one going through this “gut punch” feeling. Thanks!

  2. Jeff, you may have failed at one thing, but give yourself credit for huge successes. You wrote a book (listen to the sighs of those who want to write a book and never even got started, along with those that never finished a draft, and then those who couldn’t bear editing the manuscript.) Right there, you have pushed yourself head and shoulders above the crowd. But you went further–you selected a cover and made all the little difficult decisions that have to be done when you publish a book, and you put it out there in the world. You did the mind-numbing work of marketing your book. All big steps. None of that experience is lost–it’s building blocks for future success. Did you know that Sue Grafton published at least one book that sank like a stone before she began her wildly successful series?

    I love the idea of the panel, and hope it includes a few words about “getting back on the horse.” You’re just getting started!

    • Heck, yeah, thanks! Funny thing is, I knew all of that when I was mired in the thought that I was an irredeemable failure, and it didn’t matter to me. I’m sure we’ll talk a bit about getting back on the horse during the panel, but I also expect we’ll spend a lot of time talking about the moments after you’ve just been thrown from the horse, when you’re lying on the ground wondering if your back is broken and whether you’ll be ever be able to walk again. There’s a lot of great advice out there about how to get back on the horse, but I hope to wring some tips on surviving the fall out of the panelists to complement it. 🙂

  3. Not that it will help, but most authors don’t make enough money to quit their day jobs. It’s one of those 80% of the money goes to 20% of the population (or worse) situations. The thing is to keep writing. You haven’t ‘failed’, you’re just not where you thought you’d be. Yet. According to Mark Lefevbre of Kobo, the tipping point for making money seems to come after 5 books. Hang in there!

    • Thanks! Good point and I plan to. One of the things I hope to talk about at the panel is why this hit me so hard. Spoiler: I was asking too much of my writing. I wanted it to save my life, and that’s not a healthy relationship to have with your work.

  4. You’re in good company, Jeff. Most of us have felt that way from time to time. If you look at the stats for new small business, you’ll commonly see the prediction it takes 3-5 years to start making a profit. That’s with a lot of investment, long hours, and tons of marketing. If we treat our writing like a small business, maybe we wouldn’t get so discouraged so soon.

    • Great point, Pat! That’s a statistic I knew going in but that didn’t help when I was in the depths. I was two years in, looking at the third through fifth years and thinking I just didn’t have enough in the tank to keep going until I hit that point.

  5. Good morning, Jeff-the-Failure, and hearty congratulations for your valor. I predict your Colorado Gold Conference panel will be wildly popular!

  6. Yay for Jeff, my favorite failure around! I swear, I could’ve written that post (not as eloquently of course, or with so many words) but the gist. I am constantly surprised by how much the world ignores me. Don’t they know better?

    If not, they will in September as we call each and every writer to arms, chanting I suck, you suck, we all suck…for ice cream as authors

  7. Yeah! What Chris and Julie said! Only in a more masculine voice. And with bacon and football. Failure. Success. More and more, I’m seeing them as cheap-ass words that don’t mean much. The game is to write books.

  8. I remember your first story in the series from the SW Littleton critique group back when you brought the pages. I loved it then, and I liked it even more in reading the first pages on Amazon a few minutes ago. So I’m pretty damned sure you’re a good writer, and I’d second what Pippa said, you’re passing judgment far too soon.
    I also agree with your comment that you might’ve expected too much from writing. In any case, I think you’re on the right track with the series. That seems to be the way most self-publishers are building a following. And few seem to rocket to the top of the charts with book one.
    Most of all, though, maybe you could wait a decade or two before deciding you’re a failure as a writer. You’re still pretty young, and if you enjoy the creative process , that’s a considerable reward in itself. I won’t be at the conference this year, but I’m sure you’ll have a great session. They’d better give you the big ballroom. Best of luck in continuing the series.

    • Thanks, Mike! I didn’t mean to imply that I’ve given up on writing—just that I’ve accepted the fact that my first two books didn’t do what I wanted them to do, and that’s okay. The idea of being a failure is an interesting one to me; I think of it as both a permanent and fleeting state. It will always be true that I failed to do the things I wanted to do with those first two books, and in that sense, I think I’ll always have a claim to saying that I’m a failure. I’m someone who has failed. But at the same time, that’s not all I am as a writer. I wrote two books that met my goals artistically, I’ve got a lot more books in me, and the jury’s far from out on whether or not I’ll ever achieve my commercial goals in the future.

      I don’t like the idea of being a failure as an either/or proposition or a negative label. I think you can be a failure and still achieve success; failing is a healthy part of what we do. And for me, being able to own my failure rather than rack my brain trying to find ways to convince myself that it wasn’t REALLY a failure has been important to maintaining my sanity and moving on with my life and my writing.

      I’ll be interested to see what the panelists think in September. 🙂

      • Jeff, I’m not sure how writers develop such grandiose expectations for success, but in most businesses, if you sell a product that beats 90% of your competitors, you’re usually quite pleased. But when writers sell books, they think, Jesus my book’s Amazon sales ranking is only 383,852!
        In fact, we’re not even happy with beating 99% of our competitors. That’s roughly a sales ranking of 38,385, which translates to selling a only handful of books a day. Why should someone who’s selling in the top one percent feel like a failure? But we do.
        I’m sure your session at the conference will be very popular and fascinating. Best of luck.

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