When my son was a young teenager, he dreamed of being an elite-level gymnast. Only one thing held him back: lack of physical ability. “Some gymnasts are strong. Some gymnasts are flexible,” his coach liked to say. “You are neither.”
What my son did have was tenacity. “No” simply isn’t in his vocabulary. And so rather than quit, he took a long look at the various events and reinvented himself as a vault specialist. By the time he graduated high school, he was competing at Level 10 – one level below Elite. Was he the best? No, but he held his own. At his last competition, he outscored boys who aspired to compete on a national level. As his coach — ever the ray of sunshine — pointed out, “You shouldn’t be competing at this level, but you’re here because you worked hard and didn’t give up.” His coach’s words are important because there were a lot of boys on his team who were far more talented but who quit when the work got hard.
Why am I sharing this not-so-humble brag about my son? Because whether it’s gymnastics or science or writing, the same lesson applies: Raw talent is great, but tenacity and perseverance matter more.
This week, a lot of authors and illustrators were dropped by their agency. The culling was sudden and, from the sounds of it, poorly handled. My heart bleeds for those creatives. Here they thought success was within reach, and instead, the industry kicked them in the teeth. I don’t blame them for being disillusioned and angry.
When the news broke, my friends and I couldn’t help but recall all the times we were kicked in the teeth. I remarked that it took me many, many years and six completed manuscripts before I sold to a major publisher.*(There was a small publisher in there, but they folded without paying royalties.) “Ten books and eight years” another friend recalled. “Six years and seven,” noted a third.
Even after we all sold, there were ups and downs. Distribution shriveled up. Publishers went out of business. Agents dropped us. Publishers dropped us. On the indie side, Amazon’s profits shrank taking income with them. Ten years later, we are all still in the business. The same tenacity that got us published is what lets us survive in what is an incredibly cruel industry.
What we’ve learned over the years is that the industry doesn’t owe us anything. Agents don’t owe us representation; the market doesn’t owe us sales. And we’re certainly not guaranteed success straight out of the box. We’re given opportunities, nothing more. My friends and I have succeeded because we fought for our dreams and – this is the important part– we grew and adapted to make them come true. There’s a reason we all needed multiple manuscripts to sell. Perseverance isn’t just about keeping up the fight, it’s understanding your weaknesses, learning from your mistakes, and knowing when it’s time to change tactics.
Alas, I fear tenacity is becoming passe. Too often I’ve met writers who feel because they’ve written a book that they are entitled to success on the first try. When traditional publishing fails, they blame the industry and self-publish. This is not a swipe at self-publishing, mind you. Going indie can be a very smart decision. But it is not a fail-safe. It is not where you turn because your first novel didn’t catch on. To succeed as an indie author takes just as much perseverance, tenacity, and adaptability as traditional publishing.
Again, the world doesn’t owe you. Success, however you choose to define it, takes work. Lots of it. So don’t give up.
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* This was in the early 2000s. Self-publishing wasn’t an option.