< Blog Home

Beyond the Iron Gates: Coping with Failure in Publishing


I've spent a long time wondering how to write this post. To be grateful is a tacit requirement of any author who, like me, has been admitted through the iron gates of publishing (no other profession expects such unwavering thanks merely for getting the job.) 

So I'm treading carefully. 

I'll say it clearly: to be a published author is a rare privilege and I remain stunned with gratitude for the opportunities I've been given, so what follows is not a rant or a cry for pity. It is, at its heart, an exorcism of the past three years. It's also a call to arms for anyone who finds themselves, like me, floundering beyond publishing's iron gates, and a word of warning to anyone about to enter them.

You see, things have not gone according to plan.

Fig.1 - An author pointing at a thingI had the idea for The Human Son back in 2016, when we lived in London. The End of the World Running Club had just been published and I was flying high on the buzz of being a ‘proper author’. Adverts for my book were plastered on bus stops and train platforms up and down the country, I was on Simon Mayo’s Radio 2 Book Club, famous people had read my book, foreign rights deals and TV/Film queries were coming in thick and fast. This was itI had arrived!

In those heady days I began to daydream a story about a robot raising a human child in the far future. It was rough and ready, barely even a tagline, and since I had already started writing The Last Dog on Earth, I shelved it as a possible book three.

Some time later I met my editor for coffee. It was the day Chris Cornell died, and I stomped through London in a wayward, black mood to a wood-walled café, where I pitched her what had developed into a basic outline. Robots were now the erta. The protagonist was a female named Ima. Earth was a paradise and the fate of humanity lay in the hands of a single human child. 

My publishers had often said they wanted a sequel to Running Club, but Ima’s story was all I wanted to write. Wonderfully, my editor let me.

It was around this time that my family and I made the risky decision to move to France. Brexit was kicking off, we couldn’t afford to buy a place in London, and my father was finding it more and more difficult living on his own (my mum had died ten years previously). Though we didn't know it at the time, he had early onset Alzheimer’s, but all we knew was that he needed support and we wanted to escape from everything. 

So that’s what we did. My wife left her job. Dad put his house up for sale. Our kids said goodbye to their school and its happy group of friends.

Me? I made a spreadsheet.

It wasn’t just any spreadsheet; it was the king of spreadsheets. The lord of spreadsheets. The One Spreadsheet to rule them all. It contained vast tables spanning every possible scenario, miraculous contingency formulas, and a fleet of macros that could have taken down Skynet. It proved without doubt that if we did a, b, and c, and if x, y and z happened then life’s ledger would magically balance and everything would be absolutely fine. Of course it would. I was a published author now and, although I was not yet rich, I was safely past the iron gates; surely I could at least expect a basic income from now on?

Now...I made two critical errors here: the first was to pretend that spreadsheets mimic human life. The second was to assume that anything at all in the world of publishing is assured. The truth I know now is that if writing is a job, then it is one for which you must continually apply.

We made an offer on a converted barn on a hill in the south of France. It was orders of magnitude cheaper than a house in London and it needed work but we were game. As we waited for the purchase to go through we waved farewell to London and spent that summer with my wife’s parents in Orkney, where I started writing THE HUMAN SON. At 5am every morning I crept downstairs, hopped over the dog and into the garage, where I balanced my laptop on a rickety card table. It was a strange place to write but the words flowed easily and provided an escape from the long and arduous process of buying property in France, an experience which was already proving more stressful than we had imagined.Lambs to their slaughter...

When we finally moved in, life took over. We were adjusting to a new country, sorting out the house, and helping our kids settle into their small, rural schools. They were apart from each other and learning a new language in a strange place, but they rolled with it. They were awesome—hard as nails—and so was my wife. 

Me? Not so much. 

My flash of success with Running Club seemed already to be fading. It hadn’t done anywhere near as well in the USA as it had done in the UK, and UK sales were already dropping off. The Last Dog on Earth's performance was even worse. (What part of ‘social collapse through the eyes of a foul-mouthed London rescue dog’ didn’t people understand?)

I was also beginning to think that we had made a mistake by moving to France. Life wasn’t what we thought it would be; it was expensive and isolating, and it seemed like everything that could go wrong did. I don’t believe easily in things like ghosts or malevolent presences, but I had never felt more like I was in a place that didn’t want me there.

Most devastating of all was my father’s condition. His house had not yet sold and whenever he came out to visit us it was clear his memory problems had worsened. At a now infamous Christmas dinner, when my daughter asked him when he was coming out to live with us for good, he responded irritably by telling her he lived in England. Why on earth would he want to come and live in France?

He had forgotten that he had ever agreed to move in with us in the first place.

This is now in our top three family jokes, but at the time it was crippling; his financial input from the sale of his house was one of the last cells in my spreadsheet, which by now resembled a smoking battlefield. Entire columns had been decimated, formulas lay in ruins, macros screamed for medics in the mud.

My writing space in FranceStill, I maintained my 5am writing routine and lost myself in Ima’s world. 

Lots of good things happened during this time (Stephen King tweeted about my book, and I met my agent, Sam) but it was becoming painfully clear that I was already losing whatever visibility I had attained as an author. Most writers will know how this feels at some point in their career. The phone calls stop. Email response times yawn out. Sometimes you're just plain ignored. This kind of silence, I have learned, happens a lot in publishing. I don’t know why but I suspect it’s nothing personal; worse, it’s because your name has simply fallen off the end of everyone’s priority list.

So nobody can be blamed, and once again: don’t complain, Mr Grumpy. Nobody likes a sore loser.

But I often think that if I could change one thing about publishing, it would be its culture of sudden silence. (This goes for any industry, in fact; it doesn’t take much effort to rattle off a couple of lines to let somebody know you’ve heard them.)

Same boatOur finances were in a mess. My anxiety grew by the day, taking root in that sinister hour between 3am and 4am when I would wake in a panic and stare at the gnarled beams above our bed, listening to wild animals screech outside.

I mean...I’m sure they were wild animals. And almost certainly they were outside (although the doors on that place were rubbish.)

Though my thoughts were still on my stalling career, more important now was our lack of money, and if my books weren’t selling then I had to find some other way of earning it.

My previous career had been in software, so I spent several frantic months re-familiarising myself with what 'software' actually was and interviewing for jobs I didn’t fully understand. At last I found a short-term contract with a firm back in the UK which, after a strange couple of weeks back in Edinburgh, I was able to complete remotely from home. This was the lifeline that saved us plunging into debt, but it was also a daily reminder that I had failed as a professional writer.

I know now how vital day jobs are to most writing careers, even the most successful ones, but at the time my perceived lack of success only added to the list of things to feel anxious about.

The only thing that kept me calm was writing itself. Ima’s voice was cool and rational, and I knew that somewhere in her story lay hope. I finished it and sent it to my editor, utterly convinced that I had just written my best work so far. If anything could save my career, it was Ima.

Fast forward a month or so. It’s January and I’m sitting in a steam roller at midnight, drunk on cheap wine from the vineyard over the hill and smoking rollups in the rain. I am still processing the email from my publishers telling me that they are not convinced by the commercial appeal of THE HUMAN SON, and in order for them to publish it they would want to change the narrative dramatically. I consider driving the steamroller down the hill to see what would happen, but the workman who left it here neglected to also leave a key.

Now, it’s worth mentioning at this point: if your publisher tells you this kind of thing then it’s important to listen. They are the iron gatekeepers for a reason, which is that they (mostly) know how to sell books. A big lesson you learn as an author is how to listen to such advice with good faith, and not throw your toys out of the pram because somebody doesn’t ‘get you’. 

However, another thing you learn is that there is always a choice. Your agent, publisher or editor is not obliged to sell, publish or polish anything you write, but neither are you obliged to go along with everything they say. Sometimes that choice is difficult to make, but as I sulked in that rain-soaked steam roller I knew for sure I had to make it.

I didn’t want to change Ima’s story because it was the story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t complicated, it didn’t require any different angle or character to make it work, and if I changed it now then I would be writing something I didn’t believe in. 

Luckily I found support in my agent, who loved the book and agreed it should stay as it was, so the next day I called my editor and we agreed that they wouldn’t publish it. Instead my agent would search for a more suitable home for Ima’s story, leaving me free to write the book my publishers had wanted me to write in the first place: the sequel to The End of the World Running Club

So back to the blank page it was.

Fast forward two years. We no longer live in France. We took the hint and hightailed it back to Scotland, the country in which we started our family and which I still love. The End of the World Survivors Club has been out for over a year and, though it’s had nice things said about it, its figures are low. No marketing + no ARCS + no press = no sales. The Human Son has also been out for a few months, but despite the best intentions of its publishers, it looks like it's going the same way. 

Am I whining? Probably. I don't mean to.

I’ll say it loud and clear once again: I am genuinely grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given. Four of my books have been published by major publishing houses and I’m proud of each of them for different reasons—but it’s crushing to see them fail so consistently, and I know, I know, we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, but when you see so many other books soaring to success while yours plummet, it’s difficult not to judge yourself, difficult not to believe that the iron gatekeepers have found you wanting or, worse, now view you as a trespasser. 

Difficult not to feel like you’re in a place that doesn’t want you, like that eery, gnarly-beamed house on the hill.

Farewell, France

The point is, I feel like I'm at a crossroads.

Do I keep writing, or give up?

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I feel genuine grief over how my career has nose-dived. My heart does strange things when I think about it, and I still have those 3am panics when I think about what might have happened, whether I did something wrong or offended someone, or whether I’m just not the writer I thought I was. 

Should I throw in the towel and save myself the anxiety? Or should I fight on in the hope that, one day, a spark will be lit and something takes off?

The answer is: of course I should fight on. Because no matter how much I feel like I’m failing at it, I still believe that writing is at least one of the things I’m supposed to be doing with my time on this planet.

So I’m starting afresh. Career 2.0. Nothing to lose. I’m writing a screenplay with an old friend. It’s ridiculous, barely more than sitting in the pub and talking nonsense like we used to, and if it comes to nothing then it doesn’t matter because it’s been fun and we’ll move onto the next one. I’ve learned how much I enjoy collaboration, and I’d like to do more of it in future.

Hello, ScotlandI also have a self-published trilogy to complete (and if you’ve read the first…I’m so sorry its follow-up has taken so long)

As far as traditional publishing goes, I'm currently out of contract so whatever I write next is speculative. I have written a book this year, but it didn't set my agent’s heart ablaze so we’ve agreed to shelve it and move onto another. 

I’ve outlined three ideas so far, and though I’m excited about each of them for different reasons, I think the third has the most potential. It's about a haunted house in France.