The Glorious Failure of Book One

The normal process of building a career.

I once went to a conference where five children’s book authors spoke about their first sale. Each sold their first book to the first editor who saw it, and the book did well.

Well. THAT doesn’t happen very often. I went home and cried because my experience was like most people. My first book, THE RIVER DRAGON, had a nice splash in the marketplace and sold fairly well, but it drifted off into a slumber.

Probably (I’m sorry!) your book one will publish to the sound of crickets. You’ll try this or that—techniques that someone said SHOULD work—and you’ll be disappointed with the sales. It’s rare for it to go any other way.

The Unavoidable Problems with Book One

The problem with the first book is three-fold. First, there’s the problem of today’s crowded market. Every day, new books are released and yours must compete for an audience. Why should anyone take a chance on buying your book when there are a dozen similar ones just out? It’s a brutal bunny-eat-bunny world out there.

Second, you are totally unknown. You have no history with readers, no reputation. With only one book out, no one quite knows what you write about (or will write about) or what sort of things you are passionate about. The common wisdom is that readers need to KNOW, LIKE, and TRUST you. You’re just building the KNOW phase, much less the LIKE or TRUST. Obviously, what you need are books two, three, four and more.

Third, you need to write better. In my opinion, this always holds, especially for indie writers. We are largely self-taught, or we piece together an education from a webinar here, a book there, and a critique now and then. We are learning on the job. We need to honestly say that we are weak in this area or that area and find instruction (because there’s plenty of it out there! Here’s my How to Write a Children’s Picture Book online video class.) But even then, without someone to guide us, we often have deep gaps in our understanding of the writing process.

ALWAYS, think about writing better. A well-written book is the best defense against doing poorly in the marketplace. (Yes. I know the arguments that bad books are published and succeed. But why would you want to join THAT crowd?)

Publish Book One

Dominique Raccah came to America at the age of nine and found that children’s literature opened a way for her to understand the world. In 1987, she launched her own publishing company, Sourcebooks, which has become one of the top independent publishers. Last year, she said, “It’s pretty wild that the company I started just thirty-one years ago has become a Top 11 U.S. publisher and the largest woman-owned publisher in North America. We have over 100 employees and now publish hundreds of books each year in a variety of categories.”

Dominique once talked about the first book she published. She said that she believed in that book. Others told her that this or that was wrong with it, but she didn’t believe them. Instead, she went out and marketed the book and sold copies. Her story inspires me because so often WE are told that this or that is wrong with our book. (And it’s probably true!)

Like Dominique, though, we need to be committed to the book, sure that it’s the best we could do at the time, and more than that, that someone NEEDS to read this book. For information or for entertainment or whatever. The book is needed and important. We must be utterly sure that this book needs to be published.

And so, publish book one. Throw yourself into the marketing.


Write and Publish Book Two

But while you’re marketing Book One, your most important task it to write and publish Book Two. Take a class to learn your craft better and then jump in. (Maybe get a critique that you were afraid to the first time!) Write, write, write. Publish.

Because the only way forward to a career is to fail gloriously with Book One, and still find the courage to write and publish Book Two. Writing is an act of courage, said Cynthia Ozick. Yes.