Why did my first book fail? Let me count the ways

Michael Mullooly conducts a postmortem on his manuscript to learn from its fatal flaws

I wrote a book and nobody cared.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom cared. So did my girlfriend. Sadly, neither of them owns a publishing company.

My book was rather imaginatively called The Commute. It was a nonfiction, humorous account of my time spent on trains commuting back and forth to college while also dealing with a chronic illness. Every trip was a goldmine of writing material for the patient observer. Commuters are a different breed of people, having developed as they did in their insulated carriages, safely locked away from the rest of humanity. Theirs is a complicated culture, replete with traditions, customs and taboos the average citizen lives blissfully unaware of. At least 10 per cent of all commuters on any given train seem to be pathologically insane, the other 90 per cent chronic narcoleptics able to sleep through anything.

The day I finished writing it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Sadly that moment was to be followed by six months of blanket rejection

At age 18 I was not ready to fall down the Iarnród Eireann rabbit hole, but once I had, I decided I might as well write about it. The result was a slim, 35,000-word volume written in a style heavily influenced by Bill Bryson that had just enough One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with Irish accents to make up for the amount of trains. The day I finished writing it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Sadly that moment was to be followed by six months of blanket rejection.

Every nonfiction publisher in the country turned down The Commute, which I submitted every time with a tailored cover letter so eager and bursting with optimism that if you held it in the light at a certain angle you could probably have made out a sheen of pure, naïve hope on the page, glistening like a rainbow trapped in an oil slick. Some publishers were polite and offered me feedback or directions on where to go next after turning me down. Some, reading my initial submission made up of three sample chapters, even asked to read the entire work before ultimately passing. The majority of publishers, however, simply replied after a couple of months with a generic, cookie-cutter rejection email.

Anne Rule, before her first book was published, used to keep the countless rejection slips she received from publishers as physical mementos that presumably served to spur her on. The digital age has robbed me of even that small placation. All I can do instead is search my email inbox for the phrase “decided not to go with”, which is just about the most depressing thing one can do alone on a Friday night.

Having failed to secure a publishing deal after half a year, I’m ready to call time and begin the postmortem on exactly why my first foray into the world of nonfiction publishing was a failure.

Scrutinise the rejection

I’m here to be a professional writer, and while tonnes of rejection is par for the course in this industry, it’s essential to scrutinise that rejection, because as painful as it might be, in it you will find the sobering truths about what you need to change that you perhaps knew all along. If all you ever do is read until you find the word no and then delete the email and bury your head in the sand, things will never change. That would be like trying to catch fish with your hands again and again while at the same time getting frustrated with the person beside you explaining what a fishing rod is.

The road to success as a writer is not as simple a process as: write something great, then make millions. It’s a complicated series of sub-processes that demands a budding author become familiar with sales and marketing too. Authors need to understand from day one, before writing a single word, that if their debut book isn’t an attractive, safe-looking bet for publishers, then it’s never going to see the light of day. You need to think like a publisher and see your work at every stage from their perspective as well as your own in order to create something they’re willing to back.

While the realisation that all the time and effort I had spent crafting the manuscript was never going to achieve the dream of becoming a book found in the discount bin at second-rate bookstores with a €3 sticker slapped on it, I am determined to ensure that all that effort wasn’t for nothing. By analysing exactly why it failed, I can at least ensure I don’t make the same mistakes twice, and given how long it takes to write each manuscript, that seems like worthwhile progress to me.

If you can't summarise what your first book is about without using the words 'it's complicated' then you have a problem on your hands with the book's scope and focus

So, what killed The Commute? Well, Fatal Flaw Number One is immediately apparent in the fact that I have always found it hard to explain exactly what I wrote. That should have set off a tower of warning bells before I ever put a single word to paper. If you can't summarise what your first book is about without using the words "it's complicated" then you have a problem on your hands with the book's scope and focus. These are not just arbitrary, meaningless concepts, these are issues that will ultimately translate into a publisher rejecting your manuscript because they aren't sure who's going to buy your book, or how to market it. The Commute suffered from a lack of cohesion in its scope and target audience, morphing as it did between comedy and drama, with chapters incongruously sharing wacky train antics alongside graphic medical procedures. This lack of direction leads us to Fatal Flaw Number Two.

With The Commute I attempted to appeal to far too many demographics at once while ultimately failing to hold the attention of any for the book's duration. This resulted in one publisher turning me down despite calling my work "well written, insightful and frequently very funny" due to not knowing exactly who would buy my book. In the 21st century, simply writing something well is no longer enough. Your book has to stand on its own two legs as a viable product, with you as the salesperson able to convince publishers of its viability in an oversaturated market.

You need to be able to present clear target demographics, show precedent with examples of similar books and how they fared, and have a manuscript as sharply honed as a razor’s edge, where every chapter and every sentence is there to serve a broader, overarching goal and reinforce the book’s clearly defined identity. In short, you can’t just write a book anymore. To stand out from the masses you have to create a brand.

Fatal Flaw Number Three is something every writer struggles with – length. With the average book between 60,000 and 80,000 words, The Commute was far too slim

Fatal Flaw Number Three is something I believe every writer struggles with to some degree – length. With the average book falling somewhere between 60,000 and 80,000 words, The Commute was far too slim for a debut work. Some publishers called it "insubstantial" which was a very fair criticism. While writing cover letters I attempted to sell the book's small size as a positive, throwing out cliches like "quality over quantity" and "fits right into the commuter's pocket!", the reality was I was only kidding myself. While standing out on the publisher's desk is almost always a good thing, presenting a manuscript that is either far too short or dauntingly massive is a major turn-off for publishers, who then have to worry about pricing and marketing more than they usually do.

As much as we all might wish we could bash out an Animal Farm-sized masterpiece over a couple of months and rake in the dough, consumers simply aren't going to plop money down on an unknown writer for a glorified novelette. Similarly, if you're watching your word count spiral over 100,000, don't let your manuscript near a publisher until you've learned self-control and how to ruthlessly edit your own work.

'Success is a science'

In short, The Commute lacked direction, a target audience and about 30,000 words. Two of those problems could and should have been fixed before I wrote a single word. It would have been as simple as crafting a one-page handout that listed the book's content aims, overall goals and marketability. I could have then started writing, with that reference sheet taped over my desk, helping to always keep me focused on both the short- and long-term goals for my project. Anyone who begins writing a book thinking that they can worry about the publishing stage once they have something tangible written needs to strongly reconsider. The end goal – being accepted by a publisher – needs to be at the forefront of your mind from day zero.

Failure is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s how we learn. Neither is success a lottery. Like Oscar Wilde said, “Success is a science; if you have the conditions, you get the result.” Having learned exactly where I went wrong, I’m off to tweak the conditions and try again, because one way or another, I’m determined to make it to that discount bin.

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