“Learn from your mistakes” is a nearly useless piece of advice in publishing. In fact, nothing will derail your writing career more than than trying to make sense of your rejections.
Cognitive psychologists call the effort to understand loss “Sense Making.” It sounds logical. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to know why that agent didn’t take you on or why an editor rejected your manuscript or why the marketing manager chose a different freelancer? That way you could course-correct and build strategies that would be more successful.
Sounds great. Logical. Reasonable. Only it isn’t. Not in publishing. This is not an industry based on logic, merit or common sense. Its very nature is incomprehensible, erratic, and unpredictable.
Publishing’s Shelves Are Stocked With Crazy
Let me give you an example. You’re an author with two books under her belt. Your editor’s a bit soured that the last one didn’t do well and rejects your manuscript. She’s vague about why and your efforts at “sense-making” meet a dead-end. So your agent shops it to other houses and you get 25 rejections.
Half of them say the manuscript is too literary for a mass market. The other half think it’s not literary enough for sophisticated readers. Some thought it was too plot-driven, others that it was too character-driven. Some thought it was way too long, others thought it was way too short.
How in God’s pajamas are you supposed to “learn from your rejections” when you get a hot, steaming pile of contradictions like that?
You can’t. Publishing isn’t an industry like engineering or design that relies on objective facts, provable theories and predictable results. If somebody rejects your design for an air conditioner it’s likely because you broke something fixable—like the laws of ventilation. But in writing? Please. There are no laws, only opinions. Informed opinions to be sure, but opinions nonetheless.
Take Stephen King’s early rejections for Carrie. Many publishers rejected it because they thought it wasn’t scary enough! Imagine if King had “learned from his mistakes” and changed what is now considered a classic in horror?
Make Sense At Your Own Risk
This is one of the problems of sense making in publishing—finding out why you failed carries the potential of harming you. Now, it’s easy to learn from your mistakes if you’re in the hard sciences. Take colors. If you mix red with yellow you always get orange. Always. If it doesn’t turn orange you made a mistake you can learn from.
This is not true in publishing. There is no science, no laws, no nothing. If I mix red and yellow I might get orange but you might get green and another author might get black.
If you and I have strikingly similar books and take the identical approach to marketing, publicity, and advertising we will get strikingly different results. This is why you should not only avoid trying to learn from your mistakes but avoid asking best sellers the secret to their success. They’ll tell you it’s their agent. So you get the same agent and get no results. Zip. Nada. They’ll tell you it’s their blog so you start blogging and you get the success of a stale bagel. They’ll tell you it’s their writing process so you adopt it and get writer’s block. The successful author mixed yellow with red and got orange. You mixed the exact same colors and got white.
Stop Making Sense
And that, in a nutshell, is why you should avoid making sense of your rejections. A mistake for me might be the solution for you. A solution for you might be a mistake for me. The same “mistake” you make on one book could be the breakthrough for your next.
The search for the truth, the understandable need to learn from our mistakes, isn’t just an exercise in futility; it’s a recipe for emotional chaos. Indeed, studies show that people who seek a reason for their loss are no happier than the people who didn’t seek an answer at all. Think about that for a minute. Science says you will be happier if you don’t try to make sense of a failure. Why? Researchers believe that sense-making, in the absence of facts, creates more opportunities for agitation, anxiety, rumination, circular thinking and obsessive behavior. And in publishing, there are few facts. There are no conclusions to be had, only conjectures to be mulled.
So You Can’t Learn Anything From Failures?
Yes, if they are procedural or factual. The agent rejected you because she asked for a summary page and you gave her the whole manuscript? Yes, you can learn to follow directions.
You thought the jacket copy of your book was banal but you stayed silent because you didn’t want to anger the editor? Yes, you can learn to speak up.
You’re a self-pubbed author, commissioned an amateur to design the cover and three book marketing bloggers end up using it as an example of what not to do? Lesson learned: Don’t cheap out on design.
So, yes, you can learn from your failures as long as there are factual reasons behind them.
So What Now?
Stop learning from your mistakes and start learning to move forward. Forget the why of a rejection and focus on the how of what’s next. Talk to trusted, experienced insiders—agents, editors, fellow writers, teachers. You might not get the same result when you mix their colors but it’s still important to understand how to experiment with them. I said avoid the temptation to make sense out of failure; I didn’t say avoid the need to educate yourself.
In my book, I detail other ways of dealing with rejection that don’t involve trying to learn from them. They include shifting your consciousness to greet failure as necessary for your success. Why? Because success is a long slog that requires strength and you get strong by being tested not feted.
The true secret to overcoming rejections isn’t in trying to learn from them but in developing a coping strategy that allows you to move forward with confidence.