Dealing with Setbacks

broken carIn these days of relentless self-promotion, we authors generally avoid sharing our bad news. Our posts and tweets, our websites and interviews emphasise the positive: a publishing deal, an interesting writers’ festival, a new creative partnership. Sometimes  we talk about fighting our way through adversity to achieve a goal. But only rarely do we feature the professional setbacks we experience along the way. The message we want to get across to our readers is that we’re doing just fine!

While I’ve been lucky enough to earn a living as a novelist for quite a few years, and am still internationally published, I’ve had my share of setbacks, major and minor. Along the way I’ve become a little better at dealing with reversals. The most recent occurred not very long ago. One of my major publishers advised me by phone that, after crunching the numbers, they couldn’t justify producing a print edition of my next novel. They’d initially be releasing it in e-book only. This news came in only a month before the (then) planned publication date. The novel was part of a series, and the earlier books had been published in both print and e-book.

Some of you might say that I should consider myself lucky to be published at all, and I do, of course. But this was still a shock. It needs to be seen in the context of my being an established mid-list author with a long track record, and with every previous book having come out in a print edition.

But even the biggest publishing houses are feeling the financial crunch. They’re under massive pressure from an ever-changing market. Publishing is a business, and decisions like this are made on the basis of economics, not sentiment. Although deep down I recognised the truth of that, my feelings were at that stage stronger than logic. I knew I had to find some strategies for dealing with them before they derailed me. I had a looming deadline for another book, and I had no time to wallow in negativity.

I took the dogs out for a walk (exercise + undemanding company = calm) and gave myself a mental talking-to while doing so. Here’s the result, which I hope may help others in a similar situation.

Writer’s response to a professional setback:

1. Anger (It’s all their fault):
It’s easy to blame other people – the publisher, the marketing team, the cover artist, the distributors, and so on. All rolled into a big fat ‘It’s Not Fair!’

But wait:
It’s natural to feel anger when things go wrong. But trying to lay blame is pointless. Stewing in resentment achieves absolutely nothing. As for fairness, publishing is a business, and this was a business decision.

2. Guilt/sense of failure/grief (It’s all my fault):
A reversal often makes the writer doubt herself and her abilities. This happens even if she’s had proven success in the past. It happens even if she believes wholeheartedly in her book, because her first reaction is based on emotion, not logic. A writer can experience real grief, as at a death, when a project gets canned before it sees the light of day. That can be crippling.

But wait:
It’s OK to feel sad. For a while. Then you have to pick yourself up and get on with whatever comes next. Put a reversal of this kind in the context of a world where people were facing war, famine, poverty, slavery or homelessness on a daily basis, and it becomes pretty unimportant.

3. Overthinking:
 Writers have very active imaginations, so a situation like this can spark off all kinds of crazy and unhelpful thoughts and it can be hard to shut them down. Every negative thought you’ve ever had about writing and publishing seems to surface, and the result isn’t pretty. For me the worst was this one: I can’t do it anymore. Not helpful when I had a three-book contract to fulfil.

But wait:
It’s hard to avoid brain churn when you are stressed, but this sort of stuff is patently nonsense and gets in the way of everything else. The usual de-stressers (exercise, meditation, talking to family and friends, hugging the dog) all come in handy at this point.

For me, it was important to do some writing that same day. Making progress on the new book went some way toward restoring my belief in myself.  I also jotted down a plan for dealing with the publishing challenge:

1. Get all the relevant facts
2. Consult an expert
3. Stay calm and focused
4. Accept what cannot be changed; respond to the new challenge
5. Learn from the experience

There was a happy ending to this story – I was recently advised that the book in question would after all be published in both print and e-book. And I submitted my new novel on deadline.

Do you share your setbacks as a writer, and if so with whom? Just your close circle, or your readership in general? How do you recover from professional setbacks?

Photo credit: ID 36819106 © Jevtic |



About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written nineteen novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world, and have won numerous awards. Juliet's new novel, Tower of Thorns, will be published in October/November 2015. Tower of Thorns is the second book in the Blackthorn & Grim series of historical fantasy/mysteries for adult readers. The first Blackthorn & Grim novel, Dreamer's Pool, is available from Roc US and Pan Macmillan Australia.


  1. says

    Oh Juliet, this was such a good post; I like to hear how others handle a setback. Of course, I hate that word. I prefer to call it “a turn.” Your #4 is an excellent point. Accept what we cannot change and move on to a new challenge as a two-pronged approach sounds very productive and energizing. Thank you!

  2. paula lopes says

    Juliet, thank you so much for sharing your feelings and, most of all, the solutions that worked out for you.
    When we are in the middle of the storm, sometimes is difficult to see beyond that.
    I am quite anxious to see how can you sign an e-book…. another challenge to surpass.

    Thank you

  3. says

    I’m so personally happy that you’ve managed to turn setbacks into challenges to work around and through. Without that perseverance, we (your readers) would be missing out. I think of all the books of yours that I’ve enjoyed so far, and it’s a painful concept to think that due to an “it’s only business” decision, I might have never experienced those events, those lives. Keep up the good spirits and thanks again for not backing down! :)

  4. says

    Great post. So many of us have had to deal with setbacks, and for the most part we just don’t talk about it. Rejections, disappointing launches, a bad review–you name it! I think it’s important, as you say, to allow yourself to feel the pain, and then quit wallowing. And–get back to writing ASAP.

  5. says

    Thanks for sharing, Juliet. I don’t like to talk about setbacks myself – at least not until I’ve gotten past the guilt/sense of failure/grief you talked about. It makes me feel better, too, to share that with someone who’s suffered a reversal or misfortune of their own. I think it’s a great way of making another person not feel so bad about their own setbacks. This was how I felt when I read your post. Thank you.

  6. says

    I love the term ‘brain churn’. Yes, its useless chatter, usually of the ‘I suck’ variety. Turning that off, or at least turning the volume down, is a skill-set in itself. There’s a lot of wisdom in your post, and a lot of comfort as well. Thanks for sharing.

  7. says

    Your post is so relevant to me. I have two books that released on Tuesday, Writing With The Master, about writing a novel with Grisham and Sleeping Dogs, the novel I wrote with him. I got a huge writeup the previous Sunday with both covers pictured in the area’s local paper and a TV appearance so yesterday, I went into B&N to check on what kind of display they had up. They didn’t have either book in the store. My publisher totally dropped the ball (or didn’t ante up enough $ to get placement) so in the biggest bookstore in the area, I’m invisible! I yelled at my editor and something’s being done but its a huge disappointment so I’m doing all the things you suggest, thanks!

  8. Jude Whelley says

    Thank you for an excellent, uplifting post! Brain churn stuck a chord with me too. This post is definitely a keeper!

  9. says

    Thank you for your kind words of wisdom, Juliet! I can tell you that you have a LIFELONG fan right here who actually read some of “Flame of Sevenwaters” this morning upon waking. ;) I find this post timely and relevant not only for my writing journey at the moment, but for some life situations I’ve been dealing with as well. You’re absolutely spot on with your step-by-step emotional process and I will take it to heart. Happy writing!

  10. says

    Thank you for such an adult and insightful post. We definitely should share our setbacks with other people. . . if only to learn from each other. That being said, I might hesitate now and again :-)

  11. Marcy McKay says

    Finally! Someone brave enough to share the DARK SIDE of publishing! Thanks, Juliet. I’m still trying to become a “debut author”, but share my setbacks with my weekly writing group. They help me get past my pity party and return to what writers do. Write.

  12. says

    Thank you for telling us about some of the “twists and turns” in your publishing journey. Believe me, we all appreciate it. It’s nice to hear from someone as accomplished as yourself tell us about some of the bad stuff. We all know it’s out there but most of the time we don’t get a chance to really hear it.
    Thanks again.

  13. says

    Wonderful post and I think your solutions are solid. An unanswered question remains: if they hard back published your previous books, why not this one? You astutely noted that you must get the relevant facts. Those facts may show that a) you readership has fallen off or b) their costs have risen. We grumble about the ways of publishers but they have their own problems staying alive. Like the sage has said, we should be grateful for our problems and not theirs. I suspect the decision has nothing to do with the continued excellence of your writing nor with loyalty of your audience. Most likely, economics have required them to move the goal posts. Besides, it’s just possible that your e-book will bring you more net return than the hard back. Wouldn’t that be a happy ending?

  14. says

    Excellent post. People so often post only good news, so that it feels like everyone is doing better than you, when the truth of the matter, is, everyone has problems at some point, and they often choose not to talk about them. The other good point is that it’s often not as bad as it seems on first glance.

    Just the post I needed today.

  15. says

    I felt so bad for you, that must have been a hard blow. Very glad it worked out in the end. :) Great post, while I’m unpublished at this point I still appreciate hearing the facts not a rosy picture that only builds false expectations.

  16. says

    Wow, if the fabulous author of the Sevenwaters and more is having marketing problems, what hope is there for us “prepublished” writers? So glad it worked out with the publisher….it seems like e-books are so much easier for them. I wonder if the editing quality is the same?

    For someone with Marillier’s track record and loyal readers, it hardcover AND ebooks are a no brainer. I’ll be looking for the new books, in whichever format I choose. Yes, publishers, let us choose!

  17. says

    I’m always happen when authors talk about things like this because those of us wanting to become authors have these questions. I remember how shocked I was that an established author had her book turned down by her publisher (on contract). I’m much wiser now. :) Thank you very much for sharing. I hope other authors will as well. On this side of the process, things look awful green over there, even though we know that’s not usually/always the case. Thank you!

  18. says

    I’m so, so pleased that your publisher decided to add a print run after all, Juliet! Thank you for sharing this story, your coping strategies, and the happy outcome.

  19. says

    Thank you for this honest post. Setbacks are a part of life. My sister once asked how I could stand to have so many failures in my career as a research scientist. I told her when things go smoothly I’ve actually learned less. The struggle and setbacks make me ask more questions, the right ones. And so it is with writing and publishing, and I do share. If helps another writer take courage and press on, it is worth it.

  20. says

    That’s why you really, really have to like writing first, because there’s going to be a lot of setbacks. If it’s not getting an acceptance, it might be a personal setback. I used to write with a cowriter, and it spectacularly blew apart during submission of a book to agents. I had to walk away from an entire book and start a new one. Then I realized because of the cowriter I hadn’t fixed a long-standing problem, and that turned into a huge setback. It was so bad that I thought that if I couldn’t fix it, I would only be able to write short stories. It was a big low point that I thought about giving up on novels. I ran across the right thing for me at that moment, and I’ve been able to work through that problem. But I look back on that, and it was so bad that other writers would have given up and walked away.

    But I like to write first. Not just want to be published.

  21. says

    Hurray for your happy-ending, but I was wondering if there are clauses in publishing contracts regarding these late changes to e-book only? One that would allow a writer out of the contract if this happened? It might be something an author would want included in the future deals because it costs them — and also would cost you, should you choose instead to publish on your own — close to nothing to publish in e-form. Why would you want them to do it and receive less royalties? Seem a blatantly unfair act on their part. Just a thought. Yes we ARE always thinking, aren’t we?