#publishingfail: We need to talk about failure

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As JK Rowling once told a class of Harvard University students, it is impossible to live “without failing at something”. The now hyper-successful author was recounting her early personal (and “epic”) failure, but her message could just as easily be applied to organisations and businesses. The only way to avoid failure, says Rowling, is to live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. Who wants to live, work or publish that way?

Failure isn’t an unusual experience in the publishing industry. The first publisher of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Sir Stanley Unwin, referred in 1926 to the inevitability of some books being failures. Anyone who has ever worked in publishing will have their own stories of glaring errors making it through multiple proofing processes, large print runs selling in sparser quantities than hoped and advances never earning out. In the digital era, high profile projects such as HarperCollins’s Authonomy, Penguin Random House’s My Independent Bookshop and Small Demons have all closed after ‘failing’ in some way.

In business in general, failure is an extremely common – in fact often the most likely – outcome, yet, as Fast Company point out it’s something we usually fear, refuse to accept and avoid talking about. That may be understandable, but it’s not healthy because failing is how individuals and organisations learn and develop. In a publishing environment under pressure to innovate, failure can therefore be a force for good. But how do we get failure on the agenda? Here are five tips:

1. Recognise different types of failure

Not all failures are equal. Some failures help us learn from our mistakes and boost innovation. Without these, we might just stagnate – or fail, as Rowling describes it, “by default”. Other failures have more catastrophic consequences and should, ideally, be anticipated and avoided. Understanding the difference between experimental (a.k.a. beneficial) failure and the catastrophic kind is key if you want to encourage innovation and foster open discussions about failure.

2. Take responsibility for failure

If failure is viewed negatively, it encourages people to blame others: editorial say the marketing and promotion strategy was ineffective; sales say the content of the book didn’t live up to its promises. Some self-publishers, as Mark Coker says, blame everyone but themselves. This doesn’t help anyone and is also misleading: failures are more often the result of complex combinations of actions and circumstances than the fault of one individual. So take on some of that responsibility yourself and be open about what happened.

3. Talk about failure

Rather than pointing the finger at editorial or marketing, get both teams together and have an open – and blame free – discussion about what went wrong and what you might do differently in the future.

4. Analyse and learn from failure

Treat failure as a valuable learning opportunity. Rowling says her own failure taught her things about herself she could not have learnt any other way. But don’t just stop when you have one answer. The investigation into one of the world’s most high profile failures, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, identified a technical problem with a component. However, the underlying causes of the accident were actually the communication and management actions that enabled this known danger to be ignored. The Five Whys technique, a simple but persistent strategy, can help uncover the fundamental reasons for things going wrong.

5. Share your failures

Talking about failure with those involved helps a small number of people learn from the experience; sharing failures (and the learnings from them) with wider audiences will boost learning across the industry. How often do you go hear someone talking honestly about failure at a publishing event or conference? Yes, we can learn from other people’s successes, but research has found we learn more from failures than successes.

So – you heard it here first – I’m suggesting a #publishingfail event, where speakers may only discuss projects that failed to achieve their objectives and what they learned from their experiences. Would you come along? Or speak even?

Anna FahertyThis is a guest post by Anna Faherty. Anna is a writer, publisher and teacher. She collaborates with global publishers on digital, print and training projects and has taught on publishing programmes at Kingston University, Oxford Brookes University and University College London. She blogs at http://strategiccontent.co.uk/blog and tweets as @mafunyane.


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    1. Absolutely. We’re only human. Reminds me of the quote “History repeats itself. Has to. No-one listens.” Count me in.

  1. The only people who don’t make mistakes are those who don’t DO anything!

    Don’t be so afraid of failure you never try to achieve something you want. You’ll regret it later. The only thing worse than failure is refusing to try. – – Stew

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