Now, It’s Your Turn
I Hope You Take It
The other day, a friend of a friend called me about trying to get a book deal. He’s a gifted storyteller who wants to publish a novelized version of his life, but he’s not getting any traction. The gatekeepers—agents and acquisitions editors and a few friends in publishing—are all telling him it’s great but they can’t take it on right now. They are encouraging him to keep going. Surely, they say, there is a publisher out there somewhere who would take it.
When industry insiders compliment your book but still reject you, this is “publishing speak” for something is missing. No one will say this to your face, because they don’t want to be the person who turns down the next Harry Potter. But generally speaking, if they are not courting you, you are heading in the wrong direction.
Perhaps this individual should spend a couple years attending writers conferences and meeting authors and agents. Maybe he should study the terrain, competing with the many others all following the same blueprint, hearing the same tired cliches in auditoriums filled with dying dreams. And maybe, eventually, all that hard work will pay off. There’s something to be said, after all, for paying one’s dues.
But this guy is eager to get started. He wants to go out with a message he believes in and has a plan to do so. He’s a natural marketer with a knack for storytelling and creativity and doesn’t want to sit around, waiting for someone to tell him it’s time to go.
“For the past two months,” he told me, “I’ve just been sending emails… But sending emails doesn’t feel like work.”
He’s right—it’s not. Creating is work. Relationships are work. But sending emails is often just a way of avoiding what must be done.
This man feels handcuffed by a system he doesn’t understand. On top of that, he’s scared. Scared that if he shares too much, he might not get published. And honestly, he’s probably right. When you give away too much content in a book before getting a publisher, people tend to wonder where the value is. Why would they buy your story if you already shared most of it? But he’s not dealing with how much of a story to tell before getting a book deal. He’s dealing with whether or not anyone will hear his story, ever.
That’s what’s on the line for all of us. We are all fighting to be heard, and it’s a noisy world out there, with new voices being added to the din daily. Following the same plan as everyone else is not a recipe for success. You’ve got to be willing to shake up the status quo if you want to cut through the clutter. You have to take a risk. Ya gotta break some rules.
Fortune does not favor the hesitant.
As someone who regularly works with the largest publishers in the world, I can tell you this industry is full of good people who love books and want what’s best for the reading public. Every day, though, I see colleagues pass on great work because it doesn’t fit the current zeitgeist. They all admit this is a shame, but most shrug as if there’s nothing that can be done. It’s getting harder and harder to watch this happen.
As a member of this establishment, I probably should have told this newbie to keep putting out feelers, to keep building his platform and playing the game. Maybe I should have reminded him of J.K. Rowling’s years of rejection and how Stephen King threw his first novel in the trash and his wife had to dig it out.1
But I didn’t.
I told him that if he had a vision to promote his work, he should follow that instinct. Now. Because what gatekeepers are looking for, without being able to articulate it, is that. They want tenacity and bravery, a message so compelling it demands to be heard. The system doesn’t reward inaction. It is, in fact, predicated on people intentionally breaking the very rules it claims to abide by. That is actually how we got the rules in the first place.
And of course, this goes way beyond book publishing. You do not need someone else’s permission to share what needs to be shared. The opportunities and tools are available. They may not be perfect, but they’re here nonetheless. As my friend and mentor-from-afar Seth Godin writes:
We live in a world that’s still filled with barriers and limits, a culture where too often people are judged, stripped of their dignity and denied true freedoms. But at the same time, the economy and technological shifts around us have created an entirely new class of ruckus makers and have given people the freedom to stand up and acknowledge that it’s their turn.2
The reason we tell people to take a turn, he says, is because it’s rarely given. When playing a game, if you wait too long to make a move, you’ll be skipped over. The game keeps going on without you. That’s life. That’s evolution. Fortune does not favor the hesitant. But the good news is that you are not something separate from the system. You are an active participant in making the world what it is, one way or the other. And what the world needs more of is people who won’t settle for it.
What the world needs more of is people who won’t settle for it.
We cannot change what we are desperately trying to fit into. No one wants to listen to a person who needs their attention. We follow leaders who are willing to say what needs to be said, regardless of the consequence. On the whole, history rewards rule-breakers and risk-takers more than those who comply. Sure, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey could not have built the empires they now preside over without the buy-in and belief of many individuals. But they were always the ones who had to go first.
And what else ought we do with our one “wild and precious life”?3 Trying to keep up with the pack is pointless. At best, you’ll be a drop in a sea of mediocrity. The only choice worth making is to be bold. Break the box instead of trying to fit into it, and see where that takes you. You may not get exactly what you want, but by aiming higher than reason would dictate, you’ll end up farther down the road than conservative thinking could ever take you.
Speak up. Stand out. Dare to be ignored instead of unheard.
Speak up. Stand out. Dare to be ignored instead of unheard. Once you are disabused of the way things are, you will liberate yourself to what could be. And of course, there will be failure. There will be pain and embarrassment, and you might take as many steps forward as you do back. But you will be moving; and with movement, comes wisdom. The individuals with the most attention aren’t the ones who necessarily deserve it. They’re just the ones who said something. And perhaps the only difference between them and you is they stopped waiting to make a move and just made one.
And so, I humbly submit to you that it’s your turn.
From Seth Godin’s What to Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn), a short illustrated book in magazine format that was published at a time when Seth swore he would not go back to conventional books. At least, that’s how I remember it. Anyway, I owe a lot to Seth and his work and the way he so eloquently and succinctly says what takes me hundreds and thousands of words to say. Case in point: this post.