Risky Business Failures Often Lead to Success

Take a risk. You never know where it will lead you.


The book publishing business, of which I am a part, is all about taking risks.  

Don’t get me wrong, most of my colleagues and I are more nerd than daredevil, as a rule.  We’re the humanities majors who spent nice summer afternoons inside reading instead of running around outside getting the recommended daily dose of vitamin D.  But, we are risk takers.  

Publishing has been changing the world since Gutenberg introduced the printing press to an information starved Europe.  

From then on, reformers, whistleblowers, and subversive thinkers have been using books to start revolutions big and small.  You have only to look at banned books lists throughout the ages to realize just how many people are routinely enraged by works of literature they deem offensive. And, if you consider how dangerous some of those groups of irate readers have shown themselves to be, you can probably see what I mean about ours being a risky business.

But publishing isn’t risky just because of the cultural impact its products have. 

Publishing is risky because its product is never a guaranteed success. Publishers buy books on spec. They determine, through a series of educated guesses based on profit and loss spreadsheets, archival memory of what’s worked in the past, and intangible gut feelings, that a book is worth publishing.  

Then, they give the author money (sometimes large amounts) that is not recouped if the book fails to appeal to consumers. Agents (my side of the business), take on projects to represent based on the same not-precisely-scientific calculations, and we don’t get paid unless we are able to sell those projects to a publisher.  Everyone is a speculator.  

My point (and I do have one) is that failure is ever present in our business.  More books fail to earn back their advances than make money.   

Hard work and dedication—all you need in certain industries—is not enough in ours. Serendipity, luck, the forces of nature and astrophysics aligning just right are all necessary for a book that many people have devoted time to for many years to become a bestseller and have the kind of global influence that a Catcher in the Ryeor Harry Potter series does.  

And, so each new project is a risk and comes with the potential for failure.

The good news is that every failure teaches us something about the state of the market, readers’ preferences, and the flaws in our own systems for identifying and promoting successful works.  Oftentimes, and I know it’s a cliché, we learn more from the failures than from the successes.  

My takeaway? Managed failureis something to lean into.

Whether your business is product or services based, taking risks and accepting that failure is a very real possibility can make you stronger.  Why?

Taking chances keeps you nimble.  If you take calculated risks, you may fail but you may make new valuable connections in the process. You are never in danger of growing stale and staid if, every once in a while, you do something unexpected.

Some people may want to work with you because you failed at something in the right way.  They will see your risk taking (so long as it’s not reckless) as a sign of an innovative and energetic business.  (Obviously, the business needs to be sound in all the other ways that count, otherwise this does not apply.)

Failure often leads to success.  If you can take the lessons learned from your failures and tweak your process so that you can avoid the same pitfalls, you might be setting yourself up for a much bigger payday.  

So, take a risk. You never know where it will lead you.  As Voltaire said, “If we do not find anything very pleasant, at least we shall find something new.”

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Miriam Goderich
Miriam Goderichhttps://www.dystel.com/
Miriam Goderich is a partner in Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, a well respected, New York based literary agency with an impressive client list. Her areas of interest include literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, pop culture, psychology, history, science, business books, and biography/memoir. Miriam received a BA in Comparative Literature and an MA in English from Columbia University. She was born in Cuba and grew up in Spain and Miami, Florida.

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