Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a post about music. At least, it’s not going to be a post that requires you to like the same music I do, or even to have heard it before. This is about success, and rejection, and about what both of those things mean. And I’m going to use music to talk about it, because that’s what I go back to when I have to remind myself of why I write. You can fill in your favorite book, movie, or TV show, though… because I want to talk about touching your audience. Doesn’t matter how.
So, a quote:
“It became a very mythic, important thing to me to never forget that every song you write, every record you make, ultimately is for that kid in Wisconsin. Or that weirdo in Alabama, or the banker in Kansas, the young couple starting out in California, the kid in the ghetto in Oakland, it doesn’t matter. It just always ends up being some kid under the covers with headphones on.”
–Jim Steinman, from the acceptance speech for BMI’s Song of the Year, 1998
Or the kid under the covers with the library book, or the Kindle. See, here’s the thing… everything I write is for myself at 16. Even if it’s not YA, it’s for myself at 16. It’s for some other kid out there who wants to be uplifted and devastated and not know whether they want to cry from joy or from agony, or both at the same time. Now, whether I succeed or not… I guess you’re going to have to wait until my book’s on your Kindle, and then tell me.
Because the kid under the covers is the ONLY measure of success that matters. Are some bestselling books also very good? Yes, of course. Are some bestselling books meh? Definitely. Are some unknown books fabulous? They absolutely are. And the only thing that matters is whether or not they made a reader… be that one reader or a million… whether or not they made a reader FEEL.
So let’s go back to 1997. Because I promised to rant about Jim Steinman (again, you don’t need to be a fan to follow this, bear with me), and rejection, and all of that good stuff.
It probably wasn’t a hot summer night. And I wasn’t 17 yet, and definitely fully dressed But I was at home, and no one else was, and for some reason I decided to flip through my parents’ old records, and I found Bat Out of Hell. Which, FYI, is the third best selling album of all time, and the single best-selling album written by a single individual (keep that in mind when I get to the rejection part). But I didn’t know that. I just knew that, oh hey look, it’s Eddie from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, with songs by the guy who wrote the lyrics for Whistle Down the Wind. And… holy shit, will you look at that cover?
(Cover art by Richard Corben, 1977)
Yeah, that cover. Which was actually kind of intimidating, because (as if the above paragraph doesn’t make that abundantly clear), I was into musicals. Not rock. Most definitely not heavy metal (which Bat is not, but the cover is desperately pretending to be). Still. I was home alone. There was this awesome looking record, which promised to involve a couple of people whose other work I’d liked. I put it on.
And the opening phrase kind of floored me. I remember listening to the title song and realizing at some point that THIS IS A STORY, and that the story wasn’t going to end well, and there was a moment of Empire Strikes Back level stun before the second song started… and it was everything that was GOOD and bright and larger-than-life about teenagerhood. I lay down on the floor, in the middle of the living room with no one else home, and I closed my eyes and I…. well, I guess I got up to turn the record over because it was a RECORD and the speakers were half as tall as I was and the little scratches and pops were just a part of it and so much better than the CD I bought later would be… but I just lay there, and listened to it, and didn’t do anything else. It was like someone got me. Like someone was reaching out to my teenage brain and saying IT IS NOT JUST YOU. I’m not sure WHAT wasn’t just me, because I wasn’t having sex in cars or crashing motorcycles… but maybe I WAS in the middle of nowhere, near the end of the line, and it felt like someone was telling me that other people also felt that way. That everything about my weird teenage existence was normal and intense and life-or-death, and FINE.
So. Anyway. We have established that this album touched at least one kid under the covers (erm, sprawled on the floor in the living room). We have established that it is the third best selling album of all time. Did I mention that it hit #9 on the UK charts in 2013, THIRTY SIX YEARS after its release?
Now, let’s look at what record label execs had to say about it back in the 70s. In a 2003 interview, Steinman talks about auditioning it for Clive Davies:
He goes, oh is that it? Is the audition over? … I’m gonna have to rush this but I do have some notes for you. Starting with you, Mr Steinman, do you ever listen to contemporary radio? And that little signal went off, no this is not gonna be a great deal. That’s not a good opening.
I said yeah, I listen all the time to contemporary radio… and Clive said well, I don’t hear that in your music. It … seems like you really should, both of you… I think Jim, particularly, you have to go back and listen to radio, what pop music’s about.
…let me tell you what we’re looking for in a pop song. It’s a very simple structure. …. Basically A, B, C, C, C, C. That’s the key to a hit record. Now with your songs I got lost around W…..
….And then Clive turned to Meat Loaf… and Clive goes…. Mr Loaf, let me ask you … do you ever listen to contemporary singers? … well you don’t seem to. You seem to be more in the tradition of a Broadway singer, like Robert Goulet….You just have to adapt your style so you’re not belting in this legit kind of Broadway ’cause no one likes that anymore, no one’s interested in it.
So the two of you should go back to the drawing board ’cause there’s some talent here but I just think it’s so wrong and so misdirected. If you listen to pop radio and if you listen to a few pop singers, I think you’ll see what they’re going for, and that was my lecture from Clive who then became a great supporter over the years, but it was brutal.
So again, remembering that this is the THIRD BESTSELLING ALBUM OF ALL TIME… “it’s just so wrong and misdirected.” Sometimes record labels are wrong. Sometimes twenty or thirty of them are wrong. Sometimes other gatekeepers are wrong as well. Now, I know that it’s hard to tell. It’s so easy to doubt yourself, to say… no, this isn’t a situation where it was perfect and brilliant and was going to strike a chord (no pun intended) with hundreds of thousands of people, and it’s just being rejected because it’s different… no, this is a Phantom Menace situation, where someone SHOULD have said “George, Jar-Jar? Seriously, no.”
The truth is, though, you can’t know. And I kind of wish I WAS like Jim Steinman, where the people who hate his work REALLY hate it… at least then you know where you stand? It’s hard to tell what it means when you get form rejections, or even worse: “I love this but I just can’t sell it.”
But it may be brilliant. And if Steinman had taken that advice and gone off to write 3 and a half minute disco songs… wow. I wouldn’t have half the soundtrack to my life. That is, honestly, a hugely scary thought.
But anyway, that worked out. Bat Out of Hell found a producer in Todd Rundgren (who was already a big deal), and a label in Cleveland International (which wasn’t), and then… it took off very slowly. It was word of mouth in a time when there was no Twitter or Tumblr or YouTube… and it went the 1978 equivalent of totally viral.
But what if it doesn’t? What if I get my book out there, and no one cares? What if it doesn’t sell? What if it does sell, and it gets a smattering of “Meh, didn’t finish” three-star reviews (I’d rather get a scathing one-star than a “Meh,” personally… at least I’d have made the reader feel SOMETHING?)
And again, I go to Jim Steinman. 1989. Pandora’s Box, Original Sin. You’ve probably never heard of artist OR album, because that’s all they ever did. But you’ll know at least one of the songs from it: “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” later recorded by Celine Dion, is on it, and a couple of the songs ended up on Bat Out of Hell II. But this album itself, Original Sin, is largely unknown.
Steinman put a lot of his own money into it… and it flopped. Did it fail? I say no. I say no because, a couple of weeks ago when I was having a lousy day and really doubting my own writing… this was the first album I thought to turn to. I listened to it in the car and sang “Safe Sex” (Which is a beautiful song… here. You’ll thank me later) in the shower and… it made me feel better. Not only because of what the songs said, but because they exist. Because that album is there for me when I need it. Because I’m not the only one… BUT, even if I was… even if it’s only one person that you touch or thrill or comfort or save with your work, that’s enough.
So, long story short (and I apologize again for all of the uncool musical references), when you’re drowning in a sea of rejections or revision requests or negative reviews, go back and find the email from the CP who loved it, or the notes from the agent who WOULD have taken it all the way if she could have. Or the one positive review from a total stranger. Or even just you… loving what you created. If nothing else, I was under the covers with my OWN book, dreaming up those characters’ stories and finding something in them to love.
- There is more than one path to success.
- Success doesn’t mean sales or bookstore placement or even a film deal.
- It’s all about the kid under the covers AND
- One kid means just as much as a million.
Don’t give up. Somewhere, under some far-away covers, someone needs the story you’re trying to tell.<3