The first half of that conversation ran Tuesday, Dec. 14 ("Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal"), and generated some heated response from other writers. Some agreed with the Entrepreneur about the value, potentially, of investing extra $$$ (or €€€, as the case may be) in the marketing of one’s own book; others were appalled that anyone w/in publishing (namely, me) might advise such a course of action (one contributor felt doing so blurred “the distinction between Vantage and Vintage”); while still others took issue with the Entrepreneur’s definition of “investment” (or “risk”), which seemed to exclude the vast array of costs associated with becoming a writer—not just material costs (“four toner drums a year…two-four computer keyboards a year” etc) but also opportunity costs, the money one might have earned via a steady paying gig—all of which are sunk by the time the writer finally boxes up her manuscript, mails it off to a literary agent, and is at least potentially in a position to recoup some actual income from her labors.
Now, about those alarm bells…
PART II: An Editorial Response
Let's start with another excerpt from the same anonymous posting. [To read The Entrepreneur’s original post in its entirety, click on the following link and then scroll down to the comment that begins, "The biggest downer about this blog, to me, isn't the anonymity. It's the debate over anonymity. So let's get back to some of that famous dialog."]
“I'm an unpublished writer and a business man. I've written my first manuscript and for the last year I've been researching the publishing industry, preparing my business plan, marketing plan, etc. My hope is to switch careers one day… I truly view my career change as a business decision and, to that end, I want to invest in my future. I hope to find an agent and a publisher that will understand my desire to invest my own capital, money out of my own pocket that is budgeted to marketing & promotion activities. My goal is to remove some of the financial risk from the publisher and create awareness for my name and my book. Rather than make any money from an advance, I plan to invest all of the advance plus $10k of my own money.
As you know, I found compelling the parallels you drew between a writer’s investing in his own marketing and a student taking out loans to get a college education, or an entrepreneur investing capital in a new business venture. Simultaneously, however, there was something about your comments that gave me pause. You talked at great length about your research and your careful preparation for aspects relating to the marketing of your book. What was missing was any discussion whatsoever about the work itself. The book, I mean; the writing—
—and so we enter now into a discussion of what perhaps makes books different from other products, publishing different from other industries. Because despite my admiration for your views on self-promotion, an alarm goes off for me the instant I hear someone purporting to be a writer who gives the phrase “business plan” top billing over the book itself.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One is experience: the dumpster outside my window is filled with some of the shittiest writing of all time; and while not every item in that dumpster came with a business plan, virtually every proposal/sample/manuscript I’ve ever read that was accompanied by a business plan wound up there. In the dumpster, I mean.
OK: first let me apologize for the cheap shot. I haven’t read your manuscript, and have no basis whatsoever for judging whether or not you’ve got a writer’s chops, a writer’s heart, a writer’s stamina. [Writing is a goddamn hard job! Why anyone would consciously choose to become a writer is beyond me…] But part of the reason I structured this two-part reply as I have—“Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal” and “Part II: An Editorial Response”—is to convey (among other things) an aspect of how an editor thinks, what an editor does (and doesn’t) respond to, the extent to which editors, sometimes, aren’t squarely “rational” in their decision-making process. After all, the only cliché (‘and the reason they’re clichés is that they’re true,’ right?) about editors more popular than “editors don’t edit anymore” is that “editors know jack-shit about business.”
Now before we make too much of the split between the creative impulse and the professional impulse, it’s worth remembering that two of the great poets of the 20th century—William Carlos Williams (physician) and Wallace Stevens (insurance)—were also accomplished in other arenas. The two universes you inhabit—the professional and the writerly—aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive; nor is it impossible for one to be equally adept at a spread-sheet and a word-processor.
But I caution you against believing you’ve got all the angles covered, because what you can’t count on—the constant variable in this confounded equation—is the peculiarities of taste and passion. Publishing is itself a profoundly contradictory industry. On one hand it increasingly demands a higher and higher rate of return, thus suggesting that it has become (as many have insisted it is already) something like an efficient engine of commerce. On the other hand, the products it produces are to a significant degree selected not according to objective studies of “market potentiality” but according to something infinitely more subjective: individual taste.
Regardless of what the industry’s critics contend, very few acquisitions decisions of books not wholly driven by publicity (e.g. celebrity bios) or certain niches (e.g. business books, cookbooks, self-help…) are determined by some mean-spirited marketing-department council. It’s true, of course, that editors sometimes fail to get sufficient in-house “support” for books they might have liked to acquire; in my experience, however, such books (one respondent called them "unwanted-by-the-marketing-department books”) are, in fact, books that the editor himself was either insufficiently passionate about, or for which the editor failed, finally, to demonstrate—above all, to himself—that he had a vision for how to publish it effectively.
[The “marketing department” excuse, by the way—I’ve used it too—is a conveniently amorphous non-entity that one uses in rejection letters because, well, one sometimes gets tired of saying the simple truth: it’s quite good, I liked it quite a lot, there’s no reason someone shouldn’t publish it, but it’s not going to be me because, in the end, I just didn’t feel strongly enough.]
Does this mean that editors always get to buy what their personal tastes/instincts dictate? No. Does this preclude the possibility that editors have a built-in marketing “radar” that, whether they’re conscious of it or not, immunizes them from “falling in love” with material they don’t believe they can sell? Absolutely not. (Contrary to prevailing wisdom, editors by and large have excellent marketing instincts.) So is there such a thing as an editor making a truly “marketing-free” judgment of a manuscript’s qualities? Probably not.
Nonetheless, I repeat: in the vast majority of cases, editors buy books principally because, to some degree or other, they fall in love with them. With something about them. Which is why [and now, at long last, I circle back to our Entrepreneur, whose fist is no doubt poised in much-longed-for retribution for my aforementioned cheap shot] the business-plan approach never—rarely—wins the day. I say this despite the fact that this very forum (if you’ll forgive my pretentious synonym for “blog”) was launched in the first place because of my own desire to figure out how the hell to market my own books more effectively. So the business plan model should appeal to me; a strong sense that the author knows his market should enhance a book’s appeal. And it does—
—but first I’ve got to fall in love. And I’m an editor—so I don’t fall in love with business plans. I fall in love with words, with strings of words that make elegant sentences and create vivid (beautiful, terrifying, crisp, tender, unforgettable) images in my mind, with sentences linked together in such a way as to tell me a story I can’t stop reading. Marketing moxie is added value; an author with an innate (or learned) sense of how to reach more readers is always a good thing; and I spend a fair portion of my professional life trying to school my authors in these instincts, if they don’t have them already.
But these things are not—for me, not ever—the first thing. The first thing, above all other things, is the writing itself. And that’s one variable that cannot be accounted for in a business plan.
So write the very best book you can. Leave the business plan in the drawer.
"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."
PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]
"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."
PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]
"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."
- ► 2005 (75)
- Happy Holidays & All That Crap
- Letters of Protest
- PART II: An Editorial Response
- Part I: An Entrepreneurial Proposal
- 'Here I Come, To Save the Day!' or; Dispelling th...
- A Love Letter to Booksellers
- In Defense of the Blockbuster--A Topic for Booksel...
- Inside & Out: An Editor's View
- You Can Trust the Man Behind the Max
- ▼ December (9)