But Richard’s editor left, and other changes were anticipated as well. Publisher #2 came forward with a larger offer (a two-book deal) and a promise to position Richard’s third book as its lead title—major promotional support whose stated goal wasn’t just to break Richard out but to establish him as a brand-name author and get him “on the lists.” Given the change underway at his original publisher, the move to Publisher #2 seemed a no-brainer.
As it turned out, it nearly ruined his career.
Six months after the deal was struck, my new publisher signed an established bestseller for a huge sum of money. You think: this can’t possibly have an impact on my situation, since the publisher’s goals for me are the same now as they were when they signed me. You tell yourself—thinking like a business person (how naïve…)—that they really do have to keep at least one eye toward the future; and so while a big-name author helps them in the short run, and perhaps even raises the visibility of the imprint for the good of the rest of us, in the long-term they understand that if my career takes off, there’s an even greater upside for them. And if not me, then another writer at my level: point is, surely they understand that they’ve got to continually restock the pond, make sure they’ve got fresh brands on the rise as the old ones lose steam. They do, right?
They do not. The arrival of the big name changed completely how they viewed me, and apparently made it OK for them to bail out on all of their promises to promote me and my books. The marketing budget, the tour, the co-op—all out the window. From Book 2 (Publisher #1) to Book 3 (Publisher #2), my sales dropped 60%. And this for a book (which was finished when they bought it--in other words, they knew exactly what they were getting) that everyone agrees, even today, is the best I've written.
The worst part of it is that I had no clue about any of this—about their change in attitude, or priorities—until the die was cast. I don’t know what we’d have been able to do if they’d been honest with us, or that the additional efforts (and money) I might have expended in the service of doing the publisher’s job would have stopped the bleeding entirely; but I’m certain I could have had an impact, because I’d done some of that with Publisher #1, to good effect.
But the promises that convinced me to move publishers in the first place had been so emphatic that there seemed to be no doubt about their vision both of what my future might hold and what they’d need to do to get me there. So I stupidly buried the paranoia and doubt that any sensible author has about such promises, and trusted “the plan” without having any sense—until it was far too late—that they’d effectively pulled the plug on my budget (and those of others too) so as to shift that budgetary pool to their new, already-established bestseller.
Yes, of course: in hindsight I wish I’d stayed w/ Publisher #1, despite the departure of my editor. But there’s no lesson to be drawn from that, really, because you never know how things will turn out. The bigger mistake, the one I beat myself up over, was taking for granted that anything my publisher promised would come to pass without endless vigilance on my part.
That’s the lesson I draw from this: that as a writer, it’s my responsibility (I mean mine and my agent’s, jointly) to make sure the details are being attended to. To know what the right questions are, and to never underestimate how early I should be asking them, nor how persistently. I’m not saying that you should anticipate having an antagonistic relationship with the publisher per se. But approach the endeavor with a clear-eyed professionalism, and don’t be afraid to ask questions and require answers to those questions—make it clear through your demeanor and responsiveness A) that you’re not going to give them a reason to go anything but all-out; and B) that they’re not going to be able to bullshit you.
Which doesn’t mean they won’t. Nor does it mean, of course, that one’s success is guaranteed—obviously the odds are always against us, even under the best circumstances, we all know that. But the bottom line is, I also know, now, that I’ve got to work every bit as hard at all facets of the publishing process—including marketing myself—as I do on the writing itself. I hate doing it—but I can’t risk the possibility that somebody else might not come through. And so I don’t.
"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."
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