"THEY'RE JUST NOT THAT INTO ME"
[The second Rant Invitational reply to be posted at BookAngst 101, following on the heals of FINE WHINE I: An Unpublished Writer's Rant. Max had intended this post to be entitled FINE WHINE II--he found himself torn between the merits of this particular writer's tale of woe and the fact that it is, well, another tale of woe. It seems there's a thin line between rant and whine...]
Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s not like I don’t get how the trade publishing game is played. It’s just that I didn’t think it would come down to this. It looks like I’ve I’ve unwittingly (and painfully) become an example of how easily you can slide down the commercial publishing ladder to the rung of unmarketable goods.
For the last three years, I’ve been offering advice by way of forum posts and articles for wanna-be, up-coming and already-published authors on [popular blogs and websites]. I’ve had four non-fiction books published over the last fifteen years, all by major houses. I’ve had the minor success of seeing my work translated into foreign languages. But while I’ve been well-published and received decent but unspectacular advances, I’ve never managed to “break out” as the publishing world calls it, to make real money, much of a publishing name, or more than mediocre sales. I’ll never be a "brand."
I’m just your garden-variety, everyday Expert and Authority with a successful career of gritty, in-the-trenches experience. And I’ve been blessed with a pretty good way with words. But no matter how clever I think I am, I can’t sell my latest proposal. Here’s a brief resume to help you see why it stings so much.
Over a professional career of 30 years, I’ve published (and often been paid for) over a hundred articles in professional journals and popular magazines, dozens of book reviews and commentaries, and hundreds of columns on topics related to my expertise. This doesn’t count all the paper presentations I’ve made at conferences or workshops I’ve given. But let me give you a bit more to make my point.
Because of the intense interpersonal nature of my work, in my private life I’m a rather reclusive guy who shuns trivial interaction and avoids most social gatherings. I’m basically more into the life of my own mind, which includes my interest in creative written expression.
But when it comes time to promote my work or I’m called by a journalist for an opinion, media savvy oozes like nectar from my every pore. I’m verbal, articulate, opinionated, and knowledgeable. Clever sound bites spring from my tongue on demand. And I’ve got the proverbial platform to go with it—although, I’m finding out, this platform appears to be on more shaky legs than I thought.
Here’s what I mean. In submitting this last proposal, we included in the package to editors an eight minute DVD of a live, in-studio tv interview done long ago that was dynamite. My agent wouldn’t have included it if he didn’t think it might help. But it didn’t make any difference. And maybe it even hurt. Maybe these young editors could then see I was too old when it was made and even older today. Of course, if the publishers didn’t want to spend anything or make much effort to market my book, all the media savvy in the world wouldn’t make much difference. But at least I was trying to show them what I had done and could do if they wanted to support me.
The list of agents I’ve managed to run through over the years reads like a who’s who. I started at the pinnacle, with [one of the most prominent literary agencies]. My first agent has become the leading go-to guy for those with industrial-strength platforms, wishing to cash in on their fame and celebrity. They want a book and the ego perks that come with it but most of them don’t know how to write. No problem—-he gets them a good ghost writer and they attain instant success as best-selling “authors.” He routinely makes deals for these people in six and seven figures. I only wish he could have done the same for me.
The next guy literally wrote the bible that writers currently use to research publishers and agents. He’s a skilled entrepreneur but, unfortunately, wasn’t able to help me make a better deal with the publisher than I already had made myself. But at least he had the decency to reduce the commission I still had to pay him for his efforts.
The agent who sold my last book is well-known, highly respected, and very selective in whom she chooses to represent. She has acquired a stable of well-known and reviewed Big Shots who have, over the years, made her a fortune. She didn’t show any interest when I came to her with the idea for the current proposal that hasn’t sold. In fact, she told me she had sold something similar years before that “bombed” and that I should find someone who didn’t have a bad memory of this type of topic. She thought the topic would be better as a movie than a book, that the written medium wasn’t the best for it. Not wanting to give up on my idea, I considered myself politely dumped and moved on.
The guy presently representing me has sold more books over his long career than any of [my] other agents and owns one of the largest agencies in the business. It’s not like he hasn’t gotten the proposal in the right hands. That’s not the problem.The problem is they’re just not that into what I’m offering.
Maybe this sting of rejection is what it feels like to be pushed aside just at what ought to be the height of my writing career, just at the time when thirty years of expertise and four books ought to make a difference.
I think what it’s come down to is this: Who needs a middle-aged expert in relationships to tell twenty and thirty-somethings about the importance of gaining insight into the past of the partner they’re trying to get a commitment from? All you need to do is listen to a totally unqualified “dude” in the same age group who will gladly share his experience and conclude that “he’s just not that into you.”
This afternoon I overheard two forty-something women in a bookstore. One smiles to her friend and says, “I wish that book was around when I was younger.” And I’m thinking, my God, it’s not that simple. Relationships are much more complex than these kinds of cutesy slogans.
But who wants complicated answers when simple ones are so much easier to understand? Nobody wants to be bothered having to read fascinating, complex stories of men with commitment hang-ups, as they struggle to understand themselves and find they’re way toward intimacy. Today’s readers—both men and women—want their prescriptive answers in a gulp-down form, something they can drink like a slush—not something they have to chew on.
Who wants to know about personality types or problems that prevent men from committing to women when you’ve got all kinds of off-the-cuff unqualified authors who will be happy to give you the benefit of their limited real-life experience? Have you read some of this realtionship advice stuff? I mean, way too much of it is just embarrasingly amatuerish in style and content. And yet, it sells. Publishers buy it and so do readers.
Who needs to peek behind the consulting room door to learn what makes men tick when everyone’s personal business is hanging out there on nightly reality tv, tabloid journalism and digitally splattered out on blogs? What used to read like stimulating and captivating case histories now seem tame in comparison to the everyday publicized Misgivings of the Guilty and the Shameful. Anything less than someone being caught in flagrante delicto isn’t juicy enough to capture our attention, you know?
Look, the truth is that most of these unqualified authors haven’t lived long enough to have much idea of who they really are—let alone offer advice to others. But this doesn’t stop the publishing world from not only welcoming their pablum but paying them a pretty penny for it.
How about the editors who are the gatekeepers for what gets taken seriously? The scary thing is that these editors sitting in judgment of my proposal are often barely old enough to grok what they are being offered. From their point of view, it doesn’t matter—they just need to know what sells.
I have lived long enough to see the demise of the expert—at least in the trade publishing world genre of advice and relationships. Everyone is now an instant expert, an instant Amazon reviewer. The internet has allowed everyone to have their voice, even if they still have to search deep within to find it.
So, it looks like another mid-list non-fiction author goes down in flames, unable to sell his latest proposal. Track record not good enough. Topic not hot enough. Too old, not cool enough. Now I know what it feels like to be marginalized. But I know, it's not personal--it's just business.
"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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