Monday, January 10, 2005

Holy Grail According to Max

Recently I sent out emails to about 600 of my closest pals (editors, mostly), asking a handful of the important questions --
  • if you're having lunch with Mort Janklow, where should you take him?
  • what's a good place to get collar stays (the brass ones)?
  • when you take a nap in the middle of the day, is it best to A) close your office door, or B) turn to face the window and pretend to be reading a manuscript?

-- that every young turk in publishing (whether or not your "Turkishness" was officially acknowledged recently by PW) needs answers to. I've sent out any number of similar email queries to my colleagues in publishing over the last several months, and have received replies to virtually none of them--until very recently. Based on the tone of some of these recent replies, it appears that I've reached a tipping point of sorts--that is, I've officially become a nuisance (or worse). One of the best & coolest editors in town brushed aside my question and referred obliquely to

"people who pretend to know something about publishing but in fact do not." [Could he mean me?]
Another top editor went into somewhat greater detail.

"Max, I saw Michael Cader’s column vouching for your being a good guy, etc. I have to say, though, that I don’t really understand why any editor would want to give away – beyond his own firm – knowledge capital he or she has amassed over the course of a career. It is effort expended without tangible return. I understand that you see this enterprise as working in everybody’s favor, and maybe I’m shortsighted for not “getting it,” but it seems to me that the best can be hoped for is that somewhere accessible on line there’ll be a sort of “best practices compendium” for everyone to access – and I wonder if most houses don’t in fact already create something tantamount to that by pooling staffers’ ideas."

To the first comment, I say, guilty as charged: I don't know jack; how I got as far as I have in this business is anybody's guess; and I'm scrambling now to see if I can learn a few things before it's too late.

But this second comment? If only!

The "best practices compendium" is precisely what I've been looking for (call it the Holy Grail According to Max)--a database full of good ideas; it's the reason, in fact, I started this blog, in hopes of stumbling across material worthy to be included therein... We used to have such a compendium here (where I work), but its contents have been badly pilferred... Remember the library's copy of the 1977 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that you snuck into some behind-the-stacks cubby, only to discover that the pictures themselves had already been ripped from the binding? Well, it's like that: there's a folder here marked "best practices compendium," but the only things it contains are a 10-year old Esquire article on "Publishing's White-Hot Center," a yellowed pamphlet from 1962 that instructs "gentlemen" on the art of tying a bow-tie, and an advertisement for a cutting-edge personal computer called the TRS-80.

A "best practices compendium"--just think of it. Question is, do any publishers exist today that actually have/make time to pool the ideas of their employees, to brainstorm in hopes of coming up with fresh approaches to the same old problems?

I suspect there are a lot of us inclined to thing that the better question is, What's the point anyway? Is a bright baker's dozen gathered around a conference-room table going to come up with a practical & implementable alternative to virtually unlimited bookseller returns? to the centralization of all aspects of our industry? to the collapse of the mass market business? to the virtual disappearance of serious literary publishing by mainstream presses?

Well, pessimism be damned. It's time for me to make my first big acquisition of 2005--so if anybody's got a "best practices compendium" less than five years past its expiration date, I'm buying. And let's move quickly--I'm in the mood for a pre-empt...


Michael Allen said...

Max, your desire for book of best practices reminds me that 30 years ago I read a book by a retired English policeman, in which he pointed out that even the humblest copper, when he leaves the force after 30 or 40 years, has accumulated a vast amount of useful knowledge. Yet all too often that knowledge is lost; it departs with him. The policeman author suggested that all retiring coppers should therefore be persuaded to put pen to paper, and pass on what they had learnt. Do you think that ever happened?

Anonymous said...

Ah Max darlin', the problem with the Holy Grail According to Max is that the people who could most benefit from it will never be convinced of its wisdom. Those people are always looking for the trick, the fix, the gimmick.

For instance, here's a pearl of wisdom--for writers not editors--write a good book. Write the best damn book you are capable of writing. Then re-write and re-write until it's better than you ever believed it could be. Use the Funk & Wagnalls instead of spellcheck on the computer. Don't leave plot holes someone could drive a Winnebago through. Don't leave plot holes at all. Create characters in shades of gray instead of black and white cardboard. Get rid of the tics and the quirks. Tell a story as though your life depended on it, as though you has to entertain some bored, cranky guy in the middle of a desert every night.

Do you know how many writers don't do that? Yeah, I guess you probably do. So if you trip over the Holy Grail of Publishing, or wake up some morning and find it lying at the foot of your bed instead of a horse's head, you'll still have the gigantic task of convincing people to do the work, to practice the "best practises."

On the other hand, as you're searching for the Grail you do look damn cute in the monk's robe.


Jackie B. said...

Mad Max - I love your blog and wholeheartedly applaud your entire crusade. I’ve also been following several online discussions about how best to publish, market and distribute books; and what distresses me most about this entire discussion is that with all the money that actually is being spent trying to reach readers, I still feel publishers and booksellers are woefully missing the mark. They claim after spending marketing dollars on their lead titles, they simply don’t have enough left over to spend on mid-list and debut authors; but that seems a rather flaccid excuse given the marketing dollars they DO have are probably being misspent in the first place.

Regarding best practices, I think it will be blogs like yours and M.J. Rose’s “Buzz, Balls & Hype” that will, in effect, become the compendium of “best practices” for the publishing industry. So in that spirit, I’d like to contribute a rather radical idea.

As an avid book lover, I’d like to offer publishers and booksellers some insight into one reader’s current buying habits, as well as a vision of her ideal book buying experience in the future:

When I browse my local bookstore, I tend to head straight to my favorite sections. I’ll admit it, I do glance at the books featured on the tables out front; but rarely do I linger because I’m rather cynical by nature and don’t respond to this oh-so-obvious push at me as a consumer. Once safely ensconced in my favorite section of the bookstore, I tend to pull out and flip through books that catch my eye with either their intriguing covers and/or their enticing blurbs (but never their author endorsements, because, well...I’m cynical.) Finally, after perusing the shelves, I find a comfy place to sit and flip through all the books I’ve gathered in my arms. At this point, it’s really up to the book to capture my interest and make me want to part with my money. As far as the publisher and booksellers are concerned, their job is done.

Now, how would this browsing & buying work in my IDEAL universe? Well, to start with, this experience would be something more akin to my Tivo viewing or Amazon shopping experience. Don’t get me wrong, I love browsing brick & mortar stores, so I’m not suggesting a completely online experience, but rather, a highly personalized one.

In my ideal book buying universe, I would go to the nearest bookstore and head straight for the terminal (kiosk, whatever you call those things where you look up book information) and log into my “Brick & Mortar Bookstore” online account. Of course, if I were truly tech savvy, I’d simply look my account up on my spiffy hand-held device; but I’ve only recently taken to using my cell phone, so this is wishful thinking. Regardless, accessing my account brings up my Brick & Mortar Bookstore Wishlist. Perusing my Wishlist, I check out some of the user reviews on books that are currently out. Hmmm...some of them look rather promising. “Would you like to print out your Wishlist and take it with you?” the all-knowing kiosk asks me. “Why, yes, I would” I reply. “How kind of you.”

Then, in a matter of seconds, I’ve got a fabulous browsing guide, specifically tailored to me (because, of course, this is all about me, isn’t it?), which I can now carry around as I continue to shop. Oh, how divine! It looks like I’m going to be here for hours!

back to the Wishlist. On it, I’ve parked some general books of interest as well as some “Definites” I’ve been meaning to pick up for a while. I’ve also pre-ordered several books that were recommended to me based on my past purchases. Since I’m a member of the Brick & Mortar Bookclub (at no cost to me, I might add!), I get 10-15% off of any pre-ordered book I actually buy. Since most of the bookstore’s stock is now Print-On-Demand, I can pay for the books now and have them delivered to me once they’ve officially been released (which is no problem since the Brick & Mortar Bookstore already has my personal information, including my home address.) Now true, there may be some pre-orders I never end up buying. But really, what’s the harm since no one’s spent any money on the physical production, distribution, or warehousing of said books anyway?

Ok, now I’m ready to check out. What did I end up buying? Well, I bought two of my “Definites,” one of the pre-ordered books recommended to me from my Wishlist, and--since I have a little extra change in my pocket from my tax refund--one of the books with the catchy covers I found merely by browsing the shelves. The friendly bookseller at the counter packs up my purchases and makes sure to toss in my Wishlist because it has additional information about some local museum exhibits or PBS documentaries (or author talks or whatever) that might be of interest to me (based, again, on my past purchases); and it also has a coupon for my local eatery because, well, someone’s got to pay for all the paper I used up printing out my Wishlist in the first place.

I admit, this may be naive thinking on my part and not in any way a viable business model for publishers or bookstores to follow. But I will say this. I spend infinitely more time and money than I should on my Tivo and on Amazon because of the convenience and personalized service they provide. Both mediums have become an integral part of my life. If publishers and booksellers really want my business, then they ought to embrace the path laid out by those on the cutting edge, or at the very least take good notes, because clearly, someone’s doing something right.

Anonymous said...

OK. Strongly-worded opinion from one of the Young Turks (Max, can you tell me when I can shed the label?). "I don’t really understand why any editor would want to give away – beyond his own firm – knowledge capital he or she has amassed over the course of a career. It is effort expended without tangible return." Ugh. Ugh. A couple of times I've been at industry panel discussions and habe heard again and again (most notably Dominique Raccah from Sourcebooks) that the book business isn't growing, so the only way for an independent publisher to grow is take market share away from someone else. More ugh. It is precisely attitudes like these that are responsible for the less-than-the-rate-of-nflation growth in the book business. It is NOT a zero sum game. Someone in publishing made money by publishing Jim Surowiecki's WISDOM OF THE CROWDS, maybe we can all make some money if we actually read it and learn from it. failing that, there's always the wisdom of the cliches: a rising tide lifts all boats. Then, if we continue to ignore that one, we can all be the latest installment in case studies of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Richard Nash

k.p. said...

If the writer's only job in all this, as suggested by a previous comment, is to write the best possible book he or she can--the implication being that the better the book, the more interest the publisher will take--then why are we all so cynical about that "new fiction" table in the front of book stores? If the above equation holds true, that table ought to be a magnet for readers.

What I'm getting at is that while, as a writer, I do believe it's in my best interest on a number of levels to write the best book I can, I certainly don't think this is the weightiest variable in the $ales equation. My apologies to all the hard-working editors out there, but judging by the tables, I have to wonder whether publishing houses are pursuing the best possible fiction (or non-fiction) or the fickle tail of public interest.

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"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."

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