Monday, May 30, 2005

How 5 = 13: A Few Comments on Writing, and Other Observations about the New (Publishing) Math

Herewith, the fifth and final report derived from the "Baker's Dozen" of Mad Max author surveys conducted long ago...As regular visitors to this space know already: In the very early days of BookAngst101, I asked writers to share with me their publication histories. Thanks, once again, to the 13 — Elliot, Jesse, Mary, Keith, Kitty, Allison, Lynn, Rachel, Calvin, Richard, Willa, Carla and Patrick—who replied in such frank detail.

[The clever watch-dogs among you are already working calculators with one hand as you draft a "rant" with the other. After all: even publishers have to admit that 5≠13...right?]

No, there haven't been 13 reports. Despite the fact that I've used the contents of those surveys numerous times in one way or another, most didn't lend themselves to a sustained narrative. But I went back through the material one last time, and found a few gems that every writer will want to post in a prominent place.

"The only dependable maxim I know of in publishing is 'Drunks buy books.' Thus, I always set aside some cash in the marketing budget for booze at readings."

"I've had some success marketing to libraries. Always be nice to librarians."

"Bookstore signings are about as effective as standing in an alley and sellling books from beneath an overcoat."

"Always carry a couple of copies of your book in your backpack or briefcase. I once made a sale in a parking lot to a Fed Ex driver."

"Beware publishers who boast of their marketing capabilities, and use it as a justification of their meager advances."

Survey Question #9: Based on your own experience, what one or two things have had the most impact on the succeses you've achieved so far?

"My ability to hang on to a day job."

"My own dogged determination & thick skin. Also a sense of humor."

"Big hats." [From an author who dresses in period costume for book signings]

"The fine-tuning of my own bullshit detector."

#12: Final Comments?

"My heart remains set on making the most beautiful, potent stories I can create, not on 'being an author.' "

"For me, it's always been about the writing, and that's what has saved me in the end."

"Do it because you love it.... Write because you can't imagine not writing.... What matters most is writing a really good book, a book that can't be ignored."

Saturday, May 28, 2005

But of Course! (B)log-Rolling in our Time

Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that one of my very first posts here began "Welcome back to BookAngst 101. Class is now in session," I've long been curious about the real going-to-school experience offered by novelist (Anthony Award-nominated The Halo Effect, e.g.) / bloggist M.J. Rose, whose agit-prop advocacy of forward-thinking book promotion at her site Buzz Balls & Hype isn't just energetic and thought-provoking, but frequently yields the sort of here's-what-you-can-do specificity represented in this recent guest-post by Kevin Smokler. Curious enough, in fact, to want to take the course myself, though for reasons of time constraints this hasn't been feasible.

When I noticed that M.J.'s "Buzz Your Book" course was being offered again, though, I thought I'd do a little faux-journalism--not just give the sort of friendly (b)log-rolling endorsement one friendly does for another [sidebar for newcomers: M.J. Rose has been a vocal champion of this site], but try to track down someone who's actually taken the course.

One such "graduate" is Andrea Buchanan, whose first book, Mother Shock, about the real experience of parenthood, is perhaps best characterized by its subtitle: "Loving Every (Other) Minute of It." The peripatetic Andi Buchanan is managing editor of Literary Mama, and has several anthologies coming out in the months ahead from Seal Press:

  • It's A Boy: Women Writers on Raising Sons (Nov. 2005) with Jacquelyn Mitchard, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Lauck, Marion Winik, and others;
  • Literary Mama: Collected Writing for the Maternally Inclined (Jan. 2006) featuring the best writing from the online literary magazine; and
  • It's A Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters (May 2006) with Hope Edelman, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Katharine Weber, and more.

Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm Mad Max welcome to Andrea Buchanan! [Crowd, urged on by menacingly-assembled "APPLAUD WILDLY, YOU BASTARDS!" signs, applauds wildly.]

Hi, Andi. So how did you find out about MJ Rose's "Buzz Your Book" class?

AB: I first came across it online a few years ago, when I was looking for something to help with guerilla publicity for a website. Then I got to know MJ on Readerville and finally connected the dots.

What made you decide to take the course?

AB: I did a ton of work promoting my first book, and as excited as I was about the anthologies I have coming out this year and next, I couldn't shake off the feeling of dread just thinking about the work I had ahead of me in terms of PR for these next three books. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on what worked to build buzz for my first book and what turned out to be a waste of time, but I also knew that it was going to be really hard to do alone. In short, I felt overwhelmed. So I thought MJ's class might be a great place to get inspired, become enthusiastic about the promotion part of the publication process, get a fresh perspective on what pushing these books might entail, come up with new ideas, and brainstorm with someone who knows the industry.

Was it worth it?
AB: Definitely. Doing the class exercises helped me get motivated again, and helped breathe some fresh life into ideas I'd only half-considered before. Just knowing I wasn't going through it all alone was a big motivating factor. Now I feel excited about things, I feel proactive and prepared, and I have a great plan that will support and complement the work my publicist and publisher are doing.

What would you say is the single most valuable thing you took away fromit?
AB: To not be complacent -- to not talk myself out of "pie in the sky" ideas, or be satisfied with the first thing that pops into my head.

To sign up.
Sunday, May 22, 2005

Happy to Report

I think of this one as the anti-rant, a happy report from Darlene Ryan, author of Rules for Life and A Mother's Adoption Journey.
I didn’t start writing to end up on the Today Show or the New York Times best-seller list. But if either of those happens I’ll be dancing in my green yoga pants and calling everyone I’ve ever met. I’m not even writing to get rich. Not that I would be offended by a big advance, should Random House come calling. I write because I like it, because I’m pretty good at it, because I’m a lot nicer to be around when I’m writing than when I’m not.

Yes I want to be published. Yes I want to be paid. I didn’t make enough money last year from my writing to live on. But I did make enough to buy a new refrigerator and pay for my kid’s skating lessons. Pretty cool. I have three books and a dozen or so articles published. No I haven’t been published by a “big name” publisher or in any magazines like Redbook or Good Housekeeping, but I’ve worked with some talented editors at reputable companies. I haven’t given my writing away and I haven’t paid for it to be published.

I’ve been a fitness instructor, a commercial copywriter and a late night disk jockey and I like being a writer more than anything else I’ve done. (And I loved working in radio.) I like it on the days when everything I’ve written sounds stupid. I like it on the days when getting each word on paper is like pulling out my nose hairs with a set of pliers. I make stuff up and people pay me for it. I’m not a doctor saving people’s lives. I’m not a teacher, teaching twenty-five second-graders how to multiply. I’m not a plumber up to my elbows in, well, you know what. I make stuff up.

I had a snazzy book launch party for book number two and I got to sign lots of books. Also pretty cool. A friend found book number three in a bookstore in New York City. That was enough to get me dancing in the previously mentioned green yoga pants. I get a rush out of seeing one of my articles in print. When I hold a new book for the first time I’m a wild as a five year-old who’s had too much chocolate. Sure I’d like to have more readers and make more money. But whining about how unfair publishing is isn’t going to make either of those happen.

Publishing is a business. That means at the end of the year they need to have made a profit. That means they buy manuscripts that will make money for the company. So if the choice is between a relationship book with a catchy tag-line and a flip, funny young author, or a book that suggests relationships are (Gulp) a lot of work, penned by an academic, guess whose manuscript they’re going to buy? Guess which book I'm going to buy? I know relationships are work, but I like catchy lines and flippant people. I also know that a bowl of broccoli is a lot better for me than a Hershey bar with almonds. But guess which one I run for when life gets rocky?

I like my current editor a lot. But if he had to choose between a young adult novel penned by Jessica Simpson or one written by me, I think he’s smart enough to take the slam-dunk.

Publishing houses are not charities. They don’t have to be fair. They don’t have any obligation to nurture new writers. If an agent or an editor doesn’t like my work that may be a matter of personal preference. If sixty-seven agents and editors don’t like my work it’s a pretty safe bet that what I have isn’t saleable. Maybe the market is saturated. Maybe my manuscript doesn’t fit any established niche. Or maybe the writing just plain sucks. So I’ll write something else.

Sure, I want a book that’s a best-seller. Sure, I’d like to be on Oprah or the Today Show. Or both. And I’m trying to make that happen. But if it doesn’t, I’m still happy with my writing career.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Rant? or Fine Whine? You be the Judge

[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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Not-So-Fine Whine: On the (Much-Desired) Passing of the Wah-Wah Peddle

Quick: who was the all-time master of the Wah-Wah? Gotta be George Harrison, right? The quiet Beatle, a gifted musician and song-writer disinclined toward self-promotion or hyperbole, one who tended to let his work speak for itself. After the strum und drang of the Beatles' breakup, it was George who first and most emphatically declared himself a free man, capable of carrying on quite nicely on his own, starting with ALL THINGS MUST PASS, a triple (!) album of mostly terrific songs and gorgeous guitarsmanship. His use of the wah-wah pedal (which bellows the sound of an electric guitar in somewhat the same fashion as when a trumpeter wields a mute, resulting in the eponymous "wah") became a signature in the early '70s, but it was never more than a gloss on the genuine chops that made him who he was.

I suspect there were some musicians of the day—now aging acid-heads, retired software-developers, Arizona real-estate brokers (you know who you are)—who resented George’s early post-Beatle burst of success. Who claimed it wasn't about talent so much as a certain cuteness factor, accented ever-so-slightly by being in the right place at the right time. [And who would've had a legitimate gripe if it were Ringo, rather than George, they were targeting.]

You made me such a big star
Being there at the right time
Cheaper than a dime...

"Wah-Wah" (from ATMP) showcases everything we like about George Harrison: his wit and self-awareness and humility, his sense of melodic drama and his keen knack for the catchy riff. [There's that other thing, too--some like it, some not so much--the sense that, in every song, he might actually be addressing God directly...] As "Wah-Wah" sashays through its seasons, George contemplates the possibility of life without his signature side-kick:

I don't need no wah-wah
And I know how sweet life can be
If I keep myself free
From the wah-wah
I don't need no wah-wah
Wah wah!

It didn’t hurt to have been a Beatle. But George was (obviously) more than just the wah-wah--he had enough chops that even if they took away his wah-wah (and/or his bandmates), he'd never have to resort to a day job.

Fine, Max, very interesting--but where are you going with this?


OK, it's true: this post isn't about George Harrison or wah-wah pedals; rather it's a cautionary riff (if you will) meant to scare (some) writers clear of
The Path of the Wah-Wah Peddler

Peddle [sic], which counts among its synonyms words like "flog” and “sell” and which connotes a relative disposability of the items being, umm, flogged. Recently I received a number of "Rants"--replies to the Mad Max “Rant this Space” Invitational--and virtually every one of them, to one degree or another, was both self-promotional and self-pitying. Neither is surprising--first of all, the nature of a "Rant" more or less requires that one has a wrong to Rant against; secondly, what has BookAngst 101 itself flogged if not self-promotion?

And yet. As an editor, as a member of the industry about which both examples [below, to follow] are ranting, I found myself reacting unfavorably--even (I confess) unsympathetically--to the Rants and their authors. My first impulse was to walk on by--to neither respond nor to post them.

Then it occurred to me: Many writers lament never getting any real feedback from editors, about how the "not right for our list" kiss-off isn't even remotely instructive. So I've decided to take that lament at face value, and give some real feedback--

or, to put it another way, I've decided to be a consummate shit-heel, by using two of these Rants to purposes perhaps other than what their creators intended.

It's not that I disagree with them wholly, or that I can't see merit in their respective perspectives. Yes, there are obstacles (lots) to access; yes, the publishing industry, like the culture generally, is disposed toward youth, hipness, currency, platform, etc., sometimes to the detriment of those with more experience and perspective but less likely, say, to win a guest-host's squat on OPRAH.

On the other hand, if these represent the ways in which (some) writers reach out to the publishing industry, and if said industry (represented by Max) is put off by the strategies these writers employ, then these strategies aren't working....And maybe (I'm not certain, but maybe) this justifies my turning the bright lamp of the Rant back upon their creators. Even if they hate me for it, maybe it'll prove useful for others.

The first came to me with a subject line that read, "An unpublished writer’s rant"--and I confess it was two days before I even opened it. Which was exactly his point...


Fine Whine I: An Unpublished Writer’s Rant

[Submitted to BookAngst 101 by an Anoymous Reader/Writer, via email, with the subject head "AN UNPUBLISHED WRITER'S RANT":]
Admit it... you’ve stopped listening already!

You saw “unpublished writer” and your eyes glazed over and you quickly clicked over to Bookslut before defiling yourself with the anxious whining of a new writer.

Therein lies the rub... I can’t get your attention without being published, and I can’t get published without your attention. For the unpublished writers amongst us who are sans MFA, short on contacts, and long on aspirations, the obstacles to a publishing career are daunting. The work's not good enough... so write better... but the only valuable feedback is locked behind those doors marked “only Pros need apply.” I get no feedback from a form letter saying, “this material isn’t right for us.” Sure, it’s easy to write another book, but will it be better? Oh sure, I’ve taken writing classes from nobodies, and I’ve been told I can write. So can a million others, apparently, as well as the Shakespeare-typing-chimpanzees.

How do you pluck that one possible out of a big stack of impossible? Is it possible that you’ve made your mind up before you’ve even resigned yourself to the icky chore of dispensing your slushpile?

I’m just sayin’.

To which Max responds:
Sorry, but this is self-pitying crap. Yes, you're right: I did shy away from your subject line--because (even before there was a Mad Max Perkins) I get dozens of unsolicited emails a day from writers wanting me to read their masterpieces. I recognize you're just trying to get through to somebody--but this ain't the way to do it. And it's not because you don't have an MFA or took "classes from nobodies": trust me on this, I delete them all without prejudice. [And--personally?--I'll be much less inclined to give you a open-hearted read if you've got an MFA than if you don't. Not a big fan of the production-line industry responsible for so many More Fucking Artistes...]

If you're not getting published, it sure ain't because you're not part of the "In Crowd." This conspiracy-theory gobblety-gook is a favored excuse for people who haven't got the talent or haven't got the drive, or both. The world is lousy with literary agents; and literary agents only get paid when they make a sale; so they're a competitive and fast-acting group. From my perspective, there are basically two reasons why a writer doesn't have an agent: either the writing's not quite good enough, or the writer hasn't applied himself seriously--doggedly--to finding one.

Whether or not publishers should have a responsibility to read material submitted to "Dear Slushpile," the reality is that most no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. If you think this reflects the hard-heartedness of today's market place, you're right: publishers are enormously understaffed relative to yesteryear, which means that there are far fewer sets of eyes per submission than used to be the case... Another reason why your initial focus should be on getting your work to agents: they might actually read it.

This week's inspiring story about a writer discovered on the slush pile strikes me as the exception that proves the rule--and my guess is that his/her career began perhaps two decades ago.
“Only Pros need apply”...I get no feedback from a form letter saying, “this material isn’t right for us.”
First of all, damn right: pros ONLY, please! The business of writing, and of publishing the work of serious and talented writers, is, indeed, a matter of PROFESSION in the profoundest sense. If you write as a hobby, that's wonderful for you--but I have no place in that experience, and it's naive of you to expect me to be reassuring if your work fails to engage me. My professional responsibility is to find writers and books that I feel have literary and commercial merit (and it's not coincidence that there's often a strong corrolation between the seriousness and professionalism with which writers approach their craft and the extent to which I'm likely to be impressed). I have neither time or motivation to engage in feel-good correspondence for its own sake.

Finally: I accept the charge that this is a low blow, an easy shot--but, to my mind, anybody who says "it's easy to write another book" probably isn't putting nearly enough time and energy--enough professionalism--into the work in the first place.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Anatomy of a Career

[This author's comments arrived yesterday in response to a January post on the topic of realistic advances. I don't know which I find more astonishing, the arc of the career or the fact that this happy story begins with--and didn't end on--the slush pile. Whoever you are: congratulations, and thanks for sharing this.--Max]

My first advance was $10K from a major NY publisher. (This was also, BTW, an unsolicited, unagented submission.) I earned back that first advance, landed myself an agent, and received a contract for a second book for $35K. In subsequent years, deals for my third and fourth novels followed, and each time my advances increased. Each time I earned out. For my fifth and sixth novels, I received my first 2-book deal and six figure advance. I am currently under a three-book contract for which I received a mid-six figures advance.

Perhaps most people would look at my early miniscule advances and sneer, and it could be said that a larger advance might have earned me more attention from the marketing department. However, I always made a profit for my publisher, and they stuck with me as I gradually built an audience. I've still never been on the Today show or had my publisher run a national ad, but my last two books both spent several weeks on the NYT extended bestseller list.

I give all the credit to my wonderful editor, agent, and in-house publicist who had faith in me and allowed my career to gradually build momentum. Would it have been great to receive a huge advance and publicity campaign for my first book? Well, maybe. I'm not so sure. I ended up at the same place; it just took a little longer.

No advance of any size could buy me what I have today: a great relationship with my publisher, an editor whom I adore, and the ability to continue to do the work I love.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol IV: They Lied

After two books at a midsize house established suspense novelist RICHARD as “one to watch” (relatively modest advances, and a high success-to-expectations ratio), a bigger house came calling. He’d been pleased with the efforts of Publisher #1—when the publicist he’d hired (at his own expense) got some traction, they responded nimbly to the opportunities by increasing distribution and extending (substantially) the co-op spend. Both books earned out their advances, and there was good feeling on both sides.

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 na├»ve…)—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.
Monday, May 02, 2005

Filthy Lucre: Some Thoughts on the Profit Motive

Far be it for me to take someone else to task for anonymity; but I found one recent anonymous post (in response to Vol. II of the Mad Max Survey: Keith, the thriller writer) especially wearying, spouting as it does received wisdom about the lock-stock correlation between the size of the advance and the extent to which a book will (or won’t) be well published.

If this writer thinks his publisher didn't do much for him after receiving his large, life-changing advance, he should consider that the effort would have been far less if his advance had been small … I've heard this "I got too large of an advance" story before and it defies logic. Sure, he didn't earn out. But who's to say he would have earned out with the smaller advance? Smaller advance would have certainly meant smaller effort by the publisher, smaller interest by the media, and smaller sales all around.
As an editor in good standing who has paid seven-figures for books, and who has far more frequently paid five figures, I’m here to dispute, emphatically, the claim that publishers never publish well books they don't pay a ton for. And before anyone accuses me of striking a pose designed to contradict the ingrained cynicism/skepticism with which publishers are viewed—after all, people so enjoy demonizing the ugly for-profit instincts of publishers, and have such uncanny insight into the ways this ugliness motivates us, above all other things—I’ll speak not of art, or of supporting the little guy, but as the bottom-line capitalist I am. Because here’s the truth about what a “small” advance represents to me: it’s a chance to earn a profit

To turn a (relatively) modest investment into a (potentially) lucrative return… From the Latin lucrativus—from whence comes the rallying cry of investors since time immemorial:
“Hey, man—
let’s make us some
Do publishers pay tons of money for books sometimes? Yes. Do they sometimes support such investments aggressively? Often, yes. But it's specious (and down-right illogical) to suggest that the inverse is true—that books bought “small” are necessarily doomed to be published that way. Again, I won’t play the “for the love of literature” card; rather, it stands to reason that, if we buy a book for $50,000 (a “small” advance, according to some), and publish it well, there’s a far greater likelihood of
Getting…into…the BLACK
The failure of a book for which a small advance has been paid is no more guaranteed than is the success of those seven-figure mega-deals that get headline ink in the trades. Are there publishers whose eyes, as a matter of course, glaze over when they see such books on their publishing grids? Yeah: stupid ones. Smart publishers are opportunistic. Sometimes opportunity presents itself in the form of bestselling authors for whom huge sums are paid based on the expectation that huge quantities will be shipped out, generating a stream of receipts that, even when not profitable by every conceivable measure, can nonetheless make a huge contribution to operational overhead. But nothing represents a greater (theoretical) opportunity for publishers than a book bought low that can be sold aggressively. These situations represent the ultimate win-win for author and publisher alike.

What does this outcome require? It requires vigilant activism on the part of editors, and it requires the trust of the people managing/supervising those editors. As the number of publishers shrinks; as the remaining publishers grow in size; and as the number of titles being published on each list increases, especially relative to the number of people needed to publish them well; it is, of course, inevitable that those charged with overseeing those lists focus greater and greater portions of their resources on titles & authors that have a proven track, or on which large bets have been placed—this is what Anonymous means by “chasing the money.”

But under these circumstances, editors have opportunities to be mini-publishers, even—no, especially—for these relatively smaller titles. Their managers are counting on them to do precisely that. And at the end of the day there is nothing so satisfying, so thrilling, so rewarding—for everyone involved—as putting the right book into the right hands at the right time, and turning a project for which expectations are modest into a lead title. Is part of that thrill the realization that you may have earned a terrific return on your investment? Well, this is a business--what do you think?
Sunday, May 01, 2005

Mad Max Survey, Vol. III: Big v. Small

PATRICK, a literary novelist, published his first book with a prestigious New York house, then published his next two with a university press.

BIG ......For my first novel, there was a generally good vibe leading up to publication. I had some issues with the publisher, though—the corporate behemoth and so forth—issues that seemed all the more clear-cut when my publicity director was fired the week before publication. The new pub director knew little about the book and as a result very little happened. Despite good reviews and moderately good sales (plus a good sub rights deal), the experience led me to want to explore other options.

SMALL ......I wound up publishing my next two books with a university press. I was drawn in that direction initially because I had heard they kept books in print and cared deeply about literature. In fact, I thought the editing was vastly superior with my faceless NY publisher. I'm not sure my editor at the university press ever read the book. They went into publishing fiction with the idea that they' make a lot of money to support scholarly monographs but they had no idea how to market fiction. Again, good reviews and even a minor prize, but low sales, due in part to lousy distribution and p.r.

I did a second book with this press, thinking we had all learned something from the first. In this case, I worked very hard for the book and sales were modestly better but many of the same problems remained. And while they sold out of their first edition within six months, they weren't willing to go back for a second printing. Another minor complaint is that while there was some movie interest, the publisher had no idea how to handle this, and fumbled the opportunity. Sub rights is a major problem with small press and university presses. Every so often they get a paperback deal but it's purely by accident, in my opinion.

BIG v. SMALL ......At the time I felt I’d been lost in the shuffle with my New York publisher; on the other hand, there's just no question that their professionalism and attention to detail made a huge difference. One small example: with my last book with the U.P., I almost didn't get noticed in PW or Kirkus because the press didn't get advance copies to them in time. This despite having gotten good notices on my previous novels—very annoying, given the importance of these publications to bookstores, libraries and the trade. On the other hand, while the first book was pulped within six months, my university press books are still in print. That means a lot to an author.

THE WORK ......Looking back on twenty years of frustration and some limited success, I think the most important thing is perseverance. Too many writers are willing to give in to pessimism because of the problems all mid-list writers face these days. For me, it's really always been about the writing, and that's what has saved me in the end. If I didn't love to write, I'd be in trouble.

I think that book tours and other publicity gimmicks are largely a waste of time. I know all the arguments for them, how they encourage booksellers, etc, but few things in life are more dispiriting that standing around in some bookstore in some distant place addressing five or six people and a pile of your books. Okay, you get to sign stock and sell a few that way, but in my view it's not worth it, especially in view of the way NY publishers view these kinds of sales. Ditto with interviewers, most of whom are clueless and have little idea of who you are and what you've done. A special place in hell should be reserved for these nitwits.

WHAT I KNOW NOW ......I just sent a new novel to my agent and have decided that unless I can get a decent deal with a NY publisher, I'm not going to publish it. For me, it's all about distribution and publicity. With the decline of review markets, it's just very difficult to get your book in front of the public without a big NY house behind you. Having said that, I'll also say that I think these literary blogs are the most interesting and exciting thing I've seen in publishing in twenty years. I have no idea what the audience is but I'm always impressed with the energy and intelligence of the bloggers.

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"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."