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[The second Rant Invitational reply to be posted at BookAngst 101, following on the heals of FINE WHINE I: An Unpublished Writer's Rant.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.


Anonymous said...

Doesn't sound like a whine to me.

It does sound as if our noble protagonist needs to find a different way to present his wisdom. How about a vitriolic "Why all these self-help books are crud" book - call it "The Great Self Help Con".

Anonymous said...

Zornhau, ROFLOL. But you hit the nail. There are so many books out there, even with solid credentials you need a big hook to bring in a publisher. And I don't blame them. Isn't it like 175,000 books a year? And far, far more are non-fiction than fiction. The competition is fierce.

Speaking as a relatively young, busy person, any non-fiction book that I pick up must be accessible. By that I mean, easy to read. Not dumbed down, not trivialized, but smoothly written where all of the sudden I'm halfway through it and don't know where the time went. I think that's harder to do in NF.

But I wouldn't blame the readers, which is what I think this author is doing. It's our place in history. Time is of a premium. I don't like being talked down to, and from this post -- and I could be completely off base -- I felt like I was being talked down to, as if I was too stupid to pick up a good book that would really solve my problems. If that tone comes across in the actual book, I'd have a problem with it.

s/Anon Suspense Writer

(Hey Mad Max! Are you interested in any happy stories from us authors still wearing rose-colored glasses so everyone can tell us how dumb we are?)

Anonymous said...

I just can't have sympathy for somebody whose main complaint ends up being "I'm right and everybody else is stupid."

I vote "Fine Whine, cleverly disguised as rant in the beginning."

Anonymous said...

I think the author of this rant is missing the point. This person seems to feel that because of their years of experience in their field, they have something of value to offer the reading public; yet they also seem unwilling to accept the realities of how both the publishing industry and self-help book buyers (the intended audience) want such advice packaged.

Granted, this person may not have realized this going in (and obviously neither did their agent), but it seems to me that rather than conclude there's no place for an older author in the self-help field, the author of this rant should take this new knowledge and use it to shape their wisdom into a more palatable package.

You can't help people if they won't listen, and they can't hear unless you speak their language . . .

While it's possible the publishers who turned down the person's project are out of sync with the buying public's wants, it seems more likely to me that the author and the agent are the ones who miscued. While I appreciate this person's obvious disappointment in the lack of a sale, I don't think their publishing career needs be at the end of the road due to a few gray hairs.

A prescriptive self-help author can't fight publishing trends and realities anymore than an aspiring novelist can, but if they're clever, they ought to be find a way to use them to their advantage. Valuable, experienced, relationship wisdom presented in a clever, palatable, trendy package sounds like a winner to me.

Anonymous said...

Actually, my suggestion was in earnest! There are a couple of amusing, high-profile rationalist rant books out there at the moment, e.g. "How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World" (Francis Wheen) Perhaps non-fiction writer dude could have a bash at one.

For every person who embraces the new age drumming in the woods self help thing, there are three more people who want to give the first person a good kicking...

Anonymous said...

If I were an agent or an editor, I would never take this guy on. You can tell from his letter he's a total bore. Who would take his advice on relationships? Any woman would run a mile from a guy this long-winded and dull.

Anonymous said...

There'd have to have some kind of insanely good sales track to make me take on anyone with this agenting history. It screams "Editorial Headache." Too many reasonable, flexible, edit-able authors out there to deal with him, no matter what an expert he may be. Rant or whine, this guy dug his own grave.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Saundra, Kevin & Anonymous Too. Dr Ruth is no spring chicken and her books sell.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, to an agent/editor this letter screams high PITA factor. (PITA = Pain in the Ass)

Anonymous said...

What bothers me about this post is the sense of entitlement the author appears to feel. Just because someone is good or maybe even an expert in a certain field doesn't guarantee that he/she should be a publishing success. And just because someone thinks himself to be videogenic doesn't mean others will, either. I also feel there's too much emphasis placed on this. Because I have to ask - how was the writing? How well-received were the previous books? That does mean something; sorry if the author doesn't seem to think it does. (Or conversely, I sense the author feels that just because he's written previous books he deserved breakout success. Sorry. I'm of the opinion no one deserves anything in life, or publishing.)

Anonymous said...

Furthering the previous comment, the flipside of his heightened sense of entitlement is his dessicated sense of service. If our whiner/ranter had a sense of service it certainly didn't come through in the tone of his email. Rather, he transmitted a forbidding and forlorn acceptance of his own lot in life, of circumstances well beyond his control, and of his loss of hope. But, from service springs forth hope, the hope to help others, even though he might not get the advances or the press or the agents. I wonder what, in fact, this person really wants out of life...

Anonymous said...

Don't be so tough on this guy. He's spent 30 years in the trenches, feels like he has wisdom and smarts to pass on, and nobody's interested. That's a disheartening place to be. I'd be discouraged too. But if the market doesn't want what he's offering, it's time to move on. To write it anyway (for himself) or to find something more promising. A brief wallow is fine but you don't want to get stuck there.

Ami said...

I found this writer's backstory of cycling through literary agents more interesting than the 'pitch' for his book.

To me, it felt like more like he was trying to sell Max his book proposal than a genuine rant.

All the hallmarks of a query letter were present. Credentials, past publishing success, media readiness, comparison with a popular title, statements as to why his book is better than the current competition, and then a blow by blow account of what's in the book. The whole, "who wants complicated answers, who wants to know, who needs to peek", it's all there. Any questions? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

If that's the case...he needs to tighten his elevator pitch into one of those groovy sound bites he says he's so good at manufacturing when put on the spot.

If it's not, then I wish him all the best. (Actually, I wish him the best , either way. Life's too short. Go with your colours flying!)

TLG said...

Nobody's entitled to anything, I've learned, and attitude is everything :) I'm trying to adjust mine. I have a feeling things'll roll along a bit better for me if I start looking at it differently and maybe interracting with it differently.

As for being indignate that we (the poor ignorant masses) don't want to read his/her work...Well, publishers HAVE been wrong about what they think people want to read before.

But also... sometimes I'm not in the mood for serious discourse. Like right now. I'm working full time and going to graduate school and trying to do a rewrite and trying to make sure I keep myself in clean socks. I actually read a womens magazine today. Yeah, I know. Some of us don't have a brain cell left for what people're pushing. When I'm not in school, I'll read pretty much anything non-fiction, if the author isn't a dolt, or the writing style isn't so dry it's like eating rocks.

Which brings me to my last point--then I'll shut up. Ever read a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn?? If you haven't, you should. It's what NOT to do. His style is so long-winded and dry that it's PAINFUL to read, and ABUSIVE to make someone else read it. Which is a far cry from The Tipping Point or Blink by Malcom Gladwell. Both involved in science, but one author has an engaging style. I'm not saying this author's work is like that. But he/she certainly had those moments of dryness that bespoke a scientific publication more than something they wished to be accessed by the general public.

Scientific journals and publications are for those that don't have a main-stream style :) Think about it--most of your readers are going to be arm-chair scientists and weekend philosophers. We're looking for mental meat and potatos couched between a candy appetizer and a brownie-sundae dessert. Cut us a break :)

Anonymous said...

This whole whine, rant, the moanings of a hack, whatever you want to call it.

It doesn't ring true for me at all, and I'm a member of the "cool" generation that buys such amatuerish [sic] books and, in fact, keeps the industry alive.

I can tell you that readers like me, which is to say the vast majority of readers in their twenties and early thirties, DO NOT discriminate against authors on the basis of race, gender, or AGE.

You could be impotent and 115 years old, but if you wrote a damn good sex guide, I would buy it in a heartbeat.

You could be in your sixties and write about the college experience. If it rings true for me I will tell all my friends about it (unfortunately, what we more often get from old-timers is grossly exaggerated garbage like I Am Charlotte Simmons).

So, as a reader and as someone intimately involved with books, the writer's problem appears to be one of ATTITUDE (no surprise, really).

When I'm reading a fictional novel, I don't care what the author's real-life persona is like so long as he or she delivers... It's the same as watching a movie; who cares if Colin Farrell is an unruly drunk, so long as he can keep us entertained for 90 minutes.

With self-help and relationship books, authors don't get this carte blanche. If we suspect even the slightest whiff of insincerity, or worse, someone who doesn't really have his shit together, we will run from whatever is written by such a person.

This guy's a whiner who doesn't have life figured out. How can he expect people to take his advice?

Anonymous said...

Y'know, this whole screed basically says "I can't sell my current proposal, but I'm holding onto it for dear life." Has the author tried writing, oh I don't know, a *different* proposal? Same field, same base of knowledge, different spin?

I've been reading Holly Lisle's blog for the past while, and she's spent the last year rewriting and rewriting a proposal, to the point where she's now written more than a novel's worth of words for it. She's finally had to accept that that particular proposal won't sell to that editor. But meanwhile she's been working on other books, other ideas, other proposals, and she's decided to take some time and write the book she really wants to write, on spec, and see how it goes.

Every book is different. Some of them sell, some of them don't. But when an agent says she doesn't find an author's latest proposal compelling and no one's been interested in it, maybe he should try writing a different proposal instead of ditching the agent.

Peter L. Winkler said...

With the exception of one anonymous comment here that said to give this guy a break, I've been flabbergasted at the reaction to this writer's rant. It seems that the people commenting have succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome of publishing: blame the victim, love your captors, and internalize their values. According to the comments, the only person who's at fault here is-surprise-the poor writer. He's changed agents, so without knowing anything else about him, you brand him a pain in the ass. You know what? If he had remained with one agent and failed, you'd accuse him of not being "proactive" enough. Damned if you do, ...

It seems to me that this guy has pretty much done things right in his career. He's industrious, professional, prolific, can get media exposure, has been well-published and received.

What he isn't is a comedy writer. Not everyone can come up with a book like "He's Just Not That Into You," which is a gimmicky nonbook. Every year or so there's a book like that one or "The Rules." The problem is that in the entertainment business, of which publishing is a subset, everyone wants to be the first one to be second. The success of one title like Not That Into You distorts everyone's expectations. Everybody wants a book just like it, forgetting that it's a unique phenomenon. Meanwhile, they ignore anything else.

Another problem for this guy that he puts his finger on is that our culture is obsessed with youth and has a hysterical fear of death. Even though there's a huge segment of the population that's middle aged and older, advertisers keep chasing the youth demographic. When I watch Book TV on CSPAN-2 and look at the audiences for various writers, I see a sea of faces mostly 35 and up. With authors like David McCullough and other writers of popular history, the audiences look like they've been imported from a rest home.

I suspect that this writer could write another proposal, but it probably won't sell, because one's writing is an expression of one's sensibility and one's central preoccupations in life. This writer isn't going to be able to turn himself into a 22-year-old stand up comedian or sitcom writer. He is who he is. As the late Avram Davidson said, "I'm the best goddamn Avram Davidson there is."

It's very easy to pick on this guy and offer facile advice when you don't have to try and roll a boulder uphill. It's awfully hard to try to get it up and try to write something to the market when your heart isn't in it and when it just isn't you. This writer is caught in a genuine existential dilemma. I've been there. Damned if I have an answer for him.

Anonymous said...

This writer is caught in a genuine existential dilemma.

He's really not, though, Peter. He's caught in Tunnel Vision Land- he's bemoaning and bewailing that nobody wants to know why men do the things they do, nobody wants to know why men are the complicated creatures they are... hey, maybe they do! But the people who do are not the same people who need to be slapped with the DUH Mackerel of "He's just not that into you."

The people who need to wake up, smell the coffee, throw in your own elightenment cliche here are, in fact, spending too much time trying to figure out why men do the things they do, instead of just realizing... hey, he doesn't like me like that! Move along!

These are two entirely different markets, but because they are both "relationship advice that have men in them," he's decided they are exactly the same thing. Bzzzzzt! No cookie for the expert!

He has a marketing crisis that he's tied into his worth as a human being, and rather than re-examine HIS approach, realize that he's coveting something he couldn't have anyway, because it's *not* his market he's just decided his misfortune is everybody else's fault. That's not an existential crisis. That's a temper tantrum.

Kel-Bell said...

My advice to this author is:


Take what you know and create hot racy sexy sound bytes that will draw attention and controversy.

(This wisdom has been brought to you by an unpublished amature, with no credentials what so ever.)

Anonymous said...

Everything is someone else's fault.

Nobody likes me, everybody hate me. Guess I'll go eat worms.

I'm leaving for the worm farm now.

I'm heading for the door.

Now is the time to stop me.

No one's stopping me.

You're all bastards!


TLG said...

peter, I think what most of us are backlashing against is the attitude presented. yes, we blame the victim in this circumstance because the victim is blaming us for being too stupid to "get" him. At the same time, no one is technically ENTITLED to success. You can work hard for it, you can be extremely educated, but the Magic Fu Sauce doesn't get evenly distributed. If I'm persistant and work hard (and grow a spine) the Magic Fu Fairy will visit me, and things'll fall into place. Till then, whining does NO good. Whining about how you're smart and soooo "misunderstood" is a real quick way to lose sympathy with the rest of us who're not necessarily leading our ideal life but also arn't taking it out on other people. Sometimes I think we should hand out awards to people not for doing extra-ordinary things, but for average folks who keep trudging through the muck and mire that life throws our way and just plain old don't suck.

Anonymous said...

I'm generalising, but don't publishers often want authors who show signs that they can write more than one book. Many books, in fact, over the course of a career. Agents understand that too.

Why then, hang onto one proposal as if it's the end of all your publishing hopes?

I'm editing a novel right now. It may never sell. If it doesn't I won't just complain, or revise it over and over. I'll write another one. And another.

Anonymous said...

Our "aging," whiney ranter gave away his identity in about the third sentence of his rant--and trust me, folks, the reason he comes across as an arrogant, pompous asshole is because he is one. And now, on top of that, he's succumbed to a serious case of extraordinarily sour grapes.

My opinion? He could use some therapy.

Anonymous said...

While I imagine our writer here would desire not to respond to the slings and arrows offered in the comments, I wish he would answer a few questions because I understand what he's going through, but I don't know enough about his publishing history to offer any constructive comments.

1. Were your books published in hardcover and/or paperback? How did they sell?
2. Why the long gap between books?
3. What is the basis for your authority? Are you a doctor?
4. Who is your latest proposal for? You talk about relationships, but not whose relationships?
5. What is the tenor of your advice?
6. Has your advice changed with the times? An entirely different generation has grown up to buy books in the time you've been publishing?
7. You talk about reporters calling you, which is great; it means you're in the rolodex. Did you cultivate these contacts?
8. Sending that DVD was a great idea, although I would have suggested an mpeg, real file or quicktime file that could be played on the computer at the office. What were the specific reactions to it?
9. Have you thought of writing a different book?
10. Why did you part ways with each agent?

Anonymous said...

I might get flack for saying this, which is fine with me since free speech still exists in this country even though it's being undermined every day, and you're more and more likely be deported if you go against popular opinion, but I have to side with Max Perkins on certain things.

I agree that there's been an overall dumbing-down trend in the publishing industry and our society. However, the fault lies not with all people under 35 but on a deteriorating education system and too many publishing companies that care more about sales than substance.

This trend has been going for decades; especially since the self-help movement (which made it possible for any Joe/Jane Schmoe to become a best-selling relationship expert, Ph.D or not) became really big in the 80s. I don't know about any of you, but I find it alarming that so many people take books like The Rules and He's Just Not That Into You as gospel; especially since He's Just Not That Into You was only meant to be funny! Sure, some of the things they say are true, but they're nothing no one can't figure out by themselves, and they're not always true with all people.

While I agree that that books should be well-written and easy for the general public to understand, too many editors seem to have forgotten how to do this with complex subjects. Instead, they just end up watering them down, sugar-coating them, and simplifying them to the point that they lose their original context (here's an example). By sacrificing accuracy in order to be user-friendly and inoffensive, I think they are doing the reading public a disservice.

OK, arrest me.

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."