Here is Patti Smith (in her memoir, Just Kids), explaining how her first record got produced:
“[Fellow band member] Lenny [Kaye] and I designed the record. We called our label Mer. We pressed 1,500 copies at a small plant on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia and distributed them to book and record stores, where they sold for two dollars apiece. [Our manager] Jane Friedman could be found at the entrance to our shows, selling them from a shopping bag.”
The artist as entrepreneur. Smith tells it in matter-of-fact fashion because it’s been a common occurrence throughout the history of visual arts, music, even independent cinema.
Let’s change four words and delete two and see how it hits us:
“Lenny and I designed the book. We called our imprint Mer. We printed 1,500 copies at a small printer on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia and distributed them to book stores, where…”
Where…what? Hmm. Most likely this: “Where bookstore buyers turned their noses up at us and said they don’t carry the work of people who are self-published, the implication being that we were second-class citizens, unworthy of their shelf space. We went to the Authors Guild for advice. They told us to get lost because we weren’t being published by an ‘approved’ publisher.”
This might be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Now the Authors Guild writes on its website that as a result of the structure of ebook royalties “for the first time, publishers have strong incentives to work against the author’s interest.”
I’m not writing this essay to beat up on the Authors Guild. The author of the above cited piece seems to be Scott Turow, a wonderful novelist and current Guild president (though the credit is not clear on the website). Being a lawyer, Mr. Turow’s reference to “incentives” points to the language of contracts, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note the profound naivete behind the statement quoted above. Contracts, after all, are put into practice in the real world. And in that world, the interests of publisher and author have been diverging for some time. To wit:
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when powerful agents representing name-brand authors demand advances that have little hope of earning out?
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when publishers assign a junior publicist, fresh out of college, to represent the author’s work to the media?
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when publishers allow the bookstore chains to impose a three-week success window on a work the author may have labored over for years?
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when the publisher assigns more books to an editor than he or she could possibly edit with any degree of thoroughness?
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when publishers stake a claim to means of exploitation that hadn’t been invented at the time the book contract was signed?
- Are publisher and author interests aligned when the publisher refuses to spend a nickel on marketing, preferring to wait and see what the author does with his or her own money and connections?
I could go on, of course.
The fact is that the world is only fair in fiction, where order gets restored at the end, no matter how wild the ride. In point of fact, publishing contracts are business arrangements in which the alignment of interests may itself be a fiction. Certainly everyone involved would ideally like interests to be aligned, but when they aren’t guess who wins and guess who loses.
Authors have done deals on publishers’ terms for generations simply because publishers held most of the cards. If an author wanted a shot at reaching her market potential, her only choice was to play the publishers’ game or face almost certain professional oblivion.
Now, with the advent of new technologies, that state of dependency has begun coming apart at the binding. But that doesn’t mean anyone’s going to be handing anything to authors for free. The world doesn’t work that way.
If authors today want any level of commercial success — that is, if they wish to be paid over the long term for their creative output — they must acknowledge the thing that has been staring them in the face for a long time: Like it or not, every author is an entrepreneur.
Ten Ways All Authors are Entrepreneurs
1. It’s all in their heads.
Authors and entrepreneurs are dreamers. How is the germ of a book idea any different from the idea that launches a business? In both cases it starts as an abstraction and the creator must build a structure around it and fill in all the details.
2. Ideas are their stock in trade.
An entrepreneur doesn’t just begin with an idea; he lives in ideas. Great entrepreneurs have more ideas before breakfast than normal people have all day. The same could be said of most authors.
3. They face much rejection.
The creator of a new business, like the author of a novel, must accustom herself to hearing the word “no.” And this person must learn, if she doesn’t already understand, that those noes are not a statement of personal worth, the representation of a penetrating insight, or a reason for the recipient to fall into despair. Rejection is merely part of the process.
4. If they don’t believe in themselves, no one else will.
How many elitists read the works of certain commercial or “genre” novelists and scoff at, say, their awkward metaphors or wooden characters? How many people who prefer light reading see certain literary works as besotted with turgid prose? No book is for everyone. Even record-breaking bestsellers garner the contempt of some readers. Authors, like entrepreneurs, must believe in their own vision and pursue that vision relentlessly.
5. One person makes the difference.
When I was an agent doing deals with all the big houses, I always emphasized to my authors that — despite the size of the publishing house or of the deal — their own efforts and enthusiasm were the most important factor in determining success. Entrepreneurs know — or learn soon enough — that the world doesn’t await them with bated breath. They have to get out there and shout for attention every day, and that personal commitment weighs more in their favor than any other factor. Same for authors.
6. They are called to it.
You don’t face all that rejection and uncertainty day in and day out in order to please someone else. Nor do you undertake the struggle because it’s a safe choice — it isn’t. The comedian Jerry Lewis used to teach a seminar at UCLA. As related by novelist David Morrell, Lewis only accepted students into the seminar who correctly answered the question, “Why do you want to be a comedian?” The correct answer was, “Because I need to be.” That’s also the only correct answer, as Morrell notes, to why anyone would want to be a writer. To that short list I’d add artist, musician and, yes, entrepreneur. Even in abject failure, these people can’t think of anything else they’d rather do.
7. A degree of naivete is their greatest ally.
Most successful entrepreneurs will admit, looking back, that they’d never have set out on the course they took if they’d had any idea how hard it would be when they started. Writing and publishing is a daunting task. A certain degree of willful naivete is your friend.
8. They try the patience of their loved ones.
People like those I’m describing are stubborn. They have an idea they won’t quit on, defying nay-sayers and difficulties and, often, common sense. As the owners of these traits, authors and entrepreneurs can be incorrigible pains in the ass. Don’t marry one unless you can’t live without him.
9. They must be singleminded in their goal but openminded about the path.
Authors and entrepreneurs face many setbacks along the path to success. At times, some of these setbacks seem fatal. An author, for example, may have failed to land the representation of an agent. An entrepreneur may have failed to attract investors. The straight path is littered with talented people who couldn’t bring themselves to find another way. But successful authors and entrepreneurs know that there is always another route. They refuse to quit until they find it.
10. Eventually they need The Man or become The Man.
Brad Listi set out five years ago to publicize his novel over the web. In order to do so, he founded The Nervous Breakdown, where he now makes decisions about who to let in the door. I tease Brad about having chosen to become The Man, but the real choice was only whether to quit or to go on. That’s the choice authors and entrepreneurs face: join the system or make your own damn system.
Dear reader, I do not wish to give the impression that I am one of those people who dishes out advice but can’t take it. In the spirit of authorship and entrepreneurship I am happy to announce that my novel, Primacy, will be published in September by a writer’s consortium I’m founding called Verbitrage.
The premise behind Verbitrage is simple. I believe the current state of affairs enables motivated authors not only to act on the entrepreneurial proposition, but to do so in a way that employs book publishing’s best practices.
I will be reporting weekly (Wednesdays by 7 a.m. Eastern Time) on these efforts in my new column for The Nervous Breakdown: “Publishing Primacy.” My first column will address the why and wherefore, the opportunities and the pitfalls. Subsequent columns will take you every step of the way as I contemplate how to make Primacy a unique success.
To stay abreast of these columns and my efforts, do any or all of the following:
- Friend me on Facebook
- Follow me on Twitter: JEFISHMAN
- Like Primacy on Facebook
- Follow PRIMACYBOOK on Twitter
What’s the difference among these four venues? I don’t know yet. My take on the value of social media will be the subject of a column at some point, and you can watch me (and help me) think this through.
The motto of Verbitrage is “More Than Words.” I hope to give you that over the coming months.