April 13, 2011
Consider the phrase, “Money is no object.” We all know the gist of its message, but what does it really mean? Whoever said money was an object in the first place?
Well, we all did, didn’t we? We all fall into that trap occasionally. We see our stock portfolio or the value of our house go up and we think: don’t let go now; that number could climb higher tomorrow. Or we watch it fall and think: don’t sell when it’s down; it might get back to its peak eventually. We entrance ourselves watching our money, as if its utility were only the accumulation of it.
Nobel laureate V. S. Naipaul has a small lecture in his novel A Bend in the River that I find instructive in this regard. It reads in part:
“You must always know when to pull out. A businessman isn’t a mathematician. Remember that. Never become hypnotized by the beauty of numbers. A businessman is someone who buys at ten and is happy to get out at twelve. The other kind of man buys at ten, sees it rise to eighteen and does nothing. When it drops to ten again he waits for it to get back to eighteen. When it drops to two he waits for it to get back to ten. Well, it gets back there. But he has wasted a quarter of his life. And all he’s got out of his money is a little mathematical excitement.”
You have to love the faint condemnation inherent in those words: “a little mathematical excitement.” Although Naipaul doesn’t provide a gesture, you can almost see the dismissive shrug or a twist of the mouth accompanying that statement.
Anyway, it seems to me that the phrase money is no object derives from the idea that people often fall in love with money in the way that Naipaul’s character expresses it. When that happens it goes from being a means to an end to being an end in itself — an object. But when we get around to saying it is “no object” we renounce our need to hoard it and embrace our willingness to make use of it.
These thoughts are important to me now as I endeavor to bring Primacy to the world, because doing so properly will cost me a good deal of money, along the lines of paying the tuition toward a graduate degree or springing for a nice car.
At this point you may be trying to reconcile in your mind the assertion that Primacy will cost tens of thousands of dollars to publish versus what you’ve heard about spending a few hundred bucks on Tuesday and having a book available on Amazon on Wednesday. The short answer is that the distribution of Verbitrage books will have very little in common with all the self-publishing you’ve been hearing about of late.
For a few hundred dollars or less, you can make an ebook available on certain websites. That’s not Verbitrage.
For a few thousand dollars or less, you can use a print-on-demand service and have printed books available on the provider’s website and other sites that allow anyone to sell books in their online store. That’s not Verbitrage, either.
The premise of the Verbitrage consortium is simple on its face but admittedly grander than the above examples. The premise is that by committing appropriate resources we can publish a book as well as any of the Big Six publishers, which is to say, producing a first-class product available in full distribution. Times are changing but the laws of economics not so much. Putting oneself into a position of making money still usually requires an investment of same.
Yes, from the perspective of making money, producing fiction will always be a bit like buying a lottery ticket. We have all seen major publishers spend big dollars to produce flops, and we have seen small publishers (or self-publishers) spend next to nothing and produce hits. But grab the nearest bestseller list and you’ll see that, for all their troubles, major publishers still dominate. If publishing a book properly doesn’t mean doing an end-run around that lottery, it does mean doing everything sensible to improve one’s odds.
I’ll explain the guiding principles behind Verbitrage and where all that money goes in another post. For the remainder of this post, I want to complete my thoughts about money and objects.
My ambition is to be a successful novelist. By “successful” I don’t mean well-reviewed and admired, although I’d like that very much. Nor do I mean bestselling — though I’d like that very much, too. By “successful” I mean that I wish to reach people through my storytelling and make a profit doing so. It is axiomatic that it will be harder to reach people if those potential readers can’t easily lay their hands on Primacy or other novels I may write and publish in the future.
It is no knock on the print-on-demand services to say that they best serve niche non-fiction markets, where most of the potential audience is known or easily found. Publishing fiction is a different game. It’s not the information business; it’s the entertainment business. We’re looking to command with our product a chunk of a person’s leisure time — time, presumably, that that person values a great deal.
As such, one must accomplish three things: (1) produce a product that lives up to its promises; (2) fight through lots of noise for that potential reader’s attention; and (3) make it easy for that potential reader to get ahold of the book.
Production, marketing and distribution. Simple as that. And these three things cost money.
Is there another way? Yes. There’s always another way. It will be just as hard and the outcome will be even more uncertain.
Yet spending the kind of money required by the Verbitrage model is a big decision. I could buy the nice new car instead, but that won’t help me achieve my ambition. I could enroll in an MFA program, but that’s more of a path toward teaching than toward writing profitably. Nothing wrong with teaching, but it’s not how I want to spend the second half of my life.
I introduced this column with a post about the ways all authors are entrepreneurs. It is rare indeed for a non-author entrepreneur to advance his ideas without investing in them. He gets the money for that investment wherever he can. Maybe he’s lucky enough to have it from a prior business success (as I am), but more likely he’ll borrow or beg or — at least — save toward the day when he can make that investment.
The entrepreneur with an invention or a new business model or simply with the ambition to open a corner store is buying his own lottery ticket because he believes in his own enterprise. How is that different from my ambition or that of any serious author? We may be dreamers but we don’t have to be hoarders.
In the end we may get more or less than what we bargained for. That’s the risk we take. We didn’t get into this game to “become hypnotized by the beauty of numbers.” We’re seeking more than “a little mathematical excitement.”
Next week: Publishing Primacy — Folio 5: Six Distinctions Between Verbitrage and Self-Publishing
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Publishing Primacy is posted every Wednesday morning by 7:00 Eastern Time.