Ranting for Publishing Excellence
For the past seven years Alan Canton has been writing "A Saturday Rant," a weekly essay on the publishing industry with an emphasis on the small press. It is normally posted to publishing listservs, and a brief list of the more popular columns is available at the Adams-Blake website. The company also publishes and markets computer books and the popular PUB123 and JAYA123 back-office software for small to mid-sized publishers.
Get In the Arena...With a "New Year" Attitude
Publishing expert suggests adopting Attitude, Planning, and ACTIONThis is a hard business. A very hard business. Everyone and their dog believes that there are huge riches to be made in book publishing. And everyone with a few bucks in their jeans can afford to roll the dice and see if lightning will strike on their particular book product. It is always "spring training" in the book publishing industry. Indeed, we are always hearing about the "one book miracles" that happen... the woman who used her social security check to publish her "story" and which goes on to become a huge bestseller. But what you don't hear about are all those others who walk away from the gambling tables with empty pockets and broken hearts.
The chances of you seeing a payback on your first book are not good. Why? No, it's not what you are thinking. Look, every business is difficult. Every business has high risk. Opening a law office is hard. Starting a dental practice is hard. Opening a dry cleaning store is difficult. Selling computers is hard. And manufacturing anything and then getting it to market is a daunting task. But look at ALL THE SUCCESS out there in other fields. Most lawyers, dry cleaners, retailers, and other small businesses seem to thrive and grow. Sure, maybe 30% of them limp along and fail, but I'll bet 70% of them do OK.
So, why the long face about book publishing? The answer, my dear children, is simple, but you won't want to hear it. Most publishers don't know their toches ('took-kiss' - Yiddish for what you sit on) from their elbow about running a business. Most publishers are "field dreamers,"...if you publish it they will come (and buy it). And most publishers are not organized. They don't plan their work... or work their plan. And if they do get successful, they don't have the infrastructure (software, equipment, processes, personnel, bank resources, etc.) to free them up to develop another product. They end up on an 18 hour a day treadmill. They've bought themselves a job.
But most importantly, most publishers have a "wrong" attitude. Let me explain.
Those who succeed are not the ones with the "great" books, or the slickest brochures, or with the "sales" personalities. It's the folks of the publishing world who spend the time to sit down, investigate all the angles of a product, do some research, and MAKE A PLAN.
If you want to succeed, you need to approach book publishing much as you would a general in WWII with limited resources against a huge, entrenched enemy. You need a step-by-step campaign to accomplish your goals. And with that plan, you need to put in place the back-office infrastructure, the financial infrastructure, and the marketing infrastructure to support your plan.
But do publishers do this? No. Most of them write a book, get it to the printer, help unload the truck, and then sit down and try to figure out what to do next!
And what they DO do next is EVERYTHING.
And nothing could be more wrong than trying to do everything.
I've seen too many publishers rushing around... one day trying to get a radio interview, the next day talking to a magazine editor, the next day going to a meeting with a store manager, the next day calling TV stations, the next day trying to find a distributor, the next day talking to a banker, the next day trying to figure out what software to run their office on. And on and on and on and on...
I don't care what your genre is, how obscure it might be, how niche the subject matter seems, or how huge your market might be (often more daunting than a niche market). If you are organized and if you have a plan and if you attack it logically, in 1-2-3 order, with seriousness of intent, YOU WILL SELL THAT BOOK.
It is so simple. But what do most of us do? We run around and around faster than a chicken with the colonel behind him. What we need to do is to "focus in"... to do one thing... to do it very well... and then move on.
What I suggest everyone do at the beginning of each year is to spend a long weekend at a cabin in the woods or a small house on the beach. Take nothing but a pad of paper and a pen. No books, no TV, no radio, no husband/wife/other, etc. You should spend three days walking around THINKING. You should make a detailed list of WHAT to do, and different ways to accomplish it. Then you need to prioritize it as best you can, from the small and simple, up to the hard and difficult. For example, the first thing you should do is make sure your "publishing house" is in order... that you have the necessary infrastructure to succeed... phones, computers, and software. You need to prepare for success. Then you need to add to your list the easy and obvious things that can get you some sales. Finally, you need to add to the list the hard-to-accomplish things. You need to flesh these out in great detail so that when you return "from the mountain" you have a game plan that you can take into battle.
Next, you need to develop a "killer" attitude.
You have to follow the plan relentlessly. You must leave no stone unturned. If part of your plan is to have a Neiman Marcus buyer see your gift-book item, then you have to call this buyer every day until the buyer agrees to a meeting. Relentless pursuit. Zero tolerance for failure. And if you can't get to one buyer, then you need to go over their head -- right up to the president of NM if necessary. This is zero-sum, can't lose, desperation marketing. Whatever it takes, baby. And no one is allowed to get in your way. No one stops you. You are the MAN.
And folks, this is hard. This is very hard. It is the hardest work you will ever do. It is not fun like writing a book or being interviewed on radio. This is down and dirty, in your face, hard-scrabble marketing. It has a million no's and a million "not interested's." But somewhere out there is the "big break." There is some buyer somewhere who is about to lose her job because she can't come up with just the right "creation" for the fall catalog, or the spring line, or the store promotion, or that special huge client.
To put it as General Patton would, you have to "beat the crap out of the goddamn market" until you find that buyer. And then you have to do it again to find the next. And the next. You have to be tough. You have to be hard. You have to be determined. You have to be smart. You have to get down and dirty and just DO IT. That's right, DO IT, not think about it or talk about it, but really DO IT!!!!!!
Letter after letter. Phone call after phone call. Meeting after meeting. No after no. Maybe after maybe. Hang-up after hang-up, rejection after rejection, You have to hang tough. You have to take no prisoners. You can leave no stone unturned. You have to work, work, work, and work some more.
You know what it is? It's attitude. That's right, attitude. Sorry to put it this way, but I believe that to survive in publishing you have to have an "I don't give a damn ... I'm going to sell this book... or die trying" attitude. You show me a publisher who gets out of bed every single day, gets into the office (which already functions well because she planned it that way and invested in the infrastructure) and who does five,... just five things a day to sell her books, and I'll show you a successful publisher. Yes, five things (calls, letters, meetings, mailings, interviews, articles, etc) a day for 300 days a year (yes, you will have to work some weekends) and I'll show you someone who is a success.
So my New Year's message to you is to resolve in 2004 that you ARE going to be successful. I urge you to abandon your "literary persona" and think more like Bill Gates than Bill Shakespeare. I urge you to plan your work and then work your plan. I urge you to let no obstacle get in your way of accomplishing your plan. Either go around it, over it, or through it. But don't turn around and go back.
You do not retreat.
You do not quit.
You must follow one course (i.e. contacting gift store buyers) until there are no more avenues to follow, and THEN move on to the next item on your list. You can't do everything well. But you can do a lot of similar things well if you focus. If your goal is to get the print media to give you some ink, than don't spend any time doing radio interviews. Focus in on your goal and stay the course.
This can be a great year. But you have to make it so. And it won't come with any of the positive mental attitude B.S. that so many others would have you believe (and spend your money on via their tapes etc.) Your success will come from within you. It will come if YOU decide that "damn it to hell, I'm going to make this happen." Contrary to what many of my critics might say, I believe that being Pollyanna won't cut it. This is hard work. There are others out there looking for the same break you are looking for. You have to be better, or smarter than they are... or perhaps you just have to out-work them.
Again, I repeat. This is NOT the fun part of publishing. You've already had the fun. You wrote the book or you brought someone else's creation to life. You enjoyed the design process and you were thrilled to open the first box of books and see, touch, and smell what you have wrought. Now is the time to get to work. Now is the time to get tough. Now is the time to be the boss, the bad-ass, the unstoppable force. Now is the time to see what you are made of. Now is the time to see if you really, really "want it." What are you made of? Will it be success or failure?
It's a new year, a new chance, a new calendar, a new day. Get down on it, get out there, run on the field and kick some butt. Failure is not an option. You CAN do this. You SHOULD do this. If you want to be a success in this business, you will HAVE to do this.
And when the phone does not ring or the orders do not come in, don't quit. Don’t quit. You cannot quit. No quitting allowed. Make more calls, write more articles, give more speeches, see more store managers, think, think, think, think, think!!! Damn it, if it were so easy, everyone would be doing it.
So stop crying. Stop whining. Forget about your fear (you are going to die someday anyway no matter how fearful you are, so get your toches into the arena and play the game.) Pick up the phone and call/write/meet with someone who needs your book or product. If you believe in yourself, and if you believe in your product, and if you convey this with sincerity and integrity, the world will beat down your doors wanting what you have.
You can make it as good as it gets.
And if you fail, so what. Big deal. No matter what, you are one of the special ones. One of the few, one of the brave, one of those who did something they truly believed in. It is to you the following was written:
To the Man in the Arena, by Theodore Roosevelt (1910)
"It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, if he wins, knows the triumph of high achievement; and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."
Happy New Year… and great success to one and all,
Alan N. Canton
Author, Publisher, Software Engineer