Monday, November 29, 2010

NaNoWriMo Fail

It's the last day of November, and I'm roughly 30,000 words short of the National Novel Writing Month (i.e. NaNoWriMo) goal. For anyone not dorky enough to already know this, National Novel Writing Month is a nonprofit group founded by a group of struggling 20-something writers who each vowed to write a rough draft of a novel (or at least the first 50,000 words of a novel) in 30 days. Ten years in, November novel writing is the biggest of the organization's several binge writing events and a major fundraiser.

On the NaNoWriMo website, participants can friend one another, create novel synopses, log words, and track their progress. You also get encouraging booster emails from assorted well-known novelists: I deleted mine without reading them, but headliners who jump to mind include tween fantasy author Holly Black and everybody's favorite nonfiction novelist, Dave Eggers, with a PSA about procrastination.

For people like me, mired in self-doubt, but still cautiously optimistic enough (and, yes, serious enough) to keep sending out those submissions, the whole thing involves a little too much happiness and light and and positive self-improving jargon to be tolerated for any extended period of time. Writers, at least the writers I know, are not by nature joiners. They are, as one of my college writing professors was always telling everyone, basically just people who sit alone in a room all the time.

But this year I decided to give it a shot anyway. I wrote (fiction) on perhaps 14 of those 30 days and came up with two convoluted but faintly promising beginnings of 4,600 and 12,800 words respectively--nowhere close to the goal, but quite possibly a record for me personally. So overall, you know, I'm satisfied with that. I sort of dropped the ball on my writing while I was busy becoming an editor. Now that I'm picking it back up again in a dedicated way, I find external goals helpful--even if they're set by a silly program who's signature color is baby blue.

One thing that both delights and dismays me about the whole NaNoWriMo phenomenon is how much professional writers resent it. Between Laura Miller's ill conceived article in Salon at the beginning of the month (explain to me again how consuming art is a nobler endeavor than creating it? and how the two are mutually exclusive?) and Brian Gresko's bitter rant (I have an MFA and you don't!) and the many, many, many refutations which followed, it's clear this is something that really gets under writers' skin.

Discarding arguments at will and reading between the lines, I surmise that what really pisses off the pros about this whole process is the implication that anyone can do what they do--with the right encouragement. This, of course, is patently untrue. Writing well is hard. Presumably, professional writers want people acknowledge that, and, by extension, to place value on it.

What's unclear is how, exactly, a bunch of amateur enthusiasts could challenge the validity of what they do. Just because a bunch of people do the AIDES run doesn't mean no one's going to watch the Olympic track events. That these writers would be so troubled by the literary equivalent of a half marathon fun-run-for-charity is weird; it's unbalanced; it's indicative of a lack of confidence possibly even exceeding my own.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why is my publisher doing that?

Until moving to my current position--oh, last month, when I started this stupid thing--I worked in professional publishing. That is, I worked on books that sold primarily, not through traditional trade channels, but direct online, at professional conventions, or through university adoptions, associations, or other professional networks. My list spanned a variety of topics of interest to businesses and nonprofits--board development, leadership, strategy, ROI, training and development, talent management, perhaps most startling, coming from a literature back ground, industrial and organizational psychology. For the (I'm guessing here) 98% of the population who's never heard of it, OD/ID is, in layman's terms, the study of what makes workplaces productive. The science combines elements of statistics, group and individual psychology, and detailed analysis.

Anyway, the reason I'm sharing this: I recently received an email from one of my former authors asking, essentially, the questions above--why is my publisher doing that?--but asking it in a way only an I-O Professional ever would: what are the incentives and disincentives to action within this company?

So here we go. Bad news first. In general, I would say, the disincentives to act within a publishing company (at least the four I've worked for) are as follows:

A prohibitive workload. If you work in publishing, you never, ever run out of things to do. Your to-do list is long, and probably color coded--and, like Homeland Security, threat levels red, orange and yellow are the only real options--blue and green might be on the chart, but you never actually use them. This is okay. It's actually kind of exhilarating. But it does make it hard to pick up those little extras.

Budget constraints. Budget is a problem in every business of course. In publishing, budget rears it's ugly head in two main ways. First, all expenditures are supposed to be tied to particular book projects. This is designed to ensure that publishers don't spend more making a book than they have projected they will earn by selling it, but it has the (unintended?) side effect of making it insanely difficult to invest in non-book projects--like infrastructure, a better website, an alternative content delivery system, or hiring staff. Basically, if the RIO can't be measured on an expenditure-to-sale basis, it's not something publishers will do easily. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get funding for a long-term project, and that in turn makes publishing companies cumbersome and slow to adapt to certain kinds of market pressure. Second, marketing budgets (like marketers' time) are tied to next seasons' front list. If your book didn't launch strong, it's really kind of too bad. Your money has been spent and your marketer is already working on whatever is coming out in six months. Any secondary marketing efforts are going to be gorilla-style, and on a shoe string.

Bureaucracy. In a billion dollar international company that has absorbed dozens of smaller companies wholesale, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to perform certain tasks, who can help you to perform them, and sometimes even whether they are possible. And of course, there are all the usual bureaucratic issues. Like the age old question, famous among editors and salesmen alike: who's territory is this, really. No one is totally sure, but you can bet they're going to hammer it out, over and over and over again. And then there's that other favorite: what does the boss like? If your publisher has decided that, say, strat planning books are out this year, and everyone should sign vampire romances instead, that's what's going to happen.

Basically, if the world were full of time and money, and everyone answered "yes," then publishing would be a perfect business.

So, what are the incentives to act? What makes publishing people jump up and get things done?

Sales. If there's real sales potential your publisher will move, probably faster than you've ever seen them move before. If you wrote a history book that's supposed to be out in May, and you get a gig as key note speaker at the National Historical Society conference in March, odds are good that schedule will move up fast. This doesn't mean your book was on a slow schedule before. It means your publisher offered the copy editor (and the pagers, and the indexer, and the illustrator) a raise to turn the manuscript around in half the time. Also, perhaps, a drop ship. This is the flip side of the budgetary coin. Book specific expenses with a good upside are easy to get approved.

Professional pride. A successful book gives everyone who worked on it--the publisher, the editors, the assistants, the marketers, the sales team, the production staff, the designers, the web guy, the systems people, everyone--a sense of accomplishment. When authors do well, it means publishers did well. Tons of work goes into every book, and the whole team wants to see it succeed--not as much as the author does, probably, but a lot. Working on to a high quality book mean a lot; working on a high quality book that people end up loving is the best thing ever.

Friendship. Books are prioritized based on projected sales numbers. Certain sales thresholds are tied to corresponding levels of marketing and production expenditure, and there's only so much an author can do to get around that. HOWEVER, if your publisher likes you, they'll go out of their way to help you. It's a function of limited time and limited resources, divided by who calls yelling and screaming vs who calls and asks for help. Somewhere between the "squeaky wheel" and "you win more flies with honey" is the approach that will serve you best with your publisher: when you have a small question: email, when you have a big question: call, AND be nice about it.

Personal gain. This is actually less of a motivator than you might think (or at least, than I thought going into it). Only two groups within a publishing company have financial incentives they can directly impact, but they are arguably the two most important groups: editors and sales staff. Virtually everyone else, from the support team to management, earns their bonus based not on the performance of the books they personally work on, but on the success of the company a whole, or a particular imprint, or some combination. For editors and (some) sales people, however, compensation is tied to the success of their own particular books. Many, but not all, sales staff earn commission. Editorial compensation is somewhat more convoluted. An acquiring editor is generally evaluated based on three criteria: signing, delivery, and profitably. That is, the number of projects signed within a fiscal year; the number of books published within a fiscal year; and most important, the value (perspective and actual) of those projects. Obviously sales expectations and signing goals will vary from topic to topic and from publisher to publisher--but wherever you go performance in these three areas determines an editor's bonus. A little practical application for you: if you're getting a lot of pressure to turn around a contract fast, it's probably close to the end of the quarter. Delivery dates, though, are more complex.

Schedule.A late manuscript can theoretically impact an editor financially--but not that much. The real motivator here is the domino effect a late manuscript has on all the other team members. If a book is late to the editor it's late to production, which means it's late to the independent contractors, who may already be booked for some or all of the new time slot, so that new contractors need to be hired, which means it's even later, which means it's it's late to launch, which means all the marketing needs to be pushed back. Just hope it hasn't dropped out of the season, in which case the catalog is probably wrong, and the sale team and cover designers have incorrect information, and someone needs to make sure the book doesn't get launched on the website based on the previous date. Is this the end of the world? No. But it makes everyone's job harder, it costs you sales, and if a particular editor's projects are chronically late, that editor gets get a rep. The odds are good that if your editor is hounding you to turn in your manuscript, it's because a dozen other people are hounding them.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Hurray for California! Everyone else...sorry...

Well, the mid terms are over, and the world isn't.

In the Bay Area, everyone has been pretty much beside themselves since Sunday night. The Giants won the series, Jerry Brown is the governor, Gavin Newsom his trusty Lieutenant, Barbara Boxer has lived to wheel and deal another day, the 2006 Global Warming act will stand, and today, there is a parade.

Goodbye to Meg Whitman (for four years, at least). Goodbye too, to Carly Fiorina. Now if only we could say goodbye to Prop 8 and stabilize the budget as easily.

The rest of the map is predictably red. But it's not as bad as you might think. Or at least, as I did think. Harry Reid hung in there, for which I am really and honestly grateful. I'd be even more grateful if he'd take this opportunity to stop throwing state money at his sons' assorted nefarious businesses and focus--but we take what we can get. (An older man teared up on NPR this morning about how disappointed he was in Angle's loss. Couldn't believe it. She strikes me as the most insensitive and racist candidate in the whole country. Except maybe Jim Russell. But I guess it takes all kinds.)

In fact, no one too crazy won anything. No Sharron Angle, no Christine O'Donnell, no one wearing an SS uniform or a costume of any kind, no Carl Paladino, no John Raese. Even second tier crazy Joe Miller might not make it (M-u-r-k-o-w-s-k-i! What's that spell?). Despite all the talk (change this, tea party that) and an admittedly significant shift in the balance of power, this election hasn't been the insane alternate universe we all predicted, expected and in some cases, feared. It could still be okay.