Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Answering Pollyanna (Part 2)

(continued from Answering Pollyanna, which in turn was kinda sorta continued from The Pollyanna Principle)

Cash, connections, hustle, and chutzpah: how do you develop these? Well, cash is like experience. Either you have it in adequate supply and therefore don't need to worry about it, or else you lack it and therefore desperately need to acquire it. In either case I have little useful advice to offer, beyond pointing out that if you were foolish enough to fail to pick the right rich parents to be born from, you should probably consider getting a job, even if it's one you consider to be beneath you.

Hustle and chutzpah? These are innate qualities, intrinsic to your personality. Either you have them, can learn to fake them effectively, or are better off hiring someone else to do the hustling for you. We writers generally tend to be a shy and bookish lot, which is why we're writers and not performers. I can simulate the appearance of having chutzpah for short periods, and can usually bumble my way through a public appearance before a crowd and get out of it alive, but I dislike doing so, can't wait for it to be over, and after it's over am haunted by afterthoughts and regrets. I can spend days rehashing all the clever things I should have said, the points I failed to make, and the opportunities to show off my brilliance that I missed. It's a flaw in my character that is, to put it mildly, quite aggravating.

Which leaves us with the one factor you can control, and this is the connections that you choose to make. As BoysMom puts it:
So how does the reader get the name, Bane? Is it necessary for the aspiring author to be independently wealthy in order to advertise? Or be a really good blogger? Or be famous for some other reason?"
First off, no, never advertise. In point of fact, author-paid and -placed advertising is often counterproductive. Not only will it cause you to bleed money far beyond any return you might realize from sales, it also tends to annoy your publisher's marketing and advertising people, who are often insanely jealous of their turf. So not only will you waste your own money, you'll also lose whatever meager support you might have gotten from your publisher.

Secondly, yes, certainly there is great market value in being famous for some other reason, even if you're only famous for being famous.

Maria Shriver's Book

(Real world? What is this "real world" of which she speaks? She's a Kennedy married to The Schwarzenegger! If she's ever caught a glimpse of anything resembling the real world, it was only because her driver accidentally lowered the tinted windows of her limousine at an inopportune time. She fired him for doing so, of course.)

But again, being famous for some other reason is for the most part beyond your control, and doesn't have jack to do with your ability to write a good book. (Or more likely, to have your personal publicist arrange to hire a good writer to ghost-write your book.) It's not fair, but it's the way the world works. Large-breasted pretty young blond women will always get more immediate attention than just about anyone else; you can either bleach your hair, get implants and, if necessary, a sex change, or else figure out the best way to play the cards you've been dealt.

Which brings us to the following Inspirational Story

(But first, another digression. If you can stomach the work, there's actually good money to be made in ghostwriting books for rich, aliterate people who for some inexplicable reason feel the need to bless all the little commoners with the fruits of their vast life experience. For example, I have a friend over in St. Paul who for 25 years has made a very comfortable living ghosting "business wisdom" books for management consultants and retired Fortune 500 executives. In time, he's learned to accept his near utter inability to get anything published under his own name, and he no longer celebrates the release and subsequent near-instant remaindering of each new book by drinking a toast to the memory of Leon Trotsky, and waxing eloquent about that glorious day when the Revolution finally comes and all those stinking fat-cat corporate capitalist pigs get stood up against the nearest wall and shot.)

But never mind that. Herewith, the Inspirational Story.

December, 1995: It's the height of the Christmas shopping season. Headcrash has been out for three months and has just dropped off the bestseller list, and through an aggressive application of simulated chutzpah I have talked myself into a book-signing at the only (and now, sadly, long-since defunct) independent bookstore in the Mall of America. It's an evening gig on a very high-traffic day; I show up to find they've put me at a table in a nice, highly visible place, and the table is stacked up with about 200 copies.

The next two, three hours are exhausting. I'm on the whole time, nonstop; standing, smiling, talking, chatting, shaking hands, signing books, listening attentively to every matron whose favorite niece ever took a creative writing class and wrote a really swell poem; giving hints and advice to every yutz who's ever imagined he has a great idea for a book he's going to start writing one of these days. At the end of the evening — I went way past the originally scheduled one-hour slot — my voice is shot, and there's an appreciable dent in the pile of books on the table, but not enough. I can't remember the exact number now, but my vague recollection is that we'd sold something like 64 books.

I started apologizing to the store manager for the poor sales, but she stopped me right there. "Are you kidding? You did great! This is the best turnout we've ever had for a signing!"

My turn to be flabbergasted. What? But you just had — I can't remember who it was; an actress, or a sports star, or maybe it was Colin Powell — last Sunday. You mean to tell me Colin Powell couldn't sell more than 64 books?

"No, for him we had a line out the door and around the corner, and sold [x-]hundred copies. But this is the best turnout we've ever had for a real book by an actual writer."

I still didn't get it. She explained.

"Somebody like Colin Powell, people don't buy his book to read it. They buy it for the autograph, and to put it out where their friends can see it, and to be able to start conversations with, 'I was talking to Colin Powell the other day.' But your book: they're going to read it, or at least give it to someone else who will."

Huh, imagine that. Even the people in bookstores realize there's a difference between celebrity-driven "publishing events" and the books people actually read.

And with that thought in mind, this is a good time to once again ask yourself one of those Really Important Questions: Why am I doing this? Is it to make big money selling chunks of processed dead trees covered with tiny inky symbols and my name in big letters on the front?

Or is it to connect and communicate with other people?

(...to be continued...)