Great Article by Literary Agent Steven Axelrod and Julie Anne Long!
Why Publishing is Making You Crazy—and What You Can Do About It: The Tao of Publishing
Without question, the most exciting piece of non-fiction I have read in years was an article in the NYT Magazine last spring entitled IS JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE A PRODUCT OF CUMULATIVE ADVANTAGE? by Duncan J. Watts.
I’m not a Justin Timberlake fan, but this article rocked my world.
In his introduction, Watts, then a professor of sociology at Columbia University, describes the conventional world view of people in creative businesses, whether its music, fashion, movies or publishing.
This view holds that if you’re smart or clever enough, you can predict success in creative fields. You either need a “golden gut” to recognize a future hit or you need to analyze exactly what elements in, say a song or a film, are attracting people in the first place and then just give people more of the same.
But if this view accurately describes our world, then why do so many new TV shows, films, music acts and, sad to say, books fail to succeed?
Maybe, Watts then suggests, the truth lies in the “nobody knows anything” view of things, first famously expressed by the screenwriter William Goldman. In this view, there aren’t any real experts just a bunch of fast-talking hucksters all claiming expertise they don’t have.
In his book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, Goldman quotes David Picker, former head of Paramount, who, looking back on his career, said, “If I had to say yes to all the projects I turned down and no to all the other ones I took, it would have worked out about the same.”
The problem with the “nobody knows anything” school, though, is that it doesn’t give you any help in planning your career, whether as an editor, agent or writer.
But there’s a third way to look at things, Watts explains. The key to understanding success in creative markets is to know that even though we might believe we judge things “independently of each other…people almost never make decisions independently.”
He points out that we’re profoundly social beings and one subtle consequence of our need to connect socially is that our attraction to things is frequently due to the very fact that other people like them. We need common experiences—indeed we seek them out. It’s part of who we are.
One consequence of this is that if we really like things simply because other people like them, predicting which cultural products will succeed commercially (and which will fail) becomes impossible.
What Watts learned is that,
“…when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. [The idea is that a butterfly's wings might create tiny disturbances in the atmosphere that would result in other changes that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado.] Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.”
To test his theory, Watts conducted a very clever but admittedly elaborate experiment using a group of music sharing web sites he and his collaborators set up.
He created 9 separate sites and a total of more than 14,000 people registered for free music downloads from unknown bands. People were invited to listen to the songs, rate and download whichever songs appealed to them. Each site stared with zero downloads and users on eight of the nine sites could see how many times each song was downloaded—but on their site only. Since users on these sites were aware of what other users on the site were downloading, these eight sites were considered “social-influence” sites. On the ninth site (which they refer to as the “independent” site), users didn’t get any information at all about what their fellow users had downloaded—and made their minds up independently.
As time went on, each site evolved differently. Very differently.
Watts found that at the eight social-influence sites,
” the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent world. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds.”
“Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.”
And Watts concluded,
“So does a listener’s own independent reaction to a song count for anything? In fact, intrinsic “quality,” which we measured in terms of a song’s popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.”
Let me repeat that: “Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.”
And if we apply these findings to our world, the world of book publishing, we could assert that a book in the Top 5 in terms of quality has only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.
For me, reading this article was a Eureka! moment. It offered an explanation of how wonderful books failed to find an audience and why some second-rate books (all represented by other agents, of course) succeeded. In a flash of insight, the sheer illogic of 30 years of publishing experience made a kind of “sense”.
Now, what to make of this insight? Knowing what I’m telling you today, how can a writer sit down at her desk and face a blank page every day?
It’s enough to make you crazy—very, very crazy.
It’s crazy-making because Watts is saying that 50% of the factors affecting your career could be totally outside of your control—totally random—and, as we’ll see, the human brain is just not well suited to randomness.
Freud, I think, nailed it when he said, “Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.”
And frankly, if publishing isn’t making you a little neurotic, you’re just not paying attention.
But it gets better: George Wolford, a Dartmouth psychology professor says, “There appears to be a module in the left hemisphere of the brain that drives humans to search for patterns and to see causal relationships even when none exist.”
This is mind-blowing. Our brains are hard-wired to attempt to find order in chaos—which is fine, even good. No doubt it helped enormously in our hunter/gatherer days. But if we can’t find order, our brains are hard-wired to just make something up.
Indeed, as Wolford says, “A constant search for explanations and patterns in random or complex data is not a good thing.”
But that’s of course what we do. All the time.
Think of the most wrong-headed publishing advice you ever got from a writer, editor or agent and I’ll bet this is where it came from.
With perfectly good intentions, all of us look back over the recent publishing successes and disappointments and use that what we see to formulate “rules” to achieve future success. But we inevitably overlook the random factors at play because, as Leonard Mlodinow points out in The Drunkard’s Walk (whose title refers to a classic description of randomness), “people have a very poor conception of randomness; they do not recognize it when they see it….”
But unless we can separate out those random factors which contributed to an author’s past success, anything we can say or predict about why she succeeded will invariably be way off-the-mark.
And random is random, no matter how smart you are. Sir Isaac Newton once remarked after losing a fortune in the stock market, “I can calculate the motions of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of men.”
And what’s interesting—and chilling, as well—is that there’s evidence that the harder a person works to make sense of a random event, the farther they’ll end up from the truth.
This insight comes from the work of Alex Bavelas, a social psychologist from MIT, who demonstrated how, like with the butterfly effect, the smallest degree of contamination of an intellectual framework by incorrect information can result in profoundly mistaken results.
What this means is that if you can “rationally” explain what are in fact random aspects of other writers’ experience in publishing, you’re basically making stuff up—and the more elaborate your explanation, the more inaccurate it will be. And if you act on any of this made-up information, well, we all know that that way lies madness….
Too many times I’ve seen authors undertake expensive and time-consuming promotions that come to naught. And their justification for doing it inevitably is, well author X did this and she hit the Times list. But as we now know, the odds are even that random factors were at play and we have no way of knowing if the promotion did really contribute to the author X’s success or if it had nothing to do with author X’s success at all.
John Wanamaker, founder of one of the first great department stores, was smart enough to know what he didn’t know. He famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don't know which half" He was a marketing genius and he didn’t pretend to know whether an ad or promotion would work. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we can.
As a result of all this, I’ve come to believe that as an author, you should pace yourself for a long journey. A career in publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Assume that you won’t succeed overnight and never bet the farm on one throw of the dice. As Leonard Mlodinow says, “What I’ve learned above all is to keep marching forward… one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized.” Or as Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM put it, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”
This isn’t true in all fields. If you’re an actor or a director, a singer or a musician and you don’t grab the brass ring the first time it comes around, you may never get another chance. And even if you have early success, you could become the subject of a “Where Are They Now” episode after just one flop.
But book publishing is different. If you have the talent, editors and publishers are very willing to give you another chance even if your first—or your fifth—book didn’t succeed. It’s something unique and really quite wonderful about our business.
The explanation is in the numbers. For example, there were only 190 major motion pictures released in the US in 2005 (which is no big surprise given that each one costs an average of $100 million in production and marketing).  Compare that with the 172,000 books published in the US in the same year and you’ll see that the odds are way better for writers. If you have talent and you’re committed to a career in publishing, the one thing I can guarantee you is that you will get more than one chance to succeed.
And a corollary of all this is that you will inevitably be better off taking the time, energy and money you want to put into a promotional idea that worked for someone else and put the time, energy into your writing. If despite your best, focused efforts, your career isn’t going where you want it to go, you may need to completely reinvent yourself by writing under a new pen name or in a different genre. Let the money you saved by forgoing random promotions buy you time to write yet three more sample chapters or even a full book on spec if that gives you another, fresh chance to succeed.
Certainly there are overnight successes in our business, but I believe that the overwhelming majority of highly successful writers were anything but. It took these writers years to succeed and when it happened, it was frequently under a different name or in a different genre from where they started.
Believe in yourself but remember that randomness plays a large role in your career as well.
And whatever you do, don’t let some random event stop you from pursuing your goals. Thomas Edison said, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
President Franklin Roosevelt was famously described as “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” I always thought this meant that Roosevelt’s greatness as a president was due less to his intellectual firepower (which, in any event, probably was only second-class when compared to, say, Sir Isaac Newton’s) than to Roosevelt’s ability to function in a world where some degree of randomness will always play a role.
So finally, let me suggest that the author’s ability to accept and rebound from those random events publishing throws at her will have a decisive say in how long and successful her career is.
Of course, just telling writers to ignore the parts of your career over which you have little control might be good advice but it’s useless advice as well-- unless writers can learn how to focus on the work and how to screen out the inevitable distractions, as well.
© 2008 by Steven Axelrod.
 The New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2007
 Your Money & Your Brain by Jason Zweig (Simon & Schuster, 2007)
 The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow (Pantheon, 2008)
 How Real Is Real? Confusion, Disinformation, Communication by Paul Watzlawick, MD (Random House, 1976)
Julie Anne Long
When the publisher of the 2006 surprise, smash bestseller EATS SHOOTS AND LEAVES‑which is about punctuation, if you’ll recall –was asked why it sold so well, they explained: “It sold well because lots of people bought it.” Oh, I loved that. It neatly (and dryly) captures the fact that no matter how we try to influence or predict the success of a book, none of us—not even publishers—have any real control over the sheer gorgeous randomness of the publishing universe.
Nevertheless, we of course still try to control things. Steve just gave you a sort of macro look at our collective love affair with attempts to create meaning from random events and then stripped you of any illusions you might have had about predicting or controlling your own success, but if you’re feeling a little wobbly now, don’t worry: We’re going to hand a new and improved form of control back to you now. This is where we put the “Tao” in the Tao of Publishing.
But first, I’m going to give you a micro look at a few examples of how and why we try to control our success. As Steve explained, because we’re human, uncertainty and ambiguity freak us out. And we’re not only clever about creating a semblance of order out of nothing; we’re hard-wired to do this. Consider, for instance, the concept of time. We essentially corralled the vast amorphousness of the universe into 60 minute parcels we call hours, then we broke those hours down into 60 second parcels we call minutes, and etc., which is why we’re able to tune into American Idol at 8:00 p.m. or pick up our kids at soccer practice at 3 p.m. or hit the snooze button at 6:00 a.m. Brilliant, isn’t it, when you think about it? It gives us a sense of order and helps us “plan” well into the future, despite the fact that we know what often happens to “best laid plans.”
Examples of the ways we create this sort of order abound. For instance, we proceed through school in a series of numbered grade levels, and we generally need to pass tests with certain scores in order to move on to a higher grade level, and eventually (in the United States, anyway) we take a big test called the SAT, and the score resulting from that test can determine where we go to college and where we get to work and how much money we eventually make. I’m generalizing quite a bit, but doubtless you get the picture.
Now, these numbers—test scores and the like—only have meaning in relationship to other numbers belonging to other people—meaning we learn early on to rank ourselves against others. This of course means we also learn to be competitive early on, because this system of ranking fosters a sense that one can only be successful if someone else is not. And because we’re human, with all the strengths and frailties and ego that entails, we want some way to measure our inherent worth. We often define our worth, then, by our accomplishments, and how we think they stack up next to someone else’s. Numbers always seem like a handy way to measure our worth.
So here we have what I’ll call “Human Rules of Order.” You know, a bit like Roberts Rules of Order, but on a human-wide scale. They go:
1) High scores and progress are a reward for hard work;
2) Good reviews lead to advancement;
3) Ranks tell us our “worth” and how we measure up.
It’s not the best system, but it’s not a terrible system. It’s one we understand. It helps us keep chaos at bay, to some extent.
Ah, but then…but then we sell our first book and enter the magical world of publishing. And…well, we quickly discover it’s a like plummeting down the rabbit hole a la Alice in ALICE IN WONDERLAND.
Because those rules don’t apply in the publishing universe.
The world of publishing is one where your reviews can be unanimously glorious but your sales can stink. Or your reviews can stink, and your sales can be glorious. (Of course, both might be glorious. Or both might stink.) Where two authors in the same genre can experience identical sales volume in the same timeframe and one will show up on the USA Today list—and the other won’t. Where one author can be a bestseller with her very first book and another writing in the same genre can labor in obscurity for a decade ore more before cracking a list—if she ever does—even if both authors are showered with accolades and awards. Where the concept of competition simply doesn’t apply—because a) this is not a race; because b) anything can happen at any time to affect sales or the trajectory of your career. Again, it’s like the proverbial butterfly effect that Steve described, where the flap of one little wing on one side of the world might ultimately impact the weather on the other side of the world.
What do we do when we gradually realize that publishing doesn’t make the kind of “sense” we recognize—apart from panic a little, lose sleep, eat an impractical amount of chocolate, etc.? Intrepid creatures that we are, we attempt to make sense of it anyway by applying those “Human Rules of Order.” We try to extrapolate our sales or suss out ways to influence or control our success using in part what looks familiar to us—lists, of course, for starters. We’re madly in love with lists. Lists featuring numbers! I mean, there’s a reason the reason the Amazon.com rank took ferocious hold of our little author psyches from its advent. It’s psychologically brilliant, that rank. It taps into a very primal place for all of us. I used to call it my Self-Worth-o-Meter.
But we also have Bestseller lists like USA Today and Nielsen Bookscan . We have that Ingram phone number, which we can call to hear…more numbers. We also use reviews and award nominations to try to predict or measure our success or determine “where we stand.” Lists and ranks and awards and formal accolades abound in the publishing world.
Later in this piece I’ll explain why attempting to use lists, etc., as oracles, measures of our worth, or indicators of our sales is about as about as productive as using a Russian dictionary to translate a Sanskrit scroll into English. It can’t be done.
But going through the machinations of trying to predict or control our success does make us feel as
though we’re getting somewhere, and gives us that critical illusion of control. As Steve just explained, the harder we try to make sense of things, the further from the truth we’ll actually get.
And again, that way lies craziness.
There’s a way out of the craziness, however. If our goal is to not only peacefully survive but thrive—in other words, not lose sleep, friends, money, and our marbles—in the publishing universe, we need to learn a new set of rules, and they’re pretty simple.
Here’s comes the Tao part.
I’m going to tell you a story. It’s a Taoist parable that I think both illustrates the publishing journey and contains the crucial clues for surviving it with our marbles intact.
There was once a poor farmer who could afford to own just one horse. He took very good care of it, but one night it broke through a weak fence and ran away. The farmer's neighbors offered sympathy when they learned what had happened. "What bad luck!" they exclaimed. The farmer replied, "Maybe. Maybe not."
A week later, the farmer's horse returned, bringing with it three wild horses, and the farmer and his son managed to corral all of them. "What great luck!" his neighbors enthused. "Maybe," the farmer replied. "Maybe not."
The farmer's son set to work taming the wild horses, but while attempting to ride one of them, he was thrown to the ground and his leg was badly broken. "What terrible luck!" the neighbors said this time.
The farmer replied, "Maybe. Maybe not."
The next day, soldiers visited the farmer's village to draft all the local young men into the army of a warlord. Because of his broken leg, the farmer's son was the only young man not taken. The neighbors descended upon the farmer again. "What wonderful luck!" they exclaimed.
"Maybe," the farmer said. "Maybe not."
That’s it. That’s the story.
Now, you’re going: you call that a bloody story? There’s no arc. And no ending. And it’s not even a little bit sexy. (Though I suppose it depends upon how you feel about farmers. Or warlords.)
But here’s the thing: even though this farmer’s life seems pretty exciting and unpredictable, what with the wild horses and warlords, he stays pretty mellow. And I think he, and this story, hold the two keys for maintaining our sanity in the midst of publishing craziness. They are:
1) Stay in the moment; and
2) Go with the flow.
“OK, Julie, you big hippy,” you’re saying. “Stay in the moment? Go with the flow? “ We’ve all heard that kind of stuff before. But what does it really mean? Why does staying in the moment and going with the flow help us stay sane, and how do exactly do we do either of those things?
Well, part of staying in the moment is not projecting into the future. Most of the people reading this article are storytellers with fertile imaginations, and it’s difficult not to spin entire, elaborate happily-ever-after scenarios from one wonderful career moment or inflate a single disappointment into a career-ending catastrophe. How we spin something has a lot to do with our individual psychologies, of course. But why do we do this? Because, as we’ve established, uncertainty and ambiguity freak us out. We can’t stand not knowing where we stand or what will happen next.
One way we attempt to predict the future and determine where we “stand” compared to other authors is by sort of “Frankensteining” together lists and ranks and reviews, components of our careers that seem to indicate to us some sort of “measure” or “worth.” In so doing, we’re vulnerable, as are all humans, to what economists Linda Babcock and George Lowenstein refer to as “self-serving bias.” Babcock, Loewenstein and a few of their colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants were presented with a tort case and assigned either to the side of the plaintiff or the defendant. Every participant was presented with the same set of evidence to analyze and requested to predict the judge’s award in the case. Those assigned to the plaintiff’s predicted a much bigger award than those on the other side did.
In short: the way we see the facts is literally shaped by the outcome we desire.
Because it’s currently nearly impossible to know how well our books are selling in real time—and because we find it so difficult to stay in the moment—authors often similarly attempt to predict outcomes: For example, we think, ”Ok, my reviews are fabulous and my Amazon rank was 700 and I was nominated for three awards—my book sales must be rocking!”
Well….and then you get your royalty statement.
Whereupon you might discover that reality is—ahem—startlingly different than the outcome you predicted.
Whereupon the angst kicks up a notch.
Why? Because we’ve attempted to make sense of something that defies “sense” as we traditionally understand it, and as Steve explained, that way lies madness.
I call this approach Frankensteining, because no matter how you cobble together lists, ranks, awards or any other component aspects of our careers that seem to indicate some sort of “measure” or “worth,” you will never really get a full working picture of your career standing.
To better understand the problem with the Frankenstein approach, let’s take a look at how bestseller lists work.
First, what is a bestseller list?
Loosely defined, it’s anywhere between 10-to 150 or more titles ranked by sales figures accrued during a particular timeframe, usually a week, such as those compiled by USA Today, Borders, Nielsen BookScan, or the New York Times.
And it’s a marketing tool.
Bestseller lists were invented either by booksellers as a means of promoting and selling books or by publications as a means of selling ad space. Publishers also use bestseller lists to promote titles. We already know why this marketing technique is effective, because Steve told us how cumulative advantage works: if a book is a “bestseller” we tend to think it must be worth reading, since so many other people seem to have found it worth reading.
What isn’t a bestseller list? Well, do bestseller lists provide an accurate or comprehensive picture of the total sales of a given book? No. Are they accurate indications of the size of a book’s print run? No. Are they lists of the “best” (a subjective term, of course) books available for sale, or indicators of the quality or value of an author’s work? No. Are they even lists of the books selling the most that week? No.
Why not? Because a number of factors influence whether a book appears on a bestseller list such as BookScan or USA Today, and one of the most important is distribution--where are your books are being sold? Because not every retail outlet that sells books reports their sales to every bestseller list. For example, Wal-Mart doesn’t report book sales to Bookscan, but it does report sales to USA Today. Wal-Mart plays a huge role in romance sales. So if a book isn’t being sold in Wal-Mart, it might rank very highly on Bookscan but not show up at all on the USA Today list. [read Julie Anne Long's detailed article on how besteller lists are compiled here]
And will your publisher tell you where your books are being distributed? Maybe, maybe not. Philosophies regarding how much to divulge to authors regarding distribution vary from publisher to publisher, and distribution varies based on a number of factors, such as an author’s sales history and a publisher’s distribution philosophy, and of course, like everything else in our careers, is subject to change.
And other things come into play when it comes bestseller list appearances, such as sales velocity (how fast are they being sold?), consistency and timeliness in shipping (are your books being sold in bookstores a whole month ahead of release date by various retailers? Or are they shelved right on the date of release? Do they show up in stores late? Do they show up in stores at all? For example, a blizzard in the Midwest might have closed bookstores the week of your release).
What about Ingram? If you’re a published author, by now you probably know Ingram has a number you can call (and I’m not going to feed anyone’s obsessive tendencies by listing it here) to get a recording that will obligingly tell you (if you punch in an ISBN) the number of your books on order, the number of your books sold last week, this week, and year-to-date. Now, theories abound about how to use those Ingram figures to extrapolate overall sales information for your particular book. All of those theories are wrong. It can’t be done.
This is because Ingram is a wholesaler, and bookstores (and chains) go to Ingram when they need more books fast. So if your Ingram numbers are up per the recording, it might mean that your book is out-performing everyone’s expectations (which would cause them to reorder in a hurry)—or it might mean that your publisher just didn’t get enough copies in the stores in the first place. Conversely, if your Ingram numbers are down, it might just mean that your publisher just convinced the stores to order the “right” number of copies to begin with—and not that your sales have gone into a death spiral.
And let’s put Amazon.com in perspective here. As I mentioned earlier, it has a ferocious grip on our psyches because we can watch that rank go up and down (along with our blood pressure), and hey—it’s a number! We love numbers. I tell you, I’m breathless with admiration for whoever invented that rank. Boy, does that keep our eyes on Amazon! I mean —it plays to our sense of worth and our sense of competition, doesn’t it?
But honestly—Amazon still only represents a teeny percentage of romance sales. Truly. According to HarperCollins über sales guy Mike Spradlin, the accounts that still by far play the biggest role in romance sales are Wal-Mart, Borders, Barnes & Noble and other big chains. Overall online sales may be increasing, but there are dozens of places to buy books online. So that Amazon rank is only an indication of how books are selling against each other on Amazon each hour.
And as for Amazon or other online reviews? Whether they’re five stars or one star, they’re really, really not going to make or break your romance career. Those reviews are incredibly vivid to us, because we spend our lives grafted to our computers; honestly, in the vast random scheme of things that Steve described, they have very little total impact. We love and appreciate the articulate, enthusiastic reviews posted there; but the…other kind…aren’t going to hurt or affect anything besides your feelings, or your mom’s feelings, or your friend’s feelings.
All ranks, lists and reviews are marketing tools and valuable and enduring aspects of our careers, and that’s how we should view them and use them.
But like everything in our careers, all of this is subject to change. Which brings us to…
Going with the flow.
Ok, so how do we go with the flow? Part of going with the flow involves not “labeling” events. And what I mean by this is: As we’ve discussed, part of the “thrill” of publishing is that anything can happen. Nasty reviews. Brilliant reviews. Blizzards that prevent your books from getting into stores in the Midwest. Astounding bidding wars for your book. Your best friend’s book soars; yours tanks. Events that stir up anything from rage to elation to gut-churning jealousy.
But let’s look at that farmer. A horse broke down his fence and ran away. Most of us would be bummed if a horse broke down our fence; we might be tempted to swear or sulk and agree with all the neighbors about how much that sucks. But the farmer refused to call that event “good” or “bad” or “lucky” or “unlucky.” Why? No amount of teeth-gnashing or hair-tearing or tail-chasing analysis will turn back time and undo what’s done, and labeling an event as “good” or “bad” limits its possibility and keeps you from moving on to the next moment. When you refuse to judge a moment, it’s interesting how much more…well, interesting some of the more difficult moments in our lives become. Difficult-seeming moments are often just linkages or doorways to marvelous-seeming ones. Be there in the moment, and understand that the moment you’re in is a necessary link in the continuum of what came before and what lies ahead.
That isn’t to say the difficult feelings go away even when you’re not labeling an event. When you feel anxious or jealous or disappointed or angry, notice those feelings, feel them—acknowledge them with compassion and maybe even humor for yourself or for any other people involved (for example, the reviewer who was so misguided as to not enjoy your beautiful book)—but you don’t need to invest in them, spin stories from them, or beat yourself up for having them, and you don’t need to feel compelled to act on them by retaliating or responding in kind. You the person are not in any way diminished as a person by the snarky review or the computer glitch that kept your books out of stores.
So what do we do when difficult feelings hit? Rise above. And I don’t mean, “feel superior.” Remember, it’s not a competition, and we’re not ranking ourselves against each other. Think of the way an airplane gains altitude in order to avoid a storm or turbulence. The airplane doesn’t judge or try to fight the storm. The storm simply is. It’s a fact. It’s happening. The airplane simply climbs until the air is quieter, and continues its journey.
In the face of difficult events or emotions, think of this, and try to gain a sort of internal altitude, a place of perspective.
Of course, some people might genuinely hate our books and feel compelled to share their feelings with the world via a review, but keep in mind: some snarky reviews or bulletin board comments could very well be a result of someone else’s anxiety or fear or pain over the illusion that there isn’t enough success to go around, anxiety over her own worth, or misapprehension of the impact a review, a rank, or an award nomination means in the overall picture of anyone’s career. A lot of what I’ll call “acting out” is actually a result of fear or insecurity.
Once we understand this, I think it’s easier to be compassionate with ourselves and with other people, because we’ve all felt insecure. Insecurity is inherent in the nature of the business. And even if a review stings, we can still gain a little distance—a little altitude, so to speak. It doesn’t mean we have to tolerate something that might be actionable, but we genuinely have a choice regarding how we react to it and how much we worry or suffer over it.
And then there are always the moments that feel wonderful. Celebrate the momentous occasions (and notice that the root of “momentous” is “moment”)—your first published book, your first appearance on a list, your first six-figure contract—and share the joy, because every moment will eventually pass. It, too, is part of everything that came before and everything that will ensue.
Taking each moment as it comes doesn’t diminish joy, either. It deepens it.
Going with the flow also means: Don’t be too attached to outcomes and release expectations
You know what Steve said about promo? How we’re better off channeling any energy and ingenuity we put into it into writing another proposal? Well, I think a good philosophy around self-promotion is…do what you feel comfortable with. The problem with doing “what we feel comfortable with” is that…we don’t feel comfortable doing what we feel comfortable with. We all want to know what works, and do that. The truth is, we can’t ever know for certain what works. Promotion trends are as ephemeral as anything else in publishing, and it’s nearly impossible to quantify the impact, if any, of a given attempt at self-promotion. Will the promotion one author swears worked wonders for her work for you?
Maybe, maybe not. If you decide to try a promotion, launch it with hope and release expectations of the outcome, and you’ll never be disappointed. Self-promotion, in fact, is another one of those things that make us feel like we can actively control or influence our success. In many ways, it’s more of a ritual than anything that can really impact the velocity of our career growth. It harkens back to those aforementioned Human Rules of Order, specifically the one that states that we can earn our success by working for it—when in fact, in publishing, success can be an overnight affair or decades in the making—whether or not you do any self-promotion at all.
Going with the flow also means doing an occasional gut check: sometimes we get so caught up in doing what we’re doing that we lose sight of our motivations for doing it. Don’t be afraid to do that gut check: what are your motives for writing? Are you engaged in what you’re doing because it brings you joy or growth or income? Or has it become a habit? Are you happy? Do you even like what you’re doing anymore? Steve talked about the possibility of needing to change your author name or genre in order to reboot or re-energize your career. Staying in the moment and going with the flow will help you stay more in touch with who you are as a writer, and in this way you’ll know instinctively where your career should go.
OK: So there we have it—your rules and tools for surviving the publishing craziness, and two very simple resolutions for 2009.
And here’s a way to test how well these new rules work: Try a sort of fast from Amazon, or Ingram phoning, or bulletin board haunting, whatever obsessive little habit you might have—we know you have one or two—for a week or so. Maybe, if you’re feeling brave…don’t look at any of that stuff for the duration of the cycle of one entire book.
And notice how nothing about your career will change as a result of this.
Except: you’ll feel much lighter and stronger. Giving up obsessing about these things doesn’t mean you’ve become passive or apathetic. Quite the opposite. Because you’ve made a conscious choice to control your actions, rather than being controlled by the need to control. You’ll end up with much more energy and confidence and serenity, all of which you can redirect into doing your very best work, which is in fact the only thing we truly have any real control over.
And here’s the seeming paradox: once you give up the need to control outcomes or predict your future, you’ll feel more in control of your career than ever.
And you know, Steve talked about pacing yourself for a long journey. And girls, we really are all in this journey together. This is not a competition or a race any more than the traffic heading south down Highway 101 a few minutes away from my house right now is a race. Picture those cars on the freeway: they’re all heading in the same direction, but do we really know their ultimate destinations? Is one car really “ahead” of another? A car at the head of the pack might be hopelessly lost. Some of those cars are filled with carpoolers, other drivers are going it alone—there’s no one right way to embark on this journey. Another car might be forced to take the next exit because the needle’s just about on empty. Another might see an intriguing exit and impulsively take a detour. I can endlessly flog this metaphor, but you get the picture. You never, ever know.
So stay present, stay in the moment, go with the flow, stay curious about what will happen next…and enjoy the ride.