Happy Thanksgiving! Here’s our normally Thursday posting, today. Click above for the latest installment of The Accidental Author. In this episode: How to start and get through a first draft. A great quote from one of the biggest author’s around and how to see your writing as an art form. Did you miss an episode? Click here for episode 2 and here for episode 1.
David Letterman understood our fascination with ordinal ranking and has made a late night institution out of his Top Ten list. We all grew up listening to songs on the charts, “And now the number one hit across the nation…” Does anybody watch the 239th Nielsen Rated TV show?
We love lists. They help us decide what we consume, buy or desire. From “the number one pain reliever…” to “don’t settle for second best…” lists guide us, inform us and allow us to not think too much because someone else has already vetted, evaluated, opted for, shown propensity for, or simply bought a truckload of X.
So it was with slight apprehension that I accepted the fact that my book, The Eighth Day, had achieved a number one ranking on The Nook One Hundred. When I first got the news there was no fanfare, no drum roll under an announcer barking, “And the number one bestselling book is…” Just a lovely, one line, “fragment” of an e-mail from my publisher, The Story Plant’s, Marketing Department:
Longer accolades and sweet congratulatory notes followed, but that was the moment. I will admit that, having been raised on lists, at that instance I experienced weightlessness. Not quite an out-of-body transcendence, but a lightness of being akin to an endorphin high greeting me after this race to the top.
Then my analytical author’s psyche chimed in. As you know, part of what it is to write is to examine all the possibilities at every beat in the story and choose the best possible words, actions and emotions that will tell your tale the way you want it told. Here is my internal dialogue, which I am sure is the reason why many authors drink to excess: “Is this a victory for me or my publisher? Are readers buying my book, or the company’s placement, merchandising and marketing? Do they know my work or are they truly buying a book by its digitized cover? Was this a result of the publisher’s clout and high-voltage push or an actual desire for the mega-wattage power of my book? Would another piece of meat have benefited from the sizzle that was applied to my steak?”
That “glass is half full” line of plot analysis gave me the worst kind of writer’s block – blocking joy. My dear friends sent along “congrats,” “knew you could do it,” “whoo hooo!” and other forms of textural backslapping which feels great but – and again, here’s that author’s dark cloud – that is a friend’s natural and very sweet form of acknowledgement. BUT they’ve already read the book, or at least bought it, so they were responding to the “list” thing. However, when I started reading e-mails from people who are not so close to me, I discovered the reason why I am able to write this and not be in some drunken stupor at the moment… PEOPLE READ REVIEWS! Those e-mails contained sentiments like; “After I read all the great reviews, I bought the book…” Variations on that theme appeared in most of the other e-mails from the more distant reaches of my address book.
So it’s a split decision. The ranking and all the hoopla surrounding the marketing may have got the attention of folks, but they were sold by the performance of the book as related by “those what read it.”
The moral of my story: even though you can’t judge a book by its cover, you can judge a book by its coverage!
I feel better now. Hey did I mention my book is NUMBER ONE, BABY!!!!
I’m very pleased to re-blog Lou Aronica’s “Soapbox” piece for Publishers Weekly. Lou Aronica was my mentor and is the person who is solely responsible for me becoming an author. But it wasn’t until I read this piece that I discovered how I was the “beneficiary” of a long line of paying it forward. -Tom Avitabile
How to be an Effective Mentor in Times of Change
I’d only been in publishing a few years when the great Ian Ballantine engaged me in conversation and suggested, in his signature circuitous fashion, that he was willing to mentor me. Ballantine, the guy who brought paperbacks to America, wanted to mentor me—the guy who brought tea to my boss. I took him up on this instantly, beginning one of the most fulfilling and formative relationships of my life.
Mentoring has always had a disproportionately important place in the book business. Because feel and instinct have consistently been more important to book publishing than hard analysis—past numbers and consumer tendencies have rarely been a useful indicator of future performance—it’s been important for each generation to pass down a nuanced understanding of our industry to the next. If Ian hadn’t taught me everything he could about paperback publishing, working with writers, and developing a distinct vision in the marketplace, I’d probably be selling carpet now.
To this day, I still marvel at being blessed with such a generous mentor. In truth, I’ve had more than one. Irwyn Applebaum taught me how to put a list together. Linda Grey showed me how to dig deep into a manuscript. Ray Bradbury taught me more about writing than he ever knew, because I never revealed to him that I envisioned a writing career for myself—a career that has led to 18 books and counting. Given these remarkable gifts from people with huge talent, I’ve always been committed to paying it forward. Often, this has simply been a matter of being willing to dedicate my time to nurturing others. I find people who show a genuine interest in the business and share with them my observations, my methods, and the lessons of my experience. In recent years, though, I’ve faced a question that wasn’t been particularly relevant before: how do you mentor when your industry is undergoing enormous change?
It seems to me that if you’re serious about mentoring, you can try to answer this question in two ways. Obviously, one approach is to attempt to stay on top of the change as much as possible. Those you’re mentoring can help with this. In a recent book, I wrote about reverse mentoring. This is where the relationship maintains the traditional elder-younger dynamic but switches at certain junctures. As publisher of The Story Plant, I’ve found it essential to stay current with everything affecting our business—social media, e-commerce, new forms of distribution, new clients, new consumer habits, etc. Often, someone I’m mentoring will have facility with a tool that I’m less adept at, but will lack an understanding of how it might apply to publishing. In these cases, the mentor-mentee relationship balances. I learn about something that I need to understand, and the person whom I’m mentoring learns how that thing is applicable to the industry.
A second approach is to convey to young publishers that consumers—who need to be at the center of the business model of any industry, especially ours—haven’t changed nearly as much as the world around them has changed. Readers might buy books from different venues and might buy them in different formats than they did five years ago, but there’s very little data to suggest that the reasons they buy books have changed. If this is the case, then the lessons learned years ago are not only still valid, but are potentially more valid now than before, because they counsel a degree of steadiness in the face of continuous change. One of the things I regularly talk about with young people in our business is the importance of not confusing the tools, devices, and delivery media with either the books themselves or the reader. If what we make in our industry is reading experiences, then those experiences are what we’re selling, and the reasons consumers want them should not be confused with the ways that they’re getting them.
It seems to me that, at this inflection point in our industry, we need to look forward and backward at the same time: forward to the tools and opportunities emerging with increasing rapidity, and backward to the universal factors that have always sustained the book world. It dawns on me that this approach has direct relevance to mentoring in an era of change. I believe that any mentor who takes the role seriously needs to help those he or she teaches to understand the enormous value of looking in both directions at once.
Lou Aronica is an author, editor, and publisher whose novels include Flash and Dazzle and the USA Today bestseller The Forever Year. He is coauthor with Ken Robinson of the New York Times bestseller The Element.