Over the years, I’ve developed a personal mantra: You can bring outside business knowledge to publishing, but you can’t learn business from publishing.

Sounds insulting, right? That’s because I’m horrible and no one will ever love me.

No, actually, it’s just a reflection on the levels of disruption in the industry, and the sheer opacity and incompleteness of its data due to the many different moving parts involved. To peg it down to one problem: channels. This is what’s most constantly disrupted now, and has been full of targeting problems since regional distributors left the show.

If you feel confused, it’s just the never-ending learning curve. Welcome to Sisyphus’s hill. I hope you like rocks.

Hills are not the only thing with slant.

There’s also the individual-to-corporate scale. We face an extreme skew effect due to the buyers’ market that exists in publishing.* Cross-reference that with the long tail effect (selling less of more) and the individual value of intellectual properties can intuitively be surmised to have decreased in the digital age, even without hard data.

In other words, if traditional publishing is their only contractor experience, writers don’t learn healthy things about negotiating the value of their work. They learn Grapes of Wrath things about the value of their work. (Finally, that freaking book and that stupid turtle** have a use in my literary life! That was it, folks, right there.)

Indies have to be similarly careful about the terms of their agreements. Changes in algorithms, blocking of work (or an entire author) that gets labelled as a content violation, and other issues can sweep in on an individual without warning.

All of these issues happen because business entities are trying to refine their channels, not yours. Or else they’re seeking to compensate for unstable paths in their marketplaces through financial hedging.

There’s lots more where you came from, Connie Rivers.

Unfortunately for those who want a full-time job, there’s a crapton of disposable migrant workers in this field. Writing has a lot of hobbyists who move in and then move on.

Big corporations are big partly because they’ve learned how to use churn to their advantage. Dealing with uneducated, unrealistic people is hella annoying at the editorial level, but over in the legal department, you can write all kinds of contract terms, and they mostly won’t notice.

That includes the terms of service and operating policies of online distributors like Amazon, print-on-demand services, and of course vanity publishers — that’s why those scurrilous hosers haven’t died on the side of the road yet. Predators thrive when prey is stupid.

None of this is stuff to get emotional about. There’s no blame to throw around here. It is what it is. If you can predict people, you can trust them.

And now, it’s Case Study Time.

The Mysterious Case of The Alinea Cookbook

Some Cliffs notes on the Alinea project and the Aviary book:

1) The project leads were experienced businesspeople in a very fierce market sector.

These are frickin’ restaurateurs. They knew that diving down any rabbit holes without thorough research, calculation, and innovative independent conclusions could be disastrous to their productivity and their bottom line. They have a career where it’s both necessary and possible to fight for what they’re building. It’s trained them to take the same approach to their books. (The problem with writers is, they like to pretend it’s either not necessary, or not possible.)

Although what they were facing was a mystery, they were extremely forensic investigators. And they literally wouldn’t move forward till they did their due diligence and ran the numbers to ground.

That’s the first half of the mantra: You can bring business knowledge to publishing.

2) These people actually read the contract before signing.

Uh, that speaks for itself.

I can’t believe how many authors treat their years of work like clicking the TOU on a new email account (which should also be read and checked up on). They know they’re going to use it anyway, so why read it? Tee hee, just hand me a pen!

Hey, dipshit. Read anything you sign. Ever.

3) They actually checked up on what the contract offered.

Something they couldn’t do for themselves, the same as what they could do for themselves, or less than they could do for themselves? Or just plain something totally different than they wanted to do for themselves?

They read the contract.

They comprehended the contract terms.

But they also comprehended the contract contextually.

They didn’t just compare it to other contract offers, they compared it to their own business context. You have one of those too. Either you think about it and it might go well, or you don’t think about it, and it does go well — for someone else.

4) Quote: “I’ve pushed the case in private, but have always been afraid to fully burn my bridges. Until now.”

One of the key bits of advice to teeny little writers — because each individual intellectual property is just a teeny blip on the corporate radar — is never burn your bridges. 

Mostly, that’s excellent advice. Don’t be a diva. Don’t annoy everyone who has to work with you by being clueless and demanding. (Free examples available at Life in Small Press Publishing and Life in Religious Publishing!) Don’t take business personally. If you do, definitely never take it out on someone else personally. It doesn’t matter if you’re indie or traditional, these are the rules. Forever. The end.

But how does “don’t burn bridges” translate to “don’t critique the state of the industry openly”?

People who are in it for the long haul, who have real insight beyond the surface level of disgruntled drama, aren’t necessarily going to talk openly about pitfalls. Business is relationship-driven. Pointing out the mistakes, shortcomings, or outright sins of others tends to damage relationships. (Are we sinners? Yes, we are!) In the corporate setting, it could even be a breach of job duties. As for you, random writer, before speaking, think lawsuit.

“Don’t burn bridges” really is well-meant, and not just interpersonal advice. It’s also a reference to the bridge that leads you across into someone else’s sales network. Under constant disruption, people are more protective of their networks than ever. There are a lot of negative labels for this: Silos, cliques, gatekeepers. But it’s actually just human nature, the nature that seeks mutually beneficial stability. Society lives or dies on that, so I’m not sure why it deserves being called down.

Don’t let your underpants unravel.

Nod, smile, step on by — and absorb today’s case study lesson of speaking up publicly if and when it seems the right way to pay forward a benefit to your community. There’s no time for revenge and petty drama when you’re hustling for something you love. Ideally, speaking about problems should follow the principle of seeking mutually beneficial stability.

Know what you are here for. Focus on that. Figure out how to get it.

Don’t expect to be spoon-fed all the ambush locations. That’s for people with no sense of fun. Learn how to read the scene and source the needed data yourself. And, you know. Maybe buy a gaming console and develop your taste for adventure and survival.

That’s the second half of the mantra: But you can’t learn business from publishing. 

You really do need to bring it with you.

There are a lot of valid experiences that will teach you useful things. Do you hold a job in a contracting industry? Do you pay attention to how your place of employment works? If you’re a stay-at-home parent, can you use Google? Use your brain. Observe things for awhile.

Be prepared to deal with the social authority of expertise. There are real experts all over the place, and they deserve respect for what they’ve learned. But because publishing is squishy on data and high on disruption… everything could be up for grabs. You’ll have to decide for yourself what applies to your business model.

Watch out for authority with agenda.

Sometimes it’s not hard skills that make a person revered, it’s positioning. It doesn’t matter whether you go traditional or indie. Of course there are misguided souls who are too focused on nurturing their social authority to look at the wider world and take notes.

Of course there are. People with egos are very useful for intimidating teeny little would-be’s into compliance with someone else’s interests. Plus, they’re essentially disposable because there’s always another one. Haven’t you read any John Grisham at all?

Welcome to the carnival.

There are also a lot of great people everywhere. People who just love, love, love the magic of meaning and emotion and connection packaged up in words. People who are in it because the learning never ends, and they actually wouldn’t be happy without that constant mental stimulus. Sisypheans who always wanted a pet rock, and are happy to help you learn how to care for yours.

Try to stick to passing the height requirements for all the rides you want to get on, instead of puking in the house of horrors. For your entertainment, we have both.


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*Keep in mind that it becomes a sellers’ market at a certain level of writing and targeting quality. If you can pinpoint a known sales target with a product that grabs people by the ears and shakes their brains around, you can auction your work.

**Ask me why did the turtle cross the road. I dare you.

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