Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Warning

Artisan Publishing May have Unintended Consequences

Proceed at Your Own Risk

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Gatekeepers and Advocates

We often talk of all the gatekeepers we have to get past in order to get published. We even say things like, “vetted by publishers”—as if publishers where somehow the guardians of all that is good and true. Unfortunately our sloppy language leads to sloppy thinking about the role of publishers. Specifically, we confuse gatekeeping with advocacy.

Gatekeeping means choosing who will pass and who will be excluded. It also implies an endorsement: if the bouncer at the club lets you past the velvet rope you know you're one of the cool people.

Advocacy is an important element in maintaining the social fabric. Obvious self-interest makes us wary of both the promoter and the product. But if a nominally disinterested party champions someone’s cause, we take it as evidence the case has merit. That’s why we need lawyers and agents.

Publishers provide advocacy through investment. Talk is cheap. Backing up that talk by investing a substantial sum in a book says something. Of course there’s no direct correlation between the amount invested and the quality of the book. But assuming publishers are rational economic actors, if the publisher is willing to bet so much on a project, perhaps it’s worth our attention too.

Publishers are not pure advocates because they have a financial interest in the sale of the book. To compensate, the industry has developed layers of structural advocates. From the wholesaler, distributor, and retailer model of the distribution chain to the web of reviewers, booksellers, librarians, and teachers who promote books and reading in general, the publishing industry, which is just as commercial as any other, manages to come out looking like a cultural institution.

The new world of frictionless, costless e-publishing doesn’t change the need for advocacy. You may be able to establish a reputation by building an online social network. You may inspire readers to recommend your work. Regardless of the expression, the underlying pattern remains the same: to be credible you need independent third parties willing to expend their own time and resources to vouch for your work.

One of the few things you can’t do as an artisan publisher is be your own advocate. Clearly you must put a great deal of time and effort into promoting your work. But no matter how much effort you put into it, marketing can never become advocacy because you’re not an independent party.

If your artisan publishing effort expands to include other authors, you can become an advocate for their work to a small degree. But compared to the major publishing houses that have the financial wherewithal to lavish seven-figure advances on celebrities your own investment will hardly stand out.

The practical upshot is that in order to succeed as an artisan publisher you must nurture a network of independent advocates without any of the structural advantages enjoyed by large publishing companies. Moreover, you will have to compete with those companies for readers’ attention every step of the way. The only way to build credibility and to attract advocates is to keep showing up: to consistently deliver high quality content. You need to be prepared for a slow, patient game.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Why the Traditional Separation Between Authors and Publishers?

The broad-brush functional differences between the right and left hemispheres of the brain have become a mainstay of pop psychology: the right brain is the seat of creativity while the left brain has a monopoly on detail work. Some people personify the two as the accountant and the artist in your head.

It's hard to say whether that simple dichotomy will stand the test of our growing understanding of neuroscience, but it is a useful way to characterize the traditional division of labor between author and publisher. It's easy to caricature the author as artist in contrast to—and sometimes in conflict with—the publisher as accountant and business manager.

As with all common notions, this analogy has a kernel of truth: authors provide the novel (in both senses of the word) content and publishers take care of all the details involved in preparing, packaging, and presenting that content in the marketplace.

Of course, the divide isn’t between creative and non-creative work. Writing involves plenty of drudgery and the best marketing is thoroughly creative. But there is an important distinction between the kinds of creativity and detail work that are most effective in the traditional roles of author and publisher. And now that many authors are expected to provide a substantial portion of the marketing effort they find they need to master an entirely different set of skills.

As challenging as it may be for an author with a traditional publishing arrangement to switch writing and marketing hats, self-publishing means that you have to wear both hats all the time. Put another way, whether you know it or not you’re signing up to bridge the traditional right brain/left brain split between authors and publishers in your own little head when you self-publish.

If you think that editing is an endless round of fiddly grammar details, wait till you're stuck trying to figure out why the formatting for your e-book is off on three devices but looks great everywhere else. Getting covers right requires attention to the art design, graphic file formats, scale and resolution for different platforms, and a host of conventions like including your ISBN as a barcode on the back cover and listing the book’s category. Then there are details like copyright statements, warranties, and metadata that all have to be both correct and correctly presented. Making sure all of these things right requires constant checking and double checking.

Setting aside whatever frustration with the old or fascination with the new that you may have, there are good reasons for the traditional division between producers and distributors in many areas of the economy. You need to understand both the reasons for and the substance of each role if you want to walk the path of the artisan publisher because you’re signing up for both jobs.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Know the Rules before You Break Them

In her manifesto for correct punctuation and grammar, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynne Truss said this about comma splices (i.e., independent clauses joined by a comma, creating a run-on sentence):

“… so many highly respected writers observe the splice comma that a rather unfair rule emerges on this one: only do it if you're famous.... Done knowingly by an established writer, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing. Done equally knowingly by people who are not published writers, it can look weak or presumptuous. Done ignorantly by ignorant people, it is awful.”

One of the rules we throw at would-be writers is that they mustn't be bound by convention--they shouldn't be afraid to break the rules. The problem with this well-intentioned advice is that it leads many writers to get ahead of themselves by trying to break, “the rules,” before they understand them.

There are countless examples of authors who make the same, “mistake,” and one is lauded while the other condemned. On the surface that seems grossly unfair. The distinction, however, is simply a matter of mastery: if you’ve shown your readers you know what you’re doing, they’ll try to understand your intent in breaking the rules; if you haven’t, they’ll take it as more evidence that you don’t know what you’re doing.

There are many areas of endeavor where you need to show you know the rules before you can be trusted to break them. While nowhere near as critical as a licensed profession like medicine, publishing is structurally similar because in both cases you’re asking people to trust that you can actually provide what you claim to provide.

In the days of the craft guilds an artisan began as an apprentice, graduated to a journeyman when he had mastered basic skills, and became a master—and independent businessman—only after producing a masterpiece to prove he had actually mastered all facets of his craft. We are well past the day when the only way to learn was by doing, and it is neither practical nor necessary to apprentice ourselves to established publishers in order to learn the business, but the prerequisites of skill and mastery still apply if you want to be an artisan publisher.

Fortunately many of the skills you need as an artisan publisher are the same ones you need to live and work in the modern world: you need to know how to use the technical tools of your trade, particularly computers and the Internet; you need to know how to organize your time and work effectively; and you need to master both editorial and marketing communication.

But beyond that, you need to understand the industry in which you will be participating. Artisan publishing is about breaking the rules—at least the ones that held true in commercial publishing for roughly the last 50 years. Both as a matter of personal integrity and in order to lay the foundation for credibility with your readers, you need to understand how the publishing industry worked and how it is changing. Only when you understand the strengths and weaknesses of all the modes of publication now available can you, as Peter admonished the early Christians, “give reason for your faith,” in artisan publishing.

Image: Simon Howden /

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Sense of Mission

Richard N. Bolles is justifiably well-known for, What Color is Your Parachute?, his perennial guide for job seekers. It’s a shame, though, that he isn’t equally well-known for another book, The Three Boxes of Life. Where Parachute is about the how of finding a job, Three Boxes is about the why.

One of the most important lessons every skilled craftsperson must learn is just because you can doesn’t mean you should. The greatest works of art are exercises in restraint not excess. With the possible exception of tabloid celebrities, the greatest careers and lives exemplify the power of purpose and restraint.

Among the many mind-opening ways of living life by design, not accident, in The Three Boxes of Life, Bolles explains how a sense of mission can inform the thousand and one choices you’ll make in the course of a career and a life:

“There yet remains however, one still deeper answer to the issue of MEANING OR MISSION. That is to find, beyond meaning, some ultimate goal or mission for your life, that drives you on with the kind of sacrificial, burning passion. It is the kind of mission that drove Pasteur, Schweitzer, Einstein and many lesser names. It is the kind of drive that — in any or every profession — distinguishes some men and women from the rest of ‘the common herd.’”

The fact that so many businesses responded to the fad of creating a mission statement with platitudes and generalities doesn’t diminish the value of a genuine sense of mission.

Don’t be put off by the lofty overtones of the word, “mission.” While there certainly may be occasions when much is at stake, our mission is no more or less than being able to answer questions like, “Why are you doing this? What do you hope to accomplish?”

Artisan publishing isn’t a shortcut, or a way to get back at a publishing industry that failed to recognize your genius. Like the work of all skilled craftspeople, artisan publishing is a patient, laborious path. It’s not enough to have the skill, the aptitude, or even the inclination to publish your own material. You need to know why, both for your particular project and for you as an individual, the way of the artisan is worth all the time and trouble it will cost you.

A journey of 1000 miles may well begin with a single step, but your chances of completing the roughly 2,000,000 steps that comprise the journey are poor if you don’t know why you’re doing it. There are many poor reasons—one of the worst being because everyone else is doing it—and only a few good ones. The difference is that poor reasons wear away when the going gets tough but good ones will see you through to the end.

No true craftsperson undertakes a work lightly — not because their work has mystical significance but because the hallmark of skill is to act deliberately. In order to act deliberately you need to know why you’re acting: you need to have a sense of mission. Otherwise, you’ll provide yet another confirmation of the old aphorism that if you’re aiming at nothing you’ll hit it.

Image: Simon Howden /