I’ve been thinking about the previous post, and it seems to me the same advice holds for anyone looking to get into publishing — whether as a self-published author, or as a publisher of other people’s works on any scale. If you don’t define success yourself, the miserable soulless scorekeepers are going to define it by how much money you’re making, or whether or not you’re still in business.
The recent dissolution of HarperStudio is not simply a case in point, it’s a case that demonstrates the utterly bankrupt way the miserable soulless scorekeepers go about their business. What happened at HarperStudio, as far as I can tell, is that the guy who ran the place — Bob Miller — decided to go do something else. In a corporate context that’s the equivalent of leaving your wallet on the street, because there are always other factions in a corporation that want to play with the money in your budget. But is that the same thing as failing?
Seriously: how many people inside HarperCollins were rooting for HarperStudio, and how many were hoping it would fail? If you worked for the mothership, did you really want someone proving that a stripped-down version of what you were doing could actually work? Or did you want it to blow up, with or without your own finger on the trigger? I have no idea if Bob Miller was a hampered visionary or bumbling idiot, but that’s really the point. Does anyone know what was happening behind the scenes? Does anyone know what the money flow was like, and how HarperStudio’s subsidiary status with HarperCollins affected its ability to be successful?
What if Bob Miller had not decided to leave HarperStudio? What if he was still there, doing his job, but the company was badly in the red? Would that be a success story? Better yet, what if he was still doing his job, but he was embezzling money from the company and cheating authors at the same time? From the outside it would look like he was still in business, and thus not a failure — at least until he got caught. Is HarperStudio a failure because it tried to play fair? Are vanity presses that prey on naive customers demonstrating a better business model? (I’ll leave you to guess what the miserable soulless scorekeepers think.)
And what about the absurdity in all this? Anyone who thinks that HarperStudio failed in an objective sense has to reconcile that view with a larger context in which publishing is a wounded, dying animal that has little chance of continuing in its current form. If you really want to say that HarperStudio failed, isn’t the entire industry failing by that score? How many other companies are being held together by their leadership, while the bottom line bleeds out through an artery shredded by the internet? Isn’t there general agreement even now that the big publishers are playing for time in their dealings with Apple and Amazon, and their imposition of the agency model? Is there anyone who can point to a model that’s going to be an unbridled success a year from now? Five years? Ten? Are you shaking your head?
Publishers at every level need to define why they’re doing what they’re doing. Leaving that task to the miserable soulless scorekeepers will always result in the inevitable charge that you’re a failure, because that’s the point of keeping score. If you care about books or writers or publishing, defining that passion will prevent others from defining it for you. You won’t ever be able to get them to admit it, of course, but that’s not the goal. The goal is saving your sanity, if not your soul.
— Mark Barrett
Brent Robison says
You are so right! Both these last two posts are right on: “defining that passion will prevent others from defining it for you” is of utmost importance for both writers and self-publishers. The tragedy is that so many everyday folk, our readers, believe the MSSes and miss out on great reading experiences by discounting those of us with small scores. They need to define their passion as readers too, and be willing to look past the group-think to find us.
By way of defining success, I like Matthew Stadler’s definition of publication as “creating a public,” rather than chasing the illusory “mainstream.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Stadler
We’re all trying to catch up to a train that is only now gathering real steam. I don’t know how things play out from here, but the internet is a game changer, and the biggest change is that I can reach an audience — a public (nice phrase) — directly. Everything is changing because of that one fact.
I think most readers, like most movie-goers, will be driven to content by marketing of one kind or another. But that’s fine with me. I simply want access, which I didn’t have before. Hopefully some readers will find me along the way.
Encouraging advice Mark, cheers.
Debbie Stier says
You have to read Linchpin by Seth Godin. I’m almost done…..and it pertains exactly to all of this. I had it on my stack for a while…..but wasn’t interested by the title or book jacket — but it is VERBATIM what is going on in my head and what is playing out in the world of publishing…..and I’m sure in other industries too.
Also reading Game Change, which isn’t quite as profound, but is a romping good read.
…..and also reading the Innovator’s Dilemma (were you the one who recommended this to me?) and am having a little trouble getting into it…..seems like a book I prefer to read about. It’s a bit dense.
I’m leery of Godin, as I’m leery of all gurus, but on your recommendation I’ll give it a read because I want to know were you are in your own thinking. (Abstraction is a critical skill, but it can be abused. I’m convinced that you understand the pragmatic issues that publishing faces, and I’m interested in how you’re attacking those problems.)
Speaking of which, I found this post interesting, and it prompted a comment from me that I found myself coming back to over the weekend.
I did recommend Innovator’s Dilemma to you, and it is dense. Feel free to skim through the academic proofs and data and concentrate on the conclusions. The short version is that any mature industry creates its own inherent blind spots, and I think that applies to publishing in spades. Key to addressing the problem is understanding that these blind spots are not simply a function of distraction but are inherent to the mature business model. (And even in this summary I am doing the work a disservice. Skim the chapters, look for the conclusions, and jot them down in a document. When you’re done, you’ll have an explanation of where you currently are, what the obstacles are ahead of you, and how to approach the problem of breaking out.)