the coffee situation

In publishing parlance, I’m not “in house” anymore, meaning I no longer hold a full-time editorial position at a book publisher. (Ironically, I now work in my actual house.)

It wasn’t an easy transition. When I left those roles behind, they stood me up in front of the industry and ceremonially stripped my elbow patches—it was a sad day for the regiment.

Back when I was in-house, I’d always assume the edges were deckled someplace else. (“Edges were deckled” means “grass is greener” in publishing parlance.) My current publishing house was always clueless about why one book worked over another. Surely the go-getters at [insert imprint name] who’d recently published [insert bestseller] knew something about publishing books that we didn’t.

So, in search of dark arts and hidden knowledge, I’d peregrinate from publisher to publisher. Inevitably, I’d discover that imprint B just wanted to know the secrets I must have picked up while at imprint A.

To quote the late, great William Goldman, nobody knows anything. Not in Hollywood, and not in New York book publishing either.

Thankfully, while the mechanics of popularity remain obscure even to seasoned publishing professionals, the mechanics of doing good work are not—if you’re paying attention. Editorial leapfrog revealed that certain environmental factors play a pivotal role in the quality of the finished product. Talent counts, sure, but it’s crucial to get the setup right, too.

While you can still fail with a great book, wouldn’t that be preferable to failing with a bad one?

Environment matters no matter the nature of the work. Years ago, I discovered the blog of an anonymous music engineer struggling to record a debut album with a deeply untalented band. (Eventually, the engineer, Eric Sarafin, revealed his identity and published the whole series of tales as The Daily Adventures of MixermanWell worth a read.)

What struck me were Sarafin’s descriptions of all the thoughtful effort he put into setting up the recording studio, both acoustically and otherwise. Carpets, pillows, lighting—like an ER nurse, he anticipated the needs of everyone involved and took hundreds of small actions to unimpede everyone’s flow. Clearly, he’d given a great deal of thought to creating an environment for creating.

Since then, I’ve made a hobby of reading books and other accounts of legendary workplaces, from Pixar to Xerox PARC to the Manhattan Project. I could write a book about the commonalities I’ve found, but I’ll leave that to the “future of work” and “organizational design” experts (who can then hire me to do so). What I will offer is a little shorthand to quickly gauge the BFI of a given outfit. (Brain Firehose Index.) Next time you enter a working environment, ask yourself a simple question:

What’s the coffee situation?

(Actually, don’t ask yourself. Ask the people who work there. That’s what I do.)

It doesn’t have to be good coffee. It doesn’t matter if the people there even drink the coffee. However, if the coffee is plentiful, easily accessible, and constantly on offer, you can count on a constellation of other factors related to good work, from a serendipity-boosting layout to an appropriately stimulating but non-distracting acoustic environment. The space itself doesn’t have to be pretty or clean, but it will be conducive. The coffee situation tells you a lot.

As an industry outsider, I now have the opportunity to visit the offices of all the major publishers. The coffee situation varies. If you have the opportunity to meet with a publisher about selling your own proposal, take note.

I’m not telling you to decide on a publisher—or on any other collaboration—based on whether you’re offered a cup of joe as you walk in the door. And then another one when that one’s finished. But, come on, shouldn’t you?

don’t take that first think

In a recent New Yorker:

Any work that resonates in some way can only be autobiographical. It just comes in different crypto-forms.

This is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who wrote and directed The Lives of Others. His new film, Never Look Away, is loosely based on the life of German painter Gerhard Richter—how loosely is up for debate

(You might know Gerhard Richter from his work as the character played by Alan Rickman in Die Hard.)

This harmonizes with the Ram Dass quote from a few weeks ago, that when you read someone’s stuff, it’s actually about them and their issues even if it purports to address you and yours. Whether it’s a novel or a book of practical advice—it’s autobiography in cipher. Encrypted confession.

The more writing I do—and guys, I’ve been doing far too much of it—the more convinced I become that the worthwhile words we string together are the ones we choose without much forethought. Writing isn’t a planned act; it’s much too complicated, like running. Consciously planning each stride, you’re going to end up scraping yourself off the asphalt. Save your thinking for revision.

In a piece from a few years back about overthinking in The Economist, Ian Leslie discusses Roger Federer’s then-ongoing slump:

In the jargon of sport, [Federer] has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed.

There’s an intellectual grace, too. Also fragile as hell. Writers fluff the putt constantly. Whether we’re consciously aware of it as we read, we can all tell when a writer is tapped into that grace or when they’re choking.

It’s hard to edit around the latter. You can polish a rough gemstone, but if there’s no magic in a batch of words, better to excise the problem than try to rework it. Frequently, it doesn’t even need to be replaced. Maybe we choked because deep down we knew this didn’t need to be said in the first place.

When we’re tapped in as we write, we’re letting something honest loose. This makes our work autobiographical, no matter how pragmatic our purpose. Can a memo be memoir? If it’s going to be worthwhile, it must be.

Leslie recommends “unthinking,” which he defines as “the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation.” Easier said, as they say, but as a general rule of thumb, I do this: when I find myself stuck trying to find the right word or phrasing, I reset, write it the “wrong way,” and move on. On the next pass, I discover the wrong way works well. When it doesn’t, the right way presents itself almost immediately.

Overthinking is vanity. I’m going to make this better than the words that are coming to mind right now. Nope. Writing too much has taught me that I’m not all that clever. Easier to just bull my way through like Kool-Aid Man. Oh YEAH!

(A footnote on parallel universes: don’t pretend Gerhard Richter wasn’t the bad guy’s name in Die Hard. It doesn’t count if you had to check Wikipedia to prove it was actually Hans Gruber. He was only Hans Gruber in our universe. The character’s name was Gerhard Richter in the same parallel universe where they’re called Berenstein Bears and Sinbad starred in a genie movie called Shazaam.)

(A footnote on the belief in parallel universes: I didn’t believe either—until 2016. Now, I’m pretty sure we’re all living in the darkest timeline. Personally, I’ve decided to have fun with it.)

tonics and bromides

As a kid, I thought tonic water was just a weird-tasting soda my grandparents liked to drink. I had no idea it was medicine. Originally, people drank tonic water to ward off malaria. The gin was optional—in theory.

Tonic water contains quinine, a bitter extract of cinchona tree bark that can be effective against the malaria parasite. Today’s mixer no longer contains an effective dose—we’ve left only a trace amount to balance the sweetness of a gin and tonic.

“Tonic,” meaning something medicinal that gives a feeling of vigor and well-being, is an older usage. Think miracle elixirs, snake oil. The word comes from the Greek tonikos, meaning “for stretching,” and ties to our use of the word to describe healthy muscle tone.

If you’ve ever read The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, you’ll know that one of Ayn Rand’s favorite words is “bromide.” A bromide is a compound containing bromine. In the 19th century, doctors used bromine salts like potassium bromide for their calming effect on patients. Later, a humorist coined Rand’s preferred usage: Bromides were boring people and the bland, boring things they said—trite platitudes, clichés. In other words, verbal sedatives.

Tonics and bromides. The things authors say to give readers a “feeling of vigor,”—just the feeling, mind you—and the things they say to reassure us without saying anything real at all. Half the damn internet today, tonics and bromides!

My own writing is littered with them. So is yours. They end up all over the page the minute you start typing, like glitter. The purpose of editing is to painstakingly remove them to the extent that your deadline and your word count allow.

rejected from the blue pencil club

Welcome new subscribers! I hope you like the Maven Game. There are many excellent options in the newsletter space today. I appreciate your giving this humble operation your attention. And now, on to the intellectual pyrotechnics someone told you to expect!

But first, a bit of housekeeping for my existing subscribers. You can skip ahead a few paragraphs. Just scroll down to the image of Yoda fighting puppies. 

OK, everybody else: Somebody posted something about the Maven Game after last week’s essay. I’ll admit I was on fire, but didn’t I tell you to stop recommending this?  I got like a million new subscribers—practically ten. And without Twitter or Facebook, I have no idea where to cast blame for this sudden and highly unwelcome influx of unseasoned noobs who won’t get any of my inside jokes or obscure references. The Maven Game is like Fight Club but even more secret—not talking about it is the first three rules.

(The noobs never even saw Fight Club. They probably think “Tyler Durden” is a minor-league baseball pitcher.)

Damn it, guys! When Kevin Kelly said you need a thousand true fans to be a successful creator, he skipped something critical: the dangers of overshooting the mark. I’m not about to take any chances by “cracking the M,” as the Romans used to say about their own email newsletters. (They called them “Greek tragedies.”) Who knows what the consequences might be? Look how the Gods of Olympus punished Orestes for killing his mother and then using it for clickbait. (They called clickbait “Aristotelian unities of action, place, and time.”)

Maybe people with over a thousand fans are those Millennials everyone’s been complaining about! That would explain a lot. I hadn’t understood what all the angry middle managers were complaining about until now. If this list hits 1,001, will I eat avocado toast on pink plates while blaming Boomers for everything? It isn’t worth worth the risk. Although I have to admit that, taken as a generation, the Boomers could have done more to live the principles they fervently espoused during the social and cultural upheavals of the late…it’s already happening. Kill…me…

So who’s to blame for the boost? I can’t identify you without using our socially acceptable deep surveillance tools, but I know you’re out there, sharing.

It’s weird to write blind like this. Publishing a newsletter without social media to gauge the response feels like doing surgery with oven mitts. (I would have used the Bird Box Challenge as my metaphor but, without social media, I’m completely unaware of that meme.)

yoda fighting dogs

Welcome back new subscribers! Again, good to have you on board. You’ll notice a few key differences between the Maven Game and other newsletters, the first one being that we’re quite a ways along and even I’m not sure what this week’s essay is actually about. Just go with it or, as one publisher often suggested I tell my uptight authors, unclench.

Look, you’re checking your email over the weekend. Clearly, things aren’t off to a good start. Might as well see whether I stick the landing or not. (No, that is not an invitation to email me that I didn’t, you.)

I entered book publishing in 2004, at the very transition moment to digital. I’m probably one of the very first Big Six publishing house editors to have worked without a pencil from the very start of my career. (If I’m wrong, please correct me.) Truth is, I barely know how to sharpen a pencil—it involves vigorous rotation and a sharp edge, but that’s all I’ve got, and I’m not going to start experimenting now.

Truth is, I’d love to be a pencil person. Like Mary Norris. What could be more freaking legit than writing about pencil snobbery in The New Yorker? In a more recent issue, Joshua Rothman writes about these odd aspirations we have in “The Art of Decision-Making“:

Suppose that you sign up for a classical-music-appreciation class, in which your first assignment is to listen to a symphony. You put on headphones, press Play—and fall asleep. The problem is that you don’t actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to. 

I want to want to like pencils. I’ve always wanted to want to like classical music, too. I’ve fallen asleep many times, in venues ranging from the Metropolitan Opera House to La Scala in Milan. (This isn’t a self-deprecating gag. Ask my wife.) If you want a really cozy nap, go see Bargemusic on a cold winter’s night. Chamber music on a rocking boat next to a crackling fire? They might as well dole out warm milk.

Traditionally, editors used a blue pencil to make corrections to a text because it wouldn’t be reproduced by lithography, photography, or, later, xerography. The blue pencil became a symbol of the profession, like those strange black Airpods doctors still wear even though they’re unnecessary.

One of my most deeply felt professional rivalries sprang up when a fellow editor at my company was described in a magazine as having “the best blue pencil chops in the business.” I can’t find the reference, but I’m pretty sure it was also in The New Yorker. He never knew about our rivalry, but that made it no less bitter, particularly when he left book publishing to go work at…The New Yorker. He wasn’t even interested in pursuing the career he was better than me at! Er, better at than me.

Maybe I should stop reading The New Yorker.

Using a blue pencil does not make one a good editor and liking classical music does not mean one understands music better than your average Imagine Dragons fan. We all get trapped by this, conflating tools with talent, practices with practice. We all want to look and act the part. I found evidence of “Blue Pencil Clubs” going back to the turn of the last century, like this one:


How the Blue Pencil Club Observed Forman Night.

It was Allan Forman night at the Blue Pencil Club, New York, on Wednesday evening, and in honor of the chief guest a chop suey dinner was served.

Those who are connoisseurs in such matters say that they never ate a more satisfying Chinese dish than this favorite concoction of bamboo sprouts, mushrooms, and shark fins.

The editor of the Journalist during the evening made one of his witty and characteristic speeches. William E.S. Fales, the president of the club, also spoke. 

Ernest Jerrold (Mickey Finn) was master of ceremonies.

So much to unpack here:

  • Modern copywriters act like they invented clickbait, a.k.a. Aristotelian unity, but whoever came up with the headline “Ate Chop Suey” in 1901 knew exactly how to capture this reader’s eyeballs. 
  • Allan Forman was a journalist who wore a pince-nez and had his own trading card in the “American Editors” series (!)
  • I feel sad for turn-of-the-century Chinese food connoisseurs who died too early to enjoy General Tso’s Chicken.
  • How’d it feel to be Fales after reading this? “Congrats to speaker one on the terrific job. Oh, and this other trash-pile flapped his lips and grunted.”
  • Who was M.C.—Ernest Jerrold or Mickey Finn? Was “Mickey Finn” Jerrold’s character, like “Alex Jones” is Alex Jones’s?

You don’t need a club or a pencil—or a very large pencil one could use as a club—to be legit. Just get up early in the morning and work all day, to paraphrase Philip Glass.

That said, everyone currently subscribed to this newsletter gets to be an inaugural member of the New Blue Pencil Club. In return for your monthly membership dues, you will receive one expansion pack of editor trading cards, which I will be resurrecting as a collectible card game like Pokémon or Magic so you get to fight the different editors against each other. (Naturally, my card will be an ultra-rare foil hologram card with the best stats in the game.)

And with that witty and characteristic essay, I doff my pince-nez and bid you good weekend.

p.s. Yes, of course liking classical music means you understand music better than your average Imagine Dragons fan. I mean, just watch this actual, completely genuine live performance.