how to be a happy author (also works for life)

Authors are angry. Really angry.

Now that I’m no longer ensconced within the ivy-draped, sunlight-dappled walls of the traditional publishing industry, I’ve been hearing about so much of this anger directly.

(Authors get honest with editors when they discover you can’t acquire their next book.)

“My publisher doesn’t have any ideas for how to market my book beyond a Facebook page.”

“My publicist is twenty and she doesn’t even read magazines.”

“I don’t think my editor actually read my manuscript, but he still thinks he has a better title.”

And on and on.

I know authors. I work with authors. I’m even married to authors. Dissatisfaction with every aspect of the traditional publishing process in 2016 is at epic levels. Even the winners of this absurd fixed game are angry.

“Winning” is a relative term, of course. As we find with income inequality, almost nobody feels like a winner no matter where they stack up—the “real” winners are always a few rungs up the ole’ ladder. Just look at O’Reilly complaining that the book he didn’t write wasn’t higher on the New York Times bestseller list. (Go, Tim!)

So even the fat-cat millionaire authors, with their poodle masseuses and top hats and water sommeliers, aren’t happy with how the book publishing apparatus is working for them.

Waaah waaaah, grow up keyboard-babies.

Back before I got practical and decided to enter a thriving and robust industry offering competitive wages, job security, and a genuine path to career growth—book publishing—I worked in the world of The Theatre. In one of my roles, I helped the high-level donors of a major nonprofit theater company in Manhattan.

In return for donating thousands of dollars and more each year, these people were given honorifics like Angel and Super-Mega-Supreme-Angel. Technically, these heavenly creatures shouldn’t have been treated any differently than the other members of the audience. I give money to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden every year; a portion is a tax-deductible gift and the rest gets me free admission. I don’t expect an ass-kissing from any hydrangeas.

Similarly, these patrons deducted most of those large gifts. Officially, the rest went toward seats for every show and access to a Patron’s Lounge where my colleagues and I would serve up coffee and charm during intermissions. And yet, while some of the patrons were lovely people, a majority acted like spoiled brats if anything went wrong. At the first sign of trouble, they’d pitch a fit, and it was our job to smooth things out.

(Learning to soothe the enflamed egos of powerful and entitled people was the most valuable job skill I brought to publishing.)

I can’t really blame the patrons, though. The theater, because of its business model, had long evolved past quality as a driver of revenue. They needed those patrons to survive, and they were in fierce competition for donation dollars with every other theater, museum, orchestra, and ballet in New York. So, when enlisting donors, the theater cheerfully encouraged the false belief that these donors were specialler than the rest, that they were going to be pampered and elevated above the hois and the pollois up in the peanut gallery.

After all, the groundlings were only spending $150 a seat to enjoy comedies that were already stale when they were written, back in the 80s, performed by actors who were B-list when they were still acting, back in the 80s.

So the patrons signed up, and got their tax deductions and their free tickets and their lounge access, and meanwhile their expectations were set for still more: your bowing and scraping and what have you. Also, the expectation of a perfect customer experience every time, or else.

Why is this relevant? False expectations (encouraged by publishers during the acquisition process) cause of all this author anger too.

It’s not just all the pillow talk when you’re choosing between offers from competing houses, either. It’s the whole culture. Publishing is all about appearances—what isn’t?—and authors and publishers are highly incentivized to make everything they do look more successful than they really are.

The rest of us see all that “success” from the outside our whole lives and, naturally enough, get certain ideas about what Being Published will be like for us one day. We bust our butts to make that dream a reality and then, when those false expectations don’t match up…


So what’s an author supposed to do in this no-win scenario?

Well, one of the patrons of the theater loved the deal. She enjoyed the crappy plays, the tepid coffee, and the “service” she received from me and the rest of the underpaid staff. She came into every performance with very clear, very low expectations for what her experience would be, and whenever we went above and beyond, she was genuinely surprised and/or delighted.

Guess what? We went above and beyond for her more often. Truthfully, it still wasn’t great, but she definitely made off better than her peers.

I’m hoping you see a parallel here. It may feel frustrating to expect little and mostly get it, but you will be happier and you will get better results over all. (This advice may apply to life as well.) Ask any editor over a few drinks and they’ll admit it. Angry waiters spit in your food, and angry publicists send the books for the big signing to the wrong address.

This is what you can expect from a book publisher: the being-published-by-“a real publisher” part, and the table-stakes operational stuff like having your books in bookstores on the day of publication and having the Amazon page go live then too.

If they screw up on that stuff, and many do, sure, be angry. You got the real short end of the stick and you might as well go back to Scranton and take that job at the mill with your eleven brothers.

On the rest of it, expect nothing, and then jump for joy about getting anything more.

Here’s what you simply cannot expect to receive from a book publisher in 2016:

  • Marketing (as you understand it)
  • Publicity (as you understand it)
  • Editing (as you understand it)
  • Prompt and clear communication at every stage of the process
  • The title you wanted
  • A cover you like
  • A lack of spelling, grammar, and factual errors in the text, on the cover, online, or in any of the materials related to the book
  • Rapid or actually correct correction of any such errors in a timely manner

I could go on.

As with the fund-raising team at that theater, book publishers will say a lot of sweet nothings to get you to sign the boilerplate. Believe none of it and you will get better results and be happier along the way. They may give you the impression that they are service providers, but they are not service providers. They are factories and you are a vendor whose raw materials they need to manufacture a product.

If you’re looking for a service provider, there are many excellent so-called hybrid publishers out there. Just reply to this email and I’d be happy to recommend some that are appropriate for your book.

If, on the other hand, you want to play the publishing game, let go of your ideas about being a Published Author because they are a carefully constructed fantasy.

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