stop recommending this newsletter

How’d you like my can’t-skip subject line? I algorithmically optimized it…just for you.

It’s not click bait, though! I really do want you to stop telling everybody about the Maven Game. (That means you, Mommy.)

So no more tweets, pins, posts, regards, or (shudder) LinkedIn updates. (“What’s on my mind?” Since you asked, LinkedIn, I’m wondering why those little red notification numbers are lies.)

This newsletter is not for everybody. I don’t want just anybody reading it. This is a place to discuss not only how the sausage gets made, but whether authors should be making sausage in the first place.

Sausage? I mean, whatever happened to writing books?! Amirite? Hello? (taps on microphone, shuffles through index cards) What else is going on…

Disclaimer: I should point out, I sincerely appreciate it when people share my stuff online. (Again, that means you, Mommy.)

The central thesis of the Maven Game is that readers are not fungible. As soon as your audience becomes a metric to be optimized, you’ve fallen into the Maven Trap™.

We all find ourselves in the Maven Trap now and then. We want to imitate the tactics of the successful, but we look to the wrong models. That’s because, on the Internet, individuals and organizations become indistinguishable. Websites, emails, and social media look the same regardless of tax filing status.

Confusingly, individuals can actually become companies. Successful course creators, for example. These hybrid entities still talk (via email and social media) like the individuals who launched them, but they begin to act like companies.

Companies can afford to strip-mine the world for customers. People have to chisel each true fan out of the earth by hand.

What are the consequences? A thought leader friend told me about a recent industry conference. When one of the speakers took the podium, the audience started giggling to each other about how frequently he emails his list and all his other spammy tactics.

He’d gotten himself a reputation among his peers for his company-like marketing techniques. Again, if his intention was to build a company selling a product, great. Strip-mine the world for customers. You’ve got to fill the old funnel. Anyone who unsubscribes or gets annoyed wasn’t going to buy anyway. Plenty of fish in the sea!

For an individual with a network of peers in his industry and a limited number of large corporate clients to worry about, I’d say: user frustration is not an acceptable filtering strategy.

So, if you plan on longevity as an expert, a writer, a teacher, a speaker, a consultant: start chiseling.

Let’s look at a parallel. In fiction, genre writers carefully separate their audiences using pen names. This effort makes sense because genre fans search for new books by author.

While some people are happy little word-tubes, squeezed by their publishers to express a steady flow of genre-paste, most creative human beings get in ruts. They need to stretch now and then. If your next piece represents a stark departure, you’ll save yourself many 1- and 2-star reviews from disappointed fans by adopting a new persona.

This approach works even better when your pen name is an open secret. That way, your readers can come along for the ride if they’re open to something new. The rest can steer clear.

For example, one author has sold hundreds of millions of copies of her books. She’s spent over 800 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. And yet you’ve never heard of her. Meet Eleanor Robertson.

2016 Sep 25 nora and jd

Robertson was the creative inspiration for the clones of Orphan Black.

As Nora Roberts, Robertson writes romance novels. As J.D. Robb, Robertson writes romance novels set in the 21st century.

Many Nora Roberts fans turn up their noses at the work of J.D. Robb.

“The 21st century? Science fiction is for nerds!”

Her edgy fans, the ones who favor dark lipstick and leather jackets, are like, “21st century, huh? Drive me to B&N at 88 m.p.h. for a trip to the future of romance.”

What this does is protect Robertson’s work from the wrong audience. It isn’t about maximizing people-units. Robertson knows that some of her books are not for every reader. She’d rather have each book’s audience made up of those who are interested, open, and receptive to that work.

How does this apply to thought leaders? As I’ve said before, we’re human beings. It’s sad how often I have to remind clients of this fact.

“But blood sacrifice drives conversion rates!”

“Never believe what you read on Medium.”

(As we’ve learned the hard way, most essays on Medium advocate A/B-testing black magic rituals.)

Human beings cannot “rebrand” like a magazine or company blog if they alienate a portion of their audience. The growth-hackery that might be worth the risk for a start-up is just not a good option for a person.

In our rush to assemble an audience of 50,000 people so that 1 percent might buy something, we’re losing sight of the 500 real people who are actually reading our stuff right now.

We can perform (white) magic if we truly speak to those 500 people. Unfortunately, that compare-and-despair growth-hack mindset starts to seep in:

“If I can get 500 people just by writing my best stuff, I can easily 10x that by [some strategy you hate when you’re on the receiving end].”

You know you’re on the road to perdition when you start trying to 10x anything.

Here’s how to growth-hack your writing:

  1. What problems do I know how to solve?
  2. Who has those problems?
  3. Where are they and how do they want their solutions delivered?

These steps are a recipe for a career without misgivings, regret, or public humiliation.

In that spirit, I ask you not to tweet the Maven Game. Most of your followers don’t have problems I can solve. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to feel pressured to dilute my message to suit their real needs.

Instead, I ask that you share this newsletter with one person: an author or aspiring author of practical nonfiction. Particularly one currently mired in the Maven Trap.

Doing that would be more valuable for me, them, you, and your audience.

get thee to a nunnery, get thee behind me, or get thee literary representation

I’ve previously crossed swords with my frenemesis, typographer and public intellectual Matthew Butterick, here, here, and here.

Matthew is the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Magneto to my Professor X, the Acid Burn to my Crash Override.

Now Matthew is writing his own newsletter, one he promises will always be “brief.” (Clearly, this is a passive aggressive statement on the occasional unbriefliness of my own newsletter. Point: Butterick.)

For Butterick on typography, programming, law, writing, and reading, go sign up.

If you’re a regular reader, you may think I have something against the fine people of book publishing. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of you rubes in the peanut gallery are book pros yourselves.

So despite everything you’ve read and may read in the future, or in this very newsletter, I love you, book industry.

awkward hug

Last week, I subjected literary agents to a little of my signature tough love. (Editors and publishers, too, but that’s just background noise now.)

Afterward, counting my stacks of newsletter money, I felt guilty. Agents, after all, are tops. Agent Smith, Agent Carter, Ancient Egypt: there’s nothing not to like.

As an editor, your success rides on your relationships with the agent community. Knowing other editors is a complete waste of your time. (Howdy former colleagues! Remember that hug?)

If a junior editor gets introduced to another junior editor at a networking event, watch both of them wilt. Watch both calculate how long to maintain polite chitchat before meeting somebody useful. Watch both struggle with that calculation. Math, after all, is not an industry strong suit. (The hug, guys, the hug!)

Dave’s Quick Networking Tip #8: If you meet a junior editor in January, the odds they won’t be in advertising by December are longer than a Thomas Pynchon novel. So don’t bother remembering anyone’s name until they’re an associate editor at least.

Now, I’ve projected doom and gloom for publishing since 2003. I still stand behind that pessimism. Digital disruption continues to pummel the book industry and YOU’RE NEXT. WILLIAM MORROW’S TRON LASER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

digitally disrupted
Another managing editor being digitized in an unsuccessful bid to tighten up production schedules.

Agents, however, provide a clear and indisputable value to authors. They will not be disrupted, digitally or otherwise, anytime soon.

Literary agent, specializing in middle-grade fiction, surveying the publishing landscape of 2026.

I often direct authors to alternative publishing routes, when appropriate. But I never waver on the value of literary representation. If you can get an agent, you should. If you can’t, get one anyway. You can. To understand how, let’s look at what an agent actually does.

“I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can.”—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

A literary agent generally takes 15 percent of whatever you earn from your book. In return, they perform one key function: extract maximum value. This goes in two directions.

Externally, your agent helps you get the best possible deal. This means representing your interests with book publishers as well as with all the other greedy leeches who consider your art nothing but “content” to be “monetized.” Your agent is there to tell these creeps that you won’t be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

(I’m realizing that I’m going to have to be nice to publishers next week to make up for ​this ​week. Where does it end?)

Internally, your agent is there to milk you for viable intellectual property like the cud-chewing brain-cow that you are.

This latter function is the vital one.

Look, if you’ve never written a successful book before, you’re still hungry. Buzzing with ideas and ambition. You want to get out there and make your name.

Once you’ve gotten traction and Mom doesn’t have to say “I have faith in you” quite so often, you get complacent. Your agent is the one who will continue to ride you, year after year, to force you to carpe those diems:

  • That article you wrote for Slate, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That thing you said at lunch, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That tweet you retweeted, wouldn’t that make a great book?

Sure, your spouse may applaud you as a literary lion. Your agent will actually get in your cage with a bullwhip and put you back to work.

Good agents, anyway. Did I mention those are rare? Probably, no, definitely, the exact same number of agents who read this newsletter.

The thing is, 15 percent of bubkes is still bubkes. Agents have bills to pay: tanning salons, sunglasses, hair gel. It’s not like they’re rolling in the big newsletter bucks like some of us. The good ones are picky because they get behind each client.

(Figuratively. I hope it goes without saying you should never turn your back on an agent.)

agent cooper
I love agents!

If you can’t find yourself a world-class literary agent yet, assign a stand-in. Reach out to a friend or colleague who really gets you and your work. Someone who reads and responds to your blog posts and newsletters. Ask that person to be your agent. Ask them to godparent your Muse.

What does this entail? As I’ve said, milking the brain-cow. Your agent needs to get on your case every time you give one of your own ideas short shrift.

That should be a book.” Simple as that. “Expand on this. More.”

Who serves that function in your intellectual life? As that guy on the subway once screamed, you can’t milk your own brain-cow.

Each of us requires gentle but persistent reminders that every great work starts small. Many of your favorite books began as an offhand remark. An agent, or someone playing that role, picked up on it, on behalf of its udderer, and wouldn’t let go.

Authors are as blind to their gifts as they are microscopically aware of their flaws. Their best stuff gets said and heard only once. That’s why every writer needs two things: a notepad in the shower, and quality representation.

how publishers decide on a book advance

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.

You ever read something that just kind of rambles around endlessly without any respect for your time or level of interest?

did i do that?

Check out Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, out this week. It’s intended for business writing, but many of the lessons I took from it apply to writing writing.

Josh delves deeply into emails, social media, and other business-specific use cases, but at heart WWB is about writing dangerously. Writing that draws blood and makes no apologies. Think Jeffrey Katzenberg’s now-legendary internal memo as head of Disney’s film studios in 1991. Think Jerry Maguire’s mission statement for Sports Management International. It’s about saying something real! Except for that second one. (But it was real in the context of the film—point still made!)

Anyway, valuable book, put your copy on your writing shelf next to your Clark, your Zinsser, and your King.

People often ask me how traditional publishing works. Not as in “how does this antiquated circus continue to function?” but as in “what’s the nitty-gritty path from ‘manuscript someone slaved over for years’ to ‘hardcover book languishing spine-out in the back corner of a Barnes & Noble’?”
Continue reading “how publishers decide on a book advance”

writers as alchemists, segways as segues

A book proposal about dirt changed the way I think about writing online…forever.


Don’t you hate it when something starts that way? Well, as that girl who kissed me in high school told herself, you have to start somewhere.

A few years ago, my colleague Courtney Young and I convinced a reluctant Penguin Group to let us found a science imprint. Penguin didn’t have a dedicated home for the science category at the time. Instead, various imprints would field a title here and there at a particular editor’s whim. While Courtney and I were busy editing business books for Portfolio, we both loved pop sci and felt that the category deserved dedicated attention.

After much hand-waving with agents about Current, we saw a trickle of science proposals. At first, the pickings were both slim and dubious. Mostly, we were warned that the world would end in 2012, because Mayans. However, we did unearth the occasional gem. The real difficulty lay in convincing sales, marketing, and publicity that what we’d found was an emerald, not a tourmaline. (Geology reference!)

Case in point: I once received a proposal by a scientist who’d spent an entire year observing one patch of ground in the woods. He’d spent hours there every day, in every season, closely observing an area a few feet across. Though his focus was small, it turned out to be, quite literally, a circle of life. (Lion King reference!)

Insects, plants, worms, birds, microbes. In just a few square feet, over the course of a year, this biologist witnessed: Epic battles! Drama! Tragedy! Romance! Bad romance! (Lady Gaga reference!)

It was like all five seasons of The Wire acted out by snails and crickets. (Middlebrow TV reference! OK, I’m done, it’s out of my system now.)

Anyway, excellent writing, lovely project, I considered it well worth pursuing. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince anyone else that my patch-of-dirt book was the next Brief History of Time. So it went elsewhere. (Looking on Amazon now, I guess it turned out pretty well. That’s what a Pulitzer nomination means, right?)

From now on, I'll use this GIF as a
From now on, I’ll use this GIF as a “segway.”

From the vantage point of an editorial assistant just starting out in the book trade, the role of editor resembled any other dirt patch. You had your fiction editors and your nonfiction editors. The fiction editors were cool and connected. The nonfiction editors were brainy and blasé.

More important, the fiction editors were walled in by stacks of unread manuscripts and had to be fed Berlin-Airlift-style. The nonfiction editors sat in tidy offices reviewing a single, twenty-page proposal while tapping a pen against their lip just so.

“Fine,” I said to myself. “I may prefer reading fiction, but I choose life.” (Trainspotting reference! I lied about the reference bit being out of my system.)

When I built my first list as an acquiring nonfiction editor, I did so indiscriminately: Memoir. Reference. Biography. Technology. Business. Pop culture. Not knowing my trade, I could bring an equal amount of raw incompetence to each category.

Failing upwards, I joined an imprint with a specific editorial focus: business. As I got my sea legs—most of the job boils down to adding the query, “But how does all of this impact the consumer?!?!”—I realized how misdirected my previous approach to professional development had been. I’d been throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what would stick. (Odd Couple reference! OK, now I’m really reaching.)

I’d always seen books as either fiction and nonfiction. Forced to focus on a narrower spot of soil, I finally understood this to be a worthless distinction. Even the broad genres and categories within fiction and nonfiction—science fiction, memoir, romance, business—were relatively worthless.

Every component of the work—writing, editing, designing, marketing, publicizing, selling—differed substantially between subcategories. I realized I might be able to develop a decent editorial skill-set over the span of my career if I focused on business books alone, but even then I’d have to delve into each subcategory and learn its ins and outs if I were to truly master my craft. Entrepreneurship, small business, personal development, productivity, and on and on. I’d have to pick my patch of ground and really look at it. (Earlier part of this newsletter reference!)

Another “segway.”

So, to online writing. If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been going back to this question of good and bad advice lately. Maybe it’s more about finding the right advice for you.

We’re still in the early adolescence of online writing. Heck, we’re still figuring out what the categories are. For instance, I call the Maven Game a “newsletter” purely to avoid reader confusion. Today, a newsletter is something you subscribe to and then receive by email on a regular basis, usually for free. In practice, the Maven Game bears as much relation to most newsletters qua newsletters as Koyaanisqatsi does to a CPR instructional video. (Philip Glass reference!)

What bothers me in all this is the rising tide of advice for a certain kind of online writer who wants to “build a list” and “monetize content” and “create copy that sells.” While it may be a useful tide for some, the rest of us are drowning in it.

In retrospect, focusing in on a couple of categories as an editor revealed to me whole worlds of possibility where I’d only seen undifferentiated dirt before. The deeper my focus, the greater my understanding. I think we need to pay similarly close attention to the writing we share online and, specifically, the kinds of writing we’re sharing online. The purpose, audience, goals. Sometimes, writing is chemistry. Sometimes it’s alchemy. Are you looking to reliably catalyze the synthesis of superoxide, or are you looking to turn lead into gold? (I’m not saying one is better than the other. After all, the gold thing doesn’t actually work.)

Max Read’s retrospective on the rise and fall of Gawker is a must-read. Of note to this discussion, Nick Denton realized at a certain point that chasing eyeballs using “conventional” methods was sapping Gawker Media of the particular flavor and energy that had brought its sites to cultural prominence in the first place.

According to Read, [Denton] “announced, in a lengthy memo, that there would be “less pandering to the Facebook masses.”

This would be accomplished not by abandoning metrics but by new metrics. He became intently focused on the number of Gawker Media stories that appeared on his Nuzzel—an app that sends a daily digest of stories, sorted by how many of your followers had tweeted out the stories. (The logic being that the people Nick followed on Twitter were the best approximations of “the conversation.”) By the summer of 2015, a group of managers were being sent a daily email showing a “buzz” score, calculated by how many outlets — weighted by prestige—were writing about or linking to Gawker.

Sort of silly, in retrospect, but Denton was honestly grappling with the same dilemma: how to be yourself, on the internet. Gawker Media, the Maven Game, your own blog or newsletter or podcast: we all want to “succeed” and “growth-hack the eyeballs” but we also want to be free to be…you and me. (Marlo Thomas reference!)

Yes, my paragraphs are too long for proper mobile consumption. Yes, some of my awkwardly placed SAT words could be replaced by other, more common alternatives. Yes, my subject lines are rambling and nonsensical. Yes, my gags continue long past their expiration date. (Milk reference!)

That’s OK. I’m not teaching CPR here.

“If you can read this, you’re an alchemist.”