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?