Editors don’t necessarily care about making money for the company

You know what’s really nice? Having an agent: I had a question about some publishing stuff, so I emailed him. That was very enjoyable. It was also fun not having an agent, don’t get me wrong. You know like in movies where the woman’s all like, “I need to learn how to be single”? That happened to me. I needed to learn who I was without an agent. Turns out, I’m totally fine. I can write short stories and poetry and essay and blog posts and cynical self-published self-help guides and never sell another novel again, and I would really be okay with that. So that was great to hear. But it’s still nice to have an agent again.

I haven’t been the world’s most productive human. I’ve been looking at the Cynical Guide for the past few days, trying to make sure that I stand behind every statement I make. I don’t think that, taken as a whole, it’s particularly incendiary, but I know that in the world of hot takes, someone could easily take a paragraph out of context and start a pile on. That’s something I’m willing to risk, but I want to make sure I’m being totally fair. I think with all the criticism We Are Totally Normal has taken, the single most helpful thing is that I stand by every decision I made, and you know why that is? Because I went through it and was like, “Is there any place where I’m trying to get away with something?” And in those places, I toned it done and changed it. I’m done trying to be provocative on purpose. I think my blog readers know that’s not my metier. What I’m about is saying the thing everybody knows but nobody says!

With regards to the cynical guide, probably even more important than the book itself is the promotional copy. That’s another thing I’ve got to do. Oh, but I do have a cover! It’s beautiful! Will have to show you sometime soon.

I’ve decided it’d be nice to spice up this blog with extracts of the cynical guide, just so people can get a taste of it. This is from a section early on when I discuss the incentive structure that underlies being an editor:

Although the book business has a reputation for being intensely bottom-line focused, the truth is that it’s not. As I mentioned, books take too long to come out, and people change jobs too quickly. As a result, a person’s job performance becomes largely a matter of perceptions. Within a corporate environment, the most successful workers are those who create narratives around themselves.

So for instance, let’s say you have two editors: Cynthia and Julie. Both spend half a million dollars acquiring ten books each. And at the end of four years, Cynthia’s ten books have collectively made $600,000 while Julie’s books have collectively made $400,000. In this example, Julie has lost money for the company, while Cynthia has made money.

But let’s say that Cynthia’s ten books all performed equally well: they all made $60,000 each. But out of Julie’s ten books, nine made $20,000 (totaling $180,000), while the tenth was a breakout success and made $220,000.

Now which of them will get a promotion? The answer seems obvious, but it could actually go either way. It’s all about how Cynthia and Julie frame their success. 

Cynthia could say, “My books made money. We can just keep buying books from these ten authors and hopefully keep making money.” 

But Julie can say, “We don’t need to buy second books from any of the nine duds, whereas my tenth person, the hit, is someone who’ll give us book after book. All else equal, it’s much better to make our money from one book than from ten books, because one book takes up less editor time, less time from the type-setters, costs less to print and to distribute. So really I’ve made the company more money in the long run.”

Now which of these two is correct? It’s impossible to know! Maybe Julie is right. Maybe that hit-maker is the next James Patterson, who has for the last twenty years almost single-handedly spelled the difference between profit and loss for Hachette, the world’s fourth-largest publisher.

Or maybe that tenth author had a lucky breakout, and their subsequent books won’t perform as well. Even more insidiously, maybe what looks like a breakout success wasn’t actually a breakout. Maybe Julie used all her marketing muscle on that one title and so generated immense sales for that one book—losing $100,000 on her overall list in the process—while Cynthia, by distributing her marketing muscle more equally, made small profits on each book, which added up to that $100,000 profit.

It’s an inherently ambiguous situation. But when it comes to the promotion sweepstakes, Julie has one advantage: people have heard of her book!

When a book is a hit, it attracts attention. People talk about it. They gossip. They say, “Julie had an author who hit the list” (the New York Times bestseller list). They say, “Julie’s author was featured on NPR.” They say, “The publisher is wondering when Julie’s author is going to deliver her next book!”

But Cynthia’s many small books do not generate buzz. They just toodle along in modest obscurity. As a result, Cynthia starts off at a disadvantage, because she has to explain to everybody that she is a success. She needs to walk around with charts and figures and be like, well, if you factor in such-and-such, then really I’ve made us some money.

Julie doesn’t need to do that. She doesn’t need to do anything. The aura of success is already clinging to her. She just needs to avoid dispelling it.

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