Interesting Times and the nature of business

There’s a reason “may you live in interesting times” is a curse and not a blessing. We humans like a certain amount of stability – we like to know that if you put something in you’ll always get something out. And no, I didn’t mean that, even though it does apply.

What I mean is we like to force what we do into predictable patterns, recipes or rules if you will, so that if we put a little bag of dried leaves into freshly boiled water we’ll get a half-way decent cup of tea a minute or so later (but to make a proper cuppa you need loose leaves, not tea bags, and a tea pot, and you have to warm it first, and… Western tea rituals can happen later). We know we won’t get an angry koala unless we manage to step on it or tip the cup and spill the tea on the koala (the koala tea of Mercy is not strained, you know. It has everything in it).

And that’s why publishing is dying. Not because it’s a bad cup of tea as it were, but because the silly buggers in charge forgot that there are places and times where you have to accept that what you get isn’t going to be predictable except in a general long-term trend sense (and maybe not even then). Maybe they forgot because they were too busy imbibing their own ink. Maybe it was the accountants who – to their shame – ignored the larger reality in favor of petty bean-counting. Maybe the infestation of MBAs (which I used to think meant “Mastered Bugger All” but now realize I was far, far too generous) who’d been way too deep into the ink of “You don’t need to know what you’re managing, you just need to know how to manage”.

Regardless, the whole shambles lost sight of what the publishing business was supposed to be sometime back in the New Agey timeframe. See, a business isn’t really even about making money. It’s about doing something that other people value, preferably highly enough to give you money so you can keep doing it, otherwise you can’t keep doing it.

That slight shift of perspective matters. When you look at publishing as a matter of “heightening consciousness” or other such clap-trap (yes, I have heard editors say that), you will push anything that matches whatever you think is right and proper, overlooking its faults even if you’re trying not to be biased. Confirmation fallacy will bite you hard, there. Editors who don’t care if they’re biased will be even more inclined to push what matches their biases and anything else gets the editorial cold shoulder.

If you look at publishing as a means to make money, you’re going to go chasing endless ripoffs of the last big thing, and fall prey to blockbuster syndrome, otherwise known as “the best selling book that nobody ever bought.” That tends to fall apart in the long run, although not as spectacularly as the ideological visionary model.

On the flip side, if your goal is to make your customers happy, you’re going to be looking for a level of quality they’ll be happy with (not necessarily perfection, but good enough that any issues can be forgiven) and content – stories – that will appeal to them. Which of course means you have to know who your customers are and be willing to respect them even if what they like leaves you cold.

Yes, legacy publishing, that does mean that you keep series which give your heightened sensibilities the willies (coughGORcough). It means you publish authors whose ideology covers the entire spectrum and includes some who never found the spectrum in the first place. You take chances on the oddities. You let things build in their own time because sometimes it takes several years for the momentum to build to where an author has enough of a following that they don’t need to be promoted (this, of course, is precisely when the legacy model did all its promotion. It’s like the way the fellow whose introduction starts “Our next guest needs no introduction” has the introduction go on for the next hour while everyone who can’t escape for a bio-break slowly falls comatose because they know exactly who this is. Seriously, it would be like a convention chair spending 2/3 of the opening ceremony talking about Terry Pratchett when all the audience wants is for him to shut up and let Pterry do his thing).

This goes for any business – make your customers happy and they’ll stay customers. Treat them like something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe, and they’ll return the favor.

For us, especially those of us who work in indie publishing, this means things like you do not get into arguments with reviewers. If they accidentally misstate facts, it’s reasonable to politely note that there seems to have been a misunderstanding, and this is the actual fact. Then drop the topic. There’s a saying to the effect that arguing with an ass annoys the ass and makes you look bad. Remember this when it comes to dealing with the twits who give one star reviews because your publisher didn’t make the book available in the format they prefer. Or because they didn’t like the price. Don’t argue with asses. It makes you look bad. Ignore them, smile sweetly, and go about your business.

When you deal with fans, politeness goes a long way – but do try to keep your private life private. I’ve been on both sides of the fan/author fence, and it’s way easy for us as fans to want to know everything about our favorite authors, but that is called “stalking” for good and sufficient reason. My method is to be “on duty” whenever I’m outside my room at a convention. Inside that hotel room, I’m not “the author” any more, I’m just Kate and I can bitch and whine as much as I like. Outside, I have to be the public face and just a little bit larger than life because I suck royally at self-promotion so I operate on the principle of being an interesting person to talk to in the hope I’ll catch a few that way. So far it’s worked.

We authors are in business, and our product is as much our public face as it is our books. Both need to be sufficiently pleasing to our readers that they’ll want to keep buying our books.

Oh, and the thing about interesting times is that they’re all interesting. And times are always unstable. If you see that as a threat events will ultimately crush you. Looking at the interesting and unstable nature of life as a series of opportunities gives you a chance to ride the waves.

And that is your bag of hopelessly mangled metaphors for the day.

7 comments

  1. I think we’ve reached an intersection of fast changing tech and crap economy that rewards the nimble footed. Individuals and businesses alike.

    Of course we’re also in the middle of PC run rampant and the entirely predictable white male backlash. A quarter of a generation of college graduates who didn’t seem to realize that _what_ they studied would more important than having _a_ diploma when they started applying for jobs. Oh, yes, and we’re teetering on the brink of a war that might not stay small.

    Nimbleness. Both to pursue, and duck.

  2. I guess I’ll have to do the mystique… it helps that I don’t get out much because of the disease. I never wanted to be a hermit– but sometimes things happen.

    1. Hey, the blogger known as the Anchoress went from being a shy, retiring quasi-anchorite to running the Catholic section at Patheos and getting trips to Rome, plus publishing two books. Worked for her. 🙂

      I have a professional persona and a private one. When I’m in the classroom or giving a lecture, I’m going to be a lot more restrained, formal, and careful with my words. That also goes for Cons, because it helps discourage the, hmmm, overly eager. Behind the hotel door (or in the hotel gym) or at home, different story, although I still tend to be reserved. In the gym, if you distract me while I’m lifting, no offense, but I will bite your head off. That’s a safety issue, not a social one. Catch me on the treadmill’s a little different, but do NOT interrupt me during a lift.

      1. I don’t lift much anymore– but I do understand about lifting or anything that requires concentration. 🙂 I am better at personas now. When I was much much younger, I either showed everything or blanked my face. And I was an extreme introvert. I had an old childhood schoolfriend call me timid. It just shows she didn’t know the difference between shyness and timidness.

        1. I’m both shy and about as introverted as it’s possible to be, so I’m with you there. Building personas takes time and energy, and maintaining them takes energy. Part of why I”m always exhausted after a con – but it’s a GOOD exhausted.

          Of course, between the persona and the friends I see once a year at best, I’ll talk more over the three days of a typical con than I normally would in a MONTH…

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