I’ve lost count of how many books I’ve published (#humblebrag), which is more a testament to my advanced age than to any accomplishment. Every time I’m asked, I end up doing the math to get to six.
As a result of this track record, aspiring authors often ask me for advice on how to get published. I’m not qualified to answer this question because I’ve produced six books. I’ve written eleven books (do they still count as books if they’re on a hard drive?), of which “only” six have been published. I’ve done things the right way, and I’ve done them the wrong way. Fortunately, over the years I’ve managed to learn which is which.
I often demur when people ask me for advice. What I don’t have the heart to tell them is that it is likely their book will never be published. Frankly, that’s not always such a bad thing. To have a book be released to absolutely no public response is devastating. The question of whether you’d rather get divorced or be left at the altar might be a fun icebreaker, but it’s fairly obvious that neither option would be easy.
But though I can avoid answering the question, I can’t avoid addressing the underlying issue. I work as a celebrity ghostwriter, and the process usually goes as follows: I meet with the celebrity and his agent. Then, once I pass the sniff test, the three of us sit down together and figure out what book to write. Celebrity books are basically the blue-chip stocks of the publishing trade. Celebrities have a built-in fan base by definition and are thereby guaranteed to get a fair amount of publicity. There’s a safety net for the publishers in making an offer, as there will be some measure of sales.
While celebrities are great at what they do, they’re often less than great at what they don’t do. I’ve heard things like “I don’t want this book to have too many words” and “Why do autobiographies usually start out with when the person’s a kid?” Celebrities rarely know about publishing—why should they?—but they have their own ideas about the book they’d like to write. (“I want most of my stories to resolve in one paragraph.”)
In this, the celebrity is in the same position as the aspiring author looking to me for advice. And the advice I give the celebrity is the same advice I would have given the aspirant if only they’d come to me far sooner: Don’t write the book you want to write; write the book that you can sell.
It took me years to learn this. My first attempt at becoming an author was with a novel called Tanked. It was a lad-lit book about a guy living in Brooklyn who had an aquarium hobby. I cringe at having to think about it any further. The manuscript was all set to go out to editors until Publishers Weekly had a piece about how lad lit is dead. (Fuck you, Natalie Danford!) The New York Times ran an article shortly thereafter to make sure that everyone in publishing was aware that the new genre was a non-starter.
My agent was a well-meaning kid with a good heart. Rather than throwing in the towel, he told me—a not-so-well-meaning kid with a dubious heart—to not give up on the book. Instead, why not switch it from lad lit to chick lit? And faster than you can say, “Michael Malice chick-lit novel,” I was hard at work switching all the characters’ genders. This was not as easy as doing a replace-all to change “him” to “her.” Many plot twists had to change as well. It took me many months (I had a day job at the time), but finally the work was done.
Tanked redux was universally rejected when it went out to publishers. Boy, that sure felt great! I had put my heart and soul into the project not once but twice, and I had nothing to show for it. It would have made for a great learning experience if I had known what I was supposed to be learning. You can’t expect your agent to show you the ropes. They often don’t know the ropes themselves.
The fact of the matter is that the publishing industry, like most industries, doesn’t care about your heart and/or soul. It doesn’t matter how much you slaved over your book or how much it means to you. It takes far less time to research the market and figure out what book you can sell than it takes to actually write the book. The difference is that the former is an external process, and the latter is an internal one. It’s also the difference between a manuscript (an earnest expression of your artistic ability) and a book (a product in which a company had to invest and on which the people will spend their money).
If I’d done my homework, I would have tried to write a book about the culture and characters of the aquarium trade. Several television shows are based on the same concept. It would have been something akin to what Joshua Foer did with memory competitions in his Moonwalking with Einstein. Even if I failed to sell the book, I’d be able to write articles on the subject. Then I’d be able to discuss other subcultures and maybe write a book about one of them. I’d have a far better resume and have become an authority on an actual subject. Instead, I only have a mocked-up cover for a manuscript that I am terrified to revisit.