You asked for it! I am a writer on a new journey. Stuck in the workaday world for money most of my life, I was recently given the gift/nightmare of being laid off just before my 52nd birthday. My serious attempts to get hired during the past two months are quickly confirming that myth we hear about the impossibility of getting hired after 50. I am facing the reality that, likely, I have a year ahead of me of collecting unemployment checks and not working, simply because that’s what has fallen into my lap.
Of course, I struggle with writer’s procrastination and fears about losing inspiration, not finishing, getting a job, not getting a job, husband turning on me for being a freeloader, dying alone under a bridge on a 10-degree night with a cheap bottle of vodka — need I go on. But perhaps those are other letters for other days. Today: a more practical question.
I started work on a book inspired by a rescue puppy we adopted last year. I see it as a gift or children’s book. I have in the past proposed books to publishers so I know how much work that is. I did propose two ideas to a number of mid-size publishers 10 years ago (when I was also laid off and set free) and got positive responses — one got as far as the review committee, even. Then I was told in the end, by all of them (an interested agent, too), “This book would only sell if you were famous.” Think Monica Lewinsky or Wayne Dyer. And I’m not.
Since I am a nonfiction writer, this was completely discouraging. (The book ideas were of the self-/life-improvement variety.) One editor even said she really likes my writing, and do I have any other ideas? I tried, but nothing good enough came of it. I eventually got a job and stopped trying to get published, as it seemed impossible without a national name. Not to mention that the workaday world sucks the life out of most creative endeavors.
Now I am free! And broke! But free. And I want your advice on publishing this gift/children’s book. I love the idea of self-publishing and keeping all the profits, but nothing would be more depressing to me than boxes of bound, self-published books that I can’t sell, sitting in my basement forevermore. I am no salesperson, and certainly no book distributor. So I think the dream is to get a mid-size publisher to do this, despite that they take 90 percent of the profits. Also kind of depressing, but having their buy-in and monetary input is worth a lot. And the rest of the dream is that they might publish more of my work, once they got started.
What’s your take on this question? How have you made these choices? And, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you transition to your writing life without ending up homeless?
A Longtime Fan
Dear Longtime Fan,
Recently I paid around $400 to spend three days hanging around the Best Western Inn in Corte Madera, Calif., watching people do this mysterious thing called the book pitch. A book pitch is a quick summation of your book idea that makes it sound interesting. I drove up there every day and ate at the Max’s diner and watched. I had a pitch of my own but in the end I was too scared to go up there and deliver it. I just watched, with stark admiration for the courage involved. Some participants pitched well, some poorly, but all were instructive.
The little I have learned in that area causes me to wonder, in the case of your story about the dog, What is your pitch? I did not really hear a pitch for your book.
You write, “I started work on a book inspired by a rescue puppy we adopted last year.”
If you said, “My experience adopting a rescue puppy last year made me vow to spend the rest of my life working to close down every rescue puppy adoption center in America,” that would sound like a pitch to me. Or if you said, “My experience adopting a rescue puppy made me rethink the practice of euthanasia,” that would sound like a pitch.
A statement filled with emotion that requires an argument to back it up is interesting to hear. Sentences like those make me want to find out what is the rest of the story. I want to find out how it ends.
So my first response is to suggest that you work on the pitch. If you are near a big city where book pitch conferences are held, then by all means avail yourself of the opportunity. Try searching Google for “book pitch conference.” It not only is interesting but the thinking involved is productive. It helps to clarify the idea.
Actually, you probably know all this from your previous work making a book proposal. I just note that you didn’t do it here in your letter to me. You should probably be doing it in all your correspondence and all your conversations about this book idea, so that it becomes better and better every time you do it.
As to the psychological obstacles to learning to pitch and sell our work, they are indeed monumental and acute. My discomfort in that first pitch session up in the Corte Madera Best Western was physical. My heart began to pound; I felt short of breath; I wanted to flee. I felt the same kind of shame and anger I used to feel as a kid who had not done his assignment.
Much more could be said and I would love to answer your question about how I ended up with a good writing job but I have only three minutes before deadline so let me just say that I believe, as regards the book business, and this goes for me as much as anyone else, that many of our wishes regarding our own creative work are essentially the wishes of children. We dream of having our work discovered, and of being whisked away into a new life. It is hard to put these dreams aside and attend to matters of business. Yet book publishing is a business. Producers of books are producers of goods who enter into contracts for payment and production of those goods.
If you are writing a book then you are going into business. If that seems too stark and depressing then just pretend you are going into business. Pretend that you are going into business as a sole proprietor of a mental-goods shop. You are going to produce mental goods and sell them to a wholesaler who will sell them to a retailer. You have to give that wholesaler what he or she is looking for and that means what retailers are selling. So look at what kind of mental goods are selling in retailers’ shops. Then craft something you think may sell and craft a pitch to sell it to a wholesaler.
Of course that’s incredibly crass. But it helps to think of it in crass terms because otherwise we’re too overawed with the cultural weight of it. Of course with books there is enormous cultural weight.
But I say it’s spinach and the hell with it. It’s just a business.