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Random is a state of mind

One of the things I’ve always loved about publishing (and which makes saner people twitch with frustration) is how random and illogical many of its systems and processes are.    For a small industry with outsize influence relative to its size, its day-to-day operations feature a lot of crazy shenanigans.  Exhibit A:  This delightful  excerpt from Dan Menaker’s memoir which John referenced earlier this week.

Instead of on sober reasoning and well calibrated risks, a lot of decisions in our business are based on emotional reactions (“I fell in love with the gorgeous prose.”  “The story hit me like a punch in the gut.”  “I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down.”) that a moody, infatuated teenager might find over-the-top, and a measure of wishful thinking that might land normal people in a mental ward (“Let’s give the author of this partial manuscript on goat herding in Tibet a $4,000,000 advance.  We’ll surely recoup most of it in foreign sales—you know how the Brits are about goat herding.”)

As much as we try to be logical and measured, however, the nature of this particular beast is that it is quixotic, mercurial, and hard to pin down using standard measuring tools and equipment.  Just when you think something can’t and shouldn’t possibly, ever, ever, work, it’s a huge bestseller and you and your team look like geniuses for having the foresight to pluck it out of the precariously high piles on your desk, floor,  whatever.  And, just when you think you’ve found the next 50 Shades of Da Vinci Codes, you end up looking at Bookscan numbers in the low four digits.

And, it is precisely that unpredictability, that randomness, that makes what we do so often exciting and rewarding.  It’s gambling, sure, but gambling dressed up in a tux and sipping a martini at a vingt-et-un table in Monte Carlo.  It’s crazy and fun and miserable and painful, but never dull and you have to want to be in the game (as a publisher, agent, author, market  and rights person, etc.) even when it doesn’t go your way.

What say you guys?  Is the randomness fun or is it more anxiety producing and maddening than it’s worth?

8 Responses to Random is a state of mind

  1. Anonymous says:

    I’d rather live an adventure, reaching far past my finger tips, than live in a safety net of predictability.

    For me, anxiety comes when I fix my eyes on a certain outcome, rather than the work at hand. Writing is a joy! Editing is painful, but when the creative mess starts to come together, it’s like nothing else. That feeling of, I pulled it off – I can’t believe I pulled it off. Maybe I can do it again.

    Of course, I’m still in the editing trenches trying to pull it off. Ha!

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I’ve been operating for some time on the scientifically proven (at least from my monitering station) premise that there is no logic, calculus, or rational linkage involved at any step of the way in the book business, at least on the acquisition side. It is, as so many robojections note, a subjective business, and you could cherrypick any title off the bestseller lists and find a dozen excuses not to sign it. You could also find about twice that many editors and agents who passed on the project for a variety of whim-driven reasons, almost none of which involve talent. So, keeping money in mind as opposed to some Arthurian Grail of “literary merit”, here’s how I would catagorize the in-pile if I was unfortunate enough to be in Dan Menaker’s shoes: Pile A: No-brainers; sure sellers like Stephen King that should speak for themselves, or obvious envelope-shredders like the Hunger Games that any reasonably conscious entity should see coming from a mile off. (But you’d be surprised how many don’t) Pile B: Black Swans: The Book Thief and (much though I’m skeptical how many actual kids are buying and reading the damn thing) Fault In Our Stars which are a bit harder to predict and more of a gamble. The stuff like the Tibetan goat-herding book and the epic poetry about suffering agender vegans in wheelchairs mostly comes from agents and editors who have so successfully gamed the system they don’t have to even think about the money end and can concentrate on the really important details, like what the Tribeca cocktail circuit is going to think. Why doesn’t Woody Allen make a movie about these people?

  3. Suzie Byrd says:

    Random is good. There are no coincidences. You’ve got to get into the flow of energy that is swirling around in the universe with the great ideas and the next book that needs to be written. I wrote one of those books. It’s timely, relevant and contemporary. It is going to happen, sooner or later, one way or another. No anxiety here. I have faith in, “Game On”, because it was a nice adventure and the energy around it is…awesome. Being in the game is always to be relished, the outcome will take care of itself.

  4. Miriam says:

    Nicely put, Suzie and Anonymous. I’m reading THE FAULT IN OUR STARS NOW, Kevin, and it’s exactly the kind of randomness that makes me grateful to have wandered into this business a while ago now.

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      Well, it’s true, randomness is fun, up to a point. But while I’m standing at the roulette wheel I’d at least like to have enough rational stability on the part of the casino operators not to suddenly find myself staring at the rings of Saturn once I step outside for double-iced mocha. And FAULT IN OUR STARS was a rational gamble on someone’s part; not the sort of thing you see everyday and all..

    • Kevin A. Lewis says:

      By the way, thanks for the heads-up on this all-too-easily-missed book; (which confirms a lot of what my spy satellites have been reporting) inside accounts about this business are as rare as postcards from Oz, y’know…

  5. Patrick says:

    We’ve all read the hot title, or new work by a bestselling author, and found ourselves asking what all the fuss is about. The good part of the randomness of the industry is it represents intelligent people making intelligent choices. The bad part of it is that there are thousands of variables that make the difference between the best seller list and the clearance rack, and the industry controls only a few of them. The industry would do itself well to focus on quality rather than trying to focus on trying to predict what will sell.

  6. D. C. daCosta says:

    It seems to me that bookselling/publishing is no more random than any other business in which something is sold.

    There are great concepts that are well-executed that fail anyway, and there are stupid concepts shoddily done that make money hand over fist. Literature is a commodity just like pork bellies, and if you can’t present it as “the other white meat”…you may be out of luck.

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