Stalking Horses

It’s a little after ten a.m. on Tuesday September 3, 1996, the day after Labor Day when book publishing gets back to work.  A call comes in to the editor-in-chief of Little, Brown…Bill Phillips.

“He’s unable to take come to the phone at the moment, but he will return the call at his earliest convenience. Can I take a message?”

“Could you tell him that Tina Bennett at Janklow & Nesbit is calling about a book based on Malcolm Gladwell’s piece The Tipping Point in the June 6th edition of The New Yorker?”

“Sure. Does he have your direct line?”

[Remember that I am just riffing here, taking wild liberties with the narrative of how The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell came to be. All of the characters in this story and their actions, including Malcolm Gladwell, Tina Bennett, Lynn Nesbit, Mort Janklow, and Bill Phillips etc. are approximations/creations based on my quarter century inside the book publishing business. With biographical stuff anyone could find on the Internet about him or her used as added descriptive frosting.

I’ve had extremely limited contact with the real life versions of the dramatis personae.

I’ve had lunch and friendly phone calls in the past with Tina Bennett, edited work by a client of Lynn Nesbit’s, and met Mort Janklow and Bill Phillips at cocktail parties for PEN or Poets & Writers or some other literary function a decade or more ago that I can’t remember with any telling accuracy. I imbibed large quantities of spirits in those days to get through such events and glad-handed a lot of limp and meaty flesh.  Like Eric Stratton in Animal House, I’d look ‘em straight in the eye and introduce myself…Shawn Coyne, damn glad to meet you.

I suspect they’d remember me as well as I do them…indiscriminately, through a haze of Popov Vodka poured out of Stolichnaya bottles with a splash of tonic and a desiccated slice of lime on top. It wasn’t so bad really…pretending to fit in with cafe society…even with my excessively gelled hair casually staining the company-rented tux from Baldwin Formals and the costs thereof I’d had to personally absorb to clean them.  Glamorous even.

I do have friends in common with Malcolm Gladwell. But I have never had a conversation with him.

What’s kind of a fun fact, though, is that I’ve been told that he currently lives in an apartment that my wife and I used to live in… If you’re reading this Malcolm, if you find a tie clasp with the inscription deus ex machina in one of the cracks in the floorboard, could you give it to Josh or Brooke the next time you see them?

In no way am I telling this story to represent “facts.”

I’m telling this story to show how “ideally” the process works…from mine own private point of view and experience. This is how I’ve learned to approach publishing and how I suspect others do too. The pros. Not the amateurs.

They just never have the time to codify what they’ve learned through painful trial and error like I have. As Walker Percy once wrote, “The wounded man has a better view of the battle than those still shooting.”

It’s just more interesting for me to imagine what happened than to hear and report the fact of it…which would be some version of this… I met with Gladwell and we hit it off, we worked on a proposal, I called a bunch of people, they loved it, it went for a nice sum of money, Gladwell delivered a great book, the publisher did a great job positioning and marketing it, it became a bestseller. That may be the progression of events, but it sure doesn’t explain anything about the work that had to happen behind it.

I’m writing about HOW all of that stuff may have happened in order to SHOW you how writers, agents, and editors approach their work. I’m trying to answer that question we all want answered What do these people actually “DO” day to day? How do they make choices about who to anoint as the next big thing and who to ignore?

By narrating what I believe could have been the process that took Gladwell from an ambitious and wonky son of an academic and therapist/writer in a small town in Canada to a brand name writer, along with the indispensable contributions of his agent and editor, my goal is to pull the curtain back and give writers a glimpse of how great work can rise to the top of a very murky and often absurd industry.

Writers and agents and editors inside and outside big publishing are great at bitching and moaning about how the business makes no sense and how great work is passed over etc. What this series is about is showing that if you put aside all of that stuff, and I’ll be the first to scream about how it’s absolutely true in many/most instances, and focus on the work and the love of the work, it’s possible to create a book that is both extremely erudite and entertaining. You can do deep work and reach a mass audience.

The Tipping Point is a perfect example of that phenomenon. What could have been a downer medicine book (you should read it because it’s good for you) appealing to the most cynical of us (we’re all sheep incapable of thinking for ourselves), through dint of hard work and passion, became an immensely enjoyable experience.

We need more books like The Tipping Point and that’s why I’m writing all of this inside baseball…to show you HOW it can happen. How art and commerce can come together and make a project far better than it would have been otherwise.

Whether The Tipping Point came to be like the way I’m writing the Story of it isn’t the point. The point is to show you how through dint of fun/hard thinking on both sides of the equation (appealing to the widest possible audience—commerce—while remaining steadfast in elucidating a compelling theory—art) great works can come to life.]

As Mort Janklow suggested, Tina Bennett made Bill Phillips her first call.


To be her stalking horse.

Let me explain.

She knows that Phillips is already interested in Gladwell…he called Gladwell out of the blue to tell him so shortly after The Tipping Point was published in The New Yorker… So by sending the proposal for The Tipping Point book to Phillips first, Bennett knows that Phillips will “get it.”  He’ll read the proposal quickly. Probably overnight.

She also knows that the proposal is fantastic. She and Gladwell have been working on it since June and her pitch is razor sharp. She’s planning for the best-case scenario, which is always a good idea.  The worst case for an agent is that everyone hates your project…they all pass…you don’t really have to plan anything to get that information. So don’t.

The best case is this…

Phillips reads the proposal overnight, loves it and calls Bennett first thing Wednesday morning to tell her he’s interested.

His goal will be to buy some time to put together an offer of some kind (one that he hopes will take the project “off the table” meaning one that Bennett and Gladwell will accept without entertaining offers from anyone else) by asking to have a conversation with Gladwell to talk about the “vision” for the book.

The time that it will take for Bennett to set up that call will allow Phillips to put in a request for a projected Profit/Loss report from the accounting department. He’ll base the request on his gut instincts about how many units The Tipping Point will sell in its first year (frontlist) and five year thereafter (backlist). Bennett has already helped him out with this in her pitch call with her sales hook memetics… “If Napoleon Hill, David Ogilvy and Richard Feynman were locked in a bunker together for a month, they’d come out with the The Tipping Point.”

If all goes according the plan, Phillips will have the P/L in hand and approved by his publisher—who he will have urged to read the proposal too during lunch—by 5:00 p.m. or so Wednesday. He can then make a compelling pre-emptive offer to Bennett just before she heads home, which will give her the evening to talk with Gladwell about accepting it.

That’s the best case scenario for the project.

Great…but how does that make Phillips a stalking horse for Bennett?

For that matter, what’s a stalking horse?

It’s a term that came from big game hunters. What they noticed is that their prey would run away at the first site of a human being. But if the hunter hides behind his horse he’ll be able to come upon an unsuspecting elk and make the kill. The prey feels comfortable in the presence of another four legged animal, the horse, so it doesn’t run away. So hunters stalk prey behind their horses until the moment when they can take the best single killshot.

Here’s a scene from one of my all time favorite movies Jeremiah Johnson to show how it’s done.

So how can an editor be a stalking horse?

When an agent has interest from an editor, that information (given in follow up calls by the agent after an editor expresses said interest) will attracts the attention of other editors.  Those editors then lose suspicion of the project because it has now been sniffed and approved by a fellow member of their editorial tribe.  The agent now just passes along information…no more pitching necessary.

Stalking horses in book publishing are even better than they are in hunting.  Because with great material the agent never has to shoot.

10 comments on “Stalking Horses

  1. Alec Graf says:

    “She and Gladwell have been working on [the pitch] since June” — three months for a _pitch_. Meanwhile, all over Amazon, cottage sausage industries crank out three books a year….

    Fantastic stuff as always, Shawn. Thank you so much for this. Especially liked the lengthy disclaimer: how it was (history) can often be less revealing than how it might have been (story).

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    Like Alec, I appreciate the lengthy disclaimer, but you’ve been upfront about that all along. You’ve more than got the credibility to give us this “how-it-might-have-happened” rendition of bringing a great book to market. Keep it coming – as always, thanks!

  3. What Alec and Mary said, plus I’m stealing sniffed and approved for widespread use in every possible opportunity.

    And thanks for explaining “stalking horse” so I didn’t have to look it up. I don’t learn many new words or phrases these days.

  4. Talmage says:

    Thanks for this, and also thank you for your podcast interview! (It’s here, if anyone reading this hasn’t heard it: ).

    I would go to itunes and give your podcast a rave review (as the interviewer suggested), but I don’t know how that’s done. Last time I downloaded itunes (to a PC) it messed up my computer’s audio for the life of that system. Spent hours trying to get rid of the static but couldn’t.

    But that’s irrelevant now, I bet.

    At any rate, I really like your ideas (in the podcast) about having a heart-felt purpose when writing a story. I still hear people saying that writers should shun “messages.” To me, my message is my muse. Without it, I’m unmotivated. Kind of the opposite of stomach pain.

    1. Alec Graf says:

      Thanks very much for the heads-up on that podcast.

      By the way, Talmage, (totally off topic, but there’s no other way that I can see on your website to let you know of this), the MailChimp subscription service doesn’t seem to be working on your site — at least not for me…. I was looking forward to downloading your fiction writing ebook. 🙂

      If it requires a manual fix and you’re up for that, I’d be pleased if you added me in . Also, I’m enjoying Hapa Girl DNA! Thanks!

      Back to our regularly scheduled broadcast — so sorry for the piccolo hijacking, Shawn….

      1. Alec Graf says:

        hmmm…. I’m trying again on that email address…. I just learned you can’t use those little sideways carrot things to enclose stuff here, otherwise you end up with charming red type. Interesting…. Oh, yeah, right, email address: a dot graf at alecgraf dot com

        1. Talmage says:

          Alec, thanks for the email you sent me clarifying the outcome. Hope you got my tangential response.

        2. Talmage says:

          Alec, thanks for the email you sent me clarifying the outcome. Hope you got my tangential response. (I’m having trouble posting this message, by the way.)

    2. I listened to the podcast this afternoon and loved it. Yippee! There are more wonderful Shawn “goodies” to look forward to!

  5. augustina says:

    Thanks for continuing your story!

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