Art + Commerce = Better Art

We’re deconstructing the invisible work behind media headlines like UNKNOWN WRITER GETS A MILLION DOLLARS.

Specifically the work that Tina Bennett, as just a new pup in the book world trying to earn her keep as an agent at the Janklow & Nesbit Literary Agency in 1996, did before she negotiated a seven-figure guaranteed advance for Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point.

This was a book Gladwell hadn’t yet written. Nor had he completely figured out how it would be structured or even what it was really all about. And he’d never even written a book before. Left to his own devices, he could still be pondering what to do. Think about how many books you have stuck in your head that you just can’t seem to “crack.”

Someone had to purposefully direct Gladwell.

Someone had to tell him what book publisher’s would expect of him.

Someone had to tell him how to convince extremely skeptical and experienced people that he’d deliver a bestseller.

We’ve already explored Gladwell’s decade plus professional journey incubating the idea and of how he masterfully first presented his findings in his June 3, 1996 four thousand word piece in The New Yorker.

What we’re looking at now is the business behind how an agent can help a writer discover and tap fresh reserves underneath a seemingly tapped out idea. By focusing on the realities of book publishing—how to best present potential work to the banks that fund creativity (the Big Five publishing conglomerates in New York)—a creative literary agent sharpens the writer’s bits so that he can drill even deeper to find the magma beneath the crust of his Big Idea. Through such collaboration does a writer discover the mother lode underneath his seemingly dry well.

I am not surprised in the least that Tina Bennett also represents Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit and Unbroken) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) a slew of other talents. And that when she left Janklow & Nesbit to join William Morris Endeavor, it was front page industry news.

The fact that she is a star agent is not a coincidence. It’s the end result of hard work.

Her clients will be the first ones to tell you—not that anyone asks—that they owe Tina far more than what they pay her.

A friend of mine who is a big bestselling writer said this about his agent—“if it weren’t for her, I’d be living under an overpass on I-95.”

An exaggeration? Of course it is.

But would he not have to worry about making his mortgage payment without his agent? Or worry that he’d not sucked the life out of every idea he decided to explore in his work?

Without his agent he would not be who he is today—a guy purely focused on beating Resistance…and winning more battles than losing. What more can the artist ask for?

Together a hard working writer with a unique vision plus an editorially driven agent with a comprehensive understanding of the marketplace equals magic. The end result of that magic can end up as a seven-figure guarantee from Mongo Publishing Worldwide or a self-published underground cult classic must-read for an itty bitty niche audience. Both are goosebump inducing.

So how does Art + Commerce = Even Better Art?

This is the question we’re wrestling with now and the best place to begin answering it is to understand the commercial arena. God knows we have somewhat of a handle on the vagaries of the artistic arena—all that Story Grid stuff plus the metaphysical battle detailed in The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do The Work.  First and foremost, Literary Agents (the sellers) need to know how editors at the big publishing houses (the buyers) think.

When you want a group of people to buy something from you, you want to solve a specific problem for them, right?

So you need to know what your potential buyers’ problems are and how they think about/solve them.

So a good literary agent will want to know what problems editors have and how they deal with them before she starts pitching.

The very first problem big book editors must deal with is the dilemma of submissions.

First off, how do editors think about submissions? How do they “sort” them in terms of priority?

Wait a minute. Why exactly is it necessary to sort submissions? Just read them in the order they are received. Doesn’t everyone deserve a “fair” read?

No. They don’t.

Most of the material that comes to an editor is absolute crap…written by amateurs with no understanding of the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.

Sorry but that’s just true.

And here’s the worst part…these lousy projects are agented.

That’s right, most agents are amateurs too who have no understanding of the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.

You wanna know something even worse than the fact that most agents don’t know the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story?

There are a substantial number of editors…the choosers/gatekeepers whatever you want to call them…who don’t know the fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.

Guess what too?

This stew of literary amateurs and literary pros is the way the book publishing bouillabaisse has always simmered…and the way it always will be.

[I’d bet that the same can be said for any industry…banking, real estate, construction, design, academia, fishing, plumbing, you name it. Ever see Broadcast News? Some people rely on craft (the Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter characters), some rely on vacuous but “sincere” Bullshit (the William Hurt character).]

Within the Big Five publishing operations, there are Story craftsmen and there are, let’s say, charismatic and verbally facile enthusiasts of Story. The thing is, though, that an enthusiast is just as likely to sponsor a hit book as a craftsman… Some would argue more likely.

So what can a poor agent do knowing this reality?

Easy answer.

Forget about it.

Like any other thing in life, book publishing is a mulligatawny of absurdity. You will never be able to control it and things are going to knock you down you don’t even see coming. But other things will push you back up too. The longer you are in the game, the more you understand that principle. So you just stop fretting and get on with it.

You do the work…the real work…the Story work. And hold on tight to it. It’s hard sledding, but so is anything else worthwhile. And when the climate shifts and you can’t see a foot in front of you, the work will ground you. It will give you the GPS coordinates and the courage to keep pressing forward.

When you find yourself confounded…Huh…wonder why I couldn’t sell that? You head to the work to puzzle it out for the next time…the Story is where you’ll find the answer, not anywhere inside “because I suck.

And to compliment the dedication to craft, learn why the Big Five editorial Story grinders and Story poseurs behave the way they do. Have empathy for the poor bastards. It’s a tough job. It can be mean too.

The thing is that both kinds of editor—the craftsman and the enthusiast—behave in exactly the same way during the acquisition process.

We’ll get into that next.

21 comments on “Art + Commerce = Better Art

  1. mulligatawny of absurdity

    Phrase for the day, that.

    Fascinating that both elements in publishing find some success but then, what I see on TV and hear on the radio makes it obvious, in retrospect. Looking forward to the next episode.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    (I’m hoping that the third time is the proverbial charm – I’ve tried to post this comment twice this morning but for some reason it did not go through either time.)

    Even though I read these posts with my morning coffee, I come away from them feeling as though I just attended some swanky cocktail party where I sat, with other like-minded individuals, at your feet getting the inside dope on the publishing industry. This is really big fun! As always, thanks Shawn!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Mary,
      So sorry about the weird snafu with the site. For some reason, your comments were going to spam. Ugh!

      1. Mary Doyle says:

        Glad it’s fixed Shawn – thanks!

  3. Oh, I agree with Joel! And I was thinking the whole mulligatawny paragraph is a perfect description of life in general… Brilliant!

  4. I think this is your best “industry insider” chapter yet.

    It seems my best route to being a Story Jedi is to practice what you are teaching.

    But as one hunts for an agent, how can one make sure she has the chops to guide the process as you describe it?

  5. Patrick Maher says:

    Thanks Shawn. Thought stimulating stuff. It does sound as if there is a binary switch, a good-bad switch, a wonderful-crap switch that an astute agent has and I think of the number of rejections by such agents and publishers of writers such as JK Rowling and a slew of others. It also infers that writers come to the craft fully blooded and fully formed and fully competent if their readiness can be detected by such a binary switch.
    Most writers know that it is in the writing that the writing muscles get exercised and somewhere in that arc of learning the story mitochondria suddenly start producing real story energy. The agent or publisher who turned down the ‘nearly competent’ writer may miss a hidden commercial gold mine because the writer persisted and the agent didn’t.
    Then, of course, your very point that the secret lies in the art plus the commerce means real work for an agent, but more so a publisher, to bring those writers to the culmination of their craft.
    Work, work, work…
    You could have chosen a career of wealth and prestige such as a brain surgeon or a plumber. Why did you choose this path again?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Patrick,
      Nothing better than a well told Story. The more of ’em we can create, the better. Stories change the world.
      All the best,

  6. Tina Goodman says:

    I think most pros start out as amateurs.

  7. Justin Fike says:

    Another great post in a great series.
    I’m curious Shawn whether you think there might be a place for a new kind of author/agent relationship within indie publishing? The prevailing wisdom says “no”, unless the indie publisher is considering a traditional publishing approach for a project, but you’ve helped me see the agent’s role in much broader terms than just negotiating contracts and rights management.
    The kind of editorial, 30,000 foot perspective on an author’s work and career over the long haul that you’ve described seems like it would be even more valuable within the wide-open expanse of indie publishing options. Thoughts?

    1. Don’t know that I’d call that an agent, necessarily, but one thing I do informally is help indie authors make better business and writing decisions. I’d love to make a living at it, especially if I could work with an author over a longer period than a single book, but you can imagine the rivers of wealth not flowing from the coffers of the average writer.

      1. Justin Fike says:

        Indeed :).
        It seems that whatever such a relationship would ultimately look like it would have to operate on a different footing than the current author/agent model. I will say that as a new author preparing to dive into the uncertain waters of the indie pub ocean I would strongly consider passing along the traditional 10-15% to someone who could demonstrate capacity for boosting sales among various channels, arranging reviews and blurbs, advising on best practices for advertising and setting up public presence, refining my book’s blurb, front matter, and cover to better fit into its categories on Amazon, etc.
        In other words a similar function to a traditional agent (strategic, macro-business expertise and a more established network of relational access to distribution channels and opinion makers), but tuned to the different mix of needs and realities of indie pub. Like you Joel I offer editorial and marketing services currently, so this is intriguing food for thought.

        1. Profit-sharing on a small scale is a losing proposition which is why I’m not doing more of it. Selling books is monumentally hard right now.

          Short version of my math: average book sells 500 copies in its lifetime. At $5 profit each for an indie author (I’m being generous) the total lifetime profit of a book will be $2,500.

          Who’s gonna do all the work involved for even a generous 20%, $500? I’d need 52 clients a year just to stay afloat, and I’d have to ensure that they’d all sell their lifetime 500 in the first year.

          And, of course, the instant someone starts “helping” with marketing, the average author goes back into their cave to write.

          It’s been a long and difficult research project for me. Every survey I send out, the overwhelming “what authors need” is “someone to do my marketing for me.” Not, “Help with my marketing” or “teach me marketing” but just, do it.

          And they’re willing to pay as much as $20/month for that help.

          I’ve decided, until my epiphany somewhere down the road, that marketing my own books is a quicker road to making a bit of cash in the publishing industry.

          But I’m wildly interested in having my mind changed.

          Are you a member of the StoryGrid forum? This kind of conversation gets loads of attention and input over there.

          1. Justin Fike says:

            Indeed I am. My wheels are still turning on this, so I’ll migrate this topic to a thread over there after work today.

          2. Shawn Coyne says:

            Justin and Joel,
            Let me think a little about this. I’ll tell you this though. Even making an attractive living as an agent has costs. Because no matter how much you contribute to the operation, you’re still not the person putting it out there. And as being a great agent requires the skill set to understand exactly what your clients want and doing your best to give them that (plus adding craft underneath to solve the problems they can’t see themselves) you’ll discover that all of the work that you’re doing for others is work you should really be doing for yourself. And facing that conundrum sooner rather than later is best. I think you’re doing the right thing Joel. Your writing comes first and if you can lend a hand to a fellow blue collar writer, you’ll be happy to do it for a reasonable fee. And $20 a month ain’t even close to reasonable.

          3. Hi Joel. My suggestion: Start a paid membership site on storycraft and marketing for indie authors.

            They pony up to on a per month basis to be part of it. You set up groups for peer to peer topical help, or facilitated by yourself. You do members-only webinars. Maybe you write articles.

            And if they want one-on-one coaching you charge a reasonable fee, rather than profit sharing.

          4. BTDT* and I just don’t have the reach to make it worthwhile. Maxed out at about a dozen members. Someday when I have 1,000 fans, it’ll be worth starting up again.

            * been there, done that

          5. I’d go with the advice of the good folks at and their “Teaching Sells” course. Start small with a “Minimum Viable Product,” and build patiently.

            I would say that because of your presence here in Shawn’s blog and the forums you actually have a MUCH larger reach than before. Everyone who comes here knows you now.

          6. I find myself think you may have a point there, sir. Will ponder that, I will.

  8. Tony Levelle says:

    Compelling reading. Pretty sure the megabuck advance world is nowhere in my future, but the inside baseball is wonderful. Thanks again

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