The Realpolitik of Book Publishing

When a Story “works,” it makes you want to keep reading it or listening to it, or watching it. And what will happen next–while completely in keeping with its initial promise (a Western, a Bildungsroman, a ghost Story around a campfire, whatever)–delights over and over again. But the kicker is that the climax will be utterly refreshing. By Story’s end, the listener or reader or watcher has to be, at the very least, surprised and satisfied by the payoff of the Story’s initial promise.

And sometimes, rarely unfortunately, the ending will bring an emotional catharsis large enough to change the way the reader/listener/viewer sees the world. Great stories convince us to change behavior. Can you remember what abolitionist John Brown’s story was?  What about Rosa Parks? Which of those Stories turned an indisputable moral and ethical human principle into just common sense respect for a fellow human being?

This from David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla on what makes a Story Work.

“They start with a simple premise and proceed logically, and inevitably, toward a conclusion both surprising and inevitable.”

Mamet, David (12/24/2008). Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business (Vintage)  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

What I always try to remember is that a Story has the exact same structure as a joke. When someone tells us a joke, the genre of joke (“knock, knock,” “a horse walks into a bar,” “take my wife”) sets us up for an expectation. When the payoff is inevitable, but surprising, “don’t cry, it’s just a knock-knock joke,” “Why the long face,” “PLEASE”)…we laugh. If the payoff fizzes, we don’t.

For now–and tomorrow and a hundred years from now for that matter–if you wish to know if you Story will “work” before you bang out a 100,000 word manuscript or revise a 100,000 word manuscript, I suggest you take someone out to dinner.

Pick someone you trust who won’t tell you what you want to hear (your new boyfriend or girlfriend) but won’t undermine you either (your frenemy from College). Order an appetizer and tell them the fifteen crucial movements from your story when their entree hits the table. Whatever it is you think those fifteen big movements are.

In Hollywood, this is called a “pitch.”

You will know if your story works if the person across the table actually pays attention. If your beginning hook doesn’t grab her, you’ll know it in a microsecond just by her expression or more likely her not wanting to make eye contact.  She’ll find the Mole sauce on top of her enchilada easier to look at than the whites of your eyes.

If your middle build doesn’t raise the tension and make her desperate to know what they hell is going to happen, you’ll know. And obviously, if your ending payoff is flat, she’ll be trying to get the waiter’s attention to get the check. Then you’ll know your story is so boring that she’d rather pay for the dinner herself than sit for one more second nodding her head, trying to look fascinated.

But if your story works, she will beg you to write it for others.

In Hollywood, that’s called “buying it in the meeting” and it’s probably the biggest legal high imaginable for a writer. To speak for twenty minutes and to walk out of a meeting with the promise of tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions, committed to putting the stuff inside your head into the global marketplace must be exhilarating. And absolutely terrifying.

But the screenwriter knows that if he delivers what he pitched, he’ll be fine. Even if the movie never gets made…

Is it possible to bring both great line by line and cathartic Story work to a project? Can there be an innovative literary novel that is also a barn burner of a read? Or a potboiler that is exquisitely written?

Such is the Holy Grail of publishing.

And of course, the answer is a resounding “YES.”

When line-by-line and global Story magic come together, our jaws drop. It’s why we pick up any book, hoping that this one will join the short list of those that have changed our lives.

Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs is such a novel. He created sixty-four pieces of a remarkable puzzle and then put them together in a way that is textbook Story form. And he did it while innovating the conventions and obligatory scenes of his chosen external and internal genres. He used the form (not a formula!) to create something original.

But back to the state of editing in today’s book publishing landscape.

Can you expect that the book you’ve written, which was good enough to attract an agent and also good enough to be acquired by a publishing house will be raised to a higher level by your new editor?

The very important thing to remember is that editors are paid by the publisher.

And as I’ve written before, the primary job of the Big Five publishing editor and/or independent publisher/editor hanging on by his financial fingernails is to concern himself with whether or not the book works commercially.

That is, will the book excite and satisfy a critical mass of readers who will fork over their hard-earned cash to experience the story?

Will the story in its present form make money?

Will they come back for the author’s next book too?

If the editor/publisher can convince himself that the answers to those questions are yes, the Big Five or independent publisher will invariably deem the manuscript ready to go.

However, if the editor at the Big Five house or independent publisher suspects that the core audience for the book may reject it based upon the fact that the critical conventions and obligatory scenes in the book (more on this later) are not surprising enough, he’ll put the writer through the editorial process. He’ll make the writer re-write the clunkers and get them to a place where he believes the Story will satisfy it’s core audience.

Today there are so many Stories vying for the validation of major publishing that Big Five editors don’t even acquire books that have clunker obligatory scenes or conventions anymore. The editor passes on them because there are enough books coming in to him that are, in his estimation, ready to go.

Why waste time fixing something when you’ve got plenty of things that already work on offer? If you worked at Little Brown, would you grind yourself to dust editing a single title? Or would you do your best to have as many working titles as possible on your list? More titles in the marketplace that “work” increase your chances of reaching your annual nut to keep your job.

If you put all of your efforts into just one or two books a year and they both “work” but don’t bring in enough money to justify your salary…guess what? You’re fired. Just like the car salesman who doesn’t move enough inventory.

Remember that the Big Five or Independent publishing editor’s first job is not to bring a story to its creative apotheosis. It’s to make the damn thing good enough to sell. And if the editor confuses that fact and spends far too much time polishing a solid piece of coal in the hope to making it a diamond, he’ll soon find himself out of a job.

Baring a huge break, editing a book until it is best in class will not increase its immediate sales (frontlist).  The Silence of the Lambs was not a blockbuster until the film adaptation.  It sold well, but not millions a year. Best in class only defines backlist performance. That is, a genre’s best in class generates word of mouth with the genre’s cognoscenti while the “meh” titles don’t.  The cream (given a critical mass of exposure of in my estimation 10,000 readers) lives on while the “meh” die off.

So at publishing companies, an Occam’s Razor approach of sorts reigns…the minimum effort required to get the most gain is the goal. Just like any other business.

Once an editor goes beyond the minimum effort, he’ll bring no additional and immediate monetary reward to the company for his work. His effort may pay off over time, building one backlist classic after another, but we live today in a What have you done for me lately world. Additional work for no additional money right now is not a good business model. And don’t forget that book publishing is a business.

These truths, of course, are all unspoken and/or under the surface of books publishing. Getting anyone in the Big Five or a small press to admit to any of this is as likely as finding an undiscovered Hemingway masterpiece in an attic. Even looking at “editing” from a “cost of goods sold” point of view is frowned upon. It ruins the thing that keeps editors ignorant of their value–romance.

This is not to condemn the business or the people who keep the engines of traditional publishing grinding. Hell, it took me a decade to figure this out.

They’re not being cheeky or disingenuous. Most are very sincere and earnest and believe that they are trying to deliver diamonds. They are ignorant of these truths because few of them have actually thought hard enough about what the editor’s role is in the art as opposed to just the commerce. They are trained to edit for commerce, not art. They really don’t have the time to do much more than acquire the titles, offer some generic notes and then get them into production as soon as possible.

In my career I’ve seen the number of full-time editorial positions, and full functioning publishing companies, cut in half (probably more than that) while the number of titles published and imprints started has at least doubled. Do the math about how much time an editor today can indulge his desire to understand Story. Forget about how much time they can spend trying to contribute to a writer’s perfection of his craft. To actually improve the clarity and innovation of every single work that crosses his desk is virtually impossible. I know a few who somehow manage to do it nevertheless. Like three.

So give your editor some slack and remember that the first rule for him is DO NO HARM!

If he thinks your book can sell 10,000 copies as is (the usual place that will send a book into profitability, and they would not have offered you a contract if they didn’t think it would sell 10,000) he isn’t going to ask you to re-write the Act Two Climax. He may not even know what that is.   If he did ask you to do that work and you do and your book sells 9,999 copies, it’s going to be his fault.

And even if the book sells 12,500 after you’ve fixed the scene, who do you think will get the credit? The Editor? Not so much. In fact, there will probably be a bunch of reviews about the book asking Where was the editor? You’ll forget about his contribution and think that the marketing team hit it out of the park.

So will everyone else. Even him. Trust me.

This is the realpolitik of book publishing and it’s one you need to understand.

This is why you need to become your own editor. The only one committed to making your book best in class is you. And guess what?  That is as it should be.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

22 comments on “The Realpolitik of Book Publishing

  1. Julia says:

    I really appreciate this post, and everything else on this site. There are so many things about the publishing industry (and the art of editing) that seem like such a mystery to most of us. This is just great!

    I also love how you often highlight the difference between Form and Formula; I think that’s an important distinction that unfortunately not many other people bother to make, because a winning “formula” appeals so much more to the desire for immediate success.

    For those writers (especially the line-by-line ones) interested in understanding form better (while we await for the publication of the Story Grid on the edge of our seats), are there any essential books on Form you can recommend for reading?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Julia,
      There is one book that is indispensable. I rely on it practically every day. It’s Robert McKee’s STORY: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. Just so you know, I represent McKee as his agent. But I do not make one penny from the sale of STORY. He wrote that book about twenty years ago before our professional relationship got started. I was inspired to write THE STORY GRID in many ways by McKee as it is my attempt to apply his incredible work (and others before and after him) directly to the page in the most practical way possible.

      And I cannot stress the difference between FORM and FORMULA more clearly. A CAKE is a FORM, a recipe for a cake is a FORMULA. It’s a writer’s responsibility to create a new kind of CAKE, not to look for a recipe to reform someone else’s CAKE.

      Thanks for joining!

      1. Julia says:

        Thanks Shawn and everyone else for the replies on this thread! Just got my “theory” reading priorities reset 🙂

    2. “Story” is on my list as well. Until it and “Story Grid” arrive, I can also recommend “Story Engineering” by Larry Brooks.

      1. Jeremy says:

        I can second “Story Engineering,” it changed the way I plan and execute my novels. Joel, have you read his follow-up, “Story Physics”? I own it but have not yet dug in.

        1. “Story Physics” is also excellent. Less step-by-step-ish, more pause-and-reflect, but an excellent follow up. (I’m doing a 12-week series on his two books at my blog, mostly to fix ’em in my own head.)

          1. Jeremy says:

            Excellent! I’m off to Part 1, I have some reading to do!

  2. I have made the case more than once that traditional publishing acquires a book based on commercial potential, not art.

    I’ve never carried that reasoning through to the conclusions you share here, and it’s eye-opening.

  3. “These truths, of course, are all unspoken and/or under the surface…” What a timely thing to discover you and your unspoken publishing secrets, Shawn. I’ll be following you and suggesting my clients do the same. Avoiding the spray of snake oil these days is nearly impossible, and it’s really, really good to get the straight scoop here from you. Great post!

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Thanks for joining Mia. Lots more to come.

  4. Thanks for the insights. I suspect that when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, even that becomes harmed. That is, if the Commercial so dominates that the Art is almost insignificant then even the commercial becomes a loser and sales suffer, at least over all. I think this is one of the points that Seth Godin mix.

  5. Mary Doyle says:

    Your insights are so appreciated! We can rail against the commercialism of the Big Five, but at the end of the day, it’s a business, and all businesses have a formula if they are going to stay in business. The thing that we have to guard against is not mistaking their formula for our story form, and not expecting an editor to fix what we haven’t cared enough about to fix ourselves.

  6. Jeremy says:

    I’m certain every editor I’ve worked with has cared deeply about the stories, and felt the hit when the book didn’t make it to market. How great it will be when I can make their lives easier (and my own, of course) by creating something that is already good enough to sell.
    And I’m talking about when they ask me if they can read it, not the other way around.

  7. Sonja says:

    This was good stuff! Thanks!

  8. Gary Dennis says:

    Hi Shawn

    this is great. You mention the 10,000 mark as the line in the sand for success. Are you quoting Tim Grahl on this or has it been your experience over the years? Will you be offering Story Grid to any of the Big Five or will you be going direct to market as a self publisher?

    I hope you have time to reply


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Gary,
      Steve Pressfield and I will publish THE STORY GRID with our little company Black Irish Books. Steve and I have both published with the Big Five and we know the drill there. There is no way a book like THE STORY GRID could reach the people it could help if we published with a Big Five publisher. Tim Grahl and I have talked about the 10,000 reader rule offline. I’m not quoting Tim…he figured it out all by himself. It’s one of those principles in publishing that is self evident to anyone who ever had to do a profit/loss projection at a Big Five publisher house. I wrote a piece on 10,000 a while back at Steve’s site about it too.
      Thanks for joining Gary.

  9. Thank you Shawn for your suggestion. I just ordered Robert McKee’s STORY. I need something to read before your book comes out.

  10. Jeff says:

    There is an apocraphyl story about the direct response advertising legend, Gary Halbert. Supposedly, he’d take his new copy or sales letter into his local bar and have the patrons read it. If they remarked how great the letter or the writing was, he’d basically throw it away and start over. If they started asking him about how to get the product or offering to buy the product from him, or seeing if he couldn’t get them a discount, he knew his copy was good to go.

    Seems like the exact dynamic at play when pitching a story to someone over dinner. If they’re dying to know more and to find out what happens next, you’re good. If they’re just telling you how much they like the story, you’re sunk.

    What I find interesting about the Realpolitik of Publishing is how many solid, workable novels are submitted. From what I’m told from people in the movie industry, there is a metric ton of movie scripts submitted, but precious few of them are of sufficient quality to invest in at all, and even less are fresh, original, and exciting.

    I’m curious: what accounts for the greater level of publishable quality novels as opposed to professional-level screenplays?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Before, the barriers to entry to publish a book were around $20,000 per title. Compare that to at least $1,000,000 for a tiny movie. Now after, the barriers to entry to publish a book are virtually zero. The thing that the big publishers haven’t figured out yet, but Amazon has, is that if anyone can publish a book, the role of the gatekeeper is not longer so indispensable. It’s just a form of recommendation.

      Amazon’s POV is to publish everything and let the public sort it out. What service Big Publishing provides today is curation more than anything else. If they were smart (and they aren’t) they’d pump millions of dollars into creating EDITORIAL STARS, push those unknown cogs in the machine into the spotlight and make them public commodities. Bennett Cerf may have been the last editor/publisher/celebrity. And any great editor who does start to get some juice outside of New York…ends up being promoted to some lousy administrative position as “publisher.” And we never hear from them again…until they’re fired.

      Anyway, the short answer is that to publish a book today costs nothing. While make a movies costs millions. When something costs nothing to try out, you’ll be surprised by how much lower your standards of “works” become.

  11. Karl says:

    Hello Shawn,
    Your point about the relative importance of good line-by-line writing vs a story that ‘works’ got my attention. I am reading a non-fiction book [“One Summer: America, 1927”] and the author points out in 1927, Zane Grey earned just under $325,000 and F. Scott Fitzgerald earned $37,599.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Fascinating! But not all that shocking when you really think about it.
      All the best,

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