By Shawn Coyne | Published: April 27, 2012
I met with a client on Wednesday about a new project. He put me right on the spot.
Where was book publishing going? How could he stay in the ring? How was I going to help him?
For quite a while, Steve Pressfield and I have been kicking around ideas for future Black Irish Books. We want to come up with projects that would be embraced by an audience wide enough to financially support writers we admire. The byproduct of that goal will keep the BIB bank balance in the black too. The way we’ve structured the company is that we won’t make any money if our writers don’t. In fact if a big enough audience doesn’t come to the party, we’ll be out all of the capital we invested to produce the project from idea to finished book. We’re willing to take that risk. We’re betting on ourselves.
We’re not picking books from submissions, so please don’t send us your Uncle Ralph’s unpublished fantasy series. Tell Uncle Ralph to get it out there himself.
Rather we’re thinking up the books we want to read and the ones we think you guys will want to read. Then we’ll look for Pros we think would enjoy working with us. If the alchemy works, a cool book will result and we’ll all put a few shekels in the bank. If it doesn’t at least we’ll learn something.
In caveman-speak the proposition is pretty simple: We like this kind book. You great writer. We help you write book so we can share with friends. Friends buy book and fund next project. That kind of thing.
I have a mongo pet project/s that I’ve been trying to put together for three years…it requires a writer with mucho cojones to pull it off. Sort of someone like Steve back when he was living in a van down by the river—a man or woman who is a Pro with like 7,000 hours knocked off their 10,000 hour craft polish. I think I could help him/her slice that last 3,000 down into a fraction, but he/she will have to put their ego in check to get the time warp. A lot harder to do than you might think.
I wear a lot of hats—agent, editor, writer and publisher—and I’ve learned a few things over my twenty years in the business. I want to pass those lessons on. That’s why I’m here.
I thought this client would get what Steve and I are trying to do. He’s a very successful journalist—Columbia School of Journalism Masters after Sarah Lawrence B.A. and every byline scalp a MJ would want hanging from his belt. He just delivered his first book to a very big deal publishing house. It’s the house that everyone wants on the spine on his/her book. Lots of validation to be published there.
I sold that book for him when I was at the Endeavor Agency (now William Morris Endeavor). Despite his owning the story lock, stock and barrel, the book put him on his ass a number of times. It took three times as long to wrap his arms around it. And he wasn’t given a King’s ransom of an advance to write it either. In the end he had to cut 48,000 words of hard work to get it where it needed to be.
He told me that he’d made peace with it, no matter the response from his Big Six editor. He was emailing him the manuscript after our meeting.
Why did I think this guy would “get” my pitch?
- He didn’t quit on his book. Even when he probably should have. For the pragmatist, quitting and returning the advance would have been the right financial decision. He could have maintained his ego as a full time breadwinning journalist and write the blowup off as a lesson learned.
But this guy is an artist, not a pragmatist. He made the hard choice. Because he needed to stay focused on the story in his book, he didn’t take any high paying freelance job offers that came his way. Doing that journalism would distract him. Instead, he moonlighted doing odd jobs to bring in the necessary cash to keep his family in Cheerios. He laughed off the struggle, too. Didn’t bitch about it.
- Cutting your work is excruciating and 48,000 words is the equivalent of half a book. He did it because the story required him to do it. Every single one of those dead words hurt him, but precious sentences that don’t serve a story need to go. So they went.
- He’s not afraid of his big bad editor sitting in a wood paneled office. What the editor thinks of his final work is not something he can control. It has nothing to do with his true triumph—beating Resistance.
- He set up a morning coffee meeting with me for the very day he would turn in his book. He chose to start something new just as he completed his last project. No celebratory drinks date with his cronies. No hiding in a hole waiting for judgment from on high. He has more work to do. He wants to get to it.
- This guy is a Pro.
I pitched him three intricately entwined projects. To do one…requires that he do them all. And they would all be on spec. There is no way that any of the Big Six would get near the ambitious nature of this endeavor. It’s daunting.
The difference is that I’ll work with him from the very start. On spec too. I’ll chip in my intellectual capital along with him.
Believe it or not, this is a major innovation. An editor helping a writer before the writer has written one word is crazy. But I’ve done it before…quietly…and it’s a blast. I confess. I love this work. And now the publishing world has opened a portal for me to do it more and more. I explain this to him, but I don’t really have to. He knows how hard it was to do his first book with zero help along the way. A Pro offering help to another Pro? Don’t think twice…take it.
Innovation requires a lot of spec work and often the goals you set at the outset fail, but the residual lessons you learn while putting in the effort are priceless. He’ll have someone in his foxhole this time. And I’ll give him the benefit of everything I know.
I could tell by the excitement in his eyes that he was “in” after five minutes. In eighteen months (at the very least) we’ll see if my pet project was everything I thought it would be… The beautiful part is that whatever happens, it won’t be mine anymore. It will be ours.