Art & Commerce
In my last post, Rubber Meets Road, I talked about “the number.” Here’s what I said:
A number gives you clarity. Don’t fear a number. Embrace the number. It will focus you like nothing else.
After some analytical research, I came to the conclusion that THE PROFESSION’s number is 15,000. Fifteen thousand sold copies will put THE PROFESSION on The New York Times bestseller list its first week on sale.
When Steve and I went to the Crown meeting on December 1, 2010; 15,000 was burned into my brain. I worked out a very detailed memo prior to the meeting (email me at theprofession dot Coyne at Gmail dot com and I’ll send you a copy) that bore down on the number like it was the final piece of code for the human genome project.
So after we completed the meeting’s sell in overview, I pushed my internal “agitator” onto the 1740 Broadway stage. Animated and impatient, he mixed it up with everyone in the room. He interrupted, he cajoled and he got what he was looking for…a very intense discussion about marketing innovations aimed at consumers of Steve’s previous books. He wanted Crown to open up its vault and do a slew of marketing geared at convincing 15,000 intensely targeted consumers to buy THE PROFESSION before the book even went on sale. Any pre-order for a book (someone who buys the book online before it is published) is counted as a sale during the first week of publication. If we put a major push to incentivize Steve’s core readership to pre-order, then THE PROFESSION would get into the top 15 of The New York Times bestseller list right out of the gate. Steve would then go on a publicity tour and win more hearts and minds at book signings and appearances. Soon after that we’d reach the “tipping point” that everyone talks about.
THE PROFESSION would become the most talked about book in a very profitable book buying market segment (the Tom Clancy arena) and we’d get to the Vince Flynn/Brad Thor threshold…physical distribution and sell through at book publishing’s Nirvana…big box retailers!
I was passionate about this approach and in the meeting the group came up with some really cool sales promotions. The Crown team was open to looking at the process in a completely different way. They were engaged and interested to hear what I thought would work best for THE PROFESSION. How I believed we could exploit the relationships Steve had developed over eighteen months on his website to benefit THE PROFESSION’s sales. The head of the eBook division was especially engaged. He generated the lion’s share of ideas. For every lame incentive I threw out…he riffed on it and came up with a better campaign.
I’d successfully reduced three years of creative hard labor on Steve’s part to an exciting commodity. As long as we kept our eye on the number, THE PROFESSION would be Steve’s breakout book and we’d be off to the races!
Flash forward 48 days.
As the lead carnival barker for THE PROFESSION, I hit a wall. While Crown continued to believe in and support THE PROFESSION, they decided not to move forward with the consumer pre-order promotions I tossed around at the meeting.
I was crushed. All of the work I put in devising these schemes to convert Steve’s blog readers to consumers did not have Crown’s support. What was I going to do?
I refused to give up. I couldn’t stop thinking about that number—15,000! Come hell or high water I wanted that number. I’d figure out a way to incentivize buying on www.stevenpressfield.com with Steve’s book The War of Art—a book about beating that insidious internal bastard Resistance. And wouldn’t I beat Resistance by reeling in the number? As Steve controlled the copyright to The War of Art, Crown wouldn’t have to approve any WOA promotions. So I came up with what Dr. Seuss would call real Dingdonger and Tingtingler sales promotions…ones with bells, whistles, bows, and ribbons. Do this, get that. Buy THE PROFESSION before it goes on sale and we’ll give you more…more…more!
Then a friend of mine did what a good friend will do. He made me stop looking short term and think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. It all began when I asked his advice about my Zingzonker promotion—what did he think was the most effective way to run it? He’s a big deal writer with an incredible network. How did he get people to move from “engaged online reader” to “book buyer?” Come on man, what’s the trick?
What he said disoriented me. He gave me one of those cryptic Caddyshack “Be the Ball” answers…if my only goal was to get a blog’s interested and engaged readers to “buy and buy now,” I should think about my motives. Yeah, yeah, but what about my promotion!
Then he got a little pissed. He told me he didn’t run “sales promotions.” And that he wasn’t interested in converting people who enjoy his blog to consumers. In fact, he avoided chasing numbers entirely. Instead, he puts everything he has into every project he takes on and shares the ideas that come out of them with anyone who cares. The end. He focuses on his art, allows it to morph and be what it wants to be, then trusts that the commerce will take care of itself.
But isn’t it freaking terrifying to do it this way? Isn’t it against every scientific sales principle not to close? I thought his strategy was like that stupid exercise they make you do at corporate retreats, closing your eyes and falling backwards…trusting that your fellow employee behind you will catch you. Of course she’s going to catch you. She’s being paid to be there and catch you! If she wasn’t being paid, she wouldn’t catch you. Right?
Maybe art is about falling without pinpointed incentivized consumers to catch you…trusting that people who care about the things you care about will prop you up without you “making it worth their while.” It’s knee-knocking to put your authentic self out there with no guarantee of attracting a crowd or creating a financial support system. But if you’re doing work that isn’t terrifying (like the monomaniacal chase of an amorphous number) and you’ve planned to a “T” exactly where you are going and how to get there, how fun and satisfying is that trip really going to be? Will you remember it?
I took a step back. I’ve worked on plenty of books that have hit The New York Times bestseller list…ones as an editor for a big deal publishing house and ones as a scrappy independent publisher. Will one more bring me beatification? It hasn’t before…not even close. Is getting this third party validation about me? It shouldn’t be. It’s shouldn’t even be about Steve. It’s about the work.
In the end, whether or not THE PROFESSION hits The New York Times bestseller list makes no difference. My only responsibility is to share what THE PROFESSION really means to me with others. I didn’t have to throw my energy behind the book. Steve would still be my friend. I chose to do it. Why I made that choice is what may interest people. Not what “value” I can give them from a sales transaction.
This is why the two-way communication inherent in blogs is so revolutionary. We can build our Field of Dreams without having to rent a backhoe, buy sod, or put up a scoreboard. And we don’t have to wait to hear an ethereal voice guaranteeing us that people will come to play. If you build a great ball field and take care of it, who would resist grabbing a mitt to have a game of catch?
Artists are here to build dream fields from their internal selves. And when they are successful and finally ready to dust off home plate and announce Play Ball! the last thing they should do is try and seduce the first person who comes to the plate to buy a souvenir.
You wouldn’t like it if a friend you admired and respected came to your house and pitched you a time share in Boca Raton. You’d probably stop being that person’s friend. Same deal online. Don’t sell your friends. Talk to them and share what you’re going through. That’s it.
I left the discussion deflated. I felt like I’d somehow lost my way, venturing into the morally reprehensible terrain of The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown. It was now obvious that my promotions would alienate Steve’s online readers and I’d irreparably damage the career of my dear friend who happens to be my favorite novelist. Worse than that, I’d turn people off to a book that made me cry in its second paragraph. And I’m not lachrymose.
Here is the second paragraph from THE PROFESSION:
The hour was dusk; the fight, which had gone on all day, was over. I was alive. I was looking for my brother. Already I knew he was dead. If he were among the living, he would have found me. I would not have had to look for him.
He didn’t know it, but Pressfield was writing about my brother—a man I love but rarely see. As a boy he shielded me from incalculable darkness, his selflessness sustains me to this day. That paragraph unleashed a torrent of personal history in my mind that made me remember how my brother and I made our way into the world as men. We share scars. If the shit hits the fan, I know my brother will walk beside me. I’m never alone.
For me, THE PROFESSION boils down to this one paragraph—the divinity of a brother’s active, timeless love for his brother. Every scene and sequence that follows fugues from this elemental theme. That’s awesome.
I went back to my office and did a whole bunch of necessary, but boring work. The next day, I got an email from Callie. The offers and sales promotions that I had planned for THE PROFESSION weren’t sitting right with her. Steve weighed in a little later, agreeing. The three of us got on the phone to talk about it some more. I dumped everything I’d learned on them and they kindly refrained from telling me that they’d figured it out a long time ago. Back to square one. Could we find a way to create art to promote art?
To be continued.