What It Takes: In Three Acts
I thought I’d get back “on message” this week with an inside baseball piece on traditional book publishing. Then I discovered something interesting.
I re-read Steve’s description of the “What It Takes” series from December 2010: “What It Takes” will bring you in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn’t work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds.
Then I took a look at my posts over the months and found that I’ve flown wildly off course. I began the series with a very clear purpose—to report the minutiae of the publishing campaign for The Profession from an agent’s point of view.
But after four pieces, I stopped reporting and started exploring. Why?
If we were using Steve’s Foolscap Method to look at the story behind my “What it Takes” posts, the first four pieces would comprise Act I—the Billy Wilder getting up a tree stage.
1. Agent sets out to report what it takes to make a book an instant bestseller
Then, in the language of Story author Robert McKee (full disclosure, another client of mine); my “What It Takes” narrative reached a crisis—the turning point of Act 1. A turning point in a story is a moment when everything changes. There’s no going back. The turning point for my “What It Takes” post was when I realized that instead of critically reporting on the efforts of others, I should be doing my own work. I should be contributing to the conversation, not annotating it. In Seth Godin-ese, I should be POKING THE BOX.
I wish I could say that I came to this conclusion all on my own, but I didn’t. I needed an outside force—a professional colleague I asked for advice—to wake me up. The publishing business is rapidly changing, and I would have to change with it.
Lead characters in stories (and who is the most sympathetic protagonist we can imagine, if not ourselves) require outside forces to rip them out of their day to day life experiences. Everything they’ve believed at the beginning of the story turns out to be false. Once they make that realization, they are forced to change.
If there is no external cold bucket of water thrown in your lead character’s face, your story is in deep trouble. Similarly, if you don’t put yourself in a position to get your world rocked, you’re life isn’t going to change much. Could get pretty boring.
My friend helped me discover that my understanding of the old marketing world rules did not apply in the blogging universe. I had to reconsider everything I thought I knew about publishing. My old school idea about hard selling readers of www.stevenpressfield.com with whiz bang promotions was a mistake, the equivalent of inviting your college roommate to dinner just to sell him Amway products.
Instead of racing to achieve an ephemeral and ultimately empty goal of putting The Profession on The New York Times bestseller list the first week it goes on sale, I had to get a grip on what was really important—the long term life of the book itself. Then I had to do the work necessary to find ways to increase its appeal tomorrow as well as today.
Back to Steve’s Foolscap, the next series of posts would be Act II; the Billy Wilder setting the tree on fire stage.
2. Agent abandons short term quest and explores uncharted territory
Thankfully, the tree fire has been a controlled burn. And the clearing that resulted made room for an opportunity.
Steve, Callie and I decided that maybe the best way to promote Steve’s work was to produce more of it. Not just more of it, but to share it with Steve’s readers as quickly as possible. Could creating more art be the ideal promotion for each piece in the artist’s past and future catalog?
Conventional publishing has operated under the principle that an author should write and publish just one book a year. That idea now seems counter-intuitive. If you read a book by a writer and you enjoy it, you’ll want to explore more of their work as soon as possible. The immediacy of EBooks has only escalated this desire. Dormant backlists from popular writers have come back to life.
There’s a reason why “Writing Wednesdays” is such a hit. It’s fresh, compelling and reliable advice from a great storyteller delivered every week. We needed more of this kind of stuff.
Not coincidentally, Steve had been thinking about a streamlined, throw down kind of book that would help committed artists stay on their journey and finish their work. A road map kind of book, a practical guide to taking a project from A to Z without falling victim to Resistance. When asked how to make it past the finish line, this would be a book that he could hand people and say, Do This!
That old saw “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity” proved correct when Steve got a call from Seth Godin in the middle of all of this consternation. Seth asked Steve to write a manifesto for his new publishing venture, The Domino Project, powered by Amazon.
Steve locked his doors, brewed a lot of coffee, and wrote the Do This! book. He and I went back and forth on some edits and then we showed it to Seth. He loved it. Seth then did some edits of his own and wisely suggested that we change the title to Do the Work. He designed it and got it ready to ship as quickly as humanly possible. It goes on sale next week, but the e-version is available for free right now, though it won’t go “live” till pub day.
Like The War of Art, Do the Work is a book that I will return to day after day. It has pulled me out of that burning tree and kept me grounded. And it gave me an Act III for my “What it Takes” Foolscap.
3. Agent returns from uncharted territory, gets back in his chair and does what it takes to produce and ship the work that he loves