A Tale from the Trenches
Todd Henry is a friend. He started in the creative/entrepreneurial field in 1995 with a tour of duty in the music biz, working as a marketer, writer and creative director. By 2005 he had launched his own company, Accidental Creative, working independently with creative people and teams.
By then he had evolved his own unique philosophy (several of whose precepts I borrowed and use myself), which he pulled together last year into his first book, The Accidental Creative: How To Be Brilliant At a Moment’s Notice, which is terrific and which will be published tomorrow. Todd and I sat down a few days ago and I grilled him for the inside scoop on how he pulled all this off.
SP: Let’s start with success, Todd. Who is your publisher on Accidental Creative? What kind of a deal did you work out? (You don’t have to give figures, just general stuff.)
TH: The book is being published through Portfolio, a business book imprint of Penguin. It was a one-book deal, though they have an option on my next book.
I received an advance delivered in thirds; part upon signing, part upon handing in the manuscript and part upon publication. The rest of the deal was fairly standard for a first-time author with a moderate platform.
SP: What was your publishing history before this?
TH: This is my first book, though I’ve been writing and blogging for years for my website. My goal was always to write a thousand words a day, regardless of their quality.
SP: Did you have an agent?
TH: I was incredibly fortunate that my agent, Melissa Sarver of the Elizabeth Kaplan Agency, happened upon me by accident while reading a manuscript from Kim Palmer, one of her clients who is the business editor at US News & World Report. Kim wrote a very nice article about my company, Accidental Creative, which was excerpted in the manuscript. Melissa contacted me to gauge my interest in working with her to write a proposal and try to secure a book deal. At that point I’d not really been looking for an agent or a book deal because I’d been so busy trying to build my business, but I was considering self-publishing and sensed that my work was ripening to the point that it could be helpful in book format. I practically reached through the internet on the spot to sign with Melissa, and we set about writing the proposal.
SP: How did you put the proposal together? How long did it take?
TH: Writing the proposal took about three months and several drafts. I worked from 5:30 am to 8:30 am every weekday outlining the chapters, putting together the marketing plan, developing the competitive analysis and doing other things that took a lot of energy and focused attention. I basically had to knock the proposal out in chunks. I would set up, then knock out individual chunks day by day.
In truth, writing the proposal was probably as challenging as writing the book itself. I wrote (and we scrapped) three different approaches to the content before we landed on the right one, but in the end the proposal, and subsequently the book, was exactly what it needed to be. I’m so thankful that my agent was direct and didn’t mince words in her feedback as we were in the proposal process. It’s critical to find someone to work with who is willing to get their hands dirty and is just as ambitious about the project as you are.
SP: How long was the proposal?
TH: About 40,000 words, including two sample chapters. We finished it on Christmas, 2009. The plan for January was to shop it first to our number one choice, then take it out wide if they weren’t interested. From everything I’ve studied about the industry, the success or failure of a book can be as much about finding the right fit in a publisher as anything else, and for a lot of reasons we thought that Portfolio would be our best fit.
The first week of January came and nearly passed and I’d not heard anything from Melissa. I started getting nervous, so I called her. She said that Portfolio had the proposal, and that we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves but that they were trying to make something happen. Later that afternoon I got an email that just said “call me as you as soon you can.” It was the email every aspiring author dreams of. I knew that when I called I may hear that a lifelong dream was actually going to happen.
I didn’t call right away. I waited a few minutes, because I just wanted to sit in the moment and enjoy the possibility of it. When I called, she said that Portfolio had offered. It wasn’t a monumental offer, but it was very solid given my existing platform and reach. Over the next day Melissa was able to negotiate the deal up and get the best offer possible.
SP: Did you think about taking the book to other publishers?
TH: We had to make a decision. We discussed the pros and cons of every option, but in the end we came back to the fact that Portfolio was our number one choice from the beginning, and while we could maybe get a better offer from another publisher there were a lot of additional factors that needed to be considered. We chose to accept the deal.
At 5:58 pm the following day I got a text from Melissa that said “Go celebrate!” It was a surreal moment to realize I’d gone from no hope of publishing to a book deal with my first choice publisher in a matter of three months. But in truth, that three months was years and years of hard work in the making.
SP: The editing/bookshaping process. How did that go? Was it fun?
TH: The process was not at all what I expected. I’d always thought that I would be working closely with an editor throughout the process, turning in a chapter at a time and shaping the content as I go. Instead, I basically disappeared for about six months and wrote the first several chapters. I turned these in about halfway to my deadline and received some very good feedback that helped me revise them and shape the remaining chapters. Still, I was surprised to find that I was mostly writing the book in a vacuum.
By contrast, once I turned in the completed manuscript everything became much more intense. About a month after submission I got back a manuscript with a ton of revisions, cuts, and very direct comments. There were several things I’d assumed or taken for granted that David Moldawer, my editor, called to light. There were other things that I didn’t see as all that special that he highlighted and said “MORE OF THIS!” Though I did all of the writing, David truly helped me find my voice, which is what a good editor does.
SP: How long did that process take?
TH: About fifteen months. It was compressed a bit because they wanted to get the book to market in July 2011. I only had nine months to write the original manuscript rather than the more typical twelve.
SP: Did you explore self-publishing? Were you ever close to choosing this option? Why didn’t you?
TH: I was considering self-publishing when I was approached by Melissa. I think it’s a wonderful option for someone who has an idea and wants to get it to market quickly. In the end, however, the amount of editorial influence and industry experience I’ve gained just from this one book has made me really glad that I went with a traditional publisher. If you already have a huge platform, self-publishing can be a good option, but I would recommend that aspiring authors at least try the traditional route first. If for no other reason, the process experience was invaluable.
SP: Now that you’re a grizzled veteran, Todd, what advice would you give to a first-time writer?
TH: Bottom line, make sure you’re in love with the craft of writing. A lot of people love the idea of being a writer, but they don’t enjoy moving their fingers across a keyboard and curating words. They’re chasing vapor; they want the lifestyle without the accompanying work. The most important thing a writer can do is to fall in love with their craft. The second most important thing a writer can do is fall in love AGAIN with their craft. It’s like a marriage in many respects. You’re not always going to “feel it”, but there is a deep, abiding companionship that is painfully severed.
SP: How would you describe, from your experience or just your gut, what the changes are in publishing today? For new writers, what would you suggest as the best options?
TH: It’s an exciting time for writers because there is unlimited distribution available and unlimited shelf space on the web. At the same time, this means that there is much more competition for attention and it can be more challenging to connect with an audience.
While I don’t know how things are going to shake out over the next few years, it’s clear that the opportunity to introduce your voice into the marketplace will continue to grow, and the need for curation and filters will continue to grow simultaneously. The best value that a traditional publisher offers to an aspiring writer is that they—at least right now—still provide a level of credibility that self-publishing doesn’t. So if your goal is to build a platform and have solid physical distribution, that’s difficult to do with the self-publishing route. At the same time, if your project is targeted at a niche you are unlikely to have the option of publishing with a traditional publisher, and self-publishing is probably the best option and you can more easily reach your potential readers on the web anyway.
I think that it’s very popular to criticize publishers right now, but they are—just like the rest of us—trying to figure out what it means when your business model is being turned upside down. We’re talking about an industry that’s existed, more or less unchanged, for hundreds of years. While they need to move quickly to avoid catastrophic consequences, it’s premature to say that publishers have no role in the world ahead. There will always be a need for what they do, they just need to grow more agile in how they fill that role.
SP: If you had it to do over again with The Accidental Creative, would you have done anything differently?
TH: I wouldn’t focus so much on word count. Because this was my first book, I was constantly worrying about whether I even had 60,000 words worth of stuff to say about creativity. It took me 30,000 words to write my first two chapters and find my voice. As a result, my first efforts were quite stilted until I finally settled down and found a rhythm. By the end I was in a good rhythm of writing every morning at 5:30 am for a few hours, and all Sunday morning. I was really enjoying it. But it took me a while to get to where I felt like I was getting to the best stuff because I was so worried about counting words rather than crafting them.
SP: On your next book, will you do it differently?
TH: On my next book, should I be so fortunate, I will definitely work with a research assistant/editor during the writing process. The thing that was so challenging on The Accidental Creative was that I was slipping in and out of writing and research modes on a daily basis, and that made it difficult to stay focused on producing well-crafted chapters. There’s something freeing about just focusing on doing what you do best without dealing with the rabbit trails and stress that wading through volumes of information introduces. While I will want to be very hands-on with the research, I would much prefer to have someone sift the wheat from the chaff before I touch it.