Getting in the Ring
[We’re bringing this post back from December 23, 2011. With the launch of Steve’s new site and the launch of The War of Art Mini-Course it seemed time to revisit The War of Art’s backstory, as well as how Steve and Shawn starting working together, and the projects that followed.]
At the end of the year 2000, I had it all figured out. I left my job as senior editor at Doubleday to start up a new kind of publishing house called Rugged Land Books. Rugged Land would publish a very small list of titles, twelve original books a year (one per month), and would focus on finding unique ways to find, listen to, and engage readers in the particular genres I knew best.
I loved the motto that my former business partner quoted to me about the meaning of the name and I still do:
“It is better to live in a Rugged Land and rule, than to cultivate rich plains and be a slave to others.” —Herodotus.
The writer I most wanted to publish at Rugged Land was Steven Pressfield.
I’d known Steve for about four years. I acquired Gates of Fire and Tides of War at Doubleday and we’d already been through a lot together. Gates and Tides were bestsellers and the company was very pleased with the critical and commercial successes of both. But I thought that they could have been much bigger sellers if they’d been given more time to catch on. More attention. More commitment. And I wasn’t shy about saying so. While my colleagues (Publisher, Editor in Chief, Business Manager on down) were sympathetic and did what they could to help, the big houses like Doubleday at the time were extremely regimented. The publishing process was firmly established.
Here’s how it worked:
An editor acquired a book. The book was assigned to a publicist and a point person in marketing. Plans were drawn up nine to twelve months before publication to plot how to best launch the book in the trade. The book was presented at a national sales conference. The sales department made their own determinations about which books had the best shot at hitting it big. The priorities on the list were then reevaluated and rejiggered after a consensus between editorial, publicity, marketing, and sales had been reached.
The consensus usually went sales’ way.
Editors and publishers were considered, and perhaps still are and perhaps still rightly so, as unreliable narrators by the sales department. Editorial had secret agendas—big guaranteed advances on the line or desperate pleas to make an author’s sliding sales track record rebound with verbal bullshit and sizzle. If the publisher didn’t justify the advance she authorized to acquire a book or an editor didn’t save his prize author from becoming superfluous . . .
Sales didn’t have any agenda but to sell the most books possible. That’s how they got paid. So sales reps could be counted on to give it to an editor or publisher straight . . . your favorite book doesn’t stand a chance or we’re gonna make it work. The books that struck the biggest chord with the reps usually got the lion’s share of attention. Who knew the customer better than the sales rep anyway? Don’t forget that bookstores, not consumers, were the primary customers pre-eBook. If the physical book wasn’t visible in a bookstore, marketing to a consumer didn’t mean diddly to the bottom line. So, publishers ignored the very people who bought their books until they had a saturated distribution—so many books out there that they had to be stacked in corners. And even when they did, they gave it two weeks of consumer awareness promotion to sell through the inventory—at the most.
Steve was a darling of the Doubleday sales reps. In fact, early plans for Gates and Tides were expanded after their respective sales conferences. Steve had it all going for him and it worked. This was a very big deal. An entire genre (historical war epic) had been reinvented by Steve and Doubleday. Copycats from other houses came in and rode the resurgence. To this day, terrific historical war fiction is published year after year. Steve’s work and Doubleday’s commitment to it are the reason. Attention must be paid to that achievement. Kudos.
But even Steve couldn’t get the system to bend and try something new. No matter how much ruckus I made to try some new marketing or publicity gimmick to target consumers, little came of it. Once the 4 to 6 week sales window for Gates and Tides closed, the case closed, and the energy of the house went to the next “big book.”
What wasn’t broke didn’t get fixed. I understood the system, but didn’t agree with it, so I left the well-oiled machine and tried to create a new one.
But the chances of getting Steve Pressfield’s next book in Rugged Land’s debut 2002 publication catalog were as likely as the Borders Group going into bankruptcy. Steve was committed to publish his next novel with Doubleday and while he would have loved to continue to work with me as his primary editor, the reality was that he couldn’t. He made a large part of his living from Doubleday and Rugged Land was a romantic enterprise…noble but perhaps destined to fail. There was just no way around that.
We grabbed a beer in New York just after I left Doubleday headquarters and Steve let me know how much he appreciated what I was doing. He wanted to be a part of it but he couldn’t figure out how.
But Steve is that rare kind of person who doesn’t let life’s insurmountable and obvious impossibilities stop him from doing important work. He intuitively knew that what we were capable of together as writer and editor was not even remotely exhausted.
I thought c’est la vie.
We shook hands at the end of that night and Steve flew back to California. Like scores of writers I’d worked with before, I thought the next time I’d see him would be as some boring-ass publishing event. We’d smile, do a bro hug, down a shot of John Jameson and play remember when . . . That was cool. I liked doing that.
The next afternoon—literally—Steve called me and said he had an idea.
He had a bunch of pages in his drawer that he’d been xeroxing for aspiring writer friends. That’s right, not photocopying, Xeroxing. Remember the term Xeroxing? It wasn’t weird back then. Steve estimated that the copies he gave out had saved him hours of time explaining the unromantic, but indispensable blue-collar attitude he found necessary to getting his ass in a chair and confronting a blank piece of paper. He called the wad of manuscript, A Writer’s Life.
He didn’t really know what I could do with it, but he asked me to just look and see if there was anything there. I thought it was nice that Steve had some specious crap he could use to get people to leave him alone, but the last thing I was going to do was publish a book called A Writer’s Life. Who gives a shit, right?
Steve also explained that he’d run the idea by his agent (publishing icon Sterling Lord, Jack Kerouac’s agent and the last gentleman in the business) and that Sterling thought it appropriate to share the pages with the hordes of other editors who’d expressed interest in Steve’s work too. Sterling thought I was a nice enough guy and a good editor, but why put limits on his client’s options? Wise man.
Great! Even if this thing is publishable, there’s no way I’ll be able to compete at the advance level with Doubleday or William Morrow or Random House . . .
I said as much to Steve and he told me that we could figure that out later. He didn’t write these pages to pay his mortgage, he wrote them to help his friends. If they could do something for me and Rugged Land, that would mean a hell of a lot more to him than a better model of car.
I read the pages in about an hour. Then I read them again and sketched out some notes. I had zero experience with these kinds of books (thrillers, military nonfiction, sports nonfiction, and historical fiction were my calling cards and what I would push at Rugged Land). I didn’t even know how to characterize A Writer’s Life. I wasn’t even sure if it was a book . . . but it moved me. It made me believe even more in what I was doing and who I was as a human being. It was priceless.
I called Steve and gave him my notes, and I shared the notes that others at Rugged Land put together. I told him I wanted to publish the book, but it needed a new title, some sort of beginning, middle and end, and I thought since it was his first nonfiction book we should reach out to a bestselling writer in the arena to write an introduction to it. Plus some sort of unique package that made it look different from anything else in the bookstore.
Steve said, “Tell me what to do next!”
While we waited for the rest of the publishing universe to get back to Sterling, Steve and I worked on the book. As far as I was concerned, we had a handshake agreement that Rugged Land would publish it and I trusted Steve. Even if hundreds of thousands of dollars from one of the big boys were offered to Sterling for A Writer’s Life, I thought Steve would go with me.
But I was worried. Steve ekes out a living just like any other writer. Who was I to hold him over a barrel if the big cash came calling?
It didn’t come to that.
Every other publisher passed on the book. The editors had the same concerns about it that I did. The book was made up of very short chapters, some just a sentence long. And each chapter had a definitive title that was as much a part of the content of the book as the body copy. A major design and continuity challenge.
And while the surface focus of the book was about writing, it was also about doing anything creative—from starting a plumbing supply business to running for political office. Too all over the place, too hard to convey in an elevator pitch.
A Writer’s Life could be a page a day calendar or a collection of 4 x 6 index cards, but it most definitely wasn’t a “book.” In the parlance of respectful rejection letters, it just didn’t “fit into our publishing program at this time.”
Sterling called and told me it was mine. We agreed to a pittance advance and I banged out a contract that was fair for Rugged Land and for Steve. Basically, if the book made any money after paying for everything, Steve would get 50% and Rugged Land would get 50%. We’d share it like partners.
Then we got down to the real work on the book. Steve and I thought the three-part structure was a good choice because we both were fans of the three-act story structure. I called some pals in the business and asked them to tell me how self-help publishing worked.
What I found out was that self-help was about 1) Defining problems and 2) Offering solutions. Sounds simple but many a potentially helpful book has been upended by failing to clearly do so. Steve nailed the problem part with his concept “resistance,” and he nailed the solution part with his advice to “turn pro.” But he also had the cojones (or stupidity) to offer something else—his take on the metaphysics of the creative life. He had wonderful pieces in A Writer’s Life that had nothing to do with defining or solving problems. They were explorations about the necessity of art in human life. For these, I suggested we add a third part to the book, something I suggested we call The Higher Realm.
Steve was cool with it.
My reasoning was commercially motivated. I thought that some people would vehemently disagree with Steve’s ethereal point of view but would still fall in love with the first two parts of the book. So the third part would be dessert for those of us who appreciate Steve’s perspective and a throw away for those didn’t care for the dessert. How many meals have you had where the dessert ruled your opinion?
Together, we rejiggered the pieces so that each section of the book had a beginning, middle and end so that the cumulative effect would build to a catharsis for the reader at the very last page. Like a joke or a movie or a great novel—we were looking at self-help as a story. We thought it was working.
And then we hit a wall. We suspected that A Writer’s Life had the potential to inspire a lot of people. But “a lot of people” aren’t a clearly defined or easily reachable target market. We needed to identify who would care.
Steve was known at the time in two arenas—golf fiction and historical war fiction. What we needed to do was to somehow attract the people who bought The Legend of Bagger Vance, Gates of Fire, and Tides of War to this book. If they didn’t respond to it, then we were in trouble.
We needed something easy to understand, intriguing, and hinting that the book was destined to be a classic. It wasn’t Steve’s attempt to whore himself for a buck. Far from it. It could ruin him if it wasn’t authentic.
For weeks we pulled our hair out searching for a phrase. We focused on what was the common denominator in Steve’s previous work. As The Legend of Bagger Vance was inspired by the Bhagavad Gita, Gates of Fire inspired by the heroic Spartan stand at Thermopylae and Tides of War inspired by a pivotal figure in the Peloponnesian War (Alcibiades), it was pretty obvious that Steve’s work explored internal and external wars.
War as metaphor was just what we needed to attract Steve’s previous readers. We also liked it because it was on the other side of the spectrum of the traditional touchy feely self-help arena. This book was self-help for Warriors dedicated to art, one form or other. Warriors willing to do whatever it takes to create something meaningful. This wasn’t a book for wimps. It was a throw down.
Once we figured out the war component, our title, The War of Art wasn’t too far behind. The fact that it echoed Sun Tzu’s classic The Art of War, was an added bonus. Then, Steve went back through the book and integrated more martial language into the text. Defining the problem became “defining the enemy.” Solving the problem involved “combatting resistance.” All would lead to examining “the higher realm.”
Now we needed a subtitle to propose an answer to a core “How to” proposition. That is, it had to tell the potential buyer of the book what they could expect to get out of reading it. How to save money at the grocery store, or how to lose weight, or how to make a tree house . . . And we needed to make the subtitle consistent with the title. Write Your Novel Now! or Build a Business to Last! or Attracting the Angels Among Us! wouldn’t work. Not only were they cheesy, they were non-sequiturs in comparison to the ass kicking title. And they were too tightly focused on specific markets—writing help or business help or Angel believers. We wanted to embrace as many people as possible intent on creating something of their own. They could take what they needed and leave the rest…
We came up with Winning the Inner Creative Battle.
I still love that subtitle, but when we made a deal with Grand Central books (previously Warner Books) to publish the paperback, Steve’s editor there, Emily Griffin, convinced us that focusing the book for the writing market was the way to go for the long backlist haul.
Now the subtitle is Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Promising writers that this book will break their writers’ block was a very good idea. It gave us a very tight focus and a focus that echoes A Writer’s Life. Thank you Emily!
Back to the initial hardcover publication. After we agreed on a subtitle, the task was to find a bestselling writer with a reputation for no bullshit—writing in the same general literary world as The War of Art—willing to put his reputation on the line to support us. Steve and I said the name as the same time, ROBERT MCKEE!
McKee’s classic book, Story, sells tens of thousands of copies (in hardcover!) every year since it’s bestselling initial publication. (Thank you Judith Regan for getting Bob to finally write it.) And his STORY seminar is legend. Here’s a profile of him from The New Yorker: “The Real McKee.”
McKee read The War of Art. He hated the third section, The Higher Realm. But, as I suspected, he loved the first two parts. Absolutely loved them so much that he agreed to write an introduction to the book. But he wasn’t going to do the usual logrolling 100% bullshit sign off for the entire book. Instead he did the job that we couldn’t do ourselves–he would convince readers who didn’t agree with Steve’s ideas at the end of the book (no one disagrees more with Steve on this than Bob) to buy it for the first two parts. Now we would get McKee devotees to check out the book too. Bob even bought a couple thousand copies himself to sell at this seminars. Our “take what you need and leave the rest” strategy was working.
(Full disclosure, McKee is now one of my clients)
Then we had to come up with a compelling hardcover package. What would the book look like?
I shared The War of Art with a dear friend and a wonderful graphic designer, Timothy Hsu. One of the messages of the book kept coming back to him. It was for artists to take a good hard look in the mirror and get to it, get their Asses in their desk chairs and get to work.
Timothy came up with the idea of strategically placing three mini-mirrors on the cover to represent the three parts of the book. And to make the texture of the entire book a reflective silver mosaic. It was an expensive idea, but one we thought would make the book stand out from the pack at the bookstore. Steve let me run with it. First editions of The War of Art sell for more than $100 apiece today. Steve calls it the “silver bullet edition.”
Rugged Land Books published The War of Art in June 2002 and we pitched the book as a perfect graduation gift to the usual print magazines, industry journals, etc.
It didn’t set the world on fire.
But it sold just enough (about 8,000 hardcover units) to start conversations among artists. Rugged Land and Steve made some money on the sale of the paperback to Grand Central and the book percolated along via word of mouth for years, selling a consistent 10,000 paperbacks a year. Meanwhile, Steve and I kept in touch while he wrote more novels for Doubleday and I published 45 books at Rugged Land.
While Rugged Land had seven New York Times bestsellers, the inertia of the capital intensive, paper driven, bricks and mortar, selling to retailer book publishing model took its toll on me—financially, physically and emotionally. Every arena of my life became Rugged Land driven and after all kinds of turmoil and the painful realization that my dream to become Bennett Cerf was never going to happen. Rugged Land discontinued publishing in 2007.
A bittersweet moment came when I had to sell off the furniture and miscellaneous office supplies by myself. A friend of mine placed a bunch of ads on Craigslist etc. for me and the locusts arrived to pick apart the Rugged Land carcass. People were literally giving me $.50 for an extra carton of garbage bags that I bought for $3.99. The office was across the street from the Hudson River and I was thinking how refreshing a nice dip into its icy depths would be when a woman noticed a copy of copies of The War of Art stacked in a corner. She picked one up and looked at me as if I was Brad Pitt.
“Did you publish this book!” she stammered.
By that time I was incapable of verbal communication, but I nodded in the affirmative.
“It changed my life. Thank you.”
As Bill Murray’s character Carl Spackler said in Caddyshack “I’ll always have that going for me . . . which is nice.”
An agent friend, Richard Abate, emailed me the moment he heard Rugged Land was in trouble. He hired me as a literary agent for a new division he was starting up at the big fancy outfit called the Endeavor Agency. It was a great place to land and I learned how to work the other side of the publishing desk all the while given the opportunity to provide for my family. Nothing is ever as bad as you think it is.
While I was at Endeavor, Steve and I would talk every few months, just to check in as pals, and he told me about putting together www.stevenpressfield.com. The War of Art was increasing in sales every month after he began blogging a weekly column called Writing Wednesdays. How about that?
It didn’t occur to us until four or five months later that The War of Art was a blog book before anyone blogged. It was 10 years ahead of its time. The format is exactly blog, easy to read, fun and each chapter/post is a self-contained mini-story.
Writing Writing Wednesdays also gave Steve a chance to meet the actual people who read and liked The War of Art. He could talk to those who recommended the book to their friends and they talked back. He could find, listen and engage with them. Annual sales of the book went from 10,000 before Steve’s blog to 15,000 in just one year. He couldn’t add a second floor to his house, but a 50% increase in sales is nothing to roll your eyes at either.
In 2009, the Endeavor Agency and the William Morris Agency merged. I decided not to pursue a position at the new combined agency and started Genre Management Inc. Endeavor allowed all of my clients to come with me and as arrivedercis go, it was pretty painless. I called Steve and told him my plans.
“So you are a completely solo operation now?” he asked.
“Yep, Genre Management Inc. is a laptop, a cellphone and whatever’s left of twenty years of book publishing inside my head.”
“I think we can have a lot of fun working together on the website and who knows what else . . . Do you have room for me as a client?”
He hired me as his literary manager right then and there and pledged 15% of his future book income to me. Even though Sterling Lord was still his agent collecting the same 15%. And he never let on that he’d heard the word on the street was that I had been fired. He really didn’t care.
I did a few editorial passes on The Profession with Steve before it went to Crown for acceptance, and we worked up a bunch of ideas to market the book with Callie and Jeff. Like a lot of Steve and my ideas, they may have been a few years ahead of their time . . .
We started this blog What It Takes a year ago to share our experiences with you. It began as a no-holds-barred look at what it takes to market and sell a book in this transitional era from paper/retailer to electronic/reader as publishing’s driving force.
One wonderful thing that came out of our marketing ideas was The Warrior Ethos. Steve wrote it over the holiday and into January last year. After we edited it, I called our old friend Timothy Hsu to come up with a cover for the book that would seem as if it had been found in an archaeological dig. He commissioned a painting of a Spartan shield and we wrapped it around the front and back covers.
The idea behind it was that if the hero of The Profession, Gent Gentilhomme, had to codify the ethos to which he subscribed, The Warrior Ethos would be that book. We would use The Warrior Ethos to promote The Profession as a way to get readers thinking about Warriors through time.
And as The Warrior Ethos was ours and ours alone, we published it ourselves for fun. Steve personally funded an 18,000 copy special military edition print run of the book for the men and women in the armed services. Callie and Steve found a network of wonderful people—you’d be amazed at the list of people who are devoted to Steve’s work—who ensured that the books would get into the hands of warriors in Afghanistan and Iraq. And we decided to let anyone who couldn’t get a copy read it for free on www.stevenpressfield.com.
We were having a ball. But it was an expensive operation, a sea of red ink. At the very least, I wanted Steve to get the marketing money he spent out of his own pocket for The Professionto come back to him. So, I suggested to Steve that we do a “soft launch” and put The Warrior Ethos up for sale in electronic and paperback editions with online retailers. This way, he could get some of his investment back.
“What does that mean . . . soft launch?” he asked.
“It means I just put it up for sale and we’ll see what happens. I’ll take care of the production, etc., and if we ever make a penny, we can split it 50/50 like the old days.”
“Okay, sounds like fun. Let’s do it…but we have to come up with a name and logo for our company for the book spine don’t we? We don’t want people to see this book and think it’s a joke or unprofessional, right?”
How can you argue with that?
Steve then put his thinking cap on and he came up the name of a publishing house that we both loved. It refers to a phrase in the very first post that Steve did introducing What It Takes, something about a Black Irish Wildman (“What It Takes“).
I’ll let Steve explain. This from our evolving future website . . .
ABOUT BLACK IRISH BOOKS
Black Irish Books is named in honor of our partner, Shawn Coyne. When you think of the Irish, what usually comes to mind is the fair-haired, blue- or green-eyed physical type (think Denis Leary or Meg Ryan). But there’s another brand of Irishman (George Clooney comes to mind), dark-haired, dark-eyed, perhaps a tad unstable, even dangerous. Legend has it that this DNA entered the Irish bloodstream around 1588 via the shipwrecked mariners of the Spanish Armada.
Black Irishmen are famous for being pugnacious and confrontational. Great barroom brawlers. Boxing champs of the early 20th Century (Jim Fitzsimmons, Gene Tunney) were often black Irish. Hence our boxing glove logo. (We originally had a shot glass on a bar with a tear tracking down one side, but we decided that was a tad melodramatic.)
The motto of Black Irish Books (yes, we have one) is “Get in the ring.” The titles we intend to bring out will be steak-and-potatoes types, whose aim is to inspire, encourage and fortify those artists, entrepreneurs and athletes whose ambition is not to stand on the sidelines, waiting for permission from others, but to take their destiny in their own fists–to pursue their heart’s calling and make it work.
Not only did my pal, Steve, honor me by naming our company Black Irish Books, he asked me to tell the www.stevenpressfield.com community about it.
We have lots of stuff in the works for Black Irish Books—so many projects and dreams we find hard to keep track of them all—but one thing is for sure…we’ll share what we’re up against and what surprises us all the way with you. Callie and Jeff and Timothy and other friends are throwing in what they got too.
Get in the ring with us…we’re gonna have some fun.
More to come in the New Year!