Books? Why would Anyone Want to Sell Them?

Had a reading group dinner last night. This was new to me and I hauled along my mystery to talk about, plus another by another author. This led to a short discussion with a retired academic about changes in the publishing industry. In the course of that he sneered at “popularly-written” books and informed me that stilted, formal writing with lengthy expository pages was the standard in professional writing. (By “professional,” he meant other professions, not the MB1Cover192x300profession of writing.)

“How many copies of those books do they sell?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I had farted in church. “Well, if all you care about is the money, … ” he started to say.

“Yeah,” I said. “All I care about is the money.”

This is an old dichotomy in the publishing world. There’s nothing wrong, in my mind, with publishing a 100-page screed on The Tonsil Appendages of Costa Rican Tree Frogs and that publication may help you secure tenure at some university. But don’t sneer at people like me who have written millions of published words on all manner of subjects, both nonfiction and fiction.

Check out Mangrove Bayou
for a disgusting example of popular writing. 



If You’re Not Yet Professional, Then Act Like It

In 1982 I had just started freelance writing, part-time, at night and on weekends. I worked for a company at Tampa’s seaport full-time (and then some). One day I saw a want ad from a major hospital corporation, seeking an expert writer and editor to edit their in-house materials. Why not, I thought. The last time I was in a hospital was long ago when I was in the Army in Vietnam. (Some days, back then, I didn’t move as quick as I ought to have. Other days were worse.) But I had seen a couple of hospital shows on TV. How hard could it be?

I called and made an appointment for a job interview. Then I rushed out of my office and down the street to a quick-print place and WC Business Cardsordered some business cards for my new freelance-writing business.

The next day I took a long lunch break and picked up the business cards en route to my appointment. The ink was still a little wet on the cards, so I held one out the window as I drove, to dry it out.

The office wasn’t in a hospital after all. Just a regular office building. Some guy sat me down, took my card, and handed me a memo of the type I would be editing. “Look that over and give me your opinion,” he said. He admired the card while I stared at the memo, clueless as to what to do with it. Today I would have grabbed a red pencil and left the memo bleeding. Back then about all I knew was that it was entirely couched in passive voice — something I had just heard at a writers’ meeting was A Bad Thing.

“None of the other writers I’ve interviewed had a card,” he remarked as I silently stared at his sample memo. “What would you do with that memo if we hired you?”

“I’d get rid of all this awful passive voice. Make it more interesting to read and shorter too.”

He grabbed the memo back and looked at it. By God,” he said, “it is all passive voice. I hadn’t noticed. That’s amazing! And so quick. How much do you charge per hour?”

I told him. He sat back, frowning. “That’s sort of our top-end pay scale. None of those other writers I interviewed wanted that much.”

I just stared at him. “Well, I’m sort of a top-end guy,” I finally said. I realized that I had a huge advantage over “those other writers.” I already had a job. I didn’t much care if I got this freelance assignment or not. I said nothing more about it and the meeting ended and I went back to my office.

The next day he called to tell me I had the job. I worked for them, on and off as they needed me, for about a year, while still holding down a full-time job elsewhere.

The lesson I learned from this was to negotiate from strength. I had less experience than the other applicants but I was businesslike and I demanded the best and showed no inclination to back down. And businesspeople like to hire busy people and they tend to equate how good you are with how much they’re paying you. (Psychologically, there’s a good reason for that. They have to validate, in their own minds, paying you so much. You don’t even have to say anything; they rate you high because they are paying you high.)

I tell people today that it’s the person who acts as if he or she doesn’t care one way or another if he or she gets the job — who gets the job.