Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Books (page 1 of 18)

The myth of personal branding

An article in today’s Quartz discusses Indiana University anthropologist Ilana Gershon’s new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (Or Don’t Find) Work Today and its argument that Personal branding “is largely a boondoggle advanced by inspirational speakers and job trainers.” What Gershon finds is that

It doesn’t help people get jobs. But it does make us more accepting of an increasingly dehumanized job market that treats workers as products rather than people.

For one thing, the employers and hiring managers Gershon talked to didn’t look for, or even notice, personal branding. Gershon concluded that despite all the hype, finding your personal brand doesn’t help job-seekers. Its primary function is to make people feel like they have control over their working lives in an increasingly hostile job landscape.

According to Gershon, the concept of personal branding developed over the last 30 years as the concept of work itself became more precarious.

In essence, companies tend to treat employees in a more transactional manner now, and the personal brand is the employee’s attempt to define that relationship on their terms, and to “reconcile oneself to an economy that provides less and less security.”

Goodreads giveaway

REST will be out in just over two weeks, and to celebrate, I’m starting a Goodreads giveaway.

I’ll be giving away ten autographed hardcover copies of the book. Goodreads will select the winners, and I’ll send the books out after the contest ends on December 15. (They might make it for Christmas, they might not. I can make no guarantees!)

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Rest

by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Giveaway ends December 15, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

 

Head over to Goodreads to enter, and good luck! And of course, you can also preorder the book online, or look for it in your local bookstore on December 6.

My next book, REST, is off to the presses

This weekend I finished reviewing the index and page proofs of my next book, REST. It now goes off to the printer, and the next time I see it will be December 6, when it hits store shelves.

Final REST cover

For those of you who are interested in the process of revising a book, I explain the process of copyediting and reviewing page proofs on my Deliberate Rest blog.

Of course, there’s plenty more to be done before the book hits the shelves: promotional campaigns to be designed, influencers to be tapped, journalists and producers to be approached about doing pieces about the book, and so on. New books aren’t finished the way, say, the Parthenon was finished; they’re “finished” the way a really good meal is finished when the cook puts it in the serving dish. It still needs to be brought to the table and served; the table has be set; and the restaurant needs to be decorated.

This work is something I knew nothing about the last time I published a trade book, and I’m really going to try not to underestimate it this time!

On the experience of shopping a book proposal

Following my piece on agents and why you want one, a brief note on shopping a proposal.

Rejection is inevitable.

You know those stories about how Catcher in the Rye or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected by 37 publishers before someone finally saw its potential? Before I pitched my first trade press book, it seemed incredible that such books wouldn’t be snapped up; now, I hear those kinds of stories and think, Yeah, that’s how it works.

For each of my books, my agent sent out copies of the proposal to a couple dozen editors. (They go out to a bunch at once; pitching a book is like being on Tinder, and no one should have any expectation that they’re the only one you’ve expressed interest in.) In each case, we had a couple serious expressions of interest, and managed to land excellent deals for both books.

But that came after lots of rejections. The book is too vague. The book is too specific. The book is really a magazine article. The author’s an unknown quantity. The last book didn’t sell well enough. It’s not a good fit. Ariana Huffington’s book covers  the same territory. Gladwell already talked about this on p. 137 of The Tipping Point. Easily a dozen rejections.

Getting rejections sucks. You know it’s not personal, that most editors read the first couple pages and make a gut decision (they hardly have time to do more than that)— but it still feels lousy, and as they pile up, they can press on your confidence. It requires real effort to have faith that you’ve done good work, and that someone at some point will recognize it.

But getting an offer for your book is like getting a marriage proposal. You only need one good one to restore your faith in yourself, and to move forward with your life.

One of the other interesting things is that rejections tend to be kind of offhand, as very few people take the time to explain in any great detail what they think is wrong with your book and how you could make it right, expressions of interest are more detailed and specific. An editor may just have a feeling that a book’s not for them, but they’ll be able to explain exactly why they like a proposal.

However, if you get a couple publishers interested in the book, you move on to the auction phase.

How auctions work.

This will be designed and directed by the agent. As I understand it, based on the level of excitement around your proposal, an agents will decide how many rounds of bidding there will be, what kinds of rights are up for sale, and how long publishers have to make offers and counteroffers. In general publishers don’t know who they’re bidding against (though I’m sure people talk, and for some specialized books you can guess who else is going to be interested in it), or who has submitted the highest offer.

Not everyone will make exactly the same kind of offer. Publishers can offer an advance paid out of three or four installment; they can ask for just domestic rights, or world rights (which they’ll then sell on to other publishers, in order to offset their investment); there’s some wiggle room in electronic rights or audiobooks. I think the domestic versus world rights is the biggest variable. If you think your book has international potential, and if your agent has a good network of foreign agents they work with, you might take a lower offer and keep the international rights, and try to sell them yourself; or you may sell all the rights and take the higher advance.

Even if you get a nice advance, you’ll get it over three or four payments, spread out over the life of your project. For example, a $100K advance— which is really great— will probably pay out over two or three years. You’ll get a chunk upon signing. You’ll get another installment after final revisions are approved. Another check will come upon publication. Sometimes there’s a fourth milestone— turning in the draft, for example. Take six figures, spread them out over a couple years and over several checks, and it gets smaller.

And don’t forget that you have to deduct taxes and commission from that, so $100K is really more like $60K.

Finally, don’t imagine that you sign and the money is transferred instantly into your account; expect a delay of somewhere between a couple weeks and a geological epoch. I don’t think publishers are intentionally slow, but they’re also not high frequency traders or PayPal.

A couple other pieces of wisdom.

First, you’re not going to get a life-changing quantity of money. Life-improving, certainly; but unless you live very frugally, it won’t be enough to let you quit your day job. (Many writers don’t seem to do that until they’ve published three or four books, anyway, and many never do. It’s simply a fact.) However, it’ll help pay off some bills, or kids’ tuition, or a vacation after you’re done. Which is not bad given that you’re doing something that you probably would do anyway.

Second, in the marketplace, the value of your next book is mainly determined by sales of your last book. An editor might see you as having potential, or evolving into an outstanding author with a devoted following. (And that does happen. Alan Furst, for example, wrote four books before Night Soldiers, the novel where he discovered his voice as a World War II espionage writer. He didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller list until his sixth World War II book, Kingdom of Shadows. I’m sure his publisher is glad they held on through Dark Star and The Polish Officer and the other books.) But advances aren’t like salaries: raises are not inevitable. They can go down as well as up, or disappear entirely.

Finally, when you write a book, you think you’re building the Parthenon, a timeless work for the ages. You’re not. You’re making dinner for friends. Odds are your book will generate a flurry of excitement, which is awesome; then after a while, the season will end, and it’ll fade, and next year it’ll be another book’s turn. Don’t be deceived if your book gets lots of attention when it first comes out. Enjoy it, by all means, and do everything you can to keep the book in the public eye. But as the Roman said, all glory is fleeting, and ultimately writing is going to be a great opportunity to acquire new reserves of modesty and humility.

Your book might get a stable readership after that, or it might not. It’s not only the good books that have a long tail. There are tons of really terrific books that go out of print, that never quite find a critical mass of readers, that don’t have the good fortune to get one really excited review in the Times. No one can predict whether your book will be a best-seller, or will stay in print for a long time; there are things you can do to nudge the odds in your favor, but no one controls that process.

Why you, first-time author, need a literary agent

I had a long call today with a friend who’s just finished a book and wanted some advice about literary agents. I’ve gotten this question a couple times, mainly from fellow Ph.D.s who are trying to learn about the trade press world. So here I’ll explain the value of literary agents. In another post, I’ll talk a little about shopping a proposal.

So in an age of digital self-publishing, why even look for an agent?

Agents know the market better than you ever will.

The trade press world is quite different from academia, just as the academic and trade marketplaces are different. In fact, I worked in reference publishing, and that didn’t teach me much about the trade press world. Your agent can serve as a guide through this world.

Not only do they have a high-level view of the market and the development process, a good agent has a lot of very specific, timely local knowledge as well. They know which editors are most likely to be interested in your book; what other projects publishers have going, and whether your book would be well-paired with them; who is well-disposed to first-time authors, or your kind of project. They’ll know (more or less) what kinds of deals similar projects have gotten recently.

Finally, if they’re good they’ll be able to help you apply this local knowledge to your own situation. They’ll have a perspective on how your book will differ if you go with X House rather than Y Inc.; help you weigh the pros and cons of working with (for example) a more business-oriented versus a serious nonfiction press; give you a sense of whether you’d be a better fit in a bigger publisher that’s part of a global conglomerate, or a smaller more independent house.

Agents negotiate better deals than you could yourself.

Unless you’re pitching an account about your life as a trade negotiator, your inside view of car dealerships, or your memoir as a door-to-door salesman, odds are you’re better at writing than negotiating advances, or making deals. I’m terrible at talking about money; heck, I’m even not very good at filing reimbursement forms to get back freaking money I’ve already spent and am completely entitled to. What I am good at is writing (or at least it’s what I like to do). Unless you’re a professional deal-maker, it’s better to leave it to the professionals.

And yes, agents take a percentage (normally 15%) off the top; but 85% of what they’ll get you is probably a LOT bigger than 100% of what you’d be able to negotiate for yourself.

Not only are they more experienced, the fact that they work on commission means that their success is directly related to yours. An agent is like a Ph.D. advisor who only gets paid if you get a tenure-track job. Just sit with that idea for a minute. I’ll wait.

Agents help develop your book proposal.

You can write a proposal on your own: the book proposal, like a sermon or scientific article, has a well-articulated structure that anyone can learn about. But like a sermon or scientific article, you’ll write a better one if you’ve seen lots of examples of the craft, and have a smart reader who can look at drafts and give you advice.

A good proposal explains to overworked editors who seen a million of these things every year why your book is special, so you need it to stand out, to grab the editor’s attention from the very beginning. It’s also a demonstration of your professionalism and your ability to write; it signals your commitment; and it provides some early proof that you can get it together enough to turn your white-hot creativity into actual product. The process of writing a proposal can also serve to clarify your ideas, and force you to think hard about what the book is really about, and what you care about.

So a lot is riding on the proposal, and if you have help, you can get a lot out of the process of crafting it.

For me, the proposal is also valuable because it’s like a contract. I love to play around the structure and try out new ways of organizing books; the outline I provide int he contract puts a brake on all that. It says, I’m going to write this book this way, forces me to do the very best job I can within the confines of that structure, and reduces the amount of energy I spend playing around with alternate ways of organizing the book.

It doesn’t eliminate that work completely. Neither of my books follows the proposed outline exactly, but they’re pretty close.

How do you choose an agent?

It’s a subjective process, and it’s a bit like getting married. You should have a sense of what you need, and can describe some of your reasoning; but your decision will also be based on instinct, and that’s fine.

The most important thing is to feel that you can trust your agent’s judgment, and to be willing to take it and act on it. For example, I have a very simple relationship with my agent: she tells me what she thinks I should do, and I do it. It’s worked so far. I’m sure she’s going to give me the best advice she can, that she’s plugged into the publishing world in a way that I’m not, and that there’s a perfect alignment of her interests and mine (remember, her success is directly connected to mine).

Ask friends who’ve written books who represented them. My sense is that a lot of the business is relationship driven; I got introduced to my agent by a friend who was already her client. This doesn’t guarantee that someone will sign you; it’s just a way to get the process started.

Look at authors you like, and see who represents them. And no, don’t just look at who represents Malcolm Gladwell and JK Rowling. Conversely, look at the authors an agent already represents. If they’re people you’d like to like— and not just in terms of sales or success; if their books are the sort you’d want to write— that’s a good sign. On the other hand, if you write historical novels and they represent doctors who write self-help books, then you might not be great together.

Copy edits!

Just got these in the mail….

Copy edits!
via flickr

Very exciting, in the way that only a vanishingly small number of grinding, attention-demanding tasks can be.

Book cover!

Here’s the cover for the contemplative computing book:


via flickr

Little, Brown spent a lot of time on it, and I think they’ve managed to communicate a lot in a very small, challenging medium. They were also really good about explaining the design choices, making clear that they thought worked, and accommodating those changes I thought would improve it (or explaining why they would be hard to implement).

So the machine chugs along, and we get one step closer to having a finished book on the shelves!

 

“selling cookie-cutter visions of the future one paperback, slogan, and consulting gig at a time”

Evgeny Mozerov's review of several new TED books— pamphlets, really– is one of the greatest things I've read in a long time. You know you're in for a wild ride when the opening paragraphs starts like this–

Only the rare reader would finish this piece of digito-futuristic nonsense unconvinced that technology is—to borrow a term of art from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt—bullshit. No, not technology itself; just much of today’s discourse about technology, of which this little e-book is a succinct and mind-numbing example.

–and then gets vicious.

Most of the review focuses on Parag and Ayesha Khanna's ebook Hybrid Reality. Apparently the Khannas accidentally once ran over Morozov's dog in their Range Rover, and didn't stop because they were too busy dishing dirt to News of the World about Morozov's mother. Or so I gather, because nothing less would explain the review.

Remember the creatures in Aliens who bleed concentrated acid? Tha's what comes to mind when you read this.

It's. Fabulous.

[A]ll the features that the Khannas invoke to emphasize the uniqueness of our era have long been claimed by other commentators for their own unique eras…. What the Khannas’ project illustrates so well is that the defining feature of today’s techno-aggrandizing is its utter ignorance of all the techno-aggrandizing that has come before it. The fantasy of technology as an autonomous force is a century-old delusion that no serious contemporary theorist of technology would defend.

What's it say about TED? Nothing good, I'm afraid:

I spoke at a TED Global Conference in Oxford in 2009, and I admit that my appearance there certainly helped to expose my argument to a much wider audience, for which I remain grateful. So I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

Though I have to confess that it felt like he was getting dangerously close to describing som eof the work i've done with this paragraph:

[O]ne can continue fooling the public with slick ahistorical jeremiads on geopolitics by serving them with the coarse but tasty sauce that is the Cyber-Whig theory of history. The recipe is simple. Find some peculiar global trend—the more arcane, the better. Draw a straight line connecting it to the world of apps, electric cars, and Bay Area venture capital. Mention robots, Japan, and cyberwar. Use shiny slides that contain incomprehensible but impressive maps and visualizations. Stir well. Serve on multiple platforms.

And the bit about how the Parangs and Tofflers are both "fast-talking tech-addled couple[s] who thrived on selling cookie-cutter visions of the future one paperback, slogan, and consulting gig at a time" sounds like a kind of a good gig. If you can do it in a more intellectually responsible way, of course.

John Lanchester’s Captital

This week I read John Lanchester’s new novel Capital, about life in London during the great financial collapse of 2008.

I thought it was a great read, though not because of its great pacing or high drama or characters you’re cheering for. It’s more like an Impressionist crowd painting, a set of brilliantly-rendered scenes and personalities and moments, not a story that drives to a decisive conclusion. About 200 pages into it, I started thinking, This is great, but with all this buildup, it had better end with Queen Elizabeth on a velociraptor, on top of Big Ben, striking down zombies with nunchuks.

Not to spoil it, but no Queen Elizabeth, no zombies, no velociraptor. (Though one of the characters does like dinosaurs.)

Still, if you want a book that paints a picture of one of the world’s great cities sans velociraptors– and especially if you’ve spent time there, and perhaps intersected very peripherally with the sorts of characters that populate the book– Capital is terrific.

How writing a book is like racing in the Tour de France, and not like self-marketing

I sent off the revised draft of my book last Friday, and celebrated this weekend by watching the end of the Tour de France.

Finished!!!
the book is back, via flickr

It was great to see an Englishman win the tour (Britain’s investment in cycling is paying off, as John Kay notes), and it was also cool to see someone win who was so clear about how much his victory was a team achievement. Yes, Wiggins gets to wear the yellow jersey, but as he himself acknowledges, he stands on the shoulders of his teammates.

I was juxtaposing this to Penelope Trunk’s recent essay about self-publishing her book. The piece, a long post on her Brazen Careerist blog, is about how traditional publishers don’t know anything about their markets, they take too long to get stuff out, and you’re better off doing it yourself. The piece was really striking to me because both in scope and substance it’s so different from my recent (or current) experience.

HipstaPrints-21
home office, california style, via flickr

First of all, Trunk’s account of the publishing industry is all about production and distribution; the work of shaping and editing books is invisible. To me, though, this is about 90% of the value that the publishing industry offers. Fourteen months ago, give or take, I had a very very different idea for a book about contemplative computing. That book might have fit well with an academic press, but it wasn’t the book I really wanted to write. I was lucky to have an agent who pushed me to think more commercially without giving up my intellectual bona fides or the ambition of explaining to ordinary users how our deep entanglement with technology shapes us. I was also really lucky, once I’d produced a manuscript, to have an editor who could work with me to tune it up, and who insisted (in that totally self-effacing way most book editors have) on making it more accessible and useful.

Another important way in which our experiences contrast is that Trunk describes books as calling-cards, as a way of introducing to the public who you are and what services you have to offer. Now, this is totally in keeping with the Tom Peters “Brand of Me” way of seeing the world, and I had professors at Wharton who talked about how their books were really just ways of attracting clients, so clearly there are authors who either genuinely feel that a book can play this role, or see reasons to talk about it this way. For me, though, writing this book has been pretty transformative, and I have a hard time imagining starting something this hard with the assumption that there won’t be a big personal payout at the end.

Christopher
it’s about ME! via flickr

I’m probably going to experiment with some digital self-publishing in the coming year, though I wouldn’t call what I’m going to create electronic books– more like electronic pamphleteering, or digital broadsheeting. A “book” feels like a different proposition than a highly illustrated, expanded version of a talk. Indeed, it’s not just a different proposition, but a promise to readers that the object they’re getting has been through a more rigorous kind of review and publishing process.

Bytes
bytes, via flickr

Indeed, the only way I would self-publish a “book” would be if I could hire editorial talent as strong as Zoë and John, and I’m not sure I’d want to take on the risk of investing that much in a book. It’s possible that I could find equivalent talent in the freelance editorial market, but I quite like the idea that lots of other people at Little, Brown share the risk with me, and have an incentive to help the book be a success.

Just as important, I don’t want my relationship with an editor to become more transactional. As John Kay recently pointed out, the financial services industry worked best for investors and companies when it was more trust-based; in today’s world of super-fast transactions and massive bets, there’s less interest in building trust, because you tend to assume that you’ll be rich and retired within a couple years. I don’t need intellectual relationships that are more transactional. Indeed, I think those two things are polar opposites. Frictionless, transactional relationships are mindless (in Ellen Langer’s use of the term), and can just as easily succeed as win-lose games; meaningful relationships involve trust and struggle, and only succeed when both parties succeed.

Stay
stay, via flickr

I see tremendous benefit in having a team of people who are invested in your victory, like Team Sky was invested in Wiggins’ taking home the yellow jersey. If all you’re doing is a straight-on transaction, something you know how to do and really can do on your own, then maybe the self-publishing model works; but the way I write books requires a team.

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