Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Writing (page 1 of 8)

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!

A thought on Jonah Lehrer’s new book, redemption, and writing

So Jonah Lehrer has a new book coming out, and there’s some snark around it. Lehrer has admitted that he cut corners, self-plagiarized, and made stuff up, but lots of people don’t feel so forgiving:

The clearest expression of this “not convinced” view is Gawker, who explains that “Notorious Fabulist Jonah Lehrer Wants to Apologize (So You’ll Buy His Book).” Given Gawker’s recent legal troubles, I would say that they’re maybe not the best publication to be criticizing others for being fabulists; but I think that they’re being way too cynical. But even if Gawker were (a little) correct, I have to wonder: this is really wrong?

It seems to me that a system that allows people to admit their mistakes, explain how they’re making amends, and submit to greater degrees of public scrutiny in exchange for an opportunity to recover their reputations and livelihoods, is… pretty fucking just. Isn’t this the way things are supposed to work?

Lehrer isn’t seeking PR by any means necessary, or trying to turn his notoriety into a calling-card. I don’t think he’s playing by the Kardashian (or Farrah Abraham) playbook: he calculates that it’s better for him to talk about his previous misdeeds because for the time being at least they’re unavoidable, and at this stage in order to rebuild his credibility it’s necessary to be clear about the steps he’s taking to assure that he’s not making stuff up. Nor did he go the Boris Johnson route, playing the charming self-deprecating buffoon as he slides away from charges. I get the sense that he wants to put this phase behind him, not use it to sell more t-shirts.

We need avenues for rehabilitation, because people make mistakes that shouldn’t necessarily cost them their lives;  otherwise we have no incentive to do anything other than double down, or pull a Trump-like Ponzi scheme with the truth. With Donald Trump, there’s an eternal danger that his latest outrage will make you forget the last 20 terrible things he’s said— and Trump knows that and is counting on you to do exactly that. Unless he’s playing some serious eleven-dimensional chess, it doesn’t seem to me that Lehrer is trying to distract your from future misdeeds by addressing his previous ones, nor is he one of those psychopaths who feels the need to cheat people to prove his own intelligence.

Of course, you can question whether Lehrer’s success is deserved. Fame is weird and fickle and profoundly un-meritocratic. There are tons of great, thoughtful books that never find an audience, and plenty of wise people who get crowded out by louder or more telegenic figures.

And ultimately, my instinct is that Lehrer is a serious writer, and wants to be a serious person. He certainly can write with flair and style; he seems to me to take the craft seriously. You don’t write as much as he has without being driven, and that’s an impulse that should be channeled for good, not disparaged.

Personally, from what I’ve heard about the latest book, I’m not sure it’s that compelling a project, but that’s not such a bad thing, necessarily: after he got out of jail, Robert Downey Jr. did a stint on television, rebuilding his reputation before going on to Iron Man. Maybe that’ll happen with Lehrer. Just so long as he doesn’t compete with me.

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.

Journeyman + 20

Twenty years ago I published an essay on the psychological and practical aspects of leaving academia. I had recently moved from U.C. Davis to Chicago and a job at Encyclopedia Britannica, after several years of postdocs and teaching and endless job applications. At the time, there weren’t that many people talking publicly about leaving academic jobs; few humanities or social science Ph.D.s making the argument that you could achieve everything you wanted to as a scholar and writer outside academia; and even fewer were making the argument that the nonacademic world can be a better place to do thoughtful work.

My table at LSE archives

I had been out of academia for less than a year when I wrote the piece, and just starting a new career. I posted the occasional update to the original essay (and a couple pieces of advice to young graduate students), but yesterday it struck me that now– two decades later, and while I wait for the galleys of my next book to arrive– would be a good time to revisit the question of what kind of life a humanist or historian can craft outside the tenure track, and in particular to talk to graduate students and young Ph.D.s who are both thinking about leaving academia, but who still want to research and write.

The most important thing I’ve learned is that the world is full of interesting questions.

By this I mean a couple things. First, while I was trained to look for interesting projects in the archives, or the interstices of scholarly literatures, I’ve found that the questions I encounter as a consultant or as writer are just as engaging. (This is something I’ve talked about elsewhere.)

Second, I’ve found lots of opportunities to use the tools you acquire in graduate school, and to ask the same kinds of questions I did in the seminar room.

Document storage at LSE archives

For example, my work as a futurist and technology forecaster turns out to be a version of STS. There are people who do tech forecasting as a kind of exercise in utopian determinism, but I haven’t; instead, my work has emphasized the open-ended, contingent nature of technological change and innovation, and argued that we need to look at a variety of forces to understand how the future (or future of some specific technology) might unfold. In other words, it’s an exercise recognizable to anyone who’s been exposed to an academic STS program. What’s been surprising to me is how often something I’m working on or interested in turns out to have a dimension that can be explored using the STS toolkit. (Of course, experience helps. If you do something for a long time you get good at finding opportunities to do it; if you spend a long time looking for a pattern you’ll get good at spotting it.)

This doesn’t mean you can do exactly the same work you’d do if you were a professor somewhere: specialized projects that require months of access to one-of-a-kind materials would be hard to do if you didn’t live near them, or have long stretches of time off to spend with them. But what I’ve found is that while the kinds of things I write about now often are different from what I would be writing about if I were a professor, they’re just as interesting— and often, my work serves as a kind of fieldwork that gives me access to things I would never see as a student or academic.

For example, I’ve been able to write about the sociology and materiality of strategic consulting, drawing on my experience working with clients like Deloitte, Samsung, and the CIA. None of them would have ever been interested in having me just observe them; and I would never have learned about scenario planning, or learned the craft of planning and managing workshops.

Though sometimes you can ask the same questions you did as a student, even if the products and my own voice are different. My latest book on rest is a perfect example. It’s written for a general audience, has a healthy mix of neuroscience and current business stuff, and will be published by a trade press (thank you Basic Books!). But it asks a set of questions about creativity and work that I first encountered as a freshman, in a course with the great Thomas Parke Hughes, and have been interested in ever since.

I’m not sure whether, as a tenured professor looking for a promotion, I could write this kind of book.

Back among my people

The other point worth making here is that when you move from writing straight-on academic work to writing more popular stuff, you’re not exchanging the freedom of the life of the mind for the narrow strictures of the marketplace; you’re trading one set of structures that define what constitutes an interesting problem, what value different kinds of products (articles vs. monographs vs. Web sites) have, who’s going to read them, etc., for another. No writing exists outside a network of forces that help answer those questions; it’s just that in one context, the answers are provided by anonymous journal referees and promotion committees, and in another the answers are provided by acquisitions editors, marketing people, and agents.

But even when they’re different kinds of work, different audiences, different products, it’s possible for futures and consulting work to offer the same kind of intellectual engagement and flow that I was always seeking as a graduate student and postdoc: it’s possible to enjoy this work in the same ways I enjoyed scholarly work. At the end of the day, I think that’s what matters most. You really can’t predict if a book is going to make a big splash, or get a huge readership, or sink without a trace; all you can do is write the best book you can, and have as good as time writing it as possible.

There are lots of resources available to non-academics for building a scholarly habitus.

One obvious concern that you’ll have is that the unique resources of research universities won’t be available to you if you leave, and therefore holding on for a few years of adjuncting in exchange for continued access to the library– and ultimately the hope that you can publish your way out of the margins of the job market and into a permanent job– makes sense.

Perhaps for super-specialized fields, this is true; but I think that for most of us, it’s possible to reassemble our own scholarly habitus. While I was writing REST, I was struck at how much I had come to rely on four sets of resources, three of which are easily available:

Denver Public Library

The public library. Of course it’s awesome to bury yourself in the stack of Sterling or Weidener or wherever; on our last vacation to London, my wife and I chose a hotel not far from the British Library. But for 70% of what I do, my local public library branch is all I really need. You shouldn’t bend the arc of your life in order to have access to those feschrisfts and proceedings that you might use once in blue moon.

Amazon’s used books. Of course, I love my local used bookstores, and Keplers Books; my wife and I always stop at the used bookstores in Willits when we visit Northern California; and I bought an absurd number of books when I was last in England. But Amazon’s used books service lets me buy huge numbers of weird, otherwise impossible-to-find books, at absurdly low prices. I’m not talking about a cheap copy of Daniel Kahneman’s book; I mean some weird thing from 1961 that no one wants, and which is sitting in a warehouse in Pennsylvania.  When a book costs a penny (plus $3.99 shipping), it becomes trivially easy to decide to buy it and try it.

Google Books. For more specialized stuff Google Books is an erratic resource, but when you do find something useful on it, it feels like sorcery.

Of course, having access to a university library, and in particular to its subscriptions to scholarly online journals, is super-helpful. But don’t think that because you can’t spend all your days in the library, your scholarly life is over. You can build a scholarly habitus anywhere. Like the life of the mind, the space for thinking is a lot more portable and durable than we think.

Many great thinkers have had day jobs.

Most writers, musicians, composers, poets, and painters have jobs that pay the bills. One striking commonality in the biographies of famous authors is how many of them don’t quit their job at the advertising agency, as a schoolteacher, or give up their insurance businesses or law practices, until their third or fourth books. It often takes that long for them to establish a name, become familiar enough with the business to move confidently, and sell enough books to keep the wolf from the door.

Indeed, most academics and scholars have day jobs: they’re teachers, administrators, and advisors. As a result, the amount of time you have for your own work after committee meetings, office hours, lecture prep, grading, etc. can be vanishingly small; the fact that you’re completely responsible for managing that time paradoxically makes it feel worse when you don’t manage to crank out a book every two years, or whatever you imagine you should be able to do.

Nom nom Om: The rise of bite-sized wisdom

“We each have two lives,” a wise person once said, “and the second begins when we realise we have only one.” I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.)

Source: Want to imbibe wisdom by accident? | Oliver Burkeman | Life and style | The Guardian

Moved from Typepad to WordPress

It’s been almost a year since I last posted to my personal blog; I’ve poured most of the time and energy that I would have devoted to blogging to my next book, and what other time was left has gone to my professional blogs (and a little to Twitter and Facebook, of course). I’ve also been slowly moving over to WordPress, hosting the Deliberate Rest blog on a WordPress service, and finally decided that the time had come to either close down these older properties, or relocate them.

Life's better when we're connected

Now that the book is done, and Memorial Day weekend gave me a bit of time, I decided to take the plunge.

I first consolidated several blogs— my personal blog, and two subject-specific projects on futures and the end of cyberspace— into one, exported that, and then sent it to Typepad 2 WordPress for conversion.

I also moved the domain name from GoDaddy to Name.com, as it seemed easier to deal with everything in one place (and because I was having serious trouble making things work otherwise, to tell the truth). That took a few hours, which I suppose is okay given how disruptive it would be to lose a domain accidentally, or to have it stolen— and given that it was estimated to take several days.

Diversion

The whole process was a lot less painful than I expected. There’s always some cleanup you need to do, and I helped myself years ago by using Flickr for my blog photos (so I didn’t have to import lots of pictures), but generally it was pretty smooth.

The main reason I moved from Typepad is that I want to try to consolidate my various online identities, gather together my scattered activities, and make it easier to reassemble and repurpose material.

Right now I’ve got accounts on Typepad, WordPress, and Strikingly (for the Distraction Addiction book advertisement page); I’d like to get that down to two, or even one, if possible.

I also would love to have a workflow where everything goes through one or two sites— this one and the deliberate rest blog (or the blog of whatever live project I have going on)— and then Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. get pinged about new material, rather than do things separately across these different platforms. Buffer helps consolidate some of this, but I still feel like Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook aren’t really useful platforms for gathering and remembering thing, which is something I need.

Finally something worth reading

I would also to have things working so I can more easily take posts, put them together, revise them, and republish them in ebook format. For me a blog is useful as a first— or maybe half— draft of other things, and so I’d like the workflow to better support that.

Unfortunately, in this category, while WordPress has tons of plugins for reposting to Buffer, copying to Evernote, etc., it’s not clear that Typepad is keeping up— or is able to keep up.

So we’ll see how this goes!

“by the end its writer feels both entitled to a place in its field and unfit for any other type of work”

Rebecca Schuman writes in Slate about UC Irvine’s new program to get graduate students out in five years, and sees an important benefit: a climb down from the idea of the dissertation as an “endlessly protracted super-project that is so difficult, so important, and takes so long that by the end its writer feels both entitled to a place in its field and unfit for any other type of work.”

What a great line!

I finished my degree in five years, thanks to being intensely tactical about my dissertation (though this was mainly my advisor’s doing), and luckily well-funded. So I think the five year benchmark makes good sense. Graduate school can be a good experience, but not when it turns into the academic equivalent of the siege of Leningrad.

In London

I’m in London for a few days, doing some research for Rest.

My table at LSE archives

We’re staying at the Hotel Russell, which overlooks Russell Square in Bloomsbury. I’ve passed by it many times, and have always been curious about what it was like. It’s nice.

Hotel Russell

Our room doesn’t overlook Russell Square, of course; ours overlooks one of the other hotels, though if you crane your head out the window, you can see some of the trees.

Thursday I was at the British Library, and the Wellcome Collection. Both were great.

British Library

Friday I went down to the London School of Economics, and spent the day in their special collections. The LSE library has this wacky spiral staircase in its center.

LSE library

London is great as always, and being here in the summer (which I’ve done very rarely) is great. We did happen to be in town during a huge anti-austerity rally, which meant we could forget doing normal tourist stuff, but which proved interesting on its own terms.

DSCF4914

Wednesday I go up to Cambridge, to do some work in the archives there. Then it’s back home.

O Yes

A brief rant in favor of literary agents, or at least my agent

In the New Republic Stephen Akey has a piece complaining about how literary agents choose who to represent. “Everyone’s trying to make a buck and literary agencies can hardly be faulted for interesting themselves in what sells rather than in what doesn’t, or at least not so much,” he admits. But

The problem, as one bracingly honest agent confided to me in the course of one of my innumerable rejections, is that the notion of “sales” has narrowed nearly to the vanishing point. Almost all agencies, he told me, are looking for one of two things: bestseller potential or the possibility of media adaptations….

[A]after plowing through hundreds of agency websites, I find it hard to believe that many other good and serious books aren’t being stopped dead in their tracks…. there’s no real balance between commercial imperative and literary ambition. The writing is merely part of the package, not necessarily more important than the “platform” and maybe less so than the “brand.”

Akey isn’t exactly untested: he’s published lots of essays and articles, and already has two books out (like me!). But, he laments,

I’m not a “brand,” I don’t have a “platform,” and if literary agencies are going to insist on such things from all of their clients, some very good writing—much of it undoubtedly better than mine—will never be published in book form.

I can’t speak to the whole of the industry, but I have to say, this isn’t my experience. Of course (and luckily), my experience isn’t incredibly extensive: I’ve met several, and have only been represented by one, because she’s great. She helps me turn my ideas into serious proposals, gets my work in front of some of the best editors working today, and secures what I think of as shockingly great contracts against strong odds. During my recent trip to the East Coast, she spent a day taking me around to meetings at several houses; the next week we sold my new book, Rest: Why Working Less Gets More Done, to Basic Books. (It was tough to take a break from visiting collegiate Gothic campuses, but it was worth it.)

This is not to say that Akey is making up his complaints, nor that the concerns about branding and platforms and knowing insiders who can help promote and blurb your book aren’t real. But in my experience, they come from publishers themselves. Partly this reflects the fact that books are now tools for extending one’s fame, and partly that publishers no longer feel they know how books sell.

Do you really think movie stars of aspiring presidential candidates or shock jocks have always wanted to write a book? 99% of the time they’re capitalizing on their fame, or writing a book because the rest of the cabinet has book deals, or because that’s what you do to get that sinecure at the think-tank. These aren’t expressions of literary passion, they’re projects meant to leverage The Brand of Me. And the thing is, their books are probably going to sell. They’ll certainly will do better than Aker’s or mine, and will subsidize midlist authors like me. So inevitably the industry is more oriented to those books.

And then there’s the problem that, in the age of Amazon and ebooks and social media, an author’s own celebrity, and their existing personal network, becomes a hedge against the growing risks of a volatile, hard-to-predict (or manipulate) market. I certainly understand Aker’s frustration— I’ve heard the same objection myself— but I think it comes less from a desire to make more money by selling the options to Hollywood even before the book is written, than to reduce the downside exposure.

And finally, if you have a chance to sign an author who has that presence and is a brand, and an author who doesn’t, why go with the latter? Publishing is already an uncertain game, and there’s no guarantee that someone who’s shy and retiring is going to produce a book that the world will clamor to read, or that someone who understands the current media ecology won’t turn out work that’s smart and accessible.

So if there are agents who are talking about brands and platforms and social media reach, then it’s because they’re paid to know their markets, to understand what publishers want, and have incentives to deliver it. I’ve always known I got lucky with my agent; if Akey is right, I was even luckier than I realized.

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