It's Not Who You Know

We’ve all heard the old adage:

It’s not what you know but who you know that matters.  
Apart from being a conspiracy-theorist’s dream excuse, the adage does have a grain of truth in it. Relationships and networking may matter as much or more in business as your skill set.

I mention this because of a blog post put up by Debbie Stier, Senior V.P. and Associate Publisher at HarperStudio, and Director of Digital Marketing at HarperCollins. It’s a short personal piece about an epiphany in Debbie’s work life, but it also speaks volumes about the book business and how it actually works.
Like many would-be authors I used to think that writers wrote books in little cottages in the woods, bleeding truth onto pages already saturated with tears. When a book was done the author then agonized over query letters, blindly attempting to appease personal idiosyncrasies that each agent somehow believed to be an industry norm. If, against all odds, the author managed to land an agent for his book, the agent went through a similar process trying to generate interest in an editor at a publishing house. If, against these even-longer odds, an editor became interested, that editor then went through a similar process trying to get the support of the person or group that was responsible for pulling the trigger on an actual deal.
Read Debbie’s post about the five new books she’s excited to be working on and you’ll see none of that. In fact, there is no direct mention that Debbie read a single word by any of these authors as a means of discovering them:
I’d heard him speak at the Web 2.0 conference and I wanted desperately to work with him.
The next author to sign with HarperStudio was Kevin Rose, the founder of I’m a huge fan — have been following his blog, twitter, videos, etc. for some time…
Jill Kargman is a novelist. I saw her on Samantha Ettus’s show Obsessed TV six months ago and knew I wanted to work with her.
I’d been thinking a lot about merits and challenges of being a small company within a large corporation, and Bob suggested that there’s a book in that. Nick Bilton from the New York Times lead me to Ryan Tate at Gawker, and he is now writing a book for us called Skunkworks, which I can’t wait to read.
One more author who I want to mention who signed with HarperStudio, though it was slightly before that December epiphany, but still very much part of my process of realizing how much I love my job, is Melanie Notkin, the Savvy Auntie. She’s writing her Savvy Auntie’s Guide to Life.
Here’s what Debbie did not say: ‘I read Author X’s novel/manuscript and it knocked me out.’ And yet there’s nothing wrong with that. As noted above, this kind of book-production paradigm may actually be the norm these days.  
The point I want to make is that here you have someone in the business talking about five books she’s excited about, and none of them is a book that exists because of an author’s personal convictions. Rather, those five books came into being because Debbie Stier contacted five people and suggested a writer/publisher collaboration.
Again — and I really mean it — there’s nothing wrong with this. If it cuts against the romantic grain of the literary world, or your own authorial fantasies, it’s also the way most corporate entertainment works. In fact, if you really think about it, it couldn’t work any other way. Predicating the success of your business or industry on the speculative output of a bunch of writers would be like putting on a sporting event and hoping that some athletes show up. If you sell gas you can’t wait for someone to strike oil; if you sell food you can’t wait for the crops out back to mature. You’ve got to drive product yourself or partner with people who can deliver a steady supply.
In order to protect the bottom line, people in the book business (in any incarnation) cannot wait around for good books to find them. They have to be proactive in priming the pump and reconciling the content of a title with the objectives of their business. Again, who else other than publishers would be qualified to make such informed decisions? Agents? Writers?
Whether Debbie had the budgetary authority to make these projects happen herself or not, it’s clear that her personal interest in the people now working on the new HarperStudio titles short-circuited the much longer approval process facing a writer with a spec manuscript. It’s also clear that those five people did something that helped catch Debbie’s attention, and that that was critical to the book deals they signed. Debbie didn’t hike into the woods and knock on a door, or even plow through a slush pile: she looked at interesting people who made themselves visible to her in a variety of ways and asked herself if they might have a book in them that also fit HarperStudio’s goals.
This is another big reason why you constantly hear everyone talking about having a platform as a writer. It’s not simply that a manuscript you’ve written will gain more visibility, it’s that you as a writer will also come to the attention of the decision makers in the industry. Maybe a publishing house needs another writer for a series project. Maybe they’re looking to capitalize on a trend. Maybe they like your attitude and a blog post you wrote suddenly helps focus a hazy idea they’ve been wrestling with. Whatever the project, the chance that you’ll be working on it is pretty much zero if they don’t know you’re alive.
That’s why it doesn’t really matter who you know. On any given day you can call up your publishing contacts and pitch book ideas until you turn blue, but the majority of opportunities in your future are probably not ones you’ll be initiating. They’re ones the industry will create, and the simple truth is that you’re not going to have a shot at those opportunities if the industry doesn’t know who you are.
Does this mean that writing a book is a waste of time? Absolutely not. What it means is that when you write a book you’ve created two properties. One is the book, the other is you as a writer. Neither of them will see if nobody knows they exist. If you’re already committed to getting your manuscript some visibility, then you should be willing to do the same thing for yourself.
If you have the conviction of your own creative vision, and you’re willing to suffer and die for that cause, I’m not telling you to change your ways. I wouldn’t do that to myself on a project that I initiated. Having worked as a writer on collaborative projects in multiple industries, however, I can tell you that there’s a lot to recommend them. And not just the fact that you get paid.
First, there’s the implicit networking bonus that goes with any collaborative project. Assuming you don’t reveal yourself to be insane or abusive, and assuming you do what you say you’re going to do, you will, simply by demonstrating those two traits, successfully separate yourself from approximately 90% of potential competitors. (That’s a conservative estimate.)
How many people does Debbie Stier know? How many times a year does she sit down with a co-worker or a peer at another publishing house and talk about projects which can’t find the right writer, or projects where a writer pulled out and they need someone at the last minute? I have no idea, but I’m guessing the number of people that Debbie knows is not trivial, and that the percentage of her contacts who can approve projects is higher than most agents you’re likely to sign with.
Second, you might get to work with people who are actually happy to work with you. One read-through of Debbie’s post and you’ll see that she’s clearly good at marketing — almost instinctively, reflexively so. But I’ve also read enough of her tweets, posts and musings to believe that there’s a real person in there who had a genuine epiphany about the fact that she loves what she’s doing. And that in itself is rare.
There are a lot of people out there in positions of power and authority who are really not happy. They don’t like their life, they don’t like their work, they don’t like the people they work with. The only thing they like is spreading unhappiness around like shrapnel. You might even run into a writer killer or a writer hater who loathes you for the very skills that brought you to their attention. Does that sound like fun?
Take a moment and think about what it would be like to work on a book with someone who wasn’t jaded. Not someone who’s in your grill every minute, telling you how to write each paragraph, but someone who is interested in you, in your skills, and in the project you’re both working on. Writing is lonely, and there are times when it’s satisfying to have someone other than you cat say they’re excited about a project or thrilled with your last chapter.
Finally, as much as any author believes they know it all, they don’t. As I said in a previous post, there are good editors and bad editors. A good editor knows craft. A good editor listens.
I have no experience working with Debbie, but in reading her post she says the right things. She talks about kicking ideas around and finding something that works for both parties, and that’s what you want. You want someone who actually listens, instead of just smiling and saying nice things. You may not always get your way, and the project may have other masters (including time and money), but when you work with someone who takes your concerns seriously you get to take a break from the exhaustion of being your own biggest fan and your own worst critic.
There’s no way you can plan for this kind of synergy, of course. If you actively try to impress the Debbie Stiers of the world you inevitably end up making an idiot or nuisance of yourself. The goal is not getting attention, but being who you are and doing what you already do in a way that is visible — whether than means blogging or attending conferences or speaking or giving readings or something else. Even if you can’t make anyone open a door for the book you wrote or the writer you are, and you probably can’t, you can be there when they open the door.
It’s not who you know. It’s who knows you.


This is a reprint from Mark Barrett‘s Ditchwalk.

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