Friday, April 13, 2018

You're Expected To Know

I'm watching my plans for the weekend activities around my work get lost in the coming blizzard to the Upper Midwest. All of a sudden I realize I've reached the point where I have to keep a schedule with apparatus and not just memory recall. Now I'm sitting at my computer wondering how the hell I got here.

Back in the day when I accepted I just simply wasn't a road comic, it was back to Chicago to find a good day slave that'd pay well and perhaps provide me some advancement. This was shortly before information technology would explode in business leaving folks like me who otherwise didn't qualify for a job bagging French fries to really make some serious scratch. Eventually, despite no college degree, and with negligible experience, I wound up an analyst and then consultant with pre-Enron Arthur Andersen. When I rose to the rank of senior, I stepped into an entirely new world of professional accountability. I remember a funny moment when a few of us who were green to the Big Five professional services world were in a client discovery meeting. This was when everyone had a grand e-business idea. We're all slinging ideas at the wall hoping one would stick. A big shot asks if anyone understands the nuances of a particular content market and one eager beaver spoke up. After a few probing questions, Big Shot asks for some information, in particular, figuring Eager Beaver would have it as he spoke up.

Actually, I don't know.

My Ace Rom, who had been in Andersen since high school and made them hire me, pulled his chin into his neck and exhaled slowly. Other, more experienced attendees looked away. Eager Beaver bristled and wondered what he may have done wrong. Big Shot continues leading the discovery. Once the meeting is over and we all file out of the conference room, I ask Rom what happened.

When you work at the firm, you're expected to know.

Yeah, but he didn't know.

Remember the fast shuffle?

That thing we'd do when we'd ride the CTA bus without
fare, pretend to search our pockets as the driver pulled 
off, then hop off once we got to our stop?

Anyone asks you for information, especially in front 
of a client, and you don't know, you don't say so. You 
fast shuffle. That is if you want to work on any real 
project at all. Fast shuffle, then become an expert in
 a hurry.

I thought that was oppressive and unreasonable, so I bickered in protest.

You're paid to know, Danny. Saying you don't 
know is saying you're looking for a new job.

Now, as I had finally lifted myself out of poverty, I wasn't tryin' to do that, at all. And sure, it wasn't the first time I gave myself a crash course in something I had no idea about. So fine, I accepted the challenge and, in time, I'd adapted rather successfully. I began to consult on projects beyond dotcoms. After it was all over, I relocated to Los Angeles (for good) and used those talents to consult independently in fields as diverse as music, fashion apparel, charity, education, and hospitality. After a while, I'd grow tired of ramping up quickly to gain usable expertise in a field only to not need it again. Ever. Still, it was what I was good at, in an odd way.

Once this writing thing took off, I told myself to be as a babe in the woods and try not to dig deeply into the nuances of the big picture. "Resist the urge to research the industry," I said. "You can do this without becoming some casual expert in publishing, Danny." Within a few months, I could tell you the problems with POD as opposed to print runs and compared quality assurance patterns between CreateSpace and IngramSpark. Shortly thereafter, I was searching for correlations between reviews and paid advertising in trade publications. Then there was the competitor analysis I performed to choose my cover art. By the time I was walking the floor at BEA 2017, I was totally down the rabbit hole. I think back on my time in consulting and I ponder the first paragraph of the introduction to Kurt Vonnegut's MOTHER NIGHT. "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." I have to decide if I'm pretending to be an author or a business professional. I know everyone tells me these are the times one must be both, but I know some folks who are holding up their end just as writers and their publishers treat them accordingly and they still have color in their cheeks after a Bouchercon or a Murder & Mayhem. I'd like to keep the color in my cheeks. Yes, yes, I came into the author game fully understanding what lay ahead in terms of marketing and promotion. Most folks put it plainly. "Your publisher isn't going to do anything for you or your book." Right, right. I was with a smaller press for A NEGRO AND AN OFAY and I surmised I'd be working harder to get value out of the arrangement. My respected friend and colleague Eryk Pruitt summed it up best when he told me, "You won't find anyone with a major house who doesn't have the same complaints you might."

I was used to Pay to Play coming from Hollywood. It's just something you have to do until you get your weight up. Token payment short stories in small-press anthologies are the equivalent of mid-day showcases for comedians who need to get noticed. Hawking my own book is no different than starting a comedy night to ensure I can get stage time. I may not wear many hats anymore, but I own a lot. Book the venue. Pass out flyers. Canvas other shows. Nearly get into fights for poaching another comedian's audience. Sell tickets. Take them at the door. Run backstage and change clothes. Host the show. Find places in the program to fit your own material. Close out the show. Pay the comedians. Deal with the bar tab. With any bread left, do it all over again. "This time," I told myself. "I'll accept the responsibility of making the most of my debut." I dig this writing thing. I want to keep doing it. I'll only get one debut my entire career. Best to pour it on, come what may.

Once it caught on, the invitations arrived one after another. A seat on a panel at this conference. Moderating a panel at that one. College visits, which are always rewarding, and rather hard work. Then there are the Noir at the Bar events which are in my wheelhouse as a stand-up veteran. I had to cart my own books to those, but the format and performance aspect was too great to pass up. A good review in a trade publication deserves my personal thanks. A not so good review means be even more gracious. So much face time. Perhaps once, scarcity of presence worked for artists, but I doubt it does any longer. Folks want their books the way their other entertainment is delivered: On demand, and with a healthy dose of personal access. Consumers pull content and those who make it to them. I'm a far better road author than I was a road comic. Perhaps the difference is in the audiences.

In the matter of books and giveaways, that old maxim holds true: no one respects free. My only unfair review came from a reader who received a free ebook for participating in a giveaway. She yielded only one star. Her screed read as if she wouldn't have given it that but the website functionality didn't offer her the choice to leave negative stars. In the end, she thought she'd like it, so she put in far more effort to get the ebook for free than the $8.99 would've cost her, read halfway through the first chapter, decided it wasn't for her because the language required different comprehension, and took to social media to let the world know she didn't see why others liked it so much. Basically, my star average on this particular site took a hit because she felt the need to log in and confess she's a quitter. I give out free books all the time, but generally to earnest readers who already have money in hand. If I can't see the whites of your eyes, I'm far less willing. That jab reminded me of that hard lesson. No one, and I mean absolutely no one, respects free. Unless they do. And you have to connect with them to determine so.

Running around, making myself broke and exhausted, was for me to learn the ropes, make genuine friends, support others, and use my book to access places and people I had yet to experience in life. Now that I've done it, I have new eyes to see forward. An important lesson is to maintain the strictest balance in all things book marketing. For publishers who do absolutely nothing, it's best to do nothing. Every one of us from time to time contributes to a project that is bare bones. Sometimes its the theme, or the editor, or even the publisher who makes it worthwhile. I needed to get my crime fiction weight up, especially when early reviews were so positive. I learned in the scant space of a few months that no amount of effort on my part is going to convince a publisher my book or my contribution to a collection of short stories is worth it. I made myself broke and tired with A NEGRO AND AN OFAY and I received great reviews and awareness because of it. The sales haven't been a sob story, either.

Then Three Rooms Press came out with THE OBAMA INHERITANCE in which I contributed an eight-thousand-word story, one of fifteen. With less effort than it took for me to say yes, I was in every review outlet my debut novel wasn't. Three Rooms spent time and money and sweat marketing that one, and it showed. I'm done with "Let's see how it goes." Skin in the game gets my attention from here on out. I know, going back to my Arthur Andersen experiences, spending money doesn't fix inherent issues. In fact, it turns them into major problems. Be that as it may, a publisher who isn't trying to spend anything is really a publisher who isn't trying to do anything, no matter how excited they are in conversation. Great sales aren't going to stimulate interest on their part, either. Get all the sales on your own nickel and sweat and that's what you'll be doing for the interim, if not in perpetuity.

I won't fall all over myself to get readers to write Amazon reviews for two very clear reasons. My publisher needs to do that, and folks are scared to death to be labeled racist, sexist, or elitist. I have plenty of readers who generally communicate their impressions about the books they consume on Goodreads or Amazon or their own blogs. They come up to me and tell me all the time they dig my work. That's enough for me. It's socially dangerous to accidentally miscommunicate one's impressions of race or class or gender issues, and as I'm enjoying a creative period where I often leverage all three to background my stories, a smile and a kind word must be enough. Besides, they already paid for the book. If they're not already inspired, who am I to ask them to help my sales numbers and make me look good? Bravo to others who do it. I'm still a bit new for that.

I've also learned that, while Amazon will make us money, it's bookstores and libraries that make us famous, and that makes us worthwhile as artists to those who consume art. It's nasty. It's exhausting. And it's reality. As long as I've been on this path, I have yet to say, "It should be about the quality of the writing." That's because it sounds too much like, "It should be about who is funnier," and I'll only break my own heart once. The flipside of this is important to understand, and that's fame can't be purchased, no matter how simple social media makes reaching thousands with a few clicks and a credit card. Fame can be a rush in the beginning but it evens out into a responsibility which becomes a burden if poorly maintained. Feed that beast good works, goodwill and, only occasionally, money.

I've also accepted I was under the false impression that no one would care about my work and my career more than I do. That was a constant refrain of mine which I'm rather certain is a product of my inner blue-collar guilt. There are people in the world who get my art, get why I make it, and work as hard, if not harder, sharing it with as many people as possible. I'm going to hold on to those folks, be as good to them as they are to me, and embrace others who seem willing to do the same. Love and inspiration can't be purchased with money, and it can't be replaced by money, but have no money and see how much love and inspiration comes.

It's all a tangle, but I've learned the good things always are.


For those interested in the works to which I frequently refer, check out these titles at your local bookseller, your local library, or online where you enjoy purchasing your print and e-books. As always, thanks for your support and encouragement.


1 comment:

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Thoughtful musings Danny!