Impersonating an Elephant

The title of this post is based on my friend Dave Freer’s* The Elephant of Surprise, a brilliant parable on finding bestsellers that compares it to shooting elephants through a keyhole of an apartment in NYC.

The part of the text relating to this post is this:

And he gives the grayness a 50 mm slug through the door and rushes out to start butchering his new fortune. Because it was gray, it was probably a pachyderm, right?

And once in every 1 000 000 times it might even be. The rest of the time he’s obliged to hastily butcher the mailman in a once gray shirt with a final demand letter, and sell him as finest wild boar. Or he’s shot a mouse on stilts peering in the keyhole. Or merely shot a gray day.

Dave is of course going on about how hard it is for any editor/agent to guess what will be the next bestseller – particularly since bestsellers have to sell to people in areas of the country these people rarely set foot in. It was hard even when they could control how much shelf space a book got, how many copies of it were sent out, how much push distributors were told to put on it, what cover it got, and to a large extent what press it got. In the days of Amazon it is much harder. But most publishing houses work still on the presumption that they’re always right, or if they’re not it is because that mailman was deliberately impersonating an elephant and therefore they can’t be blamed.

You’d think that when a book comes out and fails to earn its advance or fails to do as well as the house claims to have hoped, the editor would be first in line for firing. After all, they’re the ones who are paid to anticipate public taste. They’re the ones who bought the book, the ones who picked the cover, the ones who decided (okay, in conjunction with the sales force, but most editors these days are also “Director of marketing”) how much distribution and publicity it should get.

It’s never that way. When a book tanks spectacularly, it’s always the writer who is at fault. Even though (like my very first book) the volume might never have made it to the shelves. Even though the cover might have given no clue what type of book it was. Even though people who were actively looking for the book couldn’t find it in the narrow window of a month or so it was available, and stores were reluctant to order or reorder after that – it’s always the writer’s fault. It’s always held that there was something about the combination of words, the way the writer uses language, the characters? Perhaps the way the writer named the characters? Which the poor publisher couldn’t have anticipated and which caused the book to tank. “He was impersonating an elephant, yer honor. Why else would he wear a grey shirt? How was I to know?”

Of course, publishing and marketing a book, in the expectation of its selling really well is always, always a risky business. The system is after all chaotic. In the two years it took for books to wind their way through the publishing grinder, the public appetite for vampires might wane. (It has been predicted for 20 years. Haven’t seen it diminish yet, myself.) Or your competitor might bring out a book that’s almost exactly the same. Or your main distribution channel for this book might collapse. Blaming the writer saves the publishing house having to rotate editors so fast that they barely warm their chair. This, of course, is because beancou… er… Business majors demand a bestseller every time. Which is like demanding that you win the lottery every week and win only the main prize.

However, like most such convenient things, possibly EXACTLY because it’s irrational, it’s become unquestionable. This is why, for instance, agents refuse to submit your work to an editor under a “completely closed” pen name. The “closed” pen name will be closed to everyone else BUT NOT the editor. The editor has to know, you see. Because, you might be a mailman impersonating an elephant, and the editor has to know before he shoots you. Aka, before he gives you a bestseller’s advance, when you’re a lowly midlister.

This insistence tells you that “A writer will always sell x books regardless of what genre he/she writes in, and what type of support the property gets.”

Mind you, if you look at recent years – say 10 to 15 – you’d think so. But that’s because publishers could to an extent control distribution. But look further than that, and you realize this idea is completely insane – as it should be, at first sight, because if you think people would always the same, in all genres, visualize Agatha Christie writing quest fantasy or Stephen King writing Regency Romance. Yet, if either had for some reason (and the labyrinth of submitting often pushed people in very unnatural reactions) started in those fields and tanked, in the “now passing from this world” system it would be assumed they were no-hopers at Mystery and thrillers as well. For real life examples, meditate on the career of Stephen Donaldson. Or look at how well known Agatha Christie’s romances are now, even though her mysteries continue to sell. Or take one of my favorite authors, Georgette Heyer. I have re-read to shreds every one of her regencies since Dave Freer forced me to read her seven years ago (I thought she had romance cooties – smiles sheepishly.) Her historicals I could take or leave. And, sorry, but you can’t pay me enough to get through one of her mysteries. I’ve started two and abandoned them unread.

Not only should it be obvious that the book is the book is the book, but that just because a given author has had a string of duds (particularly when the market is rigged to order to the net, meaning your first failure or success sets up the rest of your career) it doesn’t mean his next book won’t be a brilliant success. And if you can’t evaluate the book without looking at the author’s sales figures, then there’s something seriously wrong with your evaluation methods.

There is no logical reason the publisher needs to know who the author of the book “really” is. The illogical one, other than sales figures, is that publishers sometimes think they’re Hollywood. One manifestation of this was “we want beautiful people” or “we want people with an interesting life story.” Both of these are insane because 90% of authors get no promotion or tours, so what they look like or their life story doesn’t matter.

However, I knew it was widespread when, after the collapse of my Shakespeare series, my editor tried to get me to write an autobiography because I had an interesting life story. Which is true, in a way, except all the interesting parts belong to other people and between libel laws and relatives I’d prefer don’t disown me, (not to mention the ones who are armed to the teeth), or who don’t deserve the notoriety, I can’t really tell much of it. Besides, the idea that my life story would make me famous and therefore sell my fiction seemed utterly backwards to me.

Writers are not actors and publishing caters to quite a different frame of mind than Hollywood’s star factories (which from what I can see aren’t doing so well themselves, these days.) I will confess I find Terry Pratchett mad sexy, but I find him so because of his mind. I’m fairly sure if I’d met him on the street without knowing who he was, I’d never even have noticed him. And while his lifestory is interesting now, because of the early onset Alzheimers, I and all his fans very much wish it weren’t QUITE so riveting and tragic.

We are people who tend to be far more interesting when making up stuff. It’s our job. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book from the heyday of pulp, and then turned to the back and looked in astonishment at the picture of the coke-bottle-glass wearing nerd who’d written this riveting tale.

So, there are NO logical reasons why pen names should be open to publishers, except… Well… so the result can be fixed and justify their prejudices.

I’ve been a mail carrier in a grey shirt for years and been forced to shout ahead so they know who I am. But perhaps, just perhaps, given half a chance, I could be a were-elephant.

* If you aren’t reading Dave’s adventures settling into his adopted new home in Flinders Island, Australia, give yourself a treat.  Dave is unfailingly interesting.  Follow The Flinders Family Freer Blog.  You won’t be sorry.

9 thoughts on “Impersonating an Elephant

  1. That would be a .50 caliber rifle. 50 mm would be artillery. (Obligatory Charles comment. Sorry, Sarah.)
    With the star system rampant everywhere in entertainment, the publishers seem to want the less-than-titanic-bestseller authors to be actors in Greek plays, wearing big masks, utterly anonymous. Changing identity constantly, as if to prevent the poor fan from finding the actor’s most recent movie.

  2. There is a Brit-com called As Time Goes By, starring Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer, revolving around (in part) Palmer’s authorship of a memoir. While your enjoyment may vary according to your tolerance for this type of comedy, its presentation of Publishing should merit your attention.

    One noteworthy aside: like many Britcoms (and unlike most American TV) many of the supporting actors look like real people one might meet in the street and NOT like people who’ve just escaped from soda pop adverts.

  3. A long time ago in a workshop far, far away, we discussed the business of publishing. It soon became clear that most writers viewed the business as bizarrely managed, but it seemed to make sense to me after I viewed it through the eyes of any business with enough employees to foster “fiefdoms”. Once I realized that publishers view the book as a product, consisting of cover art, design, marketing, blurbs, etc., I realized that they viewed authors as a very SMALL contributor to the product — some words on the page; how important is that, really? (And that’s not even necessary; to wit, blank-paged books with witty titles like “Everything Men Know About Women”:

    What boggles MY mind is how they can simultaneously believe that authors are only a minor part of the product and the major fault for its failure to sell.

    1. Because if it isn’t the authors’ fault, whose fault must it be? Who is easiest/least expensive to fire?

      In all fairness, we’ve had ample opportunity to see books which succeed in spite of the author (would it be showing my age to say Harold Robbins?) Heck, it ain’t as if there was ever a real Aunt Jemima yet her mix sales like hotcakes!

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