There once was a time, in the mid-1990s when tech authors could actually make a living — oh, you could, can, and shall always be able to make a “killing” writing if you strike the right stone! — writing computer books and about other tangential topics, and that effort could support an author life and subsidize a family.
Then the second Dust Bowl started to swirl in the open prairies of publishing and all the cool, smaller, book houses were whirlwinded, bought, and dismantled by their bigger competitors. Active contracts were cancelled, careers were destroyed, and selling books become more about numbers and quantics and never again about quality or vision or quirkiness.
Many great minds were lost in the withering, and most chose to never write another book again because publishers, without any real competition left on the landscape, decided to make authors work-for-hire, non-royalty earners. Authors were the new day laborer.
Substantive book advances dried up, and only the promise of some maybe backend money was embedded in the boilerplate contract: You got paid only when the publisher recouped their entire investment. In publishing, there is no net and there certainly is no gross.
Almost overnight the tech publishing world changed and instead of writing for nothing, many authors rightly gave up their tech tools and looked for cleaner lines of work that didn’t rely on projections and balderdashery.
I was one of those authors who came a little late to the dervish and stayed a little too long in the dust. I have no regrets or concerns now — with the rise of David Boles Books Writing & Publishing — but a great many of my older, established, author friends quit the game out of anger and a righteous sense of moral pride to no longer be screwed over by the corpus of the corporate carbuncle.
I was never bitter about any of it, I was merely highly bemused by a bit of melancholia about the disaffected retirement of talent I admired.
One thing that still haunts me about the old timer book pitch process was the “comparative marketing review” section that every author was expected to include.
What that meant is you had to mention books that were in the same vein and topic as the one you were writing. You had to provide insightful, and lengthy, analysis of those books and why your book was ALWAYS better, smarter, stronger, faster.
Amazon was a great boon to that stale, unscientific, effort even though there was no published competition for computer software that had yet to be released! All author competitors were simultaneously writing their books — based on alpha and beta software that always changed — in a marketless vacuum!
Writing the “comparative marketing review” was busywork in nothingness. You could never get it right, because your publisher already knew the niche and what their competition had in the pipeline; but you were still expected to play along, and “know your market” and the world beyond the known self.
I always felt you could have 100 books on a topic — and they would all be wildly different in tone and attenuation if you had lively authors — but there was fear in the industry of me-too-isms and a want for prosaic steps and not poetical inspirations. Sure, many readers were fed to expect a “do this, do that” approach, but to write a book that way is to be a roadmap architect and not an author.
I would always propose to the acquisitions editors that other books didn’t matter if you had the right hook. A good book is a right book and the competition won’t add up.
Acquisitions editors are about numbers and trends and quantification instead of qualification. Numbers keep their jobs safe — creativity does not feed their bottom-feeding bottom line — and that fact is deadly to the industry. A number never led you to a new node of understanding or into a grander competitive comprehension.
Never was there a less important part of a book pitch than the competitive marketing review, but remember, publishers are more advertiser than content creators. Originality is bad. Re-creation, with an indiscernible twist, is always preferred because sources of reference are easily relatable to the middling mind.
One compliment I received from a major book editor during the revision process was — “Only you could write this book” — but it wasn’t intended as a compliment! The voice of the book was unique and they were having editorial trouble providing feedback that fit the meme. Instead of celebrating that sort of highly-specialized niche of non-indifference to the reader, the editors were terrified of losing control of their template tinkering. Publishers don’t want one voice, they want replaceable voices.
You may visit some of my failed book pitches on the writing page of my Boles.com Prairie Voice Archive. Successful book pitches are not on that page, because once you sell a book, most of the rights and relations don’t belong to you for a certain amount of time — especially if you’re ghosting for someone else. So what may look like a giant tar pit of failure is really just a recording of what the technical book pitch process was like in a land long ago and really faraway.
Plus, I love recording how I was regularly at least five years ahead of the industry. Small, regional thinking, does not bode well for a future, technological explosion where extended thinking can pave a faster pathway. What happened is my complete exoneration of mind and intention!
A great benefit of running my own archive is I can celebrate what I won, share I own, and preserve what was left behind. There are two things in life from which you cannot escape: Your losses and your demons — don’t fight either of them; embed them both.