Who’s The Boss?

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"Uhhhh…yeah, Dusty, we’re gonna need that rewrite by Monday, not next month. And if you could make the hero a Canadian Mountie with a talking cat, that  would be great."

by J.D. Rhoades

Not long ago, I was having a discussion with another writer about hardbacks vs. paperback originals. My friend was of the opinion that unless you were first publishing in hardback, eventually readers would start to think of you as a "smaller" writer. They’d start wondering why their favorite writer wasn’t getting that shiny new hardback on the front table of the bookstore.

I had a different take on it. I told my friend that I really don’t think readers care very much if their favorite author’s new one was  in paperback original or hardcover, and to the extent they do, they’d most likely prefer the cheaper format. However, I went on to say, reviewers care, and editors care, and they, in a sense, are our customers too.

Which led me to ponder a larger question: who are we actually working for? Those of us lucky enough to be writing full time refer to themselves as "self-employed." But is anyone, really? Don’t we all have someone we have to answer to to get our paychecks? In this profession of writing for pay, who really are our clients, or, to be more crass about it, who are our customers? Is it the publishers? The booksellers? The readers?

I recall when I was studying mass media back in college, a rather pompous professor asked the class, "when it comes to television, who are the consumers, and what is the product?" The answer seemed obvious to most of us. The product, we answered, was the programming, and the customer was the audience.

No, he informed us with a smirk. The customer, he asserted, is the advertiser. The audience is the product. The programming is merely a means to deliver the human product to the corporate customer. If that delivery fails, if the audience of consumers isn’t "shipped" to the advertisers in sufficient numbers, the advertisers look to another network, station, or what have you. 

I thought at the time that was a pretty cynical and condescending way to look at the audience, but then I worked in local TV for a while and heard the higher ups talking about "delivering eyeballs" (yes, some of them did talk that way, at least in the 80’s) and I began to see that that really was the mindset.

This also may explain why I don’t watch a lot of TV.

But I wonder sometimes. Is that the way publishers see our role? In their eyes, are we there to deliver the product–the reader–to them? Are we working for them, or for the reader?

I’ve read some book-centric blogs in which the posters and commenters take the attitude that the writer is working for them. This is fine with me, because I really love readers. Hell, I AM a reader. But some of these bloggers, quite frankly, act as if writers are "the help," and woe betide the poor ink-stained wretch who acts a little uppity. On the whole, though, I’m comfortable with the idea that the reader is our true customer.

On the other hand, we first have to get the book published, and our editors are the first people we have to please. And sometimes our ideas of what the reader wants can be different. I’ve been lucky enough to have editors with whom the editorial process is a discussion, a give and take:

"We want you to try this,"
"Ah, no, that doesn’t work. But  how about this?"
"Perfect!"

But I’ve also heard horror stories about editors whose attitude was "my way or the highway," much to the chagrin of the author, who has the stomach-knotting choice between giving in or trying to face down someone who can and will get the book canned.

And then there’s the question of marketing. I think it was Joe Konrath who explained that part of the point of one of his  grueling self-funded book tours was that it impressed the publisher with how hard he was willing to work, so they put more of their own resources behind him.

So maybe we’re working for the publishers?

The problem with both of these answers–working for the reader to working for the publisher–is that it leads to endless second guessing. Will this scene work for the little old lady from Pasadena who doesn’t like it when characters, even bad guys, use the ‘F-Word"? How about my buddies who like the noir stuff? Will my editor like this one? What’s the marketing department going to do?  And first, I’ve got to get my agent on board! Will he/she like it!? OMFG!

Keep that up for long, and  you can end up like the centipede in the old poem, who, asked how she managed all those legs, started thinking so much about the process she could no longer move. After a while, having that imaginary crowd looking over your shoulder as you’re trying to write can drive you nuts. Or worse, it can make for bad, stilted writing.

So the only thing I can do is follow the age-old advice "write the book you’d like to read." In other words, as Rick Nelson once sang, "you can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself."

Then pray.

So who’s YOUR boss?

(And since I mentioned paperbacks, this may be a good time to mention that the third Jack Keller novel, SAFE AND SOUND, came out in mass market paperback yesterday. If you haven’t gotten it yet, now’s a good time! Check http://www. booksense. com/ for an independent bookseller near you…
Or it’s at Barnes and Noble, Borders or Amazon.)

17 thoughts on “Who’s The Boss?

  1. Jake Nantz

    Wow, thought provoking. Of course, right now my boss is the Wake County Public Schools System, so I’m not sure how much I fit into this discussion.

    As far as a writing boss, at this early stage of my writing career I guess I am. That said, I’ve been so bad about getting back to it while papers-to-be-graded existed that I’m surprised I haven’t fired myself.

    Or maybe my wife is the boss. Yeah, I’ll go with that to be safe.

    Reply
  2. Kaye Barley

    Mornin’ JD! Can’t wait to read the new Jack Keller!O.K. – here’s how this reader feels about all this. Anyone who has ever read anything on the internet with my name attached already knows how I feel ’cause I’ve screeched this and preached it a million times. I want writers to write their stories, and I want them to write them their way. If I’m not the audience for whom that story is written, so what. Someone else will be. The best writing, I think, comes from the heart. Rick Nelson had the right idea, and I just love that song, don’t you?

    Reply
  3. Stephen D. Rogers

    J.D.,

    What movie is that picture from? I’m drawing a blank!

    As to your question, I figure I work in service of the story.

    Now, that’s not always the best way to think, because the stories don’t buy themselves, and I’m sometimes left with pieces that don’t fit the needs of any particular editor.

    Stephen

    Reply
  4. Wilfred Bereswill

    Well, JD, coming from the business world, it’s all about money,, unless you’re a non-profit, which I’m not.

    The person who hand’s me my check is my boss. Now, if I can afford it and don’t like working for them, well, I can quit. In my world of big beer, we work to produce a product that the consumers will like so much they purchase it over a similar product by a competitor.

    So as a writer, I look at my publisher as my client and I’m working for them. But if I want them to invite me back to work the next day, I need to provide them a product that they can sell.

    I’m a pragmatic guy. I once watched a panel of 3 literary writers and one genre writer. The three literary people came off as arrogant and holier-than-thou, while the genre writer (a suspense writer who is published only in mass market paperback) was humble and practical. After all was said and done, the genre writer was the only one who made a living on his writing.

    Reply
  5. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Coming from screenwriting, where EVERYONE but the writer is the boss, I very much feel like my own boss these days. But I’m not doing a great job managing my time, the hidden demands of the author career are pretty overwhelming, and I often wish I weren’t so off on my own all the time.

    Reply
  6. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Dusty,Congrats on the new mmpb! And thank you for a great post.

    As you know, I come from a PR background and in many, many cases in the same organization have more than one boss at a time.

    So this whole writing/boss thing isn’t as confusing for me.

    I think of every player (or group of players) as a different audience and I need to do the best I can for the most of them possible . . .

    BUTI’m the expert in PR — just as I’m the expert in writing my own fiction — sure I can gather info, ask questions, consider options . . . but in the long run, it’s my name on the project AND my name on the book.

    I respect readers, agents, editors, publishers, marketers, book pr pros, book designers, distributors and producers. I respect them tremendously.

    I also respect myself.

    Reply
  7. Louise Ure

    Very thoughtful today, Dusty.

    From a pragmatic point of view, I think our “bosses” change as the literary process continues.

    First, we are our own bosses, writing what we hope will be a fine novel.

    For beginners, the next “boss” is that illusory agent who will chose your query and your manuscript from the pile.

    After that, of course, the editor and publisher who buy the book are the ones we think of as bosses. And for a time, that boss might morph into a marketing executive or a member of the publisher’s salesforce.

    Then the bosses become the booksellers. And finally the readers.

    For me, it’s never one boss, and it’s never all of them at the same time.

    Reply
  8. JT Ellison

    What a wonderful topic — something I’ve thought a lot about recently. Here’s my take. Taylor is my boss. These books depend on her happiness, sadness, level of danger she’s in, the extraneous circumstances that dictate her daily life. As long as I’m telling her story right, my world is an easy, happy place.

    But when I go off the rails, it’s my editor who takes over as boss. “She would never do that.” She’s smarter than that.” “That’s just silly.” Suddenly I see where my errors are, and Taylor reemerges, stronger than before.

    So while I agree there is a whole subsection of upper management who support, push and read the books, being true to my characters is what gets me up in the morning and on the computer.

    Reply
  9. Dana King

    Great, thought-provoking post. May I offer a different analogy? If the reader is the customer (thank you, Mickey Spillane), the bookstore is the retailer, the distribuotr is the wholesaler, the publisher is the manufacturer, the author provides the raw materials. The steel for the car, the rubber for the tires, the glass for the mirrors. I think of it as more of a symbiotic relationship that employer-employee.

    I’m not so naive to believe it really works exactly like that in practice. We, the supplier, have limited outlets and massive competition, so we often have to undercut ourselves. On the other hand, the publisher has some restrictions on the number of suppliers who can provide a product with enough quality to suit his needs.

    The analogy eventually becomes riddled with loopholes and hopelessly vague. The only answer is to, as you said, write the book YOU want to read. That guarantees at least one person will like it, which is all the author can control.

    Reply
  10. toni mcgee causey

    I like telling stories. I can only tell *my* stories. And, if I’m any good, I’ve paid attention to what parts of the storytelling works and where people’s attention waned, and after some practice, I’ve figured out how to tell that story well. Then it’s time to apply those lessons to the next story.

    It is, ultimately, the only thing I can control, and how I spend my life. I don’t want to spend my life walking in someone else’s shoes. I want to make them my own.

    A writer cannot write to a list of what people aren’t going to like, because ultimately, if you really considered all people, that list would include everything except a few nouns and verbs, and those might even be suspect. It’s not that you cannot please everyone – you cannot avoid everyone’s dislikes. They are too many-millions of people, millions of preferences. To try to write in a safe enough zone to make everyone happy would be to ask for insanity served up on a nice, sloppy platter with extra fries.

    Besides, there’s a certain freedom in being that crazy lady nobody quite knows what to do with. πŸ˜‰

    Reply
  11. Catherine

    The boss I need to answer to at the end of the day is me. Whatever I am doing or not doing it all comes back to me. I have different people that help or hinder throughout the day, but ultimately how I view any success or failure is through my own picky taskmaster eyes.

    I think this is what I’ve been seeing in a lot of the comments today. That there are many people that we are accountable to, in varying degrees, but biggest accountability is to our own expectations (and or character).

    Regarding the freedom of the crazy lady…boy can I relate Toni.

    Reply
  12. Allison Brennan

    Wow. This post made me think. And considering I’m brain dead right now, that’s a feat.

    I start at your conclusion: I write books I want to read. It’s the Stephen King philosophy of writing with the door closed. It’s a LOT harder now that I’m published and there are expectations. Editor expectations, sales expectations, reader expectations. It’s why I always tell aspiring writers never write to the market, because if you don’t love what you’re writing, your going to be stuck with it if you sell. Publishers–and readers–want the same of a successful book, just different.

    I like Wilfred’s comment–the publisher is our client who buys our product and will pay more for the product if it sells well to consumers (readers.) And that leads right into Louise’s comment–everyone is our boss at different times!

    So it’s like a hierarchy–I have to please me first. Then I have to please my editor. But to please my editor, I also have to sell books–and preferably more “units” with every release. So that means I have to ultimately please my readers–but if I’m writing JUST to please my readers, then I’m not writing to please me.

    It’s giving me a headache!

    Reply

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