To Succeed at Your Art, Know How to Play Well in Business

This week I’m in a somewhat philosophic frame of mind; maybe it’s
because I’m facing new challenges at my job that stretch the boundaries
of what I once thought I could enjoy.

In my early days as an acquisitions editor for F+W Media, I found this quote by David M. Ogilvy:

In
the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative original
thinker unless you can also sell what you create. Management cannot be
expected to recognize a good idea unless it is presented to them by a
good salesman.

Up until the time I read this
quote, I had primarily thought of myself as one of those
creative-artistic stereotypes who disdained the numbers and focused on
aesthetics, and art for art’s sake.

Frankly, that became boring fast.

What
became more interesting was: How can I create something that is
exciting to me and other people? And like Ogilvy says, unless you learn how to speak the language of upper management (or the gatekeepers), you won’t get far
with your ideas. You can speak one language to creative people, but you need
to frame things differently for people who make financial
decisions. E.g., when you walk into your bank and ask for a loan to
fund your wonderful idea, it’s always in relation to making a profit (for you and the bank).
Same thing in publishing when you approach an editor or agent.

The
writers who succeed fastest in selling a project are the ones who can
get in this business model mindset—not necessarily the writers who are
most talented.

At F+W, I’m now in the process of building a
spring forecast that estimates how we think we will perform this year
against our original budget. It makes you think hard about what you’re
doing, why you’re doing it, and how to change what you’re doing to
produce better results next time. Without such an evaluation, how can
you be pushed to your fullest and most creative extent? As Robert Frost once said about writing verse, you need to have a net.

Put
another way: If you’re rejected continually, do you think of a better
way to present your business case, or do you assume that people have
shunned art or not really seen your brilliant talent? Most likely,
people are not shunning art or talent. They are shunning what hasn’t been
presented to them in a compelling or beneficial way. You have to know
what your audience responds to.

Fortunately, writers who know how to put themselves in the shoes of another—who are excellent at that thing called empathy—should be able to recast, reframe, revise their ideas so they make sense to anyone, no matter what their mindset. Use your imagination. What does the other person want to hear?

Remember, people usually enjoy saying yes.
Even better, they enjoy delivering an excited, definitive, “Yes!”
Give them a great reason to say it.

Photo credit: Llawliet

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0 thoughts on “To Succeed at Your Art, Know How to Play Well in Business

  1. JanW

    Thanks for the reply and wisdom. I think I’m going to be braver in my queries in the ‘credits’ section at a minimum. I come from a technical writing and managerial background. Although I haven’t experienced the fiction publishing arena yet, I have experience in magazines, journals, and non-fiction books, both from an editorial board perpective and a writer, none of which ‘counts’ in the fiction arena.

    Personally I think that’s a bit short-sighted from the perspective of the industry gatekeepers, because transference of those skills and experiences is possible and should be given their due. I will continue to work on the quality of my fiction writing, of course. Hopefully my other skills will be seen as valuable at some stage and a ‘leg up’ in terms of not requiring quite as much hand-holding as a complete novice might.

  2. Jane Friedman

    You’re right about one thing: as long as your protagonists/characters are teenagers, it will always be pigeon-holed as a YA novel.

    When it comes to fiction vs. nonfiction, it’s true that you don’t really get into the marketing angle for when querying for fiction/novels (but you MUST for nonfiction). When it’s novel query stage, all that matters is the quality of your writing and the quality of the story, because the best marketing in the world can’t make up for a story that doesn’t deliver.

    And yes, the agent will pitch the book (or "market") it to the right editors/publishers who are more receptive to your novel’s genre and theme.

    However, you as an author still have to possess a business/marketing savvy whether you write fiction or not, for three reasons (and your query should convey that feeling of "This author knows her business and can sell" without getting into too much marketing speak):

    1. To enhance your appeal to a potential agent or publisher. How will you reach a potential readership once your book is published? What connections do you have? What communities are you involved in? How many people do you currently reach? You might not outline a marketing plan for your book in a query, but you can briefly mention your current reach and PLATFORM as an author.

    2. To ensure your book’s success when it IS published. Publishers aren’t reaching readers with huge marketing and publicity campaigns any longer. The process has become far more community driven. What community will you reach out to? A publisher/agent/editor will start looking more deeply at your business/marketing capabilities once you hook them with the story.

    3. To understand the industry well enough, in the big-picture, to know when the time is right for ANY publishing move (in a business sense). Right now, for example, if you’re studying the industry, you know that some agents are sitting on quality works for 3-6 months in the hopes the publishing environment will improve. It helps to know why certain decisions are made on your work, and how to influence the decision makers. You always have to approach it from a variety of business strategies.

  3. JanW

    Sorry I’m a few days late on this comment. I’ve just subscribed to the RSS feed.

    My question takes off on this idea of the business of promotion and the market, and how to fit that knowledge/ideas into the presentation process. Here’s my example:

    I have written a book that I felt would be attractive to the baby-boomer market: we are retiring, we have extra time, we like to read about ‘ourselves’ and we are at the stage of reminiscence. However, the story is set in the 1970s and is about teenagers. Therefore, the book is pigeon-holed as YA.

    I would love to say in my query letter that it is a baby-boomer nostalgia murder mystery [I used to include that, but ditched it when I was told it was really a YA book]. I would love to suggest ways it could be marketed. BUT every query letter advice piece I’ve read that mentions marketing at all says not to include it, that marketing is the ‘agent’s job’, leave it to them, don’t try to do something you know nothing about.

    So which is it? I have spent career time in other arenas doing program marketing, being audience aware, managing budgets, etc. I know the conceptual language, even though I haven’t been an agent or publisher. Do I share that to show that I’m not an uneducated, unworldly person? Or is the advice correct: don’t step on a potential agent/editor’s toes?

    Confusing stuff.

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