The Royal Flush of Content: Aceing Big Brother—Part 2

In The Royal Flush of Information: Content is Queen, Community is King, Marketing is the Jack, and Passion is the Ten. Control of Content is the Ace.

Perhaps a decade ago, a book described how industries tend to wind up with three dominant players: Ford, Chrysler, GM; Wendy’s, Burger King, MacDonald’s. Blogger, industry maven, and co-director of PublishersLaunch, Mike Shatzkin thinks that the Web will wind up with three major aggregators of content. The candidates: Apple, Google, and Amazon, the potential
Big Brothers.

President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Reich believes that the largest banks are so big, corrupt, and irresponsible (San Francisco Chronicle, 11/6) that they should be broken up. In a hyper-connected world, information is the coin of the realm. Tech companies don’t care about writers, books, or publishing. Whatever their executives may personally believe, their job is to follow the money wherever it leads, putting profit before any other purpose.

Printed books have been around for 500 years; none of these companies or technologies will be around in 50 years. Giving Big Brothers the right to control access to culture will be a disaster. Now’s the time to end the bromance and split Apple, Google, and Amazon into companies with less power for controlling culture and less potential for becoming more corrupted by that power. Divide the Brothers before they conquer.

BTW: The Joker is the Future, which no one knows, and no one can predict or control. But as techno-visionary Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
This is where you come in. Give your readers stories to rave about. Enlarge the possibilities for using technology to tell stories in new ways. Dazzle us with your creativity. We will love you for it, and the joke will be on everyone who rejects your work.

[Formatting anomalies not in draft. Suggestions welcome.]

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community /February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / / @SFWC / / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


The Royal Flush of Content: The Writer as Queen—Part 1

Went to three conferences last week, which is why you haven’t heard from me.  Storyworld which was about transmedia–telling the same story across different media platforms; the PublishersLaunch conference about E-books; and the New Media Festival. They were all excellent, and I will tell you more about them. But in this post and the next two, my overall
impressions and takeaways with great news for writers.

The accelerating revolution in communication made possible by technology in the hands of the growing number of people around the world is transforming the world. Intel CEO Paul Otellini says that “Computing is undergoing the most remarkable transformation since the inventions of the PC. The innovation of the next decade is going to outstrip the innovation of the last three combined.” By 2020, there will be 15 billion mobile Web-enabled devices. Anywhere, anytime access to all information and entertainment, along with the ability to communicate about content and collaborate on it are a writer’s dream.

Mike Shatzkin, the visionary co-founder of Publishers Launch, writes “The Shatzkin File,” a blog that’s essential reading. Mike believes that the age of top-down broadcasting, whether
it’s four television networks or six publishing conglomerates, is dying. The creation and success of content will be bottom up. Audiences will help create content and share what they love. Content will be Queen.

But because of word of mouse that can go viral, community will be King. Crowdsourcing ideas and responses to your work will help ensure you write what your fans want to read. You will still have to trust your instincts and common sense, and use what works and forget the rest. But your success will depend on your readers’ fingertips and the tips of their tongues. Engaging your community by connecting with them as often and in as many ways as you can will be essential to building your career. Writing helps build community; maintaining your community helps builds a career.

Are you ready for an easy-to-use smart TV that has all of the stations in the world? It was Steve Jobs’ vision, and it’s in the works. Theater attendance is declining, in part because we’re already starting to live with three screens: a computer/tablet, a smart phone, and a television. MTV viewers watch all three simultaneously, so MTV is providing three screens with different content about the same show. Viewers can use split screens if they wish and will soon able to move what’s on one screen to another.

Adapting stories you can tell in movies and on television, computers/tablets, and smartphones as well as in books, games, and three-minute webisodes is the promise of transmedia, and it’s starting to happen. Audiences want great stories, but they use different media to enjoy them. The challenge is to create scalable stories that can be repurposed in as many ways as possible. But you can still write that first draft with a No. 2 Ticonderoga, so have at it!

The rest of the Royal Flush of Information: Marketing will be the Jack, and passion will be the Ten. The Ace? Control of Content. More about that and why all you need is an audience of one in the next post. I’m thinking about the rest of the deck, but the cards are stacked in your favor.

[Formatting anomalies not in draft. Suggestions welcome.]

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / / @SFWC / / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 / San
Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU

An MFA Fantasy Come True: The Fielding of Dreams

“I’m going to write a bestseller about baseball. What’s more timeless and universal, or connects with readers’ psyches like America’s favorite pastime? It worked for Kinsella. The writing will be fabulous, and it will have allusions to Melville to appease the literati. It will also have sex, death, nothing heroic, a setting with no interest, and a none too happy ending. What more could the critics want?

“Then I’m going to have my agent send it to Michael Pietsch, who edited David Foster Wallace and will buy it for more than half a million dollars after a heated auction, and will make it the hot fall book. Michael will give an empassioned talk about it at the booksellers’ convention in May and have galleys to give away. The book will hit the stores in September so the sales momentum builds and keeps the book selling through the holidays. It will have killer quotes from the right people, a big advertising campaign, a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review section, and a story in Vanity Fair by my Harvard roommate Keith Gessen.”

Chad Harbach wasn’t harboring this fantasy while he spent a decade writing The Art of Fielding, but he hit a grand slam in his first at bat. Seduced by all of the promotion for the book, which is on the New York Times list as I write, I took the galley on vacation, eager to read it, but grew increasingly impatient as the story developed. I had to force myself to finish it.

The book symbolizes what’s wrong with contemporary novels: small scale, family strife, the authors’ limited experience, characters and events I don’t care about, and endings that, instead of being the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal, make me angry I read the book.

Like other literary fiction and most movies, The Art of Fielding is a triumph of technique over content. It’s the story of Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop phenom at Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan. Harbach is an excellent writer. He brings the setting to life along with a lively cast of characters who undoubtedly told him what should happen next. Unlike the descriptions of the settings and the games, the lack of description for most of the characters made them more names than people I could see.

But because of my terminally bourgeois sensibility, the plot and the characters kept adding to my growing resistance to turning the 509 (!) pages. The quality of the writing and the futile hope that the story would finally justify my time kept me going, but I wuz robbed.

The book’s impact?

Writing: first rate.

Laughter: none.

Tears: none.

Allusions understood: none.

Erotic excitement: none.

Building tension: none.

Insights: none.

What becomes of the characters?

Henry, error-free until an errant, wind-blown, hard-to-believe throw to first moves the plot by hospitalizing, of all people, Owen Dunne, his gay mulatto roommate who’s reading (foreshadowed, but still a stretch) in the dugout. Henry survives the resulting crisis of confidence, turns down a chance to play in the bigs, and stays on the team.

Pella Affenlight, a lost soul who finds herself, becomes a college fresh person (an appalling term that stopped my suspension of disbelief every time I read it).

Her father, Guert, the college president, escapes his comeuppance for seducing Owen by conveniently dying of a heart attack. Owen conveniently goes elsewhere to study.

Mike Schwartz, Pella’s boyfriend and Henry’s teammate and mentor, becomes the Westish coach.

Is it possible to ruin the impact of fates like that?

Elizabeth and I have known Little, Brown publisher Michael Pietsch since he joined Little, Brown twenty years ago. He’s also a Harvard grad (Go, Crimson!), and one of the best and most successful editors in publishing history, and a great guy.  Harbach has got the goods and a promising future. But maybe he should take a break from editing his literary magazine, n+1, and consider what Steve Jobs said of Bill Gates: “He’d be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”

Living a middle-class vie boheme while dodging collectors for his college loans, Harbach earned his success the hard way. He was rejected by many agents and publishers until he found the passionate agent every writer dreams of: Chris Parris-Lamb.  I’m sure the book will have a long life on MFA reading lists, but social media have made readers critics. Little, Brown took great pains to avoid making the book look like a baseball novel. But I wonder how women, reading groups, and future readers will respond to what is, after all, a novel about the trials of a college shortstop.

As for you, Chad. You got your MFA. You’ve paid your dues in the Triple A literary league. It’s time to move on from college sports. The world badly needs stories to help us understand and come to terms with a rapidly changing, unpredictable world as full of peril as it is of promise. The article in this month’s Vanity Fair, an outstanding, endearing piece about you, Michael, and publishing, notes that you’re angry about global warming. Step up to the plate with stories that have a scope and relevance worthy of your talent. With Michael’s help, you’ll hit them out of the park. And when I write about your next book, you won’t have to endure any baseball metaphors.

Reading The Art of Fielding wasn’t a total loss, however, because to paraphrase Philip Roth: Nothing bad can happen to a blogger, everything is material. I look forward to hearing from the book’s defenders about how wrong I am.

I write the blog to help us both understand what we need to know about writing, publishing, promotion, and agents. I hope you find it worth reading and sharing. Rants, comments, questions, corrections, and ideas for posts greatly appreciated.

The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / / @SFWC / / 415-673-0939 / 1029 Jones Street / San Francisco, 94109 /

San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / free classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU


From Author to Contentpreneur: A New Model for Becoming a Successful Author in the Digital Age

Here is an updated compilation of five previous posts.

Now is the best time ever to be a writer, and what follows is a new model for what it will take for you to build a successful writing career in the digital age. Every part of the model is essential. You need to use the whole model to succeed.


Writing begins with a boundless enthusiasm for words, ideas, writing, books, people, publishing, communicating about your work, and serving your readers.


Writing starts with reading. You can only write as well as you read. Read what you love to read and write what you love to read. An acquaintance once came up to me all excited and said: “I just finished my first novel!”

“That’s great!” I said.

Then he asked: “What should I read next?”

Well, if you’re a novelist, you should read as many novels as you can, and read like a writer. What works for you in the books you love will work for your readers. Reading enables you to establish criteria for style, length, content, illustrations, and back matter.


Reading will also enable you to choose books and authors to use as models for your books and career. Telling agents, editors, and readers your models will enable them to understand what your book is instantly.


It’s been said that goals are dreams with a deadline. You must have literary, publishing, and personal short- and long-term goals that are in harmony and motivate you to do whatever it takes to achieve them. One goal that clarifies your other goals is how much money you want to earn a year, because it determines what you write, and how you write and promote it.

A Plan

Sue Grafton advises writers to have a five-year plan. Once you decide where you’d like to be in five years, you can figure how to get from where you are to where you want to go. Read about how authors of books like yours succeeded and ask them for advice.


You must have goals for what you want to accomplish every workday and the discipline to make sure you accomplish them. William Faulkner once said: “I write when the spirit moves, and I make sure it moves every day.” Even a page a day is a book a year. Balance your goals, and choose the most productive way for you to spend your time. Take care of the minutes, hours, and days, and the years will take care of themselves.


How can you make you and your work stand out in the growing explosion of books and authors? Creativity. In a world awash with media, creativity is essential for making you and your work memorable. There was a New Yorker cartoon showing a man standing over a cat, next to a litter box, and saying: “Never think outside the box.” To be creative today, it’s not enough to think outside the box, you have to think outside the room the box is in.


To succeed, you have to serve, not sell. There are more ways to serve your readers than ever, and the better you serve them, the better they’ll serve you.


You must have faith in yourself, your idea, your book, and your ability to make it succeed and build a career.


To face a blank screen and dare to believe you have something worth writing takes courage. To persevere despite rejections from publishers and the media, negative responses from readers and critics, and perhaps poor sales, takes courage. Overcoming obstacles takes courage. But you have more than enough courage to meet the challenges that await you. All you have to do is summon it, and the harder your struggle, the sweeter your success.


Writers need to know more about more areas of expertise than ever. Besides the things on this list, 

  • You have to have a positive but realistic perspective about publishing that balances the challenges and opportunities. The information at will help you.
  • If you want an agent, you have to know what they do, and how to find, contact, and work with them.
  • You have to know about using technology, especially social media. You don’t have to be a techie, but you do have to maximize the tremendous power of technology to help you.

However, you are blessed with more free resources than ever to learn what you need to know without leaving your desk.


There was once a cartoon showing one writer saying confidently to another: “I’ve got all the pages numbered. Now all I have to do is fill in the rest.” That’s where craft comes in. Besides reading, writing has five essential elements:

1. Coming up with an idea—There’s a New Yorker cartoon that shows two women nursing cocktails, and one is saying to the other: “I’m marrying Marvin. I think there’s a book in it.” There’s a book in just about anything and more subjects to write about than ever before. If you create an idea that lends itself to a series of books that you are passionate about writing and promoting, you can carve a career out of it.

2. Research–finding the information you need to write your book.

3. A workstyle–choosing the time, place, and tools that enable you to produce your best work. Ray Bradbury summarized the art of writing in two verbs: throw up and clean up. You have to decide whether it’s more effective for you to outline your book or go ahead and write your manuscript, and then massage it until it’s ready.

4. Writing–a combination of art and craft, poetry and carpentry, vision and revision. Mario Puzo, the author of The Godfather, said, “The art of writing is rewriting.” There’s a cartoon showing two mice sitting on a writer’s desk in the middle of the night reading his manuscript, and one is saying: “We’d do him a big favor if we ate chapter four.” If you don’t want rodents criticizing your work, be your own editor. Keep revising your work until it’s 100%, as well-conceived and crafted as you can make it.

5. Sharing–the great ballet dancer Nijinsky once said: “I merely leap and pause.” After you take your creative leaps, it’s time to pause and get feedback on your work. It’s been said that if at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you, but writing is a forgiving craft. Only your last draft counts. You can’t get your writing right by yourself, but you don’t have to. Build a community of knowledgeable readers to give you feedback.

This section on craft is adapted from a chapter about developing your craft in my book How to Get a Literary Agent.


There are more ways to test-market your book than ever. Test-marketing your book gives you the chance to prove it works and to get testimonials yu can use to sell and promote your work.

A Platform

Your platform is your continuing visibility with book buyers, online and off, on your subject or the kind of book you’re writing. Building your platform by test-marketing your book enables you to maximize the value of your book before you sell it, which, for most  nonfiction, is the only way to get the best editor, publisher, and deal for your book.


There’s a New Yorker cartoon showing two disreputable guys sitting a bar talking, and one is saying: “I tried victimless crime, but I’m a people person.” If you want to be a successful author, you have to be a people person. Writing is a solitary profession, but it’s the only part of the process you have to do alone. Create communities of fans, writers, and other publishing professionals to help you with your writing, promotion, using technology, and getting reviews and cover quotes.


Two cannibals are having dinner and one says to the other: “You know, I don’t like your publisher.”

“OK,” the other cannibal says, “then just eat the noodles.”

The most common reason authors become disenchanted with their publishers is lack of promotion. If you’re writing a promotion-driven nonfiction book, the promotion plan you include in your proposal will determine the editor, publisher, and deal for your book.  Novelists are also as well. A plan is a list, in descending order of impressiveness, of what you will do to promote your book, including, when possible, how many of them. Exaggerate nothing, but submit the strongest plan you can.

Chicken souperman Jack Canfield says a book is like an iceberg: writing is 10%, marketing is 90%. If this is true for the kind of book you’re writing, you will need to spend nine times more effort promoting your book than you do writing it. But there are more ways to promote your book at less cost than ever with just your fingertips.


You have to be a contentpreneur.

  • Your content has to be scalable from a tweet to a book, and your promotion from a one-line pitch to a one-hour radio interview.
  • You have to make your laptop and your smartphone your office and be able to work and to respond to your communities wherever you are.
  • You have to keep writing and publishing a steady stream of work for free and for fees that maximizes your pleasure, income, and visibility.
  • You have to focus on writing work that you can re-purpose in as many forms, media, and countries as you can.
  • There’s a cartoon showing two guys sitting in a bar talking, and one of them is saying to the other: “Since I started freelancing full time, I’ve made quite a few sales…my house, my car, my furniture.”

If you don’t want to be like him, you have to take entrepreneurial responsibility for the promotion and sales of your book.

  • You also have to be resourceful in figuring out how to solve problems and take advantage of new opportunities.
  • You have to build a community of professionals and virtual assistants with whom you can collaborate to create new products and services.


There’s a New Yorker cartoon showing a man and a woman, sitting on a couch talking, and the man is saying: “Look, I’m not talking about a lifetime commitment. I’m talking about marriage.”

Being a successful author requires a lifetime commitment, and I hope that you will commit yourself to becoming the best writer you can be, not just for yourself, but for all of us.


Marketing guru Seth Godin says that the best time to start promoting a book is three years before it comes out, because it may take that long to build a platform,  create the strongest promotion plan for your book, and have the ability to carry it out.

You have to have patience to take the long view as well as the short view in writing and promoting your books, and building your career. You can’t look at your career as one book but ten or twenty—each new book being better and more lucrative than the previous one.


To be the best writer and author you can be, you must love the process. You have to believe that using this model is what you were born to do. You have to

  • love to read and write
  • write out of love for serving your readers
  • love the challenges of devoting yourself to becoming a better writer and communicator about your work

The love you send into the world through your work and your relationships with your readers will come back to you many times over and provide a profoundly satisfying life, regardless of how much income you earn doing it.

The Best Piece of Advice
Add luck to this list, and your books will be failproof. After forty-four years in the business, I’m convinced that every part of this list is essential. I may have left something out—and please tell me if I have–but you will need all of what’s here to succeed. I end the model with the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard about becoming a writer:

“If anything can stop you from becoming a writer, let it. If nothing can stop you, do it and you’ll make it.”

A Bonus

You can adapt this model for other professions and in your personal life. 

My partner Elizabeth Pomada and I do a presentation about the model.

More of the Same Only Different: BEA 2011

When one Editor-in-Chief was asked what kinds of books he wanted, he replied: “More of the same only different.” That also describes this year’s BookExpoAmerica. More technology booths, more discussion of ebooks, yet books still ruled the day. BEA was reaassuring. Publishers are responding to the changes in the industry, and as they have always done, finding ways to accommodate them. BEA is succeeding in reinventing itself to serve a rapidly changing industry. Librarians are helping to replace booksellers.

The biggest news was Amazon hiring Larry Kirschbaum, the former head of Warner Books and then an agent, to start a trade house, which calls forth a vision of the Six Sisters that dominate trade publishing becoming Three Sisters: Google, Amazon, and Apple.

The Bay Area was well represented on a panel about whether printed books will survive the growing e-valanche of ebooks and enriched versions of them. On the panel were representatives of the two most creative publishers in America: Workman and Chronicle Books, along with someone from Lonely Planet. They’re all doing well with pbooks.

Lonely Planet has had 9.2 million downloads of apps and has still seen double-digit increases in pbooks, although they invested in color to help make that happen.

Chronicle and Workman create books that can never be ebooks. Bob Miller of Workman showed a book for autistic children that included a brush for them to use. He also showed what looked like a bag of potato chips but contained things for cooking Italian food.

Another excellent panel discussed online promotion campaigns. One panelist had a list of more than a dozen elements of a campaign.

The biggest revelation of the convention for me: former Jossey-Bass Executive Editor Alan Rinzler saying that the future of publishing is self-publishing. This helps explain why publishers are starting e-imprints for authors they can’t publish otherwise and why agents are starting to publish ebooks.

Elizabeth and I rent a apartment in the Village, and spend a week or two before BEA seeing editors, family, and friends, and enjoying spring in the Big Apple. For us, BEA will remain an essential rite of spring: an annual reunion of people we only see at BEA; the chance to meet out-of-New York editors and new people, often by accident; gain new perspectives about marketing and publishing at the breakout sessions (which often have hashtags); hear about books at the editors’ buzz panel and the author breakfasts; and see what’s going on in publishing in one big room.

Next year, the convention is a week later, June 5-7. Hope to see you there. / [email protected] / The 9th San Francisco Writers Conference / A Celebration of Craft, Commerce & Community / February 16-20, 2012 / / [email protected] / @SFWC / /  / 1029 Jones St. / San Francisco, CA 94109 / San Francisco Writers University / Where Writers Meet and You Learn / Laurie McLean, Dean / bfree classes / / [email protected] / @SFWritersU

The Last Chance to Prevent Googleopoly?

 Google will do what is in (its) best interest at all times.

–Dave Rosenberg, open-source software executive

I have yet to see anyone discuss what is most dangerous about Google’s attempt to commandeer our literary heritage: Power corrupts. There is far too much power in the hands of fewer people and corporations than ever.

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich reminded us is his March 27th column in the San Francisco Chronicle that: “…corporations exist for one purpose and one purpose only – to make as much money as possible….”  The actions of Amazon, the leading online bookseller, with customers and publishers have shown how the pursuit of profit can affect decisions.

Google’s noble goal is to make the knowledge in the world’s 130 million books available to anyone connected to the Web. Thanks to the exploding smartphone market, by the end of the decade, this will include most of the people on the planet. But Google’s equally noble commitment not to do evil hasn’t prevented it from happening. Digitizing books in copyright without permission created a firestorm of protest from the writing and publishing community.

Unless stopped, technology companies, prodded by political, financial, and competitive pressures, will control the culture for which they are the gatekeepers. Our literary heritage should be in a library available to all, not a profit center subject to corporate needs. Access to books is far more important than quarterly dividends. Allowing books to become victims of the corporate imperative will lead to evil being done to readers, writers, students, and publishers.

Consider this solution:

1. Google should seize the opportunity created by U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin’s ruling against its plan, because of concerns about copyright, privacy, and monopoly. Empower the publishing community to make decisions about how Google provides access to books. One of the wisest investment Google can make is to finance a nonprofit governing board with the ability to decide how best to balance access and profit in the public interest.

The board would include a representative from Google, the Association of American Publishers, the American Booksellers Association, the American Library Association, the Library of Congress, the Author’s Guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the American Board of Higher Education, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and perhaps other organizations.

2. Have these organizations elect a member to serve a single two-year term for the part-time position in return for the income the member presently earns plus expenses. The ideal candidates will have integrity, creativity, and a passionate dedication to the public’s right to access books.

3. Make the board’s monthly meetings transparent: televise them, including who votes for what, and post the text of its meetings on the Web.

If Google separates control and profits, the courts and the international book community will look more kindly on its efforts.

Lurking behind this issue are two questions as important as any we face:

1. How do we grant individuals and organizations enough power to be effective but not enough to be corrupted?

2. At a time of accelerating change, how do we enable government to solve huge, growing, complex, related problems?

History has proven Napoleon right: “Humanity is only limited by its imagination.” All that separates conception and achievement are time and resources.  Creativity and collaboration across media, disciplines, and borders will continue to unleash a growing torrent of wonders.

What we desperately need is a new group of founding fathers and mothers to reimagine the American dream and how to achieve it.. Whatever the dream is, books — in whatever form they take — will continue to be an essential part of it.