Thoughts on Bookselling, Self-Publishing and Charisma: The Curt Schilling Model

by Patrick on March 5, 2009

Last week, I wrote about my experience reading an ebook.  That book was Cory Doctorow’s Content:  Selected Essays on Technology, Creativity, Copyright, and the Future of the Future, and it was thought-provoking.  The essay I find myself thinking about at the moment is one called “Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet.” It is from a 2006 issue of Locus Magazine, an online magazine and journal to which Doctorow contributes.  He opens the essay by discussing the change that radio wrought on the music business:

When radio and records were invented, they were pretty bad news for the performers of the day. Live performance demanded charisma, the ability to really put on a magnetic show in front of a crowd. It didn’t matter how technically accomplished you were: if you stood like a statue on stage, no one wanted to see you do your thing. On the other hand, you succeeded as a mediocre player, provided you attacked your performance with a lot of brio.

Radio was clearly good news for musicians — lots more musicians were able to make lots more music, reaching lots more people and making lots more money. It turned performance into an industry, which is what happens when you add technology to art. But it was terrible news for charismatics. It put them out on the street, stuck them with flipping burgers and driving taxis. They knew it, too. Performers lobbied to have the Marconi radio banned, to send Marconi back to the drawing board, charged with inventing a radio they could charge admission to. “We’re charismatics, we do something as old and holy as the first story told before the first fire in the first cave. What right have you to insist that we should become mere clerks, working in an obscure back-room, leaving you to commune with our audiences on our behalf?”

He goes on to argue that, while the internet may make it impossible to charge for recorded music (an argument that seems a little bit dated in the face of iTunes success), musicians can actually stand to benefit from the internet:

“[T]he Internet’s ability to lower the costs for artists to reach their audiences and for audiences to find artists suddenly renders possible more variety in music than ever before.

Those artists can use the Internet to bring people back to the live performances that characterized the heyday of Vaudeville. Use your recordings — which you can’t control — to drive admissions to your performances, which you can control.

And the benefits of the web don’t stop there, according to Doctorow, as this new market for music is one with “fewer gatekeepers.” Indeed, as Doctorow points out, “[t]he Internet is enabling a further decentralization in who gets to make art, and like each of the technological shifts in cultural production, it’s good for some artists and bad for others.”  The writers that the web is helping are those who can establish a relationship with their readers, writers like Neil Gaiman, who maintains an active blog and a hilarious and personal Twitter feed.

But Neil Gaiman didn’t circumvent the traditional “gatekeepers,” and neither did Doctorow.  Both of them are published by established publishing houses, and judging from his most recent Locus magazine article, Doctorow wouldn’t have it any other way:

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from someone who’s ready to reinvent publishing using the Internet, and the ideas are often good ones, but they lack a key element: a sales force. That is, a small army of motivated, personable, committed salespeople who are on a first-name basis with every single bookstore owner/buyer in the country, people who lay down a lot of shoe-leather as they slog from one shop to the next, clutching a case filled with advance reader copies, cover-flats, and catalogs. When I worked in bookstores, we had exceptional local reps, like Eric, the Bantam guy who knew that I was exactly the right clerk to give an advance copy of Snow Crash to if he wanted to ensure a big order and lots of hand-selling when the book came in (He also made sure that I got ARCs of every Kathe Koja and Ian McDonald novel — Eric, if you’re reading this, thanks!).

This matters. This is the kind of longitudinal, deep, expensive expertise that gets books onto shelves, into the minds of the clerks, onto the recommended tables at the front of the store. It’s labor-intensive and highly specialized, and without it, your book’s sales only come from people who’ve already heard of it (through word of mouth, advertising, a review, etc.) and who are either motivated enough to order it direct, or lucky enough to chance on a copy on a shelf at a store that ordered it based on reputation or sales literature alone, without any hand-holding or cajoling.

Here’s the counter to the argument that, as a writer, this is a great time to be alive, because you can post your writing online or self-publish a book without anyone’s approval, without having to win over old man Scribner or cut through the slush pile at Knopf.  The internet might make it easier to put your work out there, but with so much writing flooding the web everyday (Hey, here’s some more!), how are you going to get anybody to pay attention?  Why should they?  We’re well passed the point of infinity with text that Seth Godin described (There are far more books and web-articles and short stories in existence than a person could hope to read in a lifetime).  So how does a writer find an audience?  What we’re seeing is a reversal of the paradigm shift that Doctorow described in his essay on Sci-Fi:  in order to reach an audience now, it’s not enough to be a virtuoso writer.  You either have to have the backing of that shoe-leather sales force or you have to be one hell of a charismatic.  These are the only two reasons that somebody might read your work.  Period.  The end.

Gary Vaynerchuck’s a charismatic, so people are paying attention to him, watching his videos, following him on Twitter, and buying wine from his shop.  John Updike had the backing of Knopf; that is, he had all of the cultural weight of all the other books that Knopf published, plus the tireless efforts of the Random House sales team to push his books.  This last part can’t be understated, and this is largely what self-publishing fanatics miss when they talk about the empowerment of scrapping the old model and doing it yourself.  When Tom Benton from Penguin or Wade Lucas from Random House puts a book in my hands, I am going to take that book seriously.  Why?  Because I know that they know my taste.  I would hope that the people who read this blog have a similar relationship with me.  When a regular reader emails me about a book, I know what they’re reading, and I can tip them off to new stuff I think they might like.

Too often, self-published authors and web-publishing proponents label the publishing industry and brick-and-mortar bookstores like Vroman’s as “gatekeepers” or “middlemen,” standing between them and their readership.  And in a sense, they’re right.  We do pass judgement on the books we let into our store, and the publishers pick and choose what they’re going to print.  But I’d like to suggest that self-published authors think of bookstores more as potential allies.  We’re who you need more than anything else.  We’re the people who tell readers what to read next. So how do you get on our good side?

This brings us back to the idea of being a charismatic.  What does such a term mean in the digital world?  Clearly, writers are not performers, right?  What it means to me is that the better a writer is at communicating with his or her readership outside of the books they write, the better they will be at selling those books.  The days of being a successful recluse are probably coming to an end, but was that ever a likely path to success?

When I read Doctorow’s article, I actually thought of Curt Schilling, the baseball pitcher.  He’s a great example of a charismatic.  Now, he doesn’t rely on interacting with his fans to make a living, but he’s a great example of  how doing so can be impactful.  When Schilling was contemplating whether to approve a trade from Arizona to Boston, he went onto the popular Red Sox fan page Sons of Sam Horn and took part in a chat with the members.  Once he became a Red Sox, he continued to post on the message board, answering questions from fans and joking with them as if he were just another member of the board.  For those who don’t follow sports, Schilling is a very polarizing figure, the kind of athlete who always has something to say, always has an opinion.  In a city like Boston, where the fans are particularly rabid, this had the potential to backfire on him in a big way.  But it didn’t.  Why?  He was always honest and open with the fans online.  In return, those fans respected his privacy and didn’t beg him to show up at their charity golf tournaments or loan them money or sign memorabilia.  Most of the reporting on the Schilling-message board story focused on the fans winning Schilling over and convincing him to join the Red Sox, but I think there was a bit of convincing going the other way, as well.

The Curt Schilling Model is a good one for authors – self-published or otherwise – to follow.  Interact with your fans online and be open and honest and humble.  If you’re going to write a blog, make it a good blog, not just a place to post your events or to gripe about how mainstream publishing is aesthetically bankrupt.  If you’re going to be on Twitter, respond to people and join the discussion.  In short, be like the rest of us online.  If you comment frequently (and intelligently) on my blog, I’m more likely to take seriously your book, whoever publishes it.  If you and I frequently re-tweet eachother on Twitter, I’m going to be a lot more receptive to your query email.  This might seem unfair – shouldn’t I judge everything on the story alone? – but it’s the facts.  The good news for you is that the internet is an open playing field.  Blogging and Twitter are free, and I’m a lot more likely to listen to you than the folks who blog for Barnes & Noble (I’m assuming they have a blog, though I haven’t actually checked).

This is an exciting time to be alive, and it’s a thrilling time to be a writer.  The potential to be heard is greater than ever, but so is the potential to be drowned out by the din of shouting.  If you want to be heard, you’d better get charismatic.