Many years back, a seasoned publishing vet who had been CEO of two major houses told me an interesting story about some of the authors he had worked with. He told me that the smartest authors were always deeply insecure. You couldn’t always tell, but deep down, these authors felt that they were frauds and that they really didn’t have the intellectual capacities others thought they did. They lived in constant fear of being revealed for the mediocre minds they felt they really were.
I found this factoid very interesting and decided to dig a little deeper to see if there was any truth to it.
There is, apparently.
It’s called the Impostor Syndrome, and it’s found in just about every industry and corner in the world. Successful and intelligent people are often unable to accept their achievements and intellect. They become concerned that they haven’t actually earned any of their accolades and are phonies. Many have argued that this comes from the old Socratic mantra, “The more you know, the more you know of how little you know.” Smart people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things they don’t know in comparison to what they do and so feel undeserving of praise or recognition.
While I will not name names, you would be amazed at some of the authors I have gotten to know who have confessed (albeit indirectly) to feeling that they were probably just in the right place at the right time to earn the recognition that they had. In all of the cases, these authors were being completely silly, of course, but it’s amazing how deep down their uncertainty goes. Even when I do tell them about the Impostor Syndrome, they remain unmoved (which makes sense given that diagnosing a problem doesn’t always solve it).
Still, one question kept burning inside me. I asked a psychiatrist friend of mine about a potential hole in this theory. What if I genuinely was a fraud and didn’t have the intellectual capital I was credited with? In that case, thinking that I’m a fraud is not a syndrome but just the plain truth! My friend responded that such a thing is possible, but unlikely:
“Only smart people question themselves and their abilities because only smart people realize how little they know. People of average or less intelligence don’t know how little they know, or they don’t care — or they think they know everything. Either way, they don’t see the need to question themselves.”
Every time I leave the country, I am confronted with the inescapable fact that, in the global scheme of things, I am quite irrelevant — just a fleeting snapshot, gone as quickly as forgotten. I feel this the strongest in international airports — which I believe are prime examples of the impermanence and constant motion of humanity. I see millions of people all going to different places for different purposes for different lengths of time. These people, unlike even the strangers we see on our regular commutes to work or in restaurants or other public places, will probably never see me or each other again. These people share the least with each other in terms of common experiences, cultures, languages, beliefs, or aspirations. We will never know if any of them die, win the lottery, get married, get divorced, or have kids — and we really don’t care much anyway. It’s not that we wish these people any harm, it’s just that an international airport is at once the closest you get to a global humanity and simultaneously the least community-minded place anywhere. Everything is impermanent and everyone, in some way or another, is in transit to somewhere else.
These people will most likely not figure into each others’ lives in some convoluted way. Movies often portray various deceptively independent storylines that climax with seemingly unrelated characters all encountering and impacting each other at some fateful crossroads. That’s only in movies, for the most part.
When I sit in airports and watch all these travelers, I think of the self-importance that I’m guilty of and how I tend to decide what is important for others to publish and to read. We all grow upset when the world doesn’t recognize our grand schemes or our plans for the next literary revolution. In my case, I sometimes feel that I know what books the world needs — what is fluff and what is serious stuff. But sitting in international airports, I realize how ridiculous it is to feel so self-important. Humanity is way more diverse than we can imagine, and more importantly, humanity doesn’t really care what I think. Humanity has its own priorities, people to meet, things to do, and places to be, and those don’t involve me or my agenda. I am irrelevant.
International travel — it enriches the mind but also humbles the soul.
I turned 43 some weeks back. Goddamit.
I’ve come to realize that getting older, for me, is about recognizing that everything is ultimately about opposites:
1. When you’re young, you never seem to gain weight, and if you do, you can lose it in a weekend of juicing. When you’re older, you can gain weight over a weekend and never be able to lost it.
2. When you’re younger, you dress down on week days and dress up on the weekends. When you’re older, you dress up on week days and dress down on the weekend.
3. When you’re younger, you dread having a weekend with absolutely no plans. When you’re older, you covet weekends with no plans.
4. When you’re younger, sleep is a necessary break in the path towards your goals. When you’re older, sleep is the goal.
5. When you’re younger, you think you’re mature for your age. When you get older, you realize that only immature people think that they’re mature for their age.
6. When you’re younger, you hate the boomers for selling out. When you get older, have kids, a mortgage, health issues, and college loans, you look for opportunities to sell out.
7. When you’re young, your mind has to keep up with your body. When you’re older, your body needs to keep up with your mind.
8. When you’re young, you look to have a variety of friends with different personalities all across the world. When you’re older, you downsize your friends according to maintenance effort required and proximity of residence.
9. When you’re young, hairstyles and facial hair are for experimenting with style. When you’re older, they’re for concealing flaws.
10. When you’re younger, you think people who are weird or eccentric are smart. When you’re older, you realize that there is no correlation between weirdness and intelligence.
Our industry, like most, has its shortcomings, but it also seems to get more than its fair share of criticism — especially from the self-publishing advocates. The more I read what these self-publishing gurus have to say, the more I begin to feel that they inaccurately present self-publishing to people as an equalizer to balance the power in their favor against the forces of evil (meaning publishers). One HuffPo contributor and self-publishing advocate went so far as to call self-publishing a “populist revolution that puts power back in the hands of the people.”
Four tenets of these “empowerers’” teachings especially rattle me:
1. Everyone has the right to be published. I hate to say it (well, no, I actually don’t), but being published is not a right for all people, it’s a goal for a select few. Being a gifted decathlete is not a right for all people, nor is having the same musical gifts as Yo Yo Ma. People can certainly try, but there remains an understanding that only the gifted few will ascend to the higher levels. I believe that publishing works in the same way. Anyone can try to write, but only those with skills and creativity make the cut and get published. Does this mean that all talented writers ultimately end up published? No, but the ugly truth is that there aren’t nearly as many talented writers as people think there are.
2. Publishers over-charge, over-price, and under-pay their authors so that they can reap the profits. Really? If true, publishing must be a very lucrative business that turns an incredible profit for the proprietors. So what happened to our Wall Street-size bonuses and stock options? Why do publishing houses collapse on a daily basis? Why are publishing professionals (up to even executive levels) among the lowest-paid professionals in all industries? Why don’t you hear newly-minted MBAs exclaiming, “Stock market? Hell, no, I’m going to where the big bucks are — publishing, man!” Slim profit margins and even slimmer salaries prevail industry-wide. If publishing truly exploits authors and the public for profit, I really want to know where that money goes.
3. Publishers can’t select bestsellers and often overlook brilliant books. Yes, because stock brokers have it down to an art and real estate prospectors always know what will go up in price, right? No, there exists no certainty nor science to picking bestsellers and yes, we overlook many potential gems. How does this approach differ from those of any other business strategy in which people make their choices based on research, experience, and best guesses according to trends, and then hope for favorable outcomes? Sometimes those choices pay off, many times they don’t. And just as a stock broker who loses more money than he makes won’t stay in the industry too long, so will an editor or a publishing house that consistently picks losers. God bless the free market.
4. Publishers have no vested interest in an author’s success. This is the most illogical tripe of all. Any publisher’s income is dependent on their authors’ books performing well in the marketplace. Publishers not only have a vested interest in seeing to their authors’ success, it’s also the only way they get paid. Ironically enough, self-publishing outfits depend the least on their authors’ success, because they are paid up front for their services and materials and see a profit before the book even reaches the marketplace.
Self-publishing is like the participation ribbon given to all children at any event to make them think that everyone is a winner. The problem is, that’s not true.
Business people love jargon and business writers love creating jargon. This sets up a vicious circle whereby the least-literary people in the world create the most unoriginal terms, which are then picked up by other people who, assuming it makes them sound smarter, use the terms repeatedly to the point of rendering them meaningless. Here are fifteen such terms:
1. Game Changer: Ironically, things described as game changers rarely change anything. Also, just because you change the game or create a new game, it doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be the best at it. Ask the British about their games such as soccer or cricket if you don’t believe me.
2. Action items: As opposed to those items that require no action or attention at all? Does adding the word “action” suddenly make it more exciting? Ooh, I’m giddy all of a sudden!
3. Screw the Pooch: A terrible term. Getting caught screwing a pooch pretty much trumps any other business or career disaster by a significant margin. I do not ever want to learn the origins of this term.
4. Low-hanging Fruit: We forget that low-hanging fruit is not just easy for us to grab, but for everyone else, too. It’s a nicer way to say, “We’re not going to aim high here, we’re going to settle for the easy and mundane.”
5. Value-Add: Since when was it decided that all products, measures, and ventures had to have only one benefit or purpose, and so anything else that may just make it a better thing deserves a term that makes it sound like we’re doing the consumers a huge favor? Instead of a value-add, why not actually just create something that has great value?
6. Disambiguation: A big word often used by superiors when they can’t understand what is being presented to them but don’t want to simply ask for an explanation. They believe that if they use big words, no one will notice that they’re slow on the uptake.
7. Drink the Kool-Aid: Yeah, let’s dredge up an awful event in history when a whole colony of misled believers poisoned themselves under the mind control of a sociopath and then use the phrase to simply mean total commitment. And who drinks Kool-Aid any more anyway?
8. Synergy: Define it. Go on, I dare you. That’s right, absolutely nobody knows what this word really means. It doesn’t stop people from using it (google it if you don’t believe me).
9. Innovation: See (8) above. Also, if you were really innovative, you would find another word for it.
10. Strategic Planning: As opposed to planning that is un-strategic, ill-advised and moronic? Isn’t planning a strategy already?
11. Re-purpose: A very nice way of saying you’re recycling stuff that’s already out there and presenting it as new in another arena.
12. Value Proposition: Why even propose something that has no value? You have something of no benefit to me at all? I’m all ears!
13. Any word proceeded by 2.0: Clever tech jargon that’s just irritating. Everyone knows that the 1.0 version of anything will have bugs, and the 2.0 version will correct those bugs, which means 2.0 is what 1.0 should have been. So if you’re really doing something new or different, it should be 3.0
14. Actualize, Productize, Monetize and other -izes: How clever to think that all you need to create more energetic terms is just tack on an -ize to any word. Yeah, more exciting yet equally meaningless.
15. New Economy: People were using this phrase around the turn of the 19th century and ever since. Nothing in our economy is particularly new since the industrial revolution. A company still has to compete effectively, make money, and attract more customers — all to justify its stock price. Same principles, same economy.
I dropped by a major book marketing event this morning to say hello to a number of my authors. I arrived a bit early and caught the tail end of a talk about how to attract attention in the marketplace and create vital communities. It takes a tremendous amount of work to do this sort of platform-building — way more than most people realize. Their session reminded me of one of the hardest facts I have to relay to authors who submit their proposals to us — that their work will not, by virtue of its own brilliance and insight, garner market attention and become a bestseller.
It’s equally beautiful and frustrating to me that so many authors believe, with the sort of blind faith often reserved for religion, that somehow word shall spread about the book and people will be mysteriously drawn to it purely because of the value of its contents. The whole thing is all rather metaphysical, really, because it suggests some sort of collective consciousness that all humans are tapped into, and when one person sees brilliance, the rest will also know of it.
I actually wish that this was the case and that this vast intellectual collective consciousness did exist. Then we wouldn’t have Snooki Polizzi’s so-called “memoir” burning up the New York Times bestseller lists while another hundred absolutely brilliant books continue to rot in a warehouse somewhere.
You see, the consciousness knows what’s good and what isn’t, and the consciousness does not watch The Jersey Shore on MTV. Unfortunately, consciousness doesn’t recommend books, either.
With tax season now drawing to an end, I am hearing the inevitable complaints about how people’s hard-earned dollars are going to support lazy people with addictions and no ambition who are content to live off the labor of others. Welfare moochers.
I tell them that I have no issues with my money going to support such people.
I honestly do want my tax dollars to go to help others — and those others include the f*ck-ups, the lazy @ss***es who don’t want jobs, the impoverished that refuse to help themselves, the welfare cheats, the self-entitled hipsters, the under-achievers, the dregs of society. I am not some bleeding heart liberal despite what others may think, but I know that if anyone looks at their family history, they will see as many under-achievers and f**k-ups as successful people. And if you could look into a crystal ball at your future generations, again you’ll see as many f**k-ups as successful people. There is no way to avoid it, and refusing to support such people makes an assumption that both your children, and their children, and so on, will all be successful driven workers, which is nonsense.
It also assumes that you will always be successful, and as the recent financial debacle taught us — it is incredibly easy to go from living in a mansion to being homeless.
People tend to assume that difficulties pass but that success is forever, when the fact is that both exist as impermanent factors, subject to change. Supporting the dregs of society is as much insurance for myself and my family’s future as it is giving to others.