Provocations in Publishing: “Engineering Serendipity”

iStockphoto photog Paladex

Coined by the British aristocrat Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter, [serendipity] long referred to a fortunate accidental discovery. Today serendipity is regarded as close kin to creativity — the mysterious means by which new ideas enter the world. But are hallway collisions really the best way to stoke innovation?

− Engineering Serendipity, April 5, 2013, New York Times, by Greg Lindsay

Here at the new PubSmart Conference, seated this week in an unseasonably chilly Charleston, South Carolina, the term “engineering serendipity” came up on a Thursday panel several of us were doing about discoverability.

PubSmartDiscoverability, itself, is not quite a word yet, according to my unabridged Merriam-Webster.  But when I checked out this term engineering serendipity, I found that it has been with us for some time.

Not that any of us on the panel felt that engineering serendipity wasn’t useful. Kathy Meis, founder of Bublish (a serendipitous name if ever there was one) is one of the five main movers behind PubSmart. She gave us the term as she moderated our panel, which included NetGalley’s Tarah Theoret; Books I Love app’s Elizabeth Dimarco; the eminent Laura Dawson of Bowker and its SelfPublishedAuthor.com site; and me.

If you don’t find yourself naturally comfortable with workin’ it, you may not be tomorrow’s author material, no matter how pretty your prose. 

I’ll just point out that this conference is doing a great deal to rebalance gender representation on publishing-conference panels. Wednesday, I moderated a panel of five women. Thursday I sat on a panel with four women. More sessions have been all- or mostly women.

And as for serendipity and its engineers, I’ve been looking over my shoulder all week. Surely some wry creature, probably in a Citadel cadet’s dress whites, is there to get off a big wink at me. It’s an odd, if pleasant, thing to find yourself returned to your Deeply Southern hometown by a career that’s moved you as far away as Rome, Copenhagen, Bath, London.

I may still wear my white spring linen jacket to this morning’s conference brunch, damn it, despite the forecasts of only 66 azalea-cooling degrees today.

But this thing of engineering serendipity.

Stroke of a genius often comes out of sparks from rendezvous between people with the appropriate vision and talent when they exchange ideas and compare notes. It is no accident that startup ideas are often born on napkins at bars.

Engineering Serendipity Into Innovation, February 18, 2014, Wired, by Hari Subramanian,

Making Your Own Luck

What we wanted to convey to the conference audience in this session, of course, was the idea that you can and should position your work so that a happy accident makes it discoverable by readers.

I referenced, for example, publishing-marketing expert Peter McCarthy’s use of the “adjacent fans” concept, something I wrote about last August in Writing on the Ether at PubSmart keynoter Jane Friedman’s site. I think looking for “adjacencies” − themes and topics in your work that can interest existing aggregates of “enthusiasts” − makes perfect sense. If you work on finding groups set in the rowing-team culture of your latest novel, then you’re no longer yelling “Buy my book!” at your fellow writers. For which authors will thank you. And for which rowing enthusiasts may read you.

And at this and at many writers’ conferences and other events, what we really mean when we speak of something like engineering serendipity is that phrase, as old as the parlors of Charleston, making your own luck. Just with new urgency.

We can talk long and eloquently about the artful placement of our work in good fortune’s way.

We are overrun by amateurs unleashed on us by the “democratization” of digital publishing tools. And those amateurs may eat your lunch.

But the industry! the industry! is largely overtaken nowadays by the blockbuster mentality − the “runaway bestseller” is where the resources of marketing and publicity will go in a big house. And trickle-down conceptualizations of what it means to be successful have pretty much soaked the entire field.

Becoming that screaming success is sometimes just about all that seems worthwhile, isn’t it? Respect for the midlist is eroding fast.

There is talk here this week that “plot is more important than prose”…that getting out large numbers of books (four to six has been recommended) is requisite for starting to see some of your bills paid…that marketing one book is a matter of having more books…and that “quality” is just a relative term, baby, eye of the beholder, “too subjective” for us to rationally get hold of it…”good enough” may just be good enough, did you try the grits?

I’m sorry for this, to tell you the truth. And I will tell you the truth, of course.

I’m impressed by the distress of one attendee here at PubSmart who didn’t like hearing one member of an agents’ panel say that she felt that a self-published misfire could be damaging to an author’s career. This wasn’t what this attendee wanted to hear from anyone on the agents’ panel. Does that mean it wasn’t correct for this agent to assert it as her own opinion?

I don’t think so. I think it’s good for our author corps to live close by the confusions and disagreements of the industry. These are the realities of a maturing digital dynamic that isn’t done with us yet. For all this talk of how much faster digital has gone for publishing, it’s still with us and still slapping us around and still producing comments from agents’ panels (four women to one man!) that  some writers don’t want to hear.

You could get out of the kitchen. My grandfather, Franklin Woodrow Campbell, treasurer of Colleton County, which lies adjacent to Charleston, used to tell me, “Baby,  you can just walk away” when you get yourself into something that no longer is worth your effort.

Or you can try to engineer serendipity where possible.

“It Was Nothing”

You frequently hear an “outlier” − one of our hugely successful authors with so many Kindle Million Club copies sold and such a big “Indie Bestseller” label attached − do what I’m starting to call platform denial. This is when there are protestations of it all being an agreeable “accident” and so many things having “fallen” into place for them. Maybe they started publishing at one of those fortuitous (and Gladwellian) moments when several other major success put their toes into the water, too. Or maybe the realization that the Big Five weren’t everybody’s friends came just a the moment that new idea for a series had struck.

There is talk here this week that “plot is more important than prose”…that “quality” is just a relative term, baby, eye of the beholder, “too subjective” for us to rationally get hold of it…”good enough” may just be good enough, did you try the grits?

I’d be wary of platform denial when you encounter it. Here in the very heart of cordiality and just blocks from Society Street and Meeting Street, we know a few things about what becomes a successful person. And for a long time, saying “it was nothing” has been the mode. A long time, as in centuries of gracious brag-avoidance on these worn cobblestones.

The serendipity that funds the discovery of the bestseller is, yes, engineered. It is work. And the hardest working  among us are the ones whose tireless efforts in self-promotion are able to engage adjacent fans with something akin to what they already like.

In an all-or-nothing era when celebs stalk the land, supreme in the affections of the groundlings, those leading lights’ comely efforts to dodge compliments with “it was nothing” don’t wash. It was something. It was relentless and consuming effort.

“Everything you do is marketing,” one of them has said to us here. This is correct.

Power in the Parlor

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

While in time we might get better at communicating to non-marketing-heads the ways of the marketing mavens, the truth of this business is that the competition is increasing exponentially.

We are overrun by amateurs unleashed on us by the “democratization” of digital publishing tools. And those amateurs may eat your lunch.

You may hear “quality” discussions dismissed as no longer particularly meaningful. That’s because the hard work of all this engineering can create an apparent serendipity that doesn’t depend on quality to succeed. That token of abashed glory, Fifty Shades of Grey, now is code in some circles for the embarrassment we dare not criticize. It has come up that way several times here this week. Because she sold so many copies, you know, Ms. James did. So many copies, maybe, that she wore away some folks’ interest in quality and simply steamrolled a staggered business with her sales numbers.

How will we see these things at the next PubSmarting? We can’t say. Things aren’t nearly stable enough, and likely won’t be a  year from now.

What’s self-evident at the moment, however, is that the only serendipity you want to even think about? − is the kind you engineer yourself. And if you don’t find yourself naturally comfortable with workin’ it, you may not be tomorrow’s author material, no matter how pretty your prose.

The readers may not care if they’re getting the best writing or even the best story. The general public, after all, has never been where you went for the highest take on culture. No, the readers like winners. And as charmingly as some of those winners may deny the exhausting efforts of their platforms − and as much as we all understand their generous efforts to murmur “thank you, it was nothing” − if you’re still in love with quality and wanting to see good work win, I hope you’re ready for the long-haul struggle.

That’s what lies ahead. Work, work, commitment, consistency, clarity, and more work. It was always that way on the writing end of things. Now, you just need to engineer some serendipity for yourself, too. Then you can tell them “it was nothing.”

What do you think? Can you hack the effort it may take to get yourself past the other titles and find a place in the sunny South of success for your own work? Or are you having to ask yourself (and if you are, I applaud your honesty) whether this book business is still something you’re cut out for? One caveat: you can say something now and change your mind later. When that serendipity you engineered arrives. We’ll forgive ya. Honey.

 Image – iStockphoto: Paladex in Charleston, South Carolina

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About Porter Anderson

@Porter_Anderson, BA, MA, MFA, is a journalist, speaker, and consultant specializing in publishing. Anderson is The Bookseller's Associate Editor for The FutureBook in London, a sister site focused on developments in digital publishing. He is also a featured writer with Thought Catalog in New York, writing on publishing and on #MusicForWriters in association with Q2 Music. In 2015, Anderson has programmed the IDPF Digital Book Conference that opened BookExpo America (BEA) and is programming the First Word event at the Novelists Inc. (NINC) conference later in the year. And he is working with the Frankfurt Book Fair on special programming for its new Business Club suite of events and facilities, now in its second year, 13-16 October, in the 2015 Buchmesse. More on his consultancy, which includes Library Journal's and BiblioBoard's SELF-e among its clients in 2015: PorterAndersonMedia.com | Google+

Comments

  1. says

    As someone who faces that very battle – finding readers for something different – I’ve already started making those connections.

    I have a list of the unconventional themes in Pride’s Children, and I ask myself where there might be readers who will engage with each of those themes, and whose reading interests might not be fulfilled by other novels.

    As I get closer to being ready to launch, I will have to think of specific ways to market to each of those groups – and expect each approach to be unique.

    Some people think there are no new ideas, no new stories. I believe the opposite: that with each new human on the planet, story possibilities explode, and those new readers are hungry.

    I like the new world.

    And, btw, I am an engineer, too.

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    • says

      Hello, Engineer Alicia!

      I love your comment about there being different stories, new stories, with everyone around. I agree with you, and I’ve never felt comfortable with people who like to reduce all stories to some silly boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl formula, the “nothing new under the sun” people.

      Thanks for such a considered and interesting comment, and for reading — sorry not to get back to you earlier, just now at airport getting ready to leave the PubSmart Conference in Charleston.

      All the best and here’s to that new world, I like it, too! :)
      -p.

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  2. says

    I think we all have to be ready for the “long-haul struggle” as you say, Proter. No matter what a writer’s marketing or engineered efforts, good writing is an accumulated art and craft of not just skills and talent but perseverance. Great post!

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    • says

      Hey, Paula,

      Exactly. The long haul has the inevitability of the long tail in a market so decidedly challenged and complicated as this. Publishing’s struggles are at this point still digging it deeper into confusion and self-examination, as the digital dynamic moves forward — we’re not coming out of the tunnel yet. Certain markers will show us some light ahead in time but for now, the way is long and nothing can be more important for us to share with new writers, in particular, that this is the case.

      In doing my live interview with Hugh Howey at PubSmart in Charleston yesterday, one of the things most compelling for attendees at the conference was the fact that Howey’s Wool “novelette” was put put up at Amazon on July 30, 2011, as his eighth title. He had been writing for years and had seven full books on the market before Wool was spotted and took off. And in Howey’s case, I have no doubt that he would have persevered. The long haul doesn’t daunt him as it does so many folks.

      Keep the faith — and test that faith often. The more frequently you stop, look around, and get an eyeful of that long road head, the less blindsided you’ll be by the time investment required.

      Thanks and cheers,
      -p.

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  3. says

    Honesty huh- I will always be both Porter. I believe I will be a successful wordsmith/story spinner, and I believe I am not cut out for this SHIT! That’s my attitude at my present job as well; I’ve been in the CAD business for 15 years. One feeling is based on desire and the other is based on doubt. Right now, I know I’m not a master of the logos. I read people’s post and comments here, and in other places, and I don’t measure up. I’ve witnessed people take words and combine their syllables with sentence punctuation and turn a paragraph into a poetic song. I’ve wanted to sling books across rooms, rip my heavy laden heart out, and ring-my-eyes-out, because some technician of the text decided to pull my emotional strings. I not quite there yet, but I will be someday, unless I die first. Until then, I will continue to strive for the title of wordsmith / story spinner, connect with wonderful people like those of Writer Unboxed, and I will continue to support the industry.

    “Quality” of work is based on agreements. A group of people decided quality writing resembles (fill in the blank), and others followed that template. It was an attempt to weed out the stories, or type of writing, they didn’t like. That’s why we have stories that lack “quality” on the best seller’s lists. That’s why we have genre vs literary, instead of just two categories.

    Fifty Shades of Grey, the more people talked about it, the more it sold. I bought the damned thing, because “Cronic-Maassochism” wrote that three part lesson, which I thoroughly enjoy by the way. There wasn’t anything exceptional about the author style, but I didn’t think it was horrible either. I’m definitely not a fan of romance, but I was starting to see why people like the book (I haven’t finished it yet.) It was lining up with Cron’s and Don’s lessons.

    Don’t get me started on the Night Angel Trilogy. Many people gave it bad reviews based on the author’s “quality” of writing. Bah- they were upset because a fantasy story didn’t have that medieval feeling that’s typically related to stories with swords, or it was too violent for the reader. It just wasn’t their preference. But no, they had whine, “It’s not quality writing!”

    The stories that really lack quality are not even a topic of discussion. ANYWHERE! They don’t even make the worst seller’s list

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    • says

      Brian,

      Thanks for the good comment and for such “generosity of spirit,” a phrase I heard a lot in Charleston at the PubSmart confab.

      Your gracious comments about your own work vis-a-vis that of others are both touching and mildly worrisome. Only mildly, mind you. And only because I’d like them not to hold you back. While many of us can look to the capabilities of others and admire what they do, remember that it’s your own voice and ideas that will make your work what it is for others and what it is in the world. Rather than comparing your work to that of others, compare it to your own work two years or five years ago.

      The quality of mercy, as the great Edward de Vere told us, is not strained — and the quality of good writing comes in many names. Think of it as it’s used by the Bard: the quality of something, as in the nature of something, the peculiar genius of something, the rewarding gift of something.

      I guarantee you that if you focus only on the “quality” of your work as in texture, voice, resonance, coherence, you’ll hit your mark and earlier than expected.

      Cheers,
      -p.

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  4. says

    Delightfully provocative, as always, Porter. You never disappoint. I’m sure there are those out there for whom brilliance comes easily and naturally. For we earthbound 99%, however, it takes constant honing and, as Paula so aptly cited, perserverance. I believe Mr. Edison had something to say about the real balance between inspiration and persperation. You have said it well again. We need that reminder.

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    • says

      Ah, Alex the Faithful,

      And forgive my incredibly late reply. Two weeks on the road for conferences and a trade show in two countries, and I’m a mere Xerox of my former self.

      But yes, perseverance is all and there may be no trickier aspect to this for many than finding the joy in persevering.

      In the theater, we used to teach the young hopefuls to “enjoy the process, not the results,” a turn on Stanislavsky’s great “love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.” We might as well have been speaking to so many writerly aspirationals who love their dreams of being “in the art” of writing, in the limelight of media coverage, in the pantheon of bestsellers.

      When, in fact, as you know so well, it’s about getting back to work. As Hugh Howey reminds us, not about being the writer but about writing, itself.

      Stay with it, Alex, and thanks again!
      -p.

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  5. says

    “The readers like winners.” Looking across the publishing landscape, I can see how true this is. In the industry, editors and publishers signal the winners with promotional dollars. With the new tools available, authors are doing their own signaling through the work they put into making connections.

    Either way, winners in the game of writing have always been distinguished by their commitment to getting–and staying– published.

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    • says

      Hi, Cheryl,

      Thanks for your good comment, and sorry for my slow response, lots of travel these days.

      You’re correct about the promotional dollars. Our market-driven culture now is based in how much sheer attention can be generated for one thing or another, and it’s promotional budgets that go into designating this or that big thing.

      Even when something seemingly from nowhere “goes viral” on the Internet — and even if it is truly without promotional support of any standard kind — you’re looking at a kind of currency, based in the medium’s need to continually find new fascinations and in the restless, shifting, hive-mind’s need to be entertained, entertained, entertained.

      All of which adds up to very tricky times for writers, whose chief platform — reading — is not the sexiest nor the most popular in techno-crazed times. As we say quite often, the real competition is Angry Birds. And we know of no way to shoot them down with a good book … yet.

      Thanks again,
      -p.

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  6. says

    The readers may not care if they’re getting the best writing or even the best story. The general public, after all, has never been where you went for the highest take on culture.

    I’m not sure that a place for the “highest take on culture” exists anymore. The fragmentation of society coupled with technological disruption and the explosion of leisure-time options has pretty much annihilated the idea of an authoritative locus for standards in art.

    It is quite true that for major publishing houses commercial viability takes precedence over literary nurture. The trend has been in that direction for decades, only now is paramount in light of the economic realities of the new systems. This does make it more difficult for another To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Naked and the Dead.

    But those were rare even in their own day. Many “literary” authors made their serious bucks on the side with pseudonyms and paperback originals. Evan Hunter, for example, paid for his New York digs as Ed McBain (and was somewhat irritated that his doppelganger sold more than he did, by a huge margin). So it’s always been a “long haul” for a certain kind of book. There may yet open up a new “middlebrow” where such books (i.e., the type that don’t sell as well as entertaining-commercial) find a new place that is analogous to the old place. IOW, not huge sellers but enough to sustain an audience.

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    • says

      Jim!

      Sorry for the delay. I ran afoul of Springtime Weirdness in Southeastern Air Travel on the way back from PubSmart in Charleston. A long evening with Delta Air Lines (yes, three words).

      I think there still are places for “highest takes on culture,” actually — some of the classic mechanisms are still in place. The Nobel is still there, Pulitzers are issued, L’Academie hasn’t turned off the lights entirely and gone home. For that matter, there are critics still among us, as in highly placed, beautifully trained, masterfully written ones. And some institutions and organizations can still be depended on to move us into deeper waters, should the stronger swimmers decide to get out of the shallows.

      The real change, I think, is that there’s so little appetite left for “the fire of higher criticism,” as my beloved GBS put it. As digital enables every boy and girl to issue his and her opinion with all the certainty and gravity of Solomon (and a much bigger audience), we get farther from a common regard for stronger stuff. It’s so easy, isn’t it, to celebrate the egalitarianism “just enjoy what you enjoy!”…which, of course, means that folks are less frequently pushed to find what they might have missed, what they might need, what might challenge them and thus give them more in return than the easy click on that remote control.

      If many artists we revere had to create more populist work to make it, that doesn’t mean we (and they) shouldn’t try to create better, more meaningful, significant work — I’m saying something beyond mere entertainment — and, yes, by whatever means of financial support is necessary. Degas’ ballerina art was his bread and butter and almost scandalously cranked out to support the better stuff. So be it. The fact is that the better stuff did come and was recognized and is honored. Today? So many things top at the bread and butter. It supports nothing but more… bread and butter.

      I won’t be celebrating this trend, actually, although you’re certainly welcome to, my friend. And I’ll take nothing from Hunter for doing short haul work to get the long haul out there. As long as the long haul gets out there. This is where I think things are changing, and not for the better.

      And yep, I’ll stand by what I say: The populist sentiment (in any era, by the way) is not where you look for the fire of higher criticism, Shavian or otherwise

      Jim: Read Bird Box by Josh Malerman. Comes out May 13 in the States. http://ow.ly/vWRFK … Hunter wept. (My take on it at ThoughtCatalog.com: http://ow.ly/vWRMx)

      Skill and talent still are with us. And in a few cases, they’re still taking themselves seriously. (And Malerman for many years has fronted a very successful band. Degas girls dance on.)

      -p.

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  7. says

    Great stuff, Porter! I love the concept. I like what Paula and Alex have said about perseverance. And I think Brian is alluding to self-recognition–sort of like the Ira Glass taste/talent gap–which I like.

    Your dining companion Steven Pressfield once did an article in which he spoke of building a Career-in-Potential, which I think equates to an aspiring and as-yet unpublished writer’s version of Engineering Serendipity. Of course he takes it to a quasi-spiritual place, but I can row that boat, too. Some days I need it. You’ve gotta believe, baby!

    So for me I think I would add the need for patience and self-awareness to my engineering efforts. The good news is that, in the interim, I can continue to work toward that critical mass of titles requisite to paying the bills (in addition to regularly questioning whether I’m cut out for this book biz).

    Wish I could’ve been there in your hometown with you. Up here in the Mighty Mitten, we’re looking for reasons to pull out the white spring linen jacket. Next year!

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    • says

      Hey, Vaughn,

      Thanks for the good thoughts here, and yeah, we’ll send you some of my Tropic of Porter breezes to get you guys into the linen, you’ve had a really cold time of it.

      I think the most important thing you’re adding to the mix here (and thanks for that) is the self-awareness that relates to what Don is pointing out about the danger of magical thinking. A lot of folks think that “engineering serendipity” means standing by to have the rainbow fall on their heads. And that, of course, is not it. If anything, the clearer you can get about the limitations of what we’re saying — that nothing is going to just come busting through the ozone and make you all tingly and sparkly — the better your approach will be as you build that “luck.”

      I think one of the hardest things for a lot of us to do is to separate the interior enthusiasm of creativity from the real-world requirements of work. This is what makes creative careers so difficult. The inspi-vational part, as I call it, is for your artistic life, but tends to get tangled up in the hopes and dreams of your business life. Not a new problem. No answer in sight.

      So slog on! Engineer patience and self-awareness first, we all have plenty of the magical stuff going on. You can borrow some if you run out. :)

      -p.

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  8. says

    I listened to an interesting interview with an author on marketing to Mille owls. According to the author, the key was more about affinity than brand. This accords with my take on discoverability, which at it’s core seems to thrive on building a fan base through momentum and connection. Fostering those connections through both outreach, in whatever its forms, and new material is our new reality as writers. The challenge for those of us who aren’t millenials is to adapt this approach while maintaining the integrity of our product. What we can do is push ourselves to be more interactive with our fans, utilize momentum by increasing our output and speed to production, as well as write good stories, well told. If we don’t do this as more mature writers, I fear we will lose a younger generation of readers to a form of serialized story-telling that kills longer form fiction.

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    • says

      Hi, Dre.

      I confess, I’m having a grand time learning more about the Millennials who make up the gigantic audience of ThoughtCatalog.com, my new venue for Writing on the Ether (with 33 million unique visitors each month, now ranked 45th in the nation for size, even beating the NYTimes, can you imagine?).

      What I find is that these readers are wonderfully direct. And they like if if you are, too. A little less tolerance for the circuitous gentility of my Southern soul, maybe, and a little more tolerance for what we might once have called “abrupt.” These are marvelous readers, engaging with a huge range of topic and precedent. They may be our most agile generation since the kids I went to school with in England who would sing a Beatles song one moment, then a snatch of Beethoven the next. Intellectual omnivores, and I love them for it.

      You’re on the right track, stay the course, keep the faith, that is all. :)
      -p.

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  9. says

    Another great post full of amazing insights, Porter. Blockbuster sales is not a realistiic metric. For me it’s a marathon. It’s about perseverance, the relentless pursuit of improvement, and (that dirty word) marketing, but, beyond these, your post points out the importance of developing a community of like-minded writers and readers. That’s the part of it that never ends. And that’s the part that produces those serendipitous moments. Serendipity is no accident. It is the product of hard work and building those connections. And that lifelong commitment must spring from a love of the craft.

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    • says

      CG, God knows what time zone I’m in right now,

      But it’s clear that you’re on the right wavelength there, and perfectly in sync, I think, with Don’s comments that follow yours.

      As he is concerned about this trend toward “magical thinking,” you are effortlessly (ha!) debunking the idea that serendipity is really serendipity. In fact, it’s the artful laying of a velvet trap for Fate so that when she comes dashing down the hallway, you can trip her up, catch her as she falls, earn her undying gratitude, and set you up for life with a few bestsellers and some nicely made Hollywood blockbusters.

      What more could we ask?

      You’ve done it again, as ever, CG, lol, and thanks, seriously, for your cogent perspective on things. It is the long haul. We must remember this, must enjoy the ride and learn to love the process.

      And if success falls on you tomorrow, I’ll forgive you and toast your good health, sir. :)
      -p.

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  10. says

    Porter-

    I disagree that quality is too subjective to measure or understand. It’s in black and white, we can see it, we can understand it, we can use it. Even Fifty Shades has “quality” that is comprehensible. Lisa Cron and I showed that here on WU, as Brian noted.

    Different readers value different things in novels, but certain qualities are more broadly valued than others. I’ve written extensively about those factors.

    What interests me in your post is the need in the literary community to make fiction, it’s creation and appeal, magical. Why is that? I believe it is for several reasons. Writing involves flow and the pre-conscious mind. It’s also easier and more romantic to invoke magic than deal with craft and reliable process. Magic validates the sense of helplessness that writers feel. Luck ad magic make it easy explain failure.

    It’s disappointing to hear that even in the rational, take control world of self-pub that some folks are holding on to magical thinking. I applaud your effort to make something like serendipity understandable and achievable. I hope folks are listening.

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    • says

      Hey, Don,

      Apologies for the incredibly late response here. Much travel (a trade show and four confabs in two weeks and two countries) has really slowed down my response time, lol.

      But yes, as you can tell from my grits-eating regret in the piece, lol, I’m not pleased when I hear too much “quality is subjective” talk, either. I do think we know standards of quality that we can share, recognize, and respond to. What’s *pleasant* (or not) in a work we might be able to assign to a subjective call, of course, and I have no problem with that. Utterly pristine romance of the very highest quality, for example, won’t get my attention because my personal taste is simply such that I don’t see the genre’s material as something I want to read. But can we identify common understandings of what might make that romance pristine in terms of production and craft? Absolutely.

      To your main point, I couldn’t agree more that this desire, even longing, for the magical is fascinating. I think — I’m guessing — that it has to be ascribed to the sheer difficulty of the task at hand. There is, of course, a kind of legacy of such a mindset from the traditional world — I’ve known authors to do some pretty magical thinking when grinding out the queries and such. But the entrepreneurial field seems to be developing its own brand of this which, in good contexts, means being open to helpful and creative surprises, of course — and in less good contexts, chanting over fish entrails and other unfortunate approaches, lol.

      On the highest level, I think one problem I’d love to see conference organizers try to tackle everywhere is the preponderance of this kind of thinking at their own events. Something overtakes many attendees at these events — maybe the sheer proximity to people working the field or the immersion in the common goals of publication (by whatever means). You can feel a kind of magical-thinking tide rising as conferences get into full swing, and at the end, regardless of what the event, you hear one testimonial after the next, of the “best event ever” and how life-changing it’s all been. And this, too, of course, is magical thinking, perhaps more in group-think.

      I think that over time, surely, the realities of workaday rigors will overtake the magical aspect of such thinking and the whole enterprise will be grounded in the business. Some authors, I think, feel themselves so challenged by the business needs that leaving the “magical” part to the creative side isn’t enough…they feel the need to wear the safron on into the sessions, not just when sitting down to write. This, too, will ease as professional exigencies stabilize.

      But maybe not right away. I think we have a ways to go on all this. As long as events like PubSmart are such magnets for newcomers to the industry! the industry! we’ll have some magical thinking going on, the amateur’s credo.

      Here’s to folks listening. Some truly are. And boy, is it great to meet and visit with such rational thinkers when you find them. They mean more and more these days, don’t they?

      Thanks, as ever, Don.
      -p.

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  11. says

    Fantastic post.

    It is indeed such hard work and with how much effort I put into my day job and how little time I seem to have for writing these days, I do sometimes ask myself whether I’m really going to make it work as an author.

    But even as I ask myself that, I have to also ask myself, how much of that self questioning is fear based? I don’t know.

    All I know is that for some reason, I always feel compelled to return to the page, to the words, to the work. Hopefully all that work will allow me to manufacture the serendipity I need.

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  12. says

    I love “You can walk away.” Because anyone can. And some have. Earlier this week I was thinking about doing just that. For about a second. Okay, maybe a minute or two. But I thought about the people who have written reviews on Amazon asking if there are more books in the series. I also thought about all my writer friends and writer community that I have built around me and how drastically my life would change if I walked away. I also thought about not writing and exploring creativity and story anymore. And then the feeling passed. It a very small platform that I’ve got going, but they’re worth continuing on for, even when I feel tired and inadequate.

    I think you make a very valid point that even the authors that say “It was nothing” have worked very hard persevering in the little things before getting to the point of major success. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference. :)

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  13. says

    Oh jeez, Porter, work, more work and that followed by work? That’s it; I’m through with literary scribbling.

    Instead, I’m going to code an app (with colorful infographics) that shows that the succubus inhabiting J.D. Salinger took over Thomas Pynchon, and is now searching for a third host. It will sell millions.

    I do like the old man’s take on luck from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea: “Every day is a new day. It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.”

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  14. Poeticus says

    Engineered serendipity means to me what principles writing success always circles back to short or long run. This is also marketing in its producer sense. All the self-promotion any given producer may flog, all the publicity, promotion, and advertising a marketing plan may flog makes exactly no difference. The fourth corner of marketing is the one that makes the difference: packaging. Not packaging as in physical wrapper, or what have you, but the narrative package–the writing, in other words.

    If the writing has merits that more than outweigh its deficits, packaging magic is well in hand. The end consumers will generate word-of-mouth buzz, the only promotion, publicity, and advertising that matters in any regard. Artistic caliber, language, plot, character, setting and milieu, event, theme, method, and message, and moral even, whichever standout feature eager readers associate with most, and don’t find too much disruptive, that’s the packaging magic managed that generates buzz.

    Stephenie Meyer’s much maligned Twilight saga appeals to its audience because of message, saying as much as Social elitism is okay. The audience had been told and taught much of their young lives that social elitism is not okay, that it is plain wrong and evil. Never mind the otherwise faulty language, plotting, character and setting development and deployment of the saga. The audience knows no better and is blind to those faults, if faults they are. Blind too, for that matter, to the message. Yet the audience can live, at least vicariously, a life of popularity through the saga.

    The message stirred up a controversy firestorm among socially conscious critics, which generated buzz and attracted the rebellious and numerous audience to the saga.

    The blind leading the blind–Meyer learned this much, an arm span, about writing from college study and from life, ample enough to succeed. She and her audience are blind to what they cannot comprehend and have yet to learn or be shown–taught. Didn’t matter. Speaking of engineered serendipity, natural engineered serendipity, not contrived or forced but natural, producer reflection to audience reflection. That audience might, probably won’t really ever appreciate that Jane Austen’s _Emma_ expresses a message, theme, moral, in direct contrast to Twilight, though from a markedly different context and discourse, and one they are blind to.

    Whenever I’ve brought up theme in writing discussions, fellow poets have claimed theme has no bearing in a writing process. Nonsense, I say, theme is a similar yet significantly different principle for writers than it is for readers and analysts. Theme for writers is the glue that binds, unifies, and deepens an otherwise superficial narrative; but most of all expresses an attitude toward a subject. Primarily, that subject is the moral human condition.

    A narrative on its surface is a superficial action, one in which something happens in the beginning and something happens in the middle and something happens in the ending to no meaningful beginning, middle, or end. Simmering, boiling, fuming, burning beneath the surface is a moral clash wanting satisfaction, a subtext, a figurative and potent meaning. This clash is pure and simple a moral value belief system expressed through the surface reality imitation. Serendipity engineered.

    If a writer’s writes to support a moral value system subject, say social elitism, that writer might challenge contemporary public moral social codes, though the audience may privately identify with and thrillingly agree with that moral value. That clash of ideologies in contention, if not confrontation, is one of a core few packaging principles essential for narrative appeal. Theme and subject: social elitism is okay. Never mind the outworn vampire motif.

    Language of the audience, including speech and thought grammar, rhetoric, and logic as well as written-word style, is also a core packaging principle: serendipity engineered. Twilight is in the audience’s reading, writing, speaking, thinking, reasoning language. This audience is otherwise blind to more sophisticated language and style, meaning and message.

    Premise, dramatic complication, events, characters, settings, etc. Poor ugly duckling, wall flower Bella Swan has been overlooked and unpopular to the point of indifferently shunned her entire young life. She moves to her father’s hometown. And so on. The audience appeals are within that dramatic complication of an ugly duckling meets the beast. Bella–beautiful–from the Beauty and the Beast, Edward; Swan from the Ugly Duckling. Yawn for me. The message, social elitism is okay, though, I’m ambivalently attracted to and disturbed by. For the audience, however, the saga wraps up an appealing package. Serendipity engineered.

    The controversies Twilight’s message stirred up shaped its fortunes too, aroused antipathies and attracted proponents. Public debate controversies generated buzz and attracted readers–consumers. Serendipity engineered. Naturally too.

    I came to these above appreciations from realizing through study across publishing culture and rebuilding my own flawed writing beliefs, also from study, from the ground up. Like my much worn _The Little, Brown Handbook_ was one source of inspiration. Style manuals as well. From them I found writing laws, not so much inviolate laws, but near as sacred as writing laws can be. First Law: Write for audience reading appeal, ease, and comprehension. Second Law: The writer writes, not readers. Third Law: Maintain the reality imitation spell. These are the laws of packaging writing: serendipity engineered.

    Packaging appeal-wise–for a long time I’d heard and read this mysterious term “fully-realized story” and was baffled by it. I found its defining conventions eventually while studying Realism contention extended into Modernism and Postmodernism, a duh-huh moment: Developing the all-important imitation of reality, the reality illusion of a narrative’s internal setting, characters, and events.

    From long ago, literature has incrementally progressed closer to stronger reality imitation. Audiences anymore and ever more so crave close and closer narrative distance, closer aesthetic distance, closer emotional distance, all three as much as practically possible. We who read find intimate companionship from reading. This too is packaging: serendipity engineered.

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  15. says

    Hi Porter,
    Always love a man in a white linen jacket! So glad no white before Memorial Day has gone the way of other onerous “rules”. That the rules of the industry are changing has been made abundantly clear. All of us involved in publishing are feeling that pain one way or another. I guess nobody likes change except a wet baby.

    For us authors, accepting that writing a well told tale is no longer enough to achieve success is daunting, even frightening. That said, the realist gets over it, formulates a plan of action, and gets back to work. For most of us, building readership is just plain hard work. It is that occasional true overnight success that keeps the serendipity concept alive. I happen to know at least one author who experienced such. She really cannot say why it happened for her the way it did. I credit a dynamite cover! The rest of us will just keep toiling away and working the room, as they say in the PR world!

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