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Provocations in Publishing: “Engineering Serendipity”

iStockphoto photog Paladex [1]

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 [2], April 5, 2013, New York Times [3], by Greg Lindsay [4]

Here at the new PubSmart Conference [5], 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.

PubSmart [5]Discoverability, itself, is not quite a word yet, according to my unabridged Merriam-Webster [6].  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 [7], founder of Bublish [8] (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 [9] Tarah Theoret; Books I Love [10] app’s Elizabeth Dimarco [11]; the eminent Laura Dawson [12] of Bowker [13] and its SelfPublishedAuthor.com [14] site; and me.

[pullquote]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. [/pullquote]

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 [15], February 18, 2014, Wired [16], 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 [17] use of the “adjacent fans” concept, something I wrote about last August in Writing on the Ether [18] at PubSmart keynoter Jane Friedman’s [19] 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.

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

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.

[pullquote]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?[/pullquote]

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 [20]
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

About Porter Anderson [21]

@Porter_Anderson [22] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [23], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [24] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [25]