writing life

Good Students and the Dreaded Group Project

I had a bit of an epiphany this morning about why authors tend to find publishing frustrating.

I would guess that a lot of published authors were good students in school, the ones who turned in good work on time and got As. We learned that if you do what’s expected of you, do it well, and do it on time, you will succeed.

But publishing has very little to do with how well you do it. Yeah, you have to meet a certain standard to get a book published in the first place, but quality has no direct correlation with success. A brilliant book may never sell to a publisher at all because it doesn’t have any good marketing hooks, because another book with similar subject matter was recently published and bombed, because there’s nothing really like it in the market to compare it to, so the editor can’t come up with comp titles for selling it in-house and the marketing team nixes it. A less-than-brilliant book on a hot topic may sell at auction. Even once books are published, you never know what will take off. I’m sure we’ve all noticed massive bestsellers that aren’t at all well-written, that are derivative and corny. And there are books that get consistently positive reviews and even win awards but that don’t sell very well. Writing a really good book is no guarantee of success.

Even turning things in on time isn’t such a huge deal. I learned that publishers expect authors to be at least a month late with their books. They love it when an author hits deadlines, but that doesn’t necessarily do you any good. I did get a slightly better publication date once when someone else slipped a deadline so badly that the book had to be rescheduled and my book was done early, but they still dropped me at the end of my next contract. If you’re a big enough bestseller, deadlines don’t matter at all anymore. They’ll just take the book whenever you decide to get around to giving it to them.

Your typical A student feels like something is totally out of whack when doing good work and doing it on time ends up meaning very little, especially when they see the person who, in effect, paraphrased someone else’s paper and turned it in late getting a better grade.

But to make matters worse, publishing is like the dreaded group project. The writer may do the bulk of the work in coming up with the idea and actually executing it, but then someone else in the group is responsible for putting it together in the right format and putting the right cover on it, then someone else is responsible for presenting it to the class—and then the class votes on what grade you get. You can put your heart and soul into doing the paper, but then you’re in trouble if the person who was supposed to present it got sidetracked with cheerleading practice and forgot she was supposed to do it, so she stumbles through the presentation and makes it sound boring, or worse, doesn’t bother presenting it at all. Even if your whole team is putting their all into it, you never know how the class will react. Maybe they’ll really vote on the best project. Maybe they’ll vote for the popular kids who put no effort into it. Maybe there will be an assembly on the day you’re scheduled to present your project, so everyone’s distracted and doesn’t pay attention.

Independent publishing may be a little easier for the “I can do it all myself!” types to cope with because they can choose their own teams and they’re in charge of those teams, but the class is still voting on the grade.

Maybe the ones who survive publishing with their sanity intact are the ones who were bright but not particularly good students because they weren’t motivated by grades. They might or might not bother with the work and didn’t worry about jumping through the academic hoops, instead focusing their mental energy on things they found intrinsically interesting and rewarding.

Speaking of discouraging things, I have a column today at Fiction University on coping methods for dealing with discouragement. Because I came up with this analogy this morning, I didn’t mention the idea of knowing your own worth and not worrying about outside measurements, whether it’s grades or book sales.

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