This past week the St. Louis Publishers Association brought in best-selling self-help author Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who started a 21-day "No Complaining" campaign at his church, handing out purple rubber bracelets. When the participants caught themselves complaining the bracelet had to switch arms. “Complaining is like bad breath,” he said. Word spread about this concept and before Bowen even wrote a book he'd been on Oprah Winfrey's show. Then he decided to write a book. He told us all about it.
After being turned down by one agent and then sucked into the scam "New York Literary Agency," he contacted the agent he wanted and got him. The book, A Complaint-Free World, became a monster bestseller--especially in China. Chinese book piracy is rampant, but Bowen's publisher undercut the six pirated editions by pricing the genuine book for less than the pirates charged, and bundling the bracelet with the book. The Chinese publishers also broadcast a weekly cartoon starring an animated Will Bowen on various positivity adventures, and booked him for a fashion shoot (he’s trim, bald and wears an earring) for Asian Harper’s Bazaar. “Now, those people are creative,” he said. “Most U.S. publishers try pretty hard but they really have no idea how to do it [marketing].” He went to Toastmasters to learn to speak, and arranges his own speaking engagements: one church per week. His intention for his new book is to sell 2.6 million copies.
Other things Will Bowen said:
- The joke is that the Random House-Penguin merger will create a publisher called Random Penguin.
- “Publishers want to build on the last big thing but are very conservative about the next big thing.”
- Hard-copy books will become extinct.
- “Everybody has doubts, but most people won’t face the doubts.”
- “We judge a book by how well it’s edited. There is nothing more important.”
- An author goes through three stages with an editor. 1) “I hate you.” 2) “You might have a point there.” 3) “Thank you.”
- “The editor is always right.”
- The formula for success: “Success equals consistency over time.”
- He knew an author bent on making The New York Times bestseller list. This guy, who had money, went to every bookstore he could and bought up 25,000 copies of his own book, which got him on the bestseller list.
Bowen believes in writing down his goals each day, writing daily, and having a wish board. He wanted Maya Angelou to write a foreword for one of his books, but she is reclusive and doesn't do favors. He pasted a photo of Angelou on his wish board and told everyone he met that he wanted to meet Maya Angelou. One day he told an actual friend of Maya’s who arranged the meeting. I guess they spoke about positivity. Bowen tape-recorded what Angelou said and asked if that might become the foreword to the book, and she agreed. Thus, "foreword by Maya Angelou." That's a heck of an endorsement.
I’m skeptical about lists and wish boards, but they can’t hurt, and increasingly I’m becoming convinced that writing is becoming a spiritual rather than professional pursuit. I know I went home from Bowen’s talk inspired, and boldly did something I’d never imagined I’d do, which I’ll blog about next.
It wasn't published by a university press, but it's the kind of thing that might have been if it hadn't had that incendiary title. We are now given to understand that university presses are a luxury. Even before "academic" was a rude word, very few people bought and read university press books: They are about ideas, history, culture, science, and so on, from highly specialized or unique points of view. It is easily if wrongly said that university press books are published primarily for their authors and their small academic circles. Yes, it's for their CVs, but it was also about getting air time, even a little, for facts and concepts just as valuable as any others -- some of them with the potential to explode the entire culture or a generation's thought patterns. Sure, scholarship is "heavy" reading. It does heavy lifting! Sometimes these very few readers, also teachers and/or writers, funnelled these ideas into the culture at large, down to the street level, and changed our conceptual thinking, whether the ideas themselves were right or not: Feminism. Literary theory. Gender studies. Biblical exegesis. Afrocentrism. Philosophy of language. Particle physics. That National Geographic had a political agenda. And so on. (P.S. Sexual Politics has been kept in print since the year 2000 by the University of Illinois Press.)
So a university press might look to a cost-cutter like a great luxury, although the University of Missouri Press, publishing between 25 and 50 books per year with a staff of 10 on a budget of around $400,000, was a miracle of cost-effectiveness. If they published each year only one idea or one fact that got out and got traction in our minds, an idea that got lived in, that's more than $400,000 worth of most anything else on campus will accomplish.
We're now sending the book proposal directly to publishers. More than ever, publishers' listings say, "We don't take "un-agented" submissions, or look at unsolicited submissions." No, not even a glance at a two-page book proposal.
It looks as if publishers think they benefit from a setup that keeps them apart from writers. Now, think: Does that make any sense?
I said to her, "What good are they in your file drawer? How about self-publishing?"
She found this idea distasteful. Self-published books are "not legitimate." But then she complained that a poet friend whose book was accepted three years ago by the "legitimate" LSU Press now hears it is scheduled to come out in 2010.
I said, "The system is broken. We all moan about how the publishing world is insane. We have to do things differently. Look," I said, "a book is a book. If you self-publish at least you'll have a book. It'll have an ISBN so people can find it. You can give it to libraries. You can give it away. Somebody somewhere will read your book."
My friend says it isn't legitimate. She wants to be legitimate more than she wants to publish. And she is getting what she wants.
Me? I'm publishing another book! It's essays this time. I am happy that my illegitimate books get bought and sold, and are in print, and in libraries, and on amazon.com, and not in my file drawer. I'm a happy little cheat who beat the system.