There are the really obvious ways to torch your career — rudeness to editors, for instance. And then there are the hidden trap doors. The one I am going to reveal today is truly obscure. It could be broadly described as meddling with the publication process. More specifically, you can enrage the publisher’s sales reps. Kill your book dead in one easy step!
To understand how this can be a wooden stake through the heart of your career, you have to understand how traditional book publishing works. The bit that all writers know is the early bit. You write the book. You send the ms to an editor. The editor reads your ms, and it’s love. He goes to bat for it with upper management, assuring them that you are the next J.K. Rowling and that the book will be a machine for xeroxing money. Management, dazzled, agrees. They cut a contract and buy your book, yay!
That’s my favorite part. But then it is not over. While the copyeditor, the proofreader, and the production people turn the ms into bound books, the editor describes the work in lyrical terms to the art director, who then, afire with enthusiasm, allocates the cover to an artist. You can see that the spark of your genius has a long perilous chain of transmission here, and this may account for all the sucky cover art we see in the bookstores.
When the book and its cover are fairly near the end of the production process, it’s time to talk to the sales reps. This is done at sales meetings. All the editors of the house present the season’s crop of new books, empowering and persuading the sales reps to go out to bookstores and get them to order the book. (Somewhere around here there is another trapdoor in the code, for big players like B&N and Amazon, Oprah and Costco. These big guns may be powerful enough even to give editorial input.) Again, a long relay of racers hand the torch that is your book on and on, until it finally arrives in the reader’s hand.
The process is so complex that ignorant interference can kill you. You can simply go to a book conference, or the ABA, and bother the sales reps while they are trying to talk to bookstore owners. And pow! you are on their shit list! I have also heard of an overconfident author who assured his editor that he was cozy with the buyers at a big chain store. He managed to annoy them all, and his book tanked.
On the other hand, knowledgeable sales rep management can do a world of good. Jacqueline Suzanne, author of the best-selling Valley of the Dolls, was the first person who did this. She bought doughnuts and coffee for the reps. More recently, Nora Roberts had fleece lap blankets made with her name on them, to hand out at sales conferences, which are notoriously over-air-conditioned.
Note that the sales reps are not going to actually denigrate the offending author’s book. They are representing the publisher, after all. They will instead simply mention the books on their personal shitlist last, or devote the bulk of their enthusiasm and energy to another work on the season’s list.
In other words, your book is competing with all the other books of this year — for attention, for art, for shelf space, for Hugos, for the Man Booker prize, everything. If you can deftly tinker with this Darwinian process, with donuts or with fleece blankets, all to the good. Bollix up and you can fail in an unspectacular, invisible, but nonetheless fatal way.