Sunday, April 14, 2013

Andy Ross on the business of writing

Last summer I took a weekend workshop called Writing and the Inner Life” at C.I.I.S., a forward-thinking private college in San Francisco.  The workshop's mission was billed as follows:

"Explore the connection between writing and the inner life. Hear from accomplished writers how their personal experiences with meditation, spirituality and reflection help to guide and enrich their writing lives. Learn specific methods that combine writing and meditative consciousness. For writers and spiritual practitioners on all levels."

Emerson, the bathroom graffiti version
The first two days followed this template closely. Roger Housden, the Friday night speaker, was noticeably enthusiastic about the written word. Housden moved around the stage with a dramatic flair as he spoke of the way writers channel sensory experiences and impressions, using the personal as a gateway to the universal. Writing should be about finding your authentic voice, your unique fingerprint (shades of Mark Morford), in a process of discovery driven by the heart. And we were fully in command - if we wanted to be. Housden quoted Emerson:  “What lies before us and what lies behind us are but small matters compared to what lies within us.”

On Saturday, cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien gave an engaging lecture entitled "Capturing Meaningful Events Through Language, Symbol, and Image." From a comfortable cross-legged perch, with her hands alternately folded over her knees or moving through the air in gesticulation, Arrien said that an important stranger would come into our lives at least once a decade, and though we all belonged to "the scar clan," it was better to love - to remain moist - than to dry up. In a similar vein, Arrien stressed the importance of setting our egos (our controlling, planning natures) aside and embracing life's mysteries; each of us was a bird in a gilded cage with shelter, food, and water who could all too easily stay in the safe and familiar cage. But the door was open. Wonder and growth lay beyond if we were willing to overcome our fears and insecurities. In Arrien's words, “Our psychomythology is greater than our psychopathology.” 

The afternoon speaker on Saturday was Norman Fischer, a "poet and Zen Buddhist priest." Fischer was very relaxed, with delicate movements and a steady, even tone. He began with a ten-minute silent meditation for the 100 or so people in class. Afterward, he read poetry, talked about the way language helps us organize and make sense of the world, and guided the class through writing exercises. Fischer maintained the self-affirming tenor of the previous speakers; at one moment he said that if we were honest, we would admit that the world was mad, crazy, a "lurid obscenity," while the space we inhabited in that moment, at C.I.I.S., was "an island of sanity." 

And on the third day, Andy Ross rose up and dashed the paying audience with cold water. 

Andy Ross's cuddly publicity photo
Ross, the former long-time owner of Cody's independent bookstore in Berkeley and a literary agent of five years, was in many ways the antithesis of the previous speakers. A New York transplant, Ross sat on a stool brimming with energy, sharp, humorous asides, and a no-bullshit view of the book publishing industry. He wasn't there to build us up or rhapsodize about the wonders of the imagination. 

Within minutes Ross set the tone by likening the relationship between art and commerce to S & M. Most publishers weren't concerned with the quality of our work; they wanted to sell books and make money. Period. In the publishing industry's eyes, it was "better you should be bad and a Kardashian than good and not a Kardashian."

Strivers/masochists who didn't want to self-publish had a choice between small publishers (who often didn't require submission by an agent) and big publishers who only accepted submissions from an agent. Getting in with a small publishing house could spare you the headache of finding an agent, but likely meant minimal marketing of your book and low sales. Low sales would be registered in the sacred Nielsen BookScan read by every publisher, which could doom you if/when you tried to publish a second book.

Getting an agent involved compiling a list of potential agents from in a spreadsheet, checking their websites and submission guidelines, narrowing the list more, and sending query letters to anyone who seemed like a potential fit.

If an agent took you under their wing, the focus shifted to how to sell your book. The book had to be done, clean and edited, prior to submission; publishing company editors wouldn't do clean-up. Apart from having to hook the reader from the first page (Ross said he often knew a book wasn't marketable from the opening paragraphs), one needed a convincing book proposal. Such a proposal would clearly define an audience for your book, with examples of recent, similar releases that had sold well, preferably through major publishing houses. An outline with a vision of your narrative arc (and a narrative arc that follows formula) would be included, along with a sample chapter and excerpts from each of the other chapters. And your proposal had to include a marketing plan, or platform, to sell your book - a blog, a personal website, stories published in small reviews, known writers willing to blurb your book, access to media. Ross added that your blog would be meaningless to publishers if it had less than 50,000 page views per week. If you fulfilled all of these conditions, your book had an outside chance of being accepted by a publishing house. 


Though I had walked into C.I.I.S. that morning with few illusions about the book industry, Ross's presentation was still somewhat of a shock to my system. By the time he was done, it was obvious that very few of us in the lecture room would be successful writers.      

But I was grateful for Ross's honest distillation of forty years' experience with the publishing industry, the most practical lecture I saw that weekend. He made crystal clear just how much work (and luck) it takes to get into even a small publishing house, and thereby reinforced the truest, most intrinsic purpose of writing:  the stimulation of the creative process, and the satisfaction of willing something from thin air.

**for further wisdom about navigating the book industry, see Andy Ross's blog


  1. Hard-hitting, honest and real. Thank you, Dan!

  2. There's some great resources and wisdom here, Dan. Thanks so much. I love the concept of psychomythology. And Andy Ross's thoughts are quite sobering, if not a bit depressing. We're screwed no matter what if we're writers, I guess.