Writing Advice Sucks #7: How to navigate the publishing industry like a poker player


There’s this analogy I’ve been working on for a little while. It started off as a chess analogy but then turned into a poker analogy, at my wife’s suggestion, because poker relies more on the winds of chance than chess. She is so goddamn smart.

I think this analogy gets to the root of how publishing works, and how to successfully navigate it.

But hey, that’s for you to decide.

Here goes:

So you want to get a book published. Cool! Presumably you have read a ton of books and enjoyed them and decided you would like to do that thing that brought you so much joy.

You’re a little like someone who watches a whole lot of the World Series of Poker and decides you’re going to a casino. You’ve seen it done, it looks fun, you want to give it a shot! You just sit there and play cards. How hard could it be?

So you go to you local casino, exchange some cash for some chips, sit down at a table—and you lose. Hard.

Because nobody gets it on their first try. I mean, sometimes it happens. You get a prodigy who clears the table without ever having touched felt before, and it usually makes a huge splash when it happens. That kind of person comes along as often as a bolt of lightning is struck by another bolt of lightning.

No, you’re the journeyman/woman, the workaday player who knows the mechanics, but finds that in practice it’s a lot harder than it looks on television. Which is fine. We’ve all been there.

After you lose, to my mind, you have one of three options—two of which lead to failure.

You flip the table and go home. Obviously, you can’t win if you don’t play.

You complain about the game/the rules/the players, etc. This one is a little murkier. There’s a certain kind of player who will blame their losses on the anything other than themselves. The deck is rigged. The other players were cheating. The rules aren’t fair. Whatever. That person may even win some hands because the law of averages says the longer they sit at the table, the more likely that the cards break their way.

But here’s the thing about poker: The rules are the rules. There’s no changing that. An eight will always be an eight and an ace will always be an ace. There will always be three cards on the flop. Most importantly, you are playing against the house—and the house always wins.

This is a point I think gets lost on a lot of writers. It did on me. When you want to play poker, you are going into a place of business (casino) where you are sitting down at a table and making a tacit agreement to the rules of the game. You may believe you have a very valid and superior interpretation of how the game is played, but it doesn’t matter. You sat at the table and the game is Texas Hold ‘Em.

Just like how your book may be a thing of wonder and beauty—but if it doesn’t fit publisher’s taste or interest, if it doesn’t connect with an editor in a real and meaningful way, they’re not going to take it.

There’s no rule that says if a book is good enough it must be published. A book must meet a whole lot of requirements, and those requirements are steep as fuck when you want to play the high-stakes games.

Take The Warehouse. It was a big sale. It happened very fast. I essentially got dealt pocket aces and then watched two more show up on the flop. But it wasn’t as easy as: the editor liked it and bought it.

The editor who read it liked it. He had to pass it around to some other editors, and the marketing folks, and the head of Crown. Everyone else had to sign off (this is called going to the edit board—the bigger the publisher, the more likely you have to get a majority or unanimous vote in favor of acceptance. New Yorked made it to two edit boards, as I recall, and failed at both.).

I also had a long phone conversation with my editor before he actually made his offer. Essentially, I had to interview for the position.

That’s because these decisions are not easy. At a certain level, there are so many resources and so much time going into a book, everyone’s got to be sure it’s the right move.

Yes, marketability matters. Yes, whether a book plays to a mainstream audience matters. You may think you know what mainstream readers want. You may think you know what sells. But if you don’t have access to the data that publishers do—bookseller reports and Bookscan numbers and historical data and sales trends—then you do not.

Full stop. End of story. You do not.

Seriously, so many people who do not work in publishing are quick to tell other people how publishing works. I’ve worked in publishing for eight years. There’s a whole lot I still do not understand.

So you may think your brilliant book is a perfect fit for Editor A at House B… but if Editor A at House B doesn’t want it, they are not wrong. You were wrong. Sorry!

Point is, you are asking to play someone else’s game, in someone else’s house, with someone else’s toys. You can complain about the rules all the live long day, but it ain’t gonna do much. The rules don’t change.

Which brings us to the third path, and the one that I think leads to success…

You play. That’s it. You lose your first couple of hands, and you keep playing. You learn the rules inside and out. You learn to see patterns in the cards. You learn to read the other players. You learn when to fold and when to show. You accept as part of the learning process that sometimes you will do everything right and victory is within your grasp, and then you get fucked when the river card breaks up your full house.

You have to figure out the framework of the game and figure out how to successfully operate within that framework.

And sometimes the framework sucks.

Because some people walk in with a lot more chips than you do. They can bet more and risk more and they can sit at the table longer.

Some people aren’t even allowed into the room in the first place, or when they are, they’re subjected to side-eye the entire time (at which point it’s paramount on all the players to stand up and say in unison: “Fuck this bullshit.”)

(I would like the belabor this point: This doesn’t mean you don’t talk about unjustness or unfairness when you see it. But you have to be able to tell the difference between actual unjustness and unfairness, and you being butthurt that your brilliance hasn’t been recognized.)

And some people show up and spill their drink on you and slap a waitress on the ass and then they win big, and you’re sitting there with a bunch of nonsense cards wondering what the hell went wrong.

It’s a hard game—poker and publishing. It takes a long time to get good at it. Longer than you think, probably. And you can do everything right and the winds of chance may blow in another direction.

But as with anything, the harder you push and the longer you play, the better you’ll get.

I know some people reading this are probably rolling their eyes, thinking I’m oversimplifying things, or trying to reduce the art to a science, or that I’m speaking from a privileged position. You know what? All those things are probably true!

I know this is anathema to the idea of being an artist, too. By nature we want to color outside the lines. The idea of “sit down and do what you’re told” is repellant. And that’s not exactly what I’m saying. All I’m saying it: It’s a game, and the game is a little rigged, and you won’t win if you complain about the game being rigged—you’ll win by playing.

I’ve said this a few times, but I really did think The Warehouse was unpublishable. It’s about a giant online retail company that controls the American economy and is also evil. You should be able to do the math on that one.

But it will be published, by a mainstream publisher, as well as by a bunch of foreign publishers, and it’ll maybe be a big-budget Hollywood movie. So when I say you have to play the game, I’m not saying you should sanitize yourself or your art in the process. I’m just saying you’ve got to figure out how to get that art where you want it to be.

People ask me how I did it and this is the answer. I sat at the table and I played. Sometimes I complained, but after I while I saw that wasn’t helping anything. So I kept playing, and watching, and learning, and losing, until finally I won a hand, and then another, and finally, the cards broke my way.

Easy peasy.

Except it’s not!

I know I did one of these posts yesterday, and after not doing one for a few weeks I’ve put up two in a row. I’m trying to keep you on your toes! Also I’m procrastinating on something else I should be doing! But really, this one has been on my mind for a bit and I wanted to get it out there. As with all writing advice, it might be bullshit, so consider the source, and if you have a better analogy, feel free to share it.

Otherwise, next week I’ll be making some book recommendations in my newsletter—sign up here if you want to get down on that—oh and my latest novel Potter’s Field is available did I tell you that? Haha I did, a whole lot! Still, you can get it here. Finally, one week from today I will be in Florida for Bouchercon! Here’s a sense of where I’ll be.

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