Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Author Analogy

Many years ago, a publishing house realized that it needed to release a new manuscript from one of its then best-selling authors.  Who the author is or what they were working on at the time is unimportant.  What was important is that the publishing house needed the income from this author's next book in order to publish the following year's catalog.  The author in question was a consistent "hit" and ensured that the publishing house could invest in newer (and riskier) manuscripts in the pursuit of new markets/readership.

The publisher already had agents and editors who supported the author.  At this most critical junction however, the publisher elected to hire a Publishing Manager to oversee progress and assist the author directly.  You see, the publishing house was already concerned.  The author had already been late on the previous two milestones, and this trend would push the publishing date well outside of the desired shelf date.  They felt that having a manager directly integrated into the process would help "pick up the pace."

The manager they hired possessed an excellent track record for delivering results by deadline.  And while the manager had almost no publishing experience, he understood the financial ramifications of his efforts, and that suited the publishing house even better.

The author, by comparison, was a little flummoxed by the introduction of a new "writing assistant."  However, he was willing to make accommodations to the publishing house with whom he had experienced years of excellent support and service.

The manager started by leaving the author to write while the manager analyzed the author's previous works -- his back catalog.  He read them all -- and took notes.  The manager cataloged every measurable component he could identify.  How many characters were in the book?  How many locations?  How many plot twists?  How much character dialog?  How much exposition?  How many chapters were in each book?  How many pages were in each chapter?  How many paragraphs per page?  How many words per paragraph?

In the end, he validated what the publishing house had already assumed -- at current pace, the manuscript would not be ready for print and on store shelves by the desired release date.  Upset, the publishing house ordered the manager to begin "managing the writing process."  The release date must not slip.

In response, the manager sat down with the author to lay out the plan for hitting the deadline.  They went over all of the notes and all of the major elements planned for the storyline.  In order to hit their deadline, they had to make cuts.  This was achieved predominantly through targeted scope reduction, much of which was recommended by the manager.

  • "Let's drop the love triangle.  Those take an average of 4-6 chapters to fully develop and that will shave time off the schedule."
  • "The climax should take place in the same location as the opening scene.  You've already described that setting, so you won't have to waste precious time describing it again."
  •  "Near the second act, the protagonist spends a lot of time pondering their relationship with their parents.  It doesn't really advance the story, so we'll put that on hold and add it back in if we finish early."
  • "Notes from the publishing house say that this character from your last book was really popular.  We should add someone like that character and drop one of the other tertiary actors."
  • "The protagonist's dog doesn't play any significant role until the end when it saves the protagonist's life.  Can we just remove the dog now and save ourselves the trouble of having to write about it for the rest of the book?"
On and on it went.  And with these changes, the author became less excited and less inspired by what they were writing.  Nevertheless, the manager got the schedule "back on track."  The manager was also able to establish a pace-setting goal for the book.  A certain number of paragraphs per hour.  A certain number of pages per day.  A certain number of chapters per week.

The author soldiered on.  Days went by as the author cranked out page after page after page of brief dialog and minimal exposition and periodic character development -- all out of respect for the manager's and publishing house's wishes.  After all, they were paying for the book in the first place.

On time, the manuscript was completed.  It was sent off for publication and hit store shelves on the desired date.  Fans of the author flooded to the bookstores to pick up the latest book.  Despite spectacular initial sales fueled largely by the popularity of the author, the book was roundly derided as the worst book of the year.

The book was rife with shallow characters, a boring plot, uninspiring locales and a stayed and predictable ending.  Critics and fans alike vocally panned the title, which in turn was picked up by multiple media outlets.  A firestorm of equal parts rage and disappointment rained down on the publishing house.  Retail outlets began returning large volumes of books, having been completely unable to sell the large volume of pre-orders they had ordered ahead of time.

As a result, the publishing house was forced to make severe cuts.  The high cost of returned stock resulted in the publisher not recouping the original advance they had given the author.  This loss also resulted in the publishing house being unable to pursue "high risk" manuscripts from new talent.  Likewise, in an effort to save face publicly, the publisher announced that they would not be publishing any further titles from this author.  Their contracts and their prior long-term relationship was terminated.

The author.  Whether they wrote again or not is immaterial.  What is important is that the author's public perception was deeply tarnished and their motivation to produce further creative endeavors was largely absent.  The author would be required to find a new publisher and build a new readership, assuming either of those options would be possible.

The manager.  They were lauded for their success.  The fact that the manuscript was in such a poor state was clearly a failing of the author.  And while the book was not a success, the publishing house was confident that the next big hit would be released soon.  In fact, they would like the manager to meet with this author as soon as possible to ensure that book would be released on time as well....

Sound familiar?

So, where did things go wrong?  I'll tell you.  Too frequently in creative industries, the "creativity" is left out of the planning process.  When overt deconstruction (of processes, of patterns, of components) goes too far, it completely occludes if not minimizes the "spark" of creative enterprise.
The manager might as well have asked the author to type every word in the Oxford Dictionary in order to find out how long it would take to write the book.  Factory line data does not plug into imaginative creation at a 1:1 ratio.

This is a challenge I put before every leader, every manager and every producer in every creative industry.  Understand that creativity is the core of what do, not the mechanical processes that yield the product.  That is why a goal is more relatable than a task.  That is why a vision is more inspiring than a milestone.  That is why an hour spent thinking is sometimes more valuable than 2 hours spent doing.

When you plan - plan for creativity.  Plan for experimentation.  Plan for prototyping.  Plan for failure and then plan again for recovery.

The old adage says hope for the best but plan for the worst.  This doesn't apply to creative enterprise.  For creative enterprise, if you fail to plan for the unexpected (for pure exploration and creativity), then you have created the worst plan.


  1. Hey Keith,

    You might enjoy this video if you haven't seen it before about making time for creativity or managing the creative process.

  2. dead link ... new one.

  3. Thanks, Marty. I love that John Cleese video -- very aspirational (and in)

  4. Thanks always for great articles, Keith!