Impopular Culture

Impopular Culture

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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

Murder Must Advertise

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-04-10 23:42:48

Priceless publisher Lynn Price, of Behler Publications and the inestimable Behler Blog, recently drew my attention to an interesting bit of trade news: the six biggest U.S. publishers are neglecting to renew their contracts with Amazon.

On the face of it, it sounds like madness. Amazon, the single biggest bookseller in the world? The online bookstore that has forced enough actual bookstores off the market to make Greece look like an interesting investment opportunity? They actually don’t want to sell their books through Amazon? Why?

The simple explanation is money. Amazon upped the prices. That is, not the prices to consumers (which have instead been slashed, in order precisely to force the above-mentioned physical stores off the market, which is exactly how a market economy operates), but the money that the publishers will have to pay Amazon to have their books promoted. (As opposed to published. The publishers do that by themselves. But Amazon charges money to show book covers on the front page, to place them high in search results, whatever. That’s the promotion.)

But one level deeper down, it’s about an illness that’s spreading all over modern capitalism. It’s known as monopsony, a situation where one actor has been allowed—through regular free market mechanisms—to gain a monopoly on buying, so that it’s very strictly a buyer’s market. (There’s a similar situation in the publishing industry as regards publishers and authors. Although there, the imbalance is more driven by the extreme amount of producers, many of them of suboptimal quality.) Classical examples of monopsonies are public healthcare, schools and defense industries, all for what is generally perceived to be good reasons: in order to maintain a very high minimum level of service, we’re allowing governments to have a market share big enough to seriously imbalance the markets. (If you’re reading this in the U.S., healthcare is exempt from that list. And lo and behold: the U.S. healthcare lacks precisely that high minimum level that I mentioned, with an estimated 20% of the population having no coverage for conditions which are not immediately life-threatening. And one of the imbalances that are created is that the monopsony can keep buying costs artificially low, which goes a long way towards explaining why the U.S. citizens pay twice as much as citizens of other countries for comparable health care.)

The mistake that Amazon made was to neglect that, as opposed to Departments of Health, Education or Defense, they are not the ultimate consumers. There are actual book readers out there. Ordinary people who buy books. Amazon are, in fact, in the same situation as a food store chain that manages to obtain a monopoly and then slashes the prices they pay to the actual farmers. If the farmers refuse to sell at that price, the food shops will be empty. People will become hungry, and eventually (at some time between the first missed meal and the complete breakdown of civilisation, which is normally estimated to be no more than two missed meals later), they will go straight to the producers. (Who will have to hire extra hands to handle the actual transactions, which is unlikely to happen in an ordered fashion between the missed lunch and the missed dinner, whereas there is no reason to believe there would be a breakdown of public order if the next Dan Brown book misses to hit the shelves by six hours, but I never said the analogy would not break down at some point.)

There’s a psychological level to this, too. I have myself witnessed, at more or less close range, several companies which have become overrun by sales people. Many of these believe, contrary to all evidence, that they are the ones who determine the success of a company; if not for them, nothing that the company produces would ever be sold. Intriguingly, many of the producing people also come to believe this, especially once the sales people come to dominate upper management. In extreme cases, companies which experience a downturn in sales will start making the producers and product designers redundant, and hire hordes of sales people, in an effort to turn the tide. This has never been known to work.

Actually, the companies I’ve encountered which have done best, no matter how this is defined, have been the ones with no dedicated sales staff at all. They’ve spent all their energy on perfecting their products and services instead. They got so good at it that their customers would recommend their products and services, which is all the sales effort anyone needs.

I’m not saying that sales people don’t fill a function, of course. Often, they add value for both the producer and the buyer, by successfully matching the buyer’s needs and desires to a certain product or service. But this is the key: in order to have any reason for their continued employment, they will have to be of benefit to both the buyer and the producer.

In a monopsony, this fails to happen.

And I can imagine how the discussion went as Amazon talked to the publishers...

Amazon: We’ve decided to raise the promotional fees.

Publisher: Again? By how much?

Amazon: By a factor of 30.

Publisher: Wait a moment. You mean that if it cost us one dollar last year, it will cost us thirty this year?

Amazon: Precisely.

Publisher: Look, this is unreasonable. Yes good promotion is vital, but you’re making money by the wheelbarrow and publishers are going out of business daily.

Amazon (snarling): Yeah, and where would you be without us to sell your books?

Publisher: Well, the thought did occur to us that we would, in that event, be able to sell our books at a lower price than you can, since we don’t have to support all your staff.

Amazon: Er...

Publisher: Who are quite unable to write books, edit them, design covers, or, in fact, do anything that goes into the finished product.

Amazon: Er...

This is, really, the level where capitalism is unhealthy. It is increasingly run by people who honestly believe that selling is more important than producing. People who believe that the producers would be utterly lost without salespeople to promote their goods on the market.

They never seem to stop to consider where they would be without any goods to promote.

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Thank you for, er, more music

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2012-03-19 10:25:29

So I was wrong for twice in my life. Sue me.

In fact, the author Ranelid finished last in the finals for selecting the Swedish entry to the Eurovision Song Contest. Still, the finals had some lessons for an aspiring author, oddly enough.

The winner was one Loreen, who anyone interested can listen to at some pint in, I believe, May. I wouldn’t particularly recommend it; the song was the one entry of the ten which wasn’t a very typical ’B’ side—that is, completely devoid of anything that might make it a hit, such as, having the not-so-easily-defined characteristics that make you want to listen to it more than once.

The interesting lesson was a bloke called Danny, whose reaction has something to tell anyone who is trying to learn to become a professional writer—indeed, a professional anything.

OK, so you have to feel a bit sorry for the guy. His very nondescript disco song had him finish second, for the second year running. (Yes, his entry was virtually indistinguishable from his entry in 2011.) Must be a bit of a disappointment, especially since he obviously spent a medium-sized fortune on the show (except that the songwriting was, as always, on a strict budget).

Still, running off yelling that his song was much better and that he should have won was a bit of a bad move. Especially since it was televoting, and his main rival bagged a proportion of the votes usually referred to as a landslide. He told the roughly 80% of the voters that didn’t vote for him that they were morons, and probably angered even quite a few of those who did vote for him, but also happened to like some other song.

And predictably, people thought he was being immature and a bad loser. Equally predictable, other people lashed out at this demonstration of “everyone must know their place” and claimed that in Sweden, it is impossible to declare that you want to win anything.

Both of which are completely bollocks. His reaction wasn’t so much immature as unprofessional, as the concept is understood in the entire Western world. And he passed up a wonderful opportunity to learn and improve. Judging from this reaction, he is very likely to enter next year with a song that is virtually identical to his two last entries, and finish second.

So, what should he have done?

It’s very simple, really. He can declare that he liked his own song better all he likes to; that’s no surprise to anyone. Then he should congratulate the winner, and say that obviously, more people liked that song, and then maybe regurgitate some cliché celebrating the differences of taste in the world of arts. Then he should go home, figure out exactly what the other song had that his didn’t, and write a better song; “better” in the sense of “more people voting for it”.

The parallel to writing should be obvious. But here goes, anyway.

Your reaction to rejection, in whatever form it comes, shouldn’t be, can’t be, mustn’t be, to say that they’re all wrong and stupid. Believing in your own work is a fine thing, and of course you’re asking your voters one by one, more or less, instead of showing your work to several million people all in one go, so you should persevere in case you just happened to ask the wrong one.

But when the note comes back saying someone didn’t like it, there’s no arguing. They didn’t. And there’s really only one way to fix it.


You can whine, if you like, but no amount of whining will improve your writing, just as no amount of whining will change one note of the song people didn’t like. You can self-publish, which is the equivalent of putting your song up on YouTube. (Granted, there’s a one-in-a-million chance it works, but you’re competing with Darth Vader playing bagpipes on a unicycle.) You can rant and rave in public, which will aggravate your enemies and make your friends talk behind your back. You can yell at the editor or publisher, which is as clever as yelling at the referee in football, in the secure knowledge that during a century and a half years of association football, the referee has not once changed his mind. But if you want to win the Eurovision Song Contest, the only way is to write a better song. If you want to win the FA cup, the only way is to kick the ball into the net. If you want to be published by Random House, the only way is to write a better story.

So go ahead, and write a better story.

Fail harder.

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Thank you for the Music

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2012-03-08 23:38:28

Saturday is the Big Day.

No, not in my life in particular. Fact is, I was rather looking forward to hiding in the basement, but it turns out my wife’s cousin and her family are coming over to watch the Big Event. Holing up with a Star Trek DVD would be considered decidedly anti-social.

Sweden’s contribution to the Eurovision Song Contest is going to be selected.

To my English-speaking friends, this will not appear to be a big deal. Americans don’t know what the fuss is about, and the Brits get their entry selected by some unknown people at the BBC who simply announced that their entry would be performed by Engelbert Humperdinck on an otherwise unremarkable day.

Over here, this is the climax of several months of increasingly hysterical publicity, escalating over the five weeks of preliminary qualifiers, flags flying from the petrol stations that got selected to start selling the CD only minutes after the last contestants had played their entries on live TV, millions given to charity as part of the televoting procedure, and in all, we’re approaching the media event of the year.

Presumably, they do this because they make millions out of it. The BBC should come have a look. Cameron should come have a look; if our government had reason to announce massive budget cuts, Saturday at 7.45 would be a good time because it would go completely unnoticed.

The reason I’m mentioning all this in a blog supposedly about writing is that this year’s official controversy—they have one of these regularly, and I think it’s part of the dramaturgy—has been that a bloke called Björn Ranelid entered. He is, arguably, the most famous author in Sweden. Yes, considerably better known than Stieg Larsson, and at the very least giving Astrid Lindgren a run for her money. Because none of the others ever entered the Eurovision Song Contest qualifiers, that’s why.

That’s not, in itself, controversial. He walked around a bit, performed something that was more like a public reading of a poem or something, and had a troupe of dancers and a singer do a reasonably dull disco style chorus. I’ve seen worse, and if bad rapping or mediocre songwriting was a crime, our prisons would be full of artists.

Bu the had the bad taste to get voted into the final.

It’s televoting, so there’s very little wriggle room for anyone claiming that the wrong song was selected. But the artists of Sweden, almost to a man, were incensed. It’s sort of tough on all these people, who spent tens of thousands of pounds on their dresses, and practiced their moves in front of a mirror forever, and even took singing lessons, and asked famous songwriters to come up with a tune for them, to realise that they, for want of a better word, suck.

Because Ranelid really, really stinks at singing. Of course, the size of his ego means it doesn’t bother him one bit. He’s also been on the local edition of Dancing with the Stars, and he’s utterly unable to move in any sort of rhythm. You’d be forgiven for believing that he thinks he’s got five legs.

But he’s understood the bit about ”The Author As A Rock Star”.

And given how the Swedish people usually react to things like being told that they don’t understand what they like, there’s a fair chance that you’ll see him at the ESC in Azerbaijan in May.

Remember that you saw it here first.

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Weirder than truth

NewsPosted by Pelotard 2012-01-09 16:22:59

The non-president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – commonly known as North Korea, except for in the translation I did a quality assurance on where it was known as South Korea, which could have led to war, a fact proves that translation quality is important – has died.

Hang on. ”Non-president”?

Well, their president is still Kim Il-Sung. He died in 1994, but that didn’t deter them; he was declared Eternal President, and both his son – now deceased – and his grandson’s formal title is only ”General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea”. (I’m not sure whether Kim Jong-Il is also still General Secretary. Being dead appears to be only a minor inconvenience in this family.)

This is all due to the particular ideology which prevails in North Korea. It’s actually not Communism, nor, as one particularly uninformed writer in The Independent would have it, Socialism. (If you’re in doubt, consider that North Korea is the only country in the world where you don’t pay taxes. Any taxes. At all.) It’s called Juche, which is something altogether much weirder and more akin to a religion than anything we would recognise as a political ideology.

Or so we believe.

Fact is, we don’t actually have too many facts about North Korea. While the enterprising traveller can nowadays even go on a charter vacation there, the tours tend to be carefully choreographed and any actual feral natives shooed out of the tourists’ way with a large pointed stick. Other reports have it that there are several hundred thousand people in detention camps, but it’s not as if the North Korean government published statistics on this on their Web page, so it’s anybody’s guess whether the figures are inflated tenfold, fairly accurate, or an underestimate by a factor of ten.

But there are some curious titbits that filter through the curtain. One such was the Swedish journalist who, during some interval during an official visit, chatted with a North Korean about the Moon landings. After getting some confused replies, the journalist realised that this man had absolutely no clue that humans had ever walked on the Moon – and this wasn’t due to some conspiracy theory; he had simply never heard about this in his entire life. As it didn’t happen in North Korea, the powers that be had declared it inconsequential for the citizens. And it’s odd to think that he returned to North Korea, telling stories about the mad Westerners who believed people had sent rockets to the Moon.

Another weird experience was a documentary I watched this summer, about music in North Korea. (I’m unable to find any mention of it online, but then again, it was French and I have forgotten the name, so…) They interviewed several subjects, mostly musicians who were “successful”, for some value of the word, and after a while, a strange image was drawn: these people were completely brainwashed. (Or at least, they would appear so to any Western observer; more on that later.) But they were brainwashed into believing they were perfectly happy.

So… let’s set aside the detention camps for the moment. Let’s ignore how they came to be brainwashed, and let’s ignore those where it didn’t take, and the curious fact that the leaders of the country find the money to construct nuclear weapons – expensive things, last I looked – while being quite unable to feed the population. Let’s only consider these people. Ordinary North Koreans, more or less, who live by the rules, very much like the members of a sect – be it the Jonestownites, the Hare Krishna, the Scientologists or the Amish; people who actually believe with all their heart that they are living in a perfect society.

Now, do we have the moral right to cure them?

Would it be right and proper if we informed them that they live in a dump, that someone else do their thinking for them (which they might whole-heartedly approve of, for all we know; after all, this was the key defence of many in the Nuremberg trials), that they are starving because their leaders use all the money they can lay their hands on to buy guns, and that their country isn’t exactly the envy of the entire world, but rather the opposite? This would not change their situation in any material, measurable way; the only possible result would be to make them less happy. Do we have a right to make them unhappy about a situation they are powerless to change?

Before you answer this, there are things to remember.

One is that our cherished individualism is, by and large, an invention of the Enlightenment; in effect, it is a social construct into which we are indoctrinated from birth. Our ancestors were indoctrinated into a different context, which emphasized tribes, clans, or villages. To a Viking, the family and tribe were everything: their only security was that afforded by the close-up society which they could relate to in a personal way, and the laws were enforced by personal loyalties; the worst punishment in Viking society, reserved for the foulest of deeds, was to be declared an “outlaw” – literally, no longer protected by the law, left to fend for himself like a wild animal.

Another is that the way to cure a victim of brainwashing is to brainwash them right back: you subject them to very much the same mind-control techniques that were used to brainwash them in the first place, only you convert them back to the values of the majority society instead. Which in its turn raises the uncomfortable question of whether maybe we’re brainwashed, too; there’s certainly a whole bunch of people on my TV who insists not so much that I am currently very very happy, but rather that I will be, shortly, as soon as I purchase this product they’re displaying.

And such an unemotional, apolitical document as the DSM-IV will specify for shared psychotic disorder that “a person cannot be diagnosed as being delusional if the belief in question is one ‘ordinarily accepted by other members of the person's culture or subculture,’” which is a fancy way of saying that if enough people are crazy, then they’re not.

And when do we stop?

Contemporary right-wing populist parties operate from a mind-set that believes that all Moslem refugees are part of a world-wide conspiracy to eradicate the local culture and replace it with Islam, that every political decision in the entire Western world is taken with this aim in mind, and that all media are part of the conspiracy, except for a few, selected Web pages, and that everyone in the whole world think of nothing much but immigration policies and cultural backgrounds all day; in all, a thought structure which, if you replaced the word “Moslem” with “alien”, would have us all reach for our tin foil hats. This way of thinking has all the hallmarks of a sect; is deprogramming a better solution than debate?

For North Korea, the answer is trivial. The camps, regardless of how many there are, is reason enough to take action of some kind (and this is not the place to mention other camps, since a crime is still a crime even of someone else did the same thing). But some day, I’ll write a story where the solution isn’t so clear-cut. And since I’ll be wanting to tweak the parameters to have it balance on a knife-edge, it’ll probably be something in a science fiction setting.

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WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-12-17 23:27:26

Words written since I last posted an entry: I'll be buggered if I know, because they're still in notebooks, most of them. I did finish an entry for Etopia, but they apparently got eaten by gremlins or something, and one for Machine of Death II which didn't make it to the actual book but which they're keeping in case it comes in handy, and a story that I have high hopes for since it's the scariest I've ever written. It's so bad I get really worried about how my mind works.

Stories accepted for publication since I last posted an entry: None. Zip. Zilch. There's even been something of a lack of effort; more on that below.

Words translated since I last posted an entry: 308,665. I know this since I keep a log in my budget spreadsheet. That's right, folks, I have resigned from my daytime job, and I'm now a full time freelance translator. Thing is, I expected to get more time for writing, since I expected that there would be dips in demand. Oddly enough, no such thing has materialised. It's even as if there were a conspiracy among clients, because every time my regular customers go quiet, someone else drops me an email from out of the blue asking if I have any time to spare. The good news is, I'm making more money now than when I was employed; the bad news is, I have had no time at all for writing.

This Wednesday, I thought I'd finally get around to start submitting again. And what would you know, it didn't take Apex more than 48 hours to reject me.

I'm at it again. Failing again. No matter.

Fail Harder.

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The Business End - 4

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-04-04 00:33:51

Dear friends,

last time (which was admittedly a while back), I promised to write about the contract.

I honestly don't know what I was thinking. I can only assume it made sense to me at the time, although I have only my own word for it.

In the meanwhile, something interesting has happened. Not to me, but on the Internet. One writing lady had a public meltdown. You can read about it here, or you can just take my word for it: one happy amateur reviewer blogged a less-than-stellar review of a self-published book. And by less-than-stellar I mean exactly that: it was fairly positive, only had a few remarks about editing, but really the sort of review most people would call "positive". And the author had a complete and utter meltdown. In the comments on the blog.

Predictably, she is now infamous all over the Web, as an example on How Not To Do It. An author should never respond to a review with anything but a "Thank you", let alone vitriol, and the pinnacles of erudite repartee she scaled have now earned her scores of one-star reviews on Amazon and 19,100 Google hits on her name. Few of them mention her in a positive light.

However, I wouldn't be me if I were only to write about what she did wrong. Nor would I find the question "How do you excercise proper self-control" particularly engaging.

I'm going to talk, instead, about Calvin's Question:

"Here's another hypothetical question: What if I already did?"

Today's lesson is

Damage Containment.

This is probably the spot where someone, presumably someone who knows me well, protests that I have no experience at all of media, Internet meltdowns, or PR in general.

Technically, this is true. But I do have rather extensive experience in "managing irate customers". Much more experience than I strictly speaking deserve; my clients get upset over translations that I usually had very little to do with in a productive capacity, considering that I normally don't even speak the target language. As an author, your clients are the readers. My knowledge is absolutely applicable to a situation like this.

Ms. Howett has, indeed, made a spectacle of herself in public. Let's say your self-control slipped similarly. What do you do? Give up your career altogether?

No. You take steps to control the situation. In an office, your first reaction should be to let your manager handle the situation (and recommend your client to push the problem one level up, too): firstly, they're paid to handle messes, secondly, they don't have vested interests in the outcome but can discuss the issue in a more detached way. As an author, you're self-employed, and you probably don't have that sort of luxury, although your agent and/or editor should be more than willing to help prevent the fallout worsening.

1. Take the blame.

It doesn't matter if it was really your fault. I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to apologise to a customer for something I messed up personally (and when I did, it was usually for some reason which was entirely reasonable to me, like "I could only handle one issue and the other client is in the habit of paying on time"). In a business situation, you must realise that the person on the other end is probably being shouted at big time, and the simple admission that you're an idiot who drove into a brick wall for no apparent reason will tend to defuse the situation. In the author situation, you'll have to realise that it's no longer about being right or wrong. It's about appearances. You already appear to be wrong. Accepting this will make you look less of a fool. Yes, it's possibly unfair; get over it. You're a pro, remember?

2. Apologise.

Personally and in public. I hear you whine "But I was right!", but this is immaterial. If you are, and still apologise for your behaviour, it'll only make you look better. And remember, there are 19,100 people out there who think you aren't. Optionally, you can invent a reason for your behaviour: you were on medication at the time (or not, as the situation warrants), the cat died, you were told your distant uncle has a serious illness, it was raining for the third day running and you're allergic to water, anything. Offer it as an explanation, not an excuse. This is important: making excuses is bad, and you will come across as trying to justify yourself. You're apologising precisely in order to admit that your behaviour was unacceptable, for whatever reason.

3. Offer a solution.

This one is contingent on the exact nature of the mess. In the case of a bad review, you should simply say that you take the comments onboard and hope to write something better next time. If you've delivered a lousy translation a week after the deadline, you'll have to promise delivery of a good translation on a specified date. If you're a politician and delivered a recession, your situation is slightly more troublesome, but an economic recovery would of course top the list.

4. Deliver.

Ah, this is when it becomes tricky. Ms. Howett has the easy task: she simply has to hire a good copyeditor for her next effort. I normally have to try to find someone else who is proficient in a language that looks, to me, like a drunk ant walked across the page and can provide evidence that he or she has once delivered on time, said evidence preferably not being in said ant-walk language; this can be tricky if, as is sometimes the case, the language is only spoken by some 1,000 people in the world, most of whom are nomads. If you're (say) a politician, try to make a few wise and popular decisions, or failing that, at least a decision which is somewhat in line with what you said you'd decide before the election. It all depends on your situaiton.

5. Don't expect miracles.

This isn't going to work. At least, it's not going to work if your expectations are that everyone will see that you're right and start to love you. What you can realistically hope to achieve is that most of the key players - those who saw your meltdown first-hand, your client, or the people who voted for your party in your consituency - will stop taking every opportunity to tell anyone who wants to listen what a complete arsehole you are. Your reputation isn't going to be restored. But you are allowed to hope that it will stop deteriorating.

And as an author, you have one resort that translation agencies and politicians lack: a pen name.

Or in my case, my real name.

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The Business End - 3

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-01-16 23:49:05

Don’t you trust me?

If you ever hear a business partner—I’m talking about an agent or an editor here—saying this phrase, it means you’re in the hands of a scammer. Strong words, but that’s a fact.

Paradoxically, the reason is that business is all about trust. That’s why you shouldn’t have to trust anyone, because there are mechanisms built in all over the business world to see to it that you don’t have to.

First and foremost of these are The Contract.

That’s a piece of paper you both sign to have a copy of what you’ve agreed upon. And no serious businesspeople have anything against signing any number of such papers. When I finally sold that translation agency I’ve been going on about, I signed eleven copies of the contract. Initials on every page.

It was seven hundred pages.

Actually, in this case, neither me nor my partners had read it all; nor had the other party—at least, I strongly suspect so. We all paid people to read it for us and tell us that it was OK to sign.

When an agent or a publisher offers you a contract, you’re probably not going to be so lucky. (Chances are, you’re being paid less than you’d have to fork out for someone to read it for you.) You will have to read it, and be sure that you understand every single word.

Why is this so? Noone ever reads the contracts they sign when they rent a car, or a DVD, or a cottage. Why is this different?

Well, see lesson 1. You’re a businessperson now. In the examples above, you’re a consumer, and there are laws to protect you. If any clause is unreasonable, there are laws to render it invalid. As a business, you are required to have read and understood everything you sign, and there are no laws protecting you. An agreement between two companies can be as unreasonable as it likes.

But when it’s signed, it’s signed. The contents can’t be changed except by mutual agreement. If a clause is violated, court cases ensue.

You see how this sort of eliminates trust? You have the agreement. You don’t have to trust each other. If there’s ever a disagreement, you simply grab the paper and see what it says. This is why it’s vital to sign the paper while you’re still in agreement: when you’ve fallen out, it’s too late. This, in its turn, is why no legitimate business ever shies away from signing the contract. You are in agreement about everything it contains; there’s no reason not to sign it.

This is the first business principle my Dad taught me: always get it on paper. (Then he pulled out a pen and a wad of papers, including a repayment schedule, detailing the money he’d just lent me. Not that we’ve ever fallen out, but with the paper signed, there wouldn’t even be any risk.)

But hey, the world is full of scammers and con artists, surely?

Yes, and then again, no. Most people you meet in business aren’t out to rip you off. This is another important principle: A good business deal has two winners. Your agent wants you to be happy with the deal you’ve signed. (The alternative is that you go to another agent the moment you start making money. Not good business.) They want to gain something from the deal, absolutely. That’s perfectly legitimate. But they also recognise that it’s legitimate for you to want a good deal.

So how do you tell if it’s really legit or if it’s one of the scammers?

You learn to see the signs. (Refusing to sign contracts is an obvious one. Insisting you don’t read the small print is another.) Publishing is especially fraught with con artists, since it’s a business full of rather naïve beginners. But there are also people out to help you. Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors are two good web sites to get you started. Litopia and The Other Place are forums where you can ask around. And you should never sign important contracts without having done your homework. Google the other part. They’ve done the same for you. If they’re not above board, there’ll be a dozen Web pages telling you so. There are organisations (in the UK, there’s the Society of Authors) who will have a quick look at the contract you’re offered and tell you whether the terms re reasonable. Get a credit report—yes, they cost money, but a bad deal costs a lot more. See if they have clients who praise them. Always remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it invariably is. And when you’ve done your homework, you don’t have to trust them, because you’ve already found out whether they’re trustworthy.

There’s a balance, of course. When offered a contract, don’t sign it without reading, but don’t start to question every single word of it, either. It’s the ”easy to do business with” bit from Lesson 2. You should default to trust, just keep your eyes open in case there’s a reason not to. (And don’t worry if they notice. It’s legitimate to be alert, it’s only tiresome if you’re overdoing it.)

You should also, when you sit down to negotiate a deal, have a clear idea of what you want, of what you can accept, and exactly where the point is when you turn the deal down, gather your MS pages, and walk away after politely shaking their hands. Because you should always be willing to turn the contract down, if it contains something you absolutely can’t live with. (For me selling translations, it’s when they expect it to be done so quickly that there’s no possibility of doing a quality job, or to buy it at a price so low I can’t put bread on the table. Your mileage may vary. In a writing situation, it might be when they want to add pornographic scenes without consulting you.)

And now, you’re starting to behave like a pro. Turning a reasonable offer down is something amateurs never get around to.

More on good deals in the next lesson...

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The Business End - 2

WritingPosted by Pelotard 2011-01-11 20:16:40

How do I do, Sir, how do I behave?

Last time I ended on a question: How do you make them like you? And actually, the situation when I submit a manuscript isn’t all that different from when I try to find clients for a translation agency. The service and the target audience are a bit different, but the same basics apply. If anything, I’m in a better situation when I send out a manuscript, because I know I’ve got the acquisitions manager on the other end. It’s their job to read those letters and try to figure out which one to buy. If any.

This is where it helps to be professional.

Imagine that you’re a salesperson trying to sell them something. A new office chair. Or better still, something expensive, like a new telephone switchboard. How do you go about it?

One possible strategy is to tell them how much you want to sell it, because you need the money.

Rather silly, right?

So... tell them how much they’re going to like it, maybe? Or hand out chocolate? Or print a leaflet saying All Brand New, Be The First In Your Block To Own One?

Are you selling any switchboards?

No, you’re not. What you need to tell them is how much more money they’re going to make when they have the brand new switchboard. They’re going to like it, but not because it’s green, but because it filters out useless salespeople like yourself so they can focus on making their own sales calls. Or whatever.

In short: What’s in it for them?

That’s how you do business. You tell the prospective customer how they’re going to benefit from owning whatever it is you have to sell. (And one thing you’ve never seen, not even in your spam email, is advertising telling you how stupid you are for not buying the product. Insulting the customer is not the way to make them change their mind, it’s the way to make them tell all their friends what a loser you are.)

And since it’s B2B, you simply point out the strengths of your product, in a low-key manner. You’re quietly confident. Because you know that you have the best product on the market. At least, that’s the impression you want to give.

And if they disagree, you smile, wish them a nice day, and move on. It wasn’t for them. They already bought a new switchboard, or only have one phone, or prefer them in yellow, or promised to buy their cousin’s old one. Whatever the reason, it’s not your problem. Forget them already, there’s another waiting for your call.

And if you do this consistently, you will, underneath it all, give the message they really want to hear. You show them that you understand their situation. You show them that your goal is aligned with theirs—to make copies fly off the shelves and be brought home by readers. You show them that you’re easy to do business with.

There’s no way to over-estimate that. I have about 100 suppliers that I use with some regularity. Most of them aren’t the cheapest, or the best quality, or the fastest delivery.

They’re easy to do business with. Things may go wrong, but they take it seriously and do whatever they can to fix it. They don’t argue endlessly over small issues, but see to it that the greater picture works. They want the same things I want. They want my clients to be happy. Happy clients are returning clients.

And again, sending out a manuscript is a lot easier than selling what I’ve sold—translations. Because there’s any number of companies around that simply have no need whatsoever for a translation. Your average agent or editor really wants you to convince them to buy. It’s their core business.

And if you show them what’s in it for them, they’re going to love you.

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