better to surf your own turf than mac on someone else’s cheese

I initially published this in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


You know how I told you to stop recommending this newsletter last week?

I was joking.

That was a rhetorical device.

Listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words: don’t 👏 listen 👏 to 👏 my 👏 words.

OK, let’s put it behind us.


New topic: go elsewhere for advice immediately.

This is not a joke or a rhetorical device. Crumple up this newsletter, pop it in the old recycle bin, and move along.

“Maven Game face.”

I see that I’m going to have to explain this one.

I recently attended a panel talk for writers. In the audience sat the last 19 people on Earth who haven’t yet discovered Ask Jeeves.

Each attendee had brought along their most pressing questions about publishing and book marketing. The stuff they couldn’t find answers for anywhere else.

They had already consulted both the June 1992 issue of Writer’s Digest and the “book publishing” entry in the Encyclopedia Brittanica. No dice.

Obviously, attending a writers conference in another state was the next logical step.

“How many MySpace friends guarantees a bestseller?”

“Which agent should I hire to negotiate my book deal with Lulu.com?”

“I have 18 rarely updated blogs—one for each of my extreme religious and political positions. Which one should I use to market my science fiction novel?”

The three experts on the panel fielded these questions, and more along these lines, calmly and patiently. (I’m assuming they were medicated to the hilt.)

They answer questions like these at every event. They will continue to answer questions like these until the very last post-apocalyptic dystopian YA novel is thrown on a radioactive bonfire by the jump-suited stooges of a totalitarian government.

These experts chose this life by positioning themselves at the widest part of the author funnel, right at the gaping maw, where undiluted ignorance meets baseless ambition.

For an expert, there are pros and cons to this approach.

When cultivating your own flock of followers, you may feel the pressure to target beginners. After all, there are many more of them.

However, even if you wanted to, you may not be built that way. Some experts are like hungry orcas imitating the success strategies of humpbacks. Good luck straining the sea for plankton if you weren’t born with baleen.

There is another way.

In 2005, W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne wrote Blue Ocean Strategy. They argue that competing over the same turf is a race to the bottom. Real profits are made by carving out a new, untapped market space.

I’ve seen this to be true over and over again. A book comes out of left field and succeeds in a brand-new way. Yet authors (and publishers) keep trying to re-do the last definitive book in their category.

It makes me sad.

As they like to say in Silicon Valley, “books are the Uber of ideas.” “Nothing scales like words, bro.” “Karl Ove Knausgaard absolutely crushed it with My Struggle: Book 4.”

OK, they don’t say any of those things in Silicon Valley. But books really do scale like nothing else. When you write something, you’ve written it for all time. Books don’t even go out of print anymore.

If you write a book about something, you wrote the book on it.

Once the book is written, it frees the rest of us to solve other problems. When someone has already written the go-to resource on a subject, don’t chase their tail. Find another angle. If they aim for beginners, tackle the intermediate tier. If they don’t use stupid animated GIFs, use stupid animated GIFs. Differentiate yourself.

I do my very best each week to drive away readers who aren’t going to find this useful. And yet, you may still be here for the wrong reasons. Let’s fix that.

Do you have questions about how book publishing works? Read Jane Friedman. You can stick a fork in writing a book proposal or self-publishing your novel. Those topics are done.

Burned out? Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. She’s the McDonald’s of high-octane creative recovery; 1 billion authors served. There is no need to go any further. Morning pages. Artist dates. Writer’s block, solved.

Typography? Matthew Butterick’s Practical Typography. Margins. Kerning. Fonts, solved.

No-nonsense business writing? Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit. Bullshit, solved. (I’ve read it, but don’t hold this newsletter against Josh.)

Each of these folks comprehensively tackles one of the fundamentals of the craft. There is no need for another resource. If you’ve got #1, there is no need to go #2.

I write the Maven Game to address the existential crisis that is writing for an audience in the 21st century. I’m only interested in tackling the big questions: Why am I writing? Who am I writing for? Is there anybody out there? Love, what is it good for? I’m not going to waste your time with stuff you could easily find elsewhere.

As I continue to develop my own book, it’s on me to keep a careful eye on the landscape. I have no interest in duplicating efforts, and neither should you.

Nothing beats paddling in your own patch of blue ocean.

stop recommending this newsletter

I initially published this in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


How’d you like my can’t-skip subject line? I algorithmically optimized it…just for you.

It’s not click bait, though! I really do want you to stop telling everybody about the Maven Game. (That means you, Mommy.)

So no more tweets, pins, posts, regards, or (shudder) LinkedIn updates. (“What’s on my mind?” Since you asked, LinkedIn, I’m wondering why those little red notification numbers are lies.)

This newsletter is not for everybody. I don’t want just anybody reading it. This is a place to discuss not only how the sausage gets made, but whether authors should be making sausage in the first place.

Sausage? I mean, whatever happened to writing books?! Amirite? Hello? (taps on microphone, shuffles through index cards) What else is going on…

Disclaimer: I should point out, I sincerely appreciate it when people share my stuff online. (Again, that means you, Mommy.)

The central thesis of the Maven Game is that readers are not fungible. As soon as your audience becomes a metric to be optimized, you’ve fallen into the Maven Trap™.

We all find ourselves in the Maven Trap now and then. We want to imitate the tactics of the successful, but we look to the wrong models. That’s because, on the Internet, individuals and organizations become indistinguishable. Websites, emails, and social media look the same regardless of tax filing status.

Confusingly, individuals can actually become companies. Successful course creators, for example. These hybrid entities still talk (via email and social media) like the individuals who launched them, but they begin to act like companies.

Companies can afford to strip-mine the world for customers. People have to chisel each true fan out of the earth by hand.

What are the consequences? A thought leader friend told me about a recent industry conference. When one of the speakers took the podium, the audience started giggling to each other about how frequently he emails his list and all his other spammy tactics.

He’d gotten himself a reputation among his peers for his company-like marketing techniques. Again, if his intention was to build a company selling a product, great. Strip-mine the world for customers. You’ve got to fill the old funnel. Anyone who unsubscribes or gets annoyed wasn’t going to buy anyway. Plenty of fish in the sea!

For an individual with a network of peers in his industry and a limited number of large corporate clients to worry about, I’d say: user frustration is not an acceptable filtering strategy.

So, if you plan on longevity as an expert, a writer, a teacher, a speaker, a consultant: start chiseling.

Let’s look at a parallel. In fiction, genre writers carefully separate their audiences using pen names. This effort makes sense because genre fans search for new books by author.

While some people are happy little word-tubes, squeezed by their publishers to express a steady flow of genre-paste, most creative human beings get in ruts. They need to stretch now and then. If your next piece represents a stark departure, you’ll save yourself many 1- and 2-star reviews from disappointed fans by adopting a new persona.

This approach works even better when your pen name is an open secret. That way, your readers can come along for the ride if they’re open to something new. The rest can steer clear.

For example, one author has sold hundreds of millions of copies of her books. She’s spent over 800 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. And yet you’ve never heard of her. Meet Eleanor Robertson.

Robertson was the creative inspiration for the clones of Orphan Black.

As Nora Roberts, Robertson writes romance novels. As J.D. Robb, Robertson writes romance novels set in the 21st century.

Many Nora Roberts fans turn up their noses at the work of J.D. Robb.

“The 21st century? Science fiction is for nerds!”

Her edgy fans, the ones who favor dark lipstick and leather jackets, are like, “21st century, huh? Drive me to B&N at 88 m.p.h. for a trip to the future of romance.”

What this does is protect Robertson’s work from the wrong audience. It isn’t about maximizing people-units. Robertson knows that some of her books are not for every reader. She’d rather have each book’s audience made up of those who are interested, open, and receptive to that work.

How does this apply to thought leaders? As I’ve said before, we’re human beings. It’s sad how often I have to remind clients of this fact.

“But blood sacrifice drives conversion rates!”

“Never believe what you read on Medium.”

(As we’ve learned the hard way, most essays on Medium advocate A/B-testing black magic rituals.)

Human beings cannot “rebrand” like a magazine or company blog if they alienate a portion of their audience. The growth-hackery that might be worth the risk for a start-up is just not a good option for a person.

In our rush to assemble an audience of 50,000 people so that 1 percent might buy something, we’re losing sight of the 500 real people who are actually reading our stuff right now.

We can perform (white) magic if we truly speak to those 500 people. Unfortunately, that compare-and-despair growth-hack mindset starts to seep in:

“If I can get 500 people just by writing my best stuff, I can easily 10x that by [some strategy you hate when you’re on the receiving end].”

You know you’re on the road to perdition when you start trying to 10x anything.

Here’s how to growth-hack your writing:

  1. What problems do I know how to solve?
  2. Who has those problems?
  3. Where are they and how do they want their solutions delivered?

These steps are a recipe for a career without misgivings, regret, or public humiliation.

In that spirit, I ask you not to tweet the Maven Game. Most of your followers don’t have problems I can solve. I don’t want to waste their time. I don’t want to feel pressured to dilute my message to suit their real needs.

Instead, I ask that you share this newsletter with one person: an author or aspiring author of practical nonfiction. Particularly one currently mired in the Maven Trap.

Doing that would be more valuable for me, them, you, and your audience.

Now, like anything worth reading, this essay will culminate in a white-hot saxophone solo:

get thee to a nunnery, get thee behind me, or get thee literary representation

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.

I’ve previously crossed swords with my frenemesis, typographer and public intellectual Matthew Butterick, here, here, and here.

Matthew is the Moriarty to my Holmes, the Magneto to my Professor X, the Acid Burn to my Crash Override.

Now Matthew is writing his own newsletter, one he promises will always be “brief.” (Clearly, this is a passive aggressive statement on the occasional unbriefliness of my own newsletter. Point: Butterick.)

For Butterick on typography, programming, law, writing, and reading, go sign up.


If you’re a regular reader, you may think I have something against the fine people of book publishing. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, many of you rubes in the peanut gallery are book pros yourselves.

So despite everything you’ve read and may read in the future, or in this very newsletter, I love you, book industry.

awkward hug

Last week, I subjected literary agents to a little of my signature tough love. (Editors and publishers, too, but that’s just background noise now.)

Afterward, counting my stacks of newsletter money, I felt guilty. Agents, after all, are tops. Agent Smith, Agent Carter, Ancient Egypt: there’s nothing not to like.

As an editor, your success rides on your relationships with the agent community. Knowing other editors is a complete waste of your time. (Howdy former colleagues! Remember that hug?)

If a junior editor gets introduced to another junior editor at a networking event, watch both of them wilt. Watch both calculate how long to maintain polite chitchat before meeting somebody useful. Watch both struggle with that calculation. Math, after all, is not an industry strong suit. (The hug, guys, the hug!)

Dave’s Quick Networking Tip #8: If you meet a junior editor in January, the odds they won’t be in advertising by December are longer than a Thomas Pynchon novel. So don’t bother remembering anyone’s name until they’re an associate editor at least.

Now, I’ve projected doom and gloom for publishing since 2003. I still stand behind that pessimism. Digital disruption continues to pummel the book industry and YOU’RE NEXT. WILLIAM MORROW’S TRON LASER IS RIGHT BEHIND YOU!

digitally disrupted
Another managing editor being digitized in an unsuccessful bid to tighten up production schedules.

Agents, however, provide a clear and indisputable value to authors. They will not be disrupted, digitally or otherwise, anytime soon.

future-agents
Literary agent, specializing in middle-grade fiction, surveying the publishing landscape of 2026.

I often direct authors to alternative publishing routes, when appropriate. But I never waver on the value of literary representation. If you can get an agent, you should. If you can’t, get one anyway. You can. To understand how, let’s look at what an agent actually does.

christie
“I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can.”—New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

A literary agent generally takes 15 percent of whatever you earn from your book. In return, they perform one key function: extract maximum value. This goes in two directions.

Externally, your agent helps you get the best possible deal. This means representing your interests with book publishers as well as with all the other greedy leeches who consider your art nothing but “content” to be “monetized.” Your agent is there to tell these creeps that you won’t be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered.

(I’m realizing that I’m going to have to be nice to publishers next week to make up for ​this ​week. Where does it end?)

Internally, your agent is there to milk you for viable intellectual property like the cud-chewing brain-cow that you are.

This latter function is the vital one.

Look, if you’ve never written a successful book before, you’re still hungry. Buzzing with ideas and ambition. You want to get out there and make your name.

Once you’ve gotten traction and Mom doesn’t have to say “I have faith in you” quite so often, you get complacent. Your agent is the one who will continue to ride you, year after year, to force you to carpe those diems:

  • That article you wrote for Slate, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That thing you said at lunch, wouldn’t that make a great book?
  • That tweet you retweeted, wouldn’t that make a great book?

Sure, your spouse may applaud you as a literary lion. Your agent will actually get in your cage with a bullwhip and put you back to work.

Good agents, anyway. Did I mention those are rare? Probably, no, definitely, the exact same number of agents who read this newsletter.

The thing is, 15 percent of bubkes is still bubkes. Agents have bills to pay: tanning salons, sunglasses, hair gel. It’s not like they’re rolling in the big newsletter bucks like some of us. The good ones are picky because they get behind each client.

(Figuratively. I hope it goes without saying you should never turn your back on an agent.)

agent cooper
I love agents!

If you can’t find yourself a world-class literary agent yet, assign a stand-in. Reach out to a friend or colleague who really gets you and your work. Someone who reads and responds to your blog posts and newsletters. Ask that person to be your agent. Ask them to godparent your Muse.

What does this entail? As I’ve said, milking the brain-cow. Your agent needs to get on your case every time you give one of your own ideas short shrift.

That should be a book.” Simple as that. “Expand on this. More.”

Who serves that function in your intellectual life? As that guy on the subway once screamed, you can’t milk your own brain-cow.

Each of us requires gentle but persistent reminders that every great work starts small. Many of your favorite books began as an offhand remark. An agent, or someone playing that role, picked up on it, on behalf of its udderer, and wouldn’t let go.

Authors are as blind to their gifts as they are microscopically aware of their flaws. Their best stuff gets said and heard only once. That’s why every writer needs two things: a notepad in the shower, and quality representation.

how publishers decide on a book advance

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


You ever read something that just kind of rambles around endlessly without any respect for your time or level of interest?

did i do that?

Check out Josh Bernoff’s Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean, out this week. It’s intended for business writing, but many of the lessons I took from it apply to writing writing.

Josh delves deeply into emails, social media, and other business-specific use cases, but at heart WWB is about writing dangerously. Writing that draws blood and makes no apologies. Think Jeffrey Katzenberg’s now-legendary internal memo as head of Disney’s film studios in 1991. Think Jerry Maguire’s mission statement for Sports Management International. It’s about saying something real! Except for that second one. (But it was real in the context of the film—point still made!)

Anyway, valuable book, put your copy on your writing shelf next to your Clark, your Zinsser, and your King.


People often ask me how traditional publishing works. Not as in “how does this antiquated circus continue to function?” but as in “what’s the nitty-gritty path from ‘manuscript someone slaved over for years’ to ‘hardcover book languishing spine-out in the back corner of a Barnes & Noble’?”

Continue reading “how publishers decide on a book advance”

writers as alchemists, segways as segues

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


A book proposal about dirt changed the way I think about writing online…forever.

whoa

Don’t you hate it when something starts that way? Well, as that girl who kissed me in high school told herself, you have to start somewhere.

A few years ago, my colleague Courtney Young and I convinced a reluctant Penguin Group to let us found a science imprint. Penguin didn’t have a dedicated home for the science category at the time. Instead, various imprints would field a title here and there at a particular editor’s whim. While Courtney and I were busy editing business books for Portfolio, we both loved pop sci and felt that the category deserved dedicated attention.

After much hand-waving with agents about Current, we saw a trickle of science proposals. At first, the pickings were both slim and dubious. Mostly, we were warned that the world would end in 2012, because Mayans. However, we did unearth the occasional gem. The real difficulty lay in convincing sales, marketing, and publicity that what we’d found was an emerald, not a tourmaline. (Geology reference!)

Case in point: I once received a proposal by a scientist who’d spent an entire year observing one patch of ground in the woods. He’d spent hours there every day, in every season, closely observing an area a few feet across. Though his focus was small, it turned out to be, quite literally, a circle of life. (Lion King reference!)

Insects, plants, worms, birds, microbes. In just a few square feet, over the course of a year, this biologist witnessed: Epic battles! Drama! Tragedy! Romance! Bad romance! (Lady Gaga reference!)

It was like all five seasons of The Wire acted out by snails and crickets. (Middlebrow TV reference! OK, I’m done, it’s out of my system now.)

Continue reading “writers as alchemists, segways as segues”

what creators need to know about hearths, voids, and boiled frogs

This article appeared in modified form in the Maven Game newsletter. Sign up here.


You ever have that morning at the keyboard? “Why am I doing this? Is anybody out there?”

You ever not have that morning?

Sure, this isn’t a problem for the popular kids with all the eyeballs. They just write and write la la la basking in the instant feedback and unanimous adoration from everybody all the time forever.

popular kid writing
“This paragraph is going great. Let’s do this!”

For the rest of us, dread is our natural state.

"Maybe I'll write a list. People love lists. Blargh."
“Maybe I’ll write a list. People love lists. Blargh.”

I call this condition of existential bleakness Speaking Into the Void. And it can be speaking—if you’re a podcaster—but what the phrase really refers to is putting your creative stuff out there without any sense that people are actually reading, listening, or watching.

Continue reading “what creators need to know about hearths, voids, and boiled frogs”