Remember all those stories about great cantankerous authors way back when who were legendarily inebriated most of the time, were notoriously difficult to handle, got into fisticuffs, and were generally misanthropic to every human they encountered but people still published their books because they were wonderfully talented?
How many successful authors today do you know who fit that description?
Um. On second thought, don’t answer that. But now think of the huge number of bestselling and successful authors you know today (some of whom comment regularly on the blog) who are awesome, cool people who you would love to hang out with even if they weren’t also incredible writers.
I’m not sure what’s in the cultural waters, but I’m hearing from non-publishing people in the world of business that there’s a new trend afoot toward politeness, anger management, and a less rigid hierarchy — in other words, in business you can’t really be a jerk anymore. Managers are no longer allowed to mistreat their assistants, it’s essential to treat people with respect, contain tempers, work together, and generally avoid being a misanthrope. Stanford prof Richard Sutton chronicled the negative effective of assholes in the workplace with his appropriately titled book THE NO ASSHOLE RULE, and it’s been a bestseller. Jim Collins showed in GOOD TO GREAT that the best leaders are humble, not egotistical.
Now, with publishing you’re dealing with artists, who are not exactly known for an even temperament. And no doubt there’s much more tolerance for eccentricity in publishing than there would be in the rest of the business world. But even in publishing an author who is a joy to work with and has a dynamite, charming personality has a leg up over one who doesn’t. Allow me to venture a hypothesis on why this be so: I think this has a great deal to do with the role of the modern author.
Way back when in simpler times, the book was what mattered. The author may have had to do some events and readings, but for the most part an author’s engagement with the public was limited. Word of mouth and reviews drove sales. If a writer wrote a good book but was a pill to deal with, that was basically ok.
Not so much anymore.
Now, via TV, radio, the Internet, lots more travel, etc., the author is face to face with their readership more than ever before and is called upon to generate sales opportunities — this requires social skills. They are also more closely in touch with people within a publishing organization — also requiring social skills. And it helps when people want to work with an author because they’re an awesome, friendly, professional, hardworking author.
Is a publisher going to decline to publish a great book simply because the author is a jerk and a handful? Probably not. But when those difficult and nebulous decisions are being made in a publishing house, such as who gets what advertising and who is going to be the lead title and a great deal of complex factors are being weighed, put a great personality in the “pro” column for an author.