29 July 2022

You Should Totally Tweet About This

You are totally a winner, dude!

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash

Everyone always said he was a genius, and finally the proof had come. After being quoted in some very important newspapers and magazines, after doing a couple of TEDx talks, he had landed a Big New York City Agent. He had worked with a ghostwriter who crafted a superb nonfiction book proposal, putting some of his most abstruse ideas on paper for the very first time. So many Big New York City editors raved about the proposal and these ideas of his—ones that would radically transform the worlds of finance, politics, economics and culture—that the agent chose to hold an auction to sell the book.

When the smoke cleared, our genius walked away with a $100,000 book deal from what was then a Big Six publisher. Colleagues at his firm were envious, but such success had always been in the cards for our boy. Everyone knew he did great PowerPoints. The firm always sent him to the big conferences because he always knew just what to say. At hotel bars after those sessions, he was the flashy dresser ordering obscure cocktails, schmoozing with the local journalists, and sharing his theory about how this One Single Factor was underlying various disciplines.

So certain was our man of the book’s success that on weekends, he and his spouse took long rides into the New Jersey countryside, looking at grand, multi-acre estates that they might very possibly upgrade to when the book hit the bestseller lists and even bigger money came pouring in.

He and “his” book writer slaved over the tome for a year. Through first drafts, second drafts, the dreaded editorial letter, the copyedit, the galleys, and so on. When the publisher’s catalog came out, the author humble-bragged his way around the office, showing the book’s cover and the lovely blurbs to his colleagues. The book was “front-list,” singled out for a major push by the marketing and sales forces. “We know how to make bestsellers,” the editor had said in one of those early phone conferences when rounds of editors had vied for the chance to bid on his book. Front-list placement proved it! In the parlance of the industry, his was a “Big Think” book. It would out-blink Blink, topple The Tipping Point, and drown The Black Swan.

During the long slog to publication, the agent managed to lock in a movie option from a television development company. This was admittedly strange, since the book had no characters, no plot, no setting—just ideas. Nevertheless, some obviously brilliant people had perceived the book’s inherent genius, and planned to make a movie, TV show, or possibly a cable channel show about those concepts.

His agent urged the author to do a podcast, but the author didn’t really have time for that. He didn’t want to give away his ideas for free. Besides, he was busier than ever these days. In addition to reviewing the galleys, he was now fielding calls from “his” Hollywood writer. (The young screenwriter had read the galleys, and was at a loss for how to turn this mishegoss into a workable pitch and treatment for her bosses. But since the development company was paying her to turn the material into something saleable, she was not about to reveal her misgivings.)

The author could almost taste that multi-acre estate now. He could practically smell the grass! He could hear the horses whickering in the stables. He could hear the thump of his sweet children’s tennis balls on the clay courts.

Eagerly he looked forward to the Big Marketing Call when the Whole Team would talk about the book launch. He waited. And waited.

The call came on a Friday, four days before the book launch. The person on the other end was a harried, twenty-three-year-old publicist who was juggling the release of 18 other books that month. They spoke for forty minutes, mostly about how excited the Team was about the author’s book. Editors in the book world were supposed to be great wordsmiths, but no one seemed to be able to reach for any other word to convey their excitement. They were always over-the-moon, freaking excited.

“Are you on social media?” the publicist said. Our author wasn’t. He never bought into that crap. His wife did Facebook, but he’d ignored his account for years. He had a mortgage, a car loan, three kids in private schools, a briefcase full of never-ending work, and no time for anything else. “You totally should be,” the publicist said. “Twitter is probably best for a book like yours. Very intellectual content. You should totally Tweet about it.”

Thus ended the Great Marketing Call. The author felt unsatisfied…puzzled…confused. He could not shake the feeling that something was a little…off. Where was the book tour? Where was the appearance on MSNBC he’d dropped hints about in those early conference calls with his editor?

He worked the phones for a few days to get his agent on the line. She did some digging and returned with an explanation. In the months leading up to the book’s launch, the sales staff of the business imprint had mailed postcards to everyone on their list to gauge interest in the book. The response was robust from one very specific demographic: university librarians.

This made sense; our author’s deep, profound thoughts were going to change the world someday. Librarians at university business management schools were interested in those ideas—and apparently no one else. The marketing, sales, and publicity plans dried up immediately. There was not even a conversation about this, because every person in trade publishing knows that a book that appeals solely to business school librarians is the kiss of death. Big Six peeps know this so deeply in their bones that they do not feel it necessary to articulate it.

“But it was front list!” the author said. “They paid me six figures!”

Yes, the agent said. But there’s no point in throwing good money after bad. You get that, right? You’re a business dude.

“They’re willing to lose all that money?”

Yeah. They are. Because that’s what big companies do. They lose money all the time on books like yours. They’ve gotten very good at cutting their losses. A hundred thousand dollars is chump change to them. A “big” advance guarantees nothing.

“But there’s a movie deal!”

Well, there’s an option, which is very different, and maybe one of these days a movie or TV show will get made. That is, if the producer chooses to renew the option when the contract expires in 15 months. Until then, keep cashing the $1,800 check they’re contractually obligated to send you every six months until the term expires.

Our author’s world was spinning out of control.

Take heart, the agent said. Hollywood responds to success. They really do. So do publishers. In a year, if the hardcover and ebook do well, maybe they’ll even do a paperback.

“You mean to say that there might not even be a paperback?”

I believe in you, the agent waxed on, deflecting. I know the kind of go-getter you are. You will promote the living sht out of this book. You will never give up. Because that’s the kind of winner you are.

Our man didn’t feel like a winner. He had spent the advance after splitting it three ways with the ghostwriter, the agent, and the tax man. Yes, he made a hefty salary as a big-city exec, but that money was spoken for. Even if he could convince his wife to throw some money at the book, he had no idea where to begin. He had no clue how one propelled a book to the top of the bestseller list. In that respect, publishing was so…opaque. Yes, he could ask the bookstore in his Jersey suburb to carry the book, but he’d never set foot in the place. What about all the others? There had to be hundreds, thousands, of such mom-and-pop entities in the nation. Even if he could crack them, how would he convince people who didn’t know him to buy the damn book? Such a thing was well outside his realm of expertise.

Having a “big” one-off book published by a “big” publisher was beginning to feel like a fruitless exercise in vanity. Like getting some very expensive business cards printed up. He was known to be a genius! But now he felt like an ordinary dude with some very interesting ideas. Somewhere in the distance, a breeze kicked up in the horse stables, bringing with it the scent of manure.



Joseph DAgnese is a professional ghostwriter who occasionally writes fiction. He wishes the foregoing were fiction.


  1. I have a friend who had something similar happen with their visual art, which was picked up for a contract for production, sales, the whole nine yards - and then petered out because the contractors had moved on to the next new thing. They're stealthy and fast.

    1. The thing that shocked me in this situation was how the publisher decided to bail on the basis of what I'd consider to be a minor issue, with no attempt to recoup their investment.

  2. So university librarian Rob Lopresti tried his best, but did anyone listen? Nooooooo…

    Joe, it's amazing writers keep writing, but they can't help themselves. At least the ghostwriter got paid!

    1. I thought of Rob as I posted this. If he alone had been interested, I'm sure he could have saved the fatuous author's career. Alas, no...


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