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Making is easy. But publishing? Publishing is hard.
That’s a crazy statement. Making is really hard – making a Broadway play, making a hit record album, making a book, making a pacemaker that doesn’t break. This is hard hard work.
But you know what’s harder? It’s harder to reliably make those things successful.
Here’s an easy piece of math. Listen to 100 records in a row from any year you choose – 1970, 1990, 2019 – in whatever genre you like. Listen to them without paying attention to how many copies they sold.
I think what you’ll find is that all of them are pretty good, and some of them are exceptional. And there isn’t a lot of correlation between the exceptional ones, and the ones that sold a lot of copies. For just as many copies as the Beatles sold of a classic song, they also sold copies of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.
It turns out that the Emerson String Quartet makes records that are awfully good but, pretty randomly, some sell more than others.
What is publishing anyway?
Publishing is the act of taking a financial risk to bring a new idea to people who haven’t heard about it yet.
So publishing and marketing are slightly elided, but publishing – publishing is a personality driven business. That when you are the creator of something, you go to find a publisher because you’d love to get quote back to work creating the next thing.
That it shouldn’t be Lin-Manuel Miranda’s job to sell tickets to Hamilton. He should be busy writing the next thing. Creators have established this mythology for ourselves that the work is creating and that somebody else should be the publisher.
I did a hundred and twenty books when I was a book packager – a book a month for 10 years. I pitched more than a thousand different ideas. And yes, some of them were really stupid, like how to hypnotize your friends and get them to act like chickens. But many of the books that I pitched were great ideas that, later, other people went on with a very similar idea to sell a bunch of.
The publishers had to pick between the ones they decided to publish and the ones they turned down.
I still can’t exactly figure out how they chose. In the words of the late screenwriter William Goldman, “Nobody knows anything”.
He wrote that about Hollywood, because in Hollywood, as in the book business, all bestsellers are ‘surprise’ bestsellers.
Sure, you know that the sequel’s going to do 80% as well as the original, maybe 50% better, maybe half as well. But that’s not a surprise. But everything else, everything else you bring to the market, if it works, it’s stunningly surprising. If it fails, it’s stunningly surprising because nobody knows anything.
And as we’ve tried to quantify the selection process for creative work, we have relentlessly failed at it. There is no reliable algorithm.
So you might ask, “What about people like John Hammond?” He had golden ears and great taste. Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, all the way back to Benny Goodman – one guy, one string of hits, except we forget all of his duds.
It turns out that if you get lucky or loud early on in your publishing career, you get to play more often. And if you get to play more often, it’s inevitable that you’re going to have more hits which will let you play more often.
Sure, there’s a normal distribution of batting averages. Some people are going to do better than others. That’s just randomness. And yes, there is definitely skill involved in being better than average at publishing.
But publishing is hard, and the reason it’s hard is because we’re not publishing to automatons, we’re publishing to humans. And we get stuck on what is better.
What is better – a $380,000 Ferrari, or a $19,000 twenty-year-old Mazda Miata? Which one is better? Which one would you buy?
Well, they both sell. So people who could afford either one – some of them pick the Ferrari, some of them pick the Miata. If you ask those people which one is better, you will get two different answers.
People make extraordinary choices every day about how to spend their time or their money. On Netflix at any given moment, there are hundreds and hundreds of shows to watch and they’re all free. Once you’ve paid for Netflix, the next show you watch only costs you time. Which one is better? Which one should you watch next?
As I discovered four seasons ago, quality is different than luxury. Quality doesn’t mean how perfect it is, how expensive it is. Quality means, does it match the expectations of the person who is buying it?
That a McDonald’s hamburger has a quality to it, that cannot be replaced by one that’s made from ground sirloin on a handmade roll. Because the person who wanted a McDonald’s hamburger, wanted a McDonald’s hamburger.
So back to this idea of publishing. We have a significant cultural challenge here, which is that most of the things that are purchased by us, most of the intellectual property we engage with, we don’t subscribe to.
We make a new decision based on new information every single day. When Time Magazine had a lot of subscribers, the act of publishing Time Magazine only had two pieces – keep people from unsubscribing, and get new people to subscribe. The end.
The rest was up to the huge Editorial Team that cranked that magazine out week, after week, after week. But as subscriptions faded, as people were clicking from one website to the other, what we saw was that publishing is actually hard.
That if you’re in the music business, it’s super easy now to get carriage, to get on Spotify, to get on iTunes, to get on Pandora, and Koba, and Tidal. Super straightforward – the long tail makes it easy.
That’s not publishing, that’s delivering it to someone who could buy it if they want to buy it. Publishing is the act of getting someone to seek out that song, to buy that ticket to the theatre.
And too often, what’s going on here, is that a publisher gets lucky and takes credit for being smart. The people who published Hamilton didn’t publish it better than all the other plays they’ve ever published.
It just turns out that in that moment in time, more people wanted to see that Musical. Is it an act of genius? Without a doubt, one of the greatest musicals ever made. But it’s not the only musical ever made.
And many of the people, I would argue most of the people, who pay all that money for tickets to Hamilton, are paying all that money for tickets to Hamilton because so many other people are paying all that money for tickets to Hamilton.
That it has created its own sensation, because people like us do things like this, and the thing we do is go to this play.
So back to this notion – creating is easy, publishing is hard.
That what we have to figure out how to do as creators is maybe, just maybe, not give Publishers so much credit for being brilliant.
And perhaps, realize that the most famous of them has been persistent and lucky, not consistently brilliant.
And that our job as creators might not be to completely reverse engineer the publishing process, so that we can reliably deliver a home run every time.
But maybe, we just have to figure out how to be persistent and consistent.
To find the smallest viable audience that people who want to hear what we want to make, our 1,000 true fans, as Kevin Kelly might say, and then show up for them, and show up for them.
Bob Dylan, as my friend Brian points out over and over again, is a genius, for sure, but when was the last time he produced something that blew people’s heads off? Not for a long time.
Because Bob Dylan doesn’t care about creating the sensation he created in 1967. He doesn’t need to take that kind of swing. Instead, he’s found his people, his people have found him and he consistently and persistently creates.
So I’m not minimizing by any stretch of the imagination how hard it is to create. It’s what I wrestle with all day long. That creating from the heart with compassion, with passion for the people we seek to serve, is a great calling.
It’s a life’s work. It’s something that so many of us would love to do, and I hope more people will. But publishing? Publishing is hard.
I don’t think we figured out a reliable way to bring a new idea to people who don’t know about it in advance. That, without question, there are people who have more leverage – who can give us more of a head start. Who can get a stack of books at the cash register at Barnes & Noble. Oh, that’s right, no one goes to Barnes & Noble anymore.
Who can say they know somebody at Amazon, who will somehow wave a magic wand and make things work. Who can say they know the people at Netflix and will make sure you get a hearing. But nobody at Netflix knows anything. If they did they wouldn’t keep buying all those shows that don’t work well enough to run forever.
It’s worth remembering that the first season of Seinfeld was an epic failure. On one of the three TV networks, with a not-trivial amount of promotion during primetime, Seinfeld, it didn’t work. It was going to get canceled. Because it wasn’t created well? Well, I don’t think so. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld didn’t really change very much about who they were and what they wanted to make.
So what changed? What changed is persistently showing up, with a show in the right place, in front of the right people, the American public began to get the joke. The word spread from person to person. That a publisher and NBC decided for once to believe in something that wasn’t average and banal, and stuck with it long enough for it to become the multi, multi-billion dollar culture changing hit it became.
Because publishing is hard. And Publishers who seek the short-term, who are acting like direct marketers, who are measuring everything – they’re racing to the bottom.
What we know is that if you A/B test a website enough times, it will turn into a porn site. Because when you A/B test, you will end up with clickbait, you will end up with prurient images that people sort of click on in the short run. Because, ugh. That is no way to do the work that you care about.
So given how hard publishing is, maybe instead of simply reverse engineer it, we could say these people – the people that I would like to serve – what would touch them? What would make magic for them? What would be worth creating that they wouldn’t want to miss?
Because, yeah, creating is really, really hard.