Gerald Sindell appears on CSPAN's BOOK TV: Book Doctors and Bestsellers
“Not every book can be a bestseller, but every book has a potential that must be discovered and served.”
(transcript of Gerald Sindell’s partial remarks at the Women’s National Book Association Panel on “Book Doctors and Bestsellers,” January 18, 2001 as seen on CSPAN’s BOOK TV)
“I have been fortunate to have been involved with a number of bestsellers. But the effort, the imagination, and the desire to reach the maximum possible audience is the same for every book. I recently worked on one of the most interesting and important business books I’ve had the fortune to be involved with so far. The book has sold less than 10,000 copies in hardcover, yet one of the global 50 companies is already reorganizing itself around the principles and values in the book. I trust that other companies will follow, and that eventually the influence of this book and this author will improve the working lives of tens of thousands of people around the globe. That, for me, is also a bestseller.
“I’m going to start by telling you that I do what I do because I’m in publishing to try and change the world. That doesn’t mean that every book I’ve worked on or published has been important or even valuable (although I certainly would consider good enter- tainment valuable). It means that I seek out the value in the projects I work on and more often than not, become a passionate advocate for the author and book.
“I’m going to tell you a little about what I consider book doctoring to be, and I’m then going to share with you some of the ideas and values that guide my process.
“For me, being a book doctor means being involved in the entire environment around a work. My job is to make the genius of the author connect with a need in the world. I could contrast this, for argument’s sake, with a comment in Jason Epstein’s recent book “Book Business” wherein he describes what he views is the nature of the publishing business: “ It is not a conventional business. It more closely resembles a vocation or an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself rather than its financial outcome.”
“Not for me. I understand that kind of publishing (inward-looking) but I am not inter- ested in being part of it. If an author comes to me with a book that can help others — can make their work more meaningful, improve their finances, help their therapist understand the unique roots of their depression, or improve the politics of a county or an entire nation — then my responsibility is not just to the book or the author. It is also to every potential reader who might benefit from reading the work.
- Looking for the Identity of the Work and the Author
“My work begins, usually, when an author brings me a work in process. It can be a box of letters, 500 pages of failed attempts, or a conversation. No matter where we begin, I immediately start trying to find out what it is that’s driving the author. What does the author know? How does the author know it? Upon what work is the author’s work based? Is it good science, good business, good psychology, good sense? I need to find what is the identity of the work—what makes it unique, what is its maximum potential value, who is it for?
“Sometimes this process takes only a few weeks. Other times, it can take many months.
“Frequently, the author doesn’t know some of the most important things that she or he knows. We can write books all around our truth, but take for granted that everyone else shares the same truths that we do. The reality is, they probably don’t know our core truths until we first recognize them, and make them explicit to others.
“A few years ago I went to Westport, Connecticut to spend a couple of days with a new client. He had written a book about several of his consulting case histories, and it had collected a number of rejections. The author, Larry Ackerman, had spent the morning try- ing to explain to me the implications of his work. “Don’t you see, if we can understand that organizations are truly alive, then everything changes!”
‘“What would be different, Larry?”
‘“We’d see that companies are alive. They would have human-like identity.”
“Larry was turning a bright red. “So the Laws of Identity would apply to organizations just like they apply to people.”
“The Laws of Identity. I felt like an idiot. I must have missed that class. I dared to ask Larry for a refresher.
“He sputtered for a moment and then came up with the most obvious one. “One law of identity is that each one of us is unique.”
“I’m thinking snowflakes and fingerprints.
‘“What’s good for Westinghouse is probably wrong for GE.”
“But it went on from there. Over the course of the next six months, Larry refined the laws of identity, which he had assumed everyone knew, and they formed the spine of his mar- velous book, Identity is Destiny, published by Berret-Kohler last year. Some of these laws, are important for books too: The Law of Individuality ( I am unique); The Law of Will ( I am compelled to create value); The Law of Possibility (What I am and what I am not); The Law of Relationship (I need to work with others); The Law of Comprehension (I need to be perceived for who I really am).
“When I get close to the identity of a book, I begin to understood its compulsion to live and thrive. When I get the identity of a book, I can agree on it with the author. It provides the basis for what is in the book and helps us understand what is extraneous to the book. It pro- vides a marketing guide, making clear who the book is for. If the identity of the book is clear, then those who will value it will recognize its importance to them when they come across it.
“If you cannot be clear about the identity of a book, it is very difficult to take the other steps necessary to have that book maximize its potential in the marketplace. If we don’t know what the book truly is at its heart, how can we communicate that essence to anyone else?
- Discovering The Value Transaction, Then Take the Top of the Mountain
“In business it is common to talk about the value transaction. What am I giving, what am I getting? Every book offers, or should offer, something of value to the reader. We are asking the reader to give us time and money. When we create and market a book, we must be absolutely clear what we are promising the reader. And we must strive to deliver on that promise.
“A few years ago I was offered the opportunity to publish a book by Ralph Nader and Wesley Smith about the insurance industry. Nader’s initial approach was, if we tear the lid off the industry and expose it for what it is, then consumers will know what’s going on and won’t get ripped off anymore.
“I suggested we leave the exposé aside, and offer consumers a guide through the thicket, and give them a clear path for making all the decisions they need to make about the insurance they need, and then explain how to go about shopping for that insurance. That was the book we finally published, as Winning the Insurance Game. Our editorial guide was simple: What does the consumer need to know? If one of the author’s would suggest some secondary sources, I’d say, does the consumer really need to write to the Maryland Bureau of Insurance Regulation? Let’s just give them what they really need to make intelligent decisions right here, complete within these covers.
“The flap copy expressed the value transaction: Want to save on your auto insurance? Turn to page 145. What kind of life insurance is the best value? Turn to page 385. As the advertising genius David Ogilvy explained in his Confessions of an Advertising Man:Take the top of the mountain. Don’t be just another book about change management or how to retire rich. We need to strive for the top — to be the book buyer’s first choice.
“We need to ask what value the book purports to offer. And we need to make sure it delivers.
- Finding (or Creating) The Story of the Story
“Finding the story of the story begins with asking the author, “Why did you write this book?” or “Why do you want to write this book?” From that will usually come the story of a life- time passion, of realizing that no one else had found the answer. It is the author’s passion that can lead us to the story of the book.
“Often, to make a bestseller, there needs to be a story around a book. The story can become part of the identity of the book — as in: “Isn’t that the book by the guy Bush called a major league something?”
“So a book shows up over my transom one day that, soaking wet, is about forty pages long, and it has no story. It’s just a bunch of little statements, not backed up by anything, telling people how to conduct themselves:
“’Skip all office parties.”
‘“There is no such thing as a business or ‘office party’. It is not a social gathering. It won’t hurt you not to go at all. Simply don’t go. Give polite excuses.”
“That’s the way the whole proposal was. Direct. I liked it because it was honest, brutal, and valuable for a young person just starting out in a business environment. I didn’t suggest the author expand the book, add stories, or explain how he knew these things to be true. They were what they were, and I thought a book as simple and clear as this would either never sell or become a huge bestseller. But it needed something, if we weren’t going to tamper with its guts. Something this simple needed a mythology around it. It might appear to be, at first glance, too frail to stand on its own. It needed The Story of the Story.
“By probing the author, I learned the book had begun as a handout at a graduation speech, put together in a few brief weeks before the speech. Others had asked for copies of the hand- out. Before long, parents were passing the little handout around at the office, and then encouraging subordinates to read it. In the proposal package I described a micro-tidal wave forming around what I termed the Machiavelli’s Prince for this generation. Fortunately, Doris Michaels became the agent, and she saw the book the same way. Hyperion bought the book, and How to Become CEO launched Jeffrey Fox’s career as a business iconoclast.
“With “…And Ladies of the Club” the story was worthy of a book — from my mother finding one of the original 200 copies of Ladies in the Shaker Heights Public Library, to discovering Santmyer still alive in a nursing home in Xenia, Ohio. When the Book of the Month Club made the book its main selection, it was a NY Times front page story. The story of the story catapulted the book to #1 on the NY Times list, where it stayed for 52 weeks.
- In Non-Fiction—Finding the Story
“Finding the story within a story means finding, and depending on, the narrative thread that is intrinsic to the discovery of new ideas. The Double-Helix, the story of how Crick and Watson found the DNA molecule was really about what they did every day — who they thought was catching up to them, how they were stumbling ever closer and closer.
“When Brenda Venus showed up one day with a box of letter she had received from Henry Miller, I was intrigued. She had dragged the letters all over New York, but no one had been able to find the book in them. The letters were wonderful — Miller lusting after Brenda in one breath, and mentoring her with the next. They read as if they’d been written by a passionate Miller at 20. But they were by Miller at 78.
“Over a period of time, I extracted from Brenda the reality behind the letters. I would ask her, “What had happened the day he wrote this one?” Miller would say in one of his letters, “I wanted your goddess-like body last night” and Brenda would put it in context, describing how she carried Miller down the stairs of a Chinese restaurant, almost dropping the frail Henry into her Porsche. She provided the narrative, and we could balance Miller’s flights of fantasy against her affectionate but clear reality.
“Eventually, the letters in Dear, Dear Brenda told a story.
“If all else fails, how your author came to learn what she learned will give a narrative to non-fiction, and the reader then joins in, and buys in, as the discovery unfolds.
- Value Editing—Meanwhile, What is the Audience Doing?
“Value editing means that the book doctor is responsible for making the book as clear and useful as possible, getting to the hard core truth of what the author knows, and that the doctor is also responsible for putting the book in a marketing environment by making clear the value of the book. That will help the agent, the editor, and the publisher have a reasonable start on reaching the maximum audience that the book ought to reach.
“When I was a film editor (and film fixer) my thoughts were constantly on, “What is the audience thinking? Are they getting it? Are they with us?” The audience was perpetually over my shoulder as I trimmed a few frames here, or called for a music cue to tip us off there.
“It is the same in working on a book. The question that needs to guide us is, “Meanwhile, what is the reader thinking? Have we started an argument with him or her so that she’s now dis- tracted from the main point? Have we made it clear where we’re headed?”
- The Marketing Secret (that we all run from)
“The easiest way to understand the market for a book is to ask the author! I know this seems like a wild concept, but the author is the expert on all the people that need the work at hand.
- Clues to a Bestseller—The Span of Departure
“The span of departure, how great the leap a book makes from the body of accepted knowledge or craft or opinion, may indicate the importance and the potential of the work. But the greater that span of departure, the more difficult it will be to sell the work. It will be hard- er to get through the many buying processes that a book needs to get through, from agent to editor to marketing manager, to the publisher, the book buyer, the media and the con- sumer.
“When you have a book that intrigues you, but is not like other books, that’s a clue to be very interested. The resistance will be fierce — it won’t fit the pattern recognition needs of your associates, the sales force, the book buyers, or your publisher. But you are looking at opportunity. The big books are, generally, the hardest. To be involved with a bestseller, you need to be a contrarian in your gut. Ladies of the Club, my first taste of bestsellerdom was #1 on the NY Times for 52 weeks. My first option on it cost me $500. Because no one else wanted it.”