“A Novel Venture” Revisited: Kickstarting a Writing Career

Quite a good long time ago, I wrote a post about one possible future publishing model that might rise up and replace (or co-exist with) the current traditional model.

I wrote about this before the real explosion in e-books that first started attracting attention sometime in November of 2010 – it’s here, all the way back in February 2010.  This was in the early days of my blog, before I had regular readers, so most of you will likely not have seen this post.

I called my idea the “Novel Venture Capital Model”, and the gist was that authors would somehow be able to tap into a network of “angel investors” or “venture capitalists” who were interested in finding and funding successful novelists.   The theory was that some authors would abandon traditional publishers because of crazy rights-grabs and depressed royalty rates – but they wouldn’t be able to fund the development, editing, cover art, printing and distribution of books themselves.  All of that costs money.  Traditionally, publishers fund all that, but the concept of this hypothetical model was to decouple the financing of book production from the physical process, allowing the authors themselves to be the business-people calling the shots.

And then, of course, the e-book revolution began.  And part of my hypothetical model actually started coming true.  Now, it wasn’t really a prediction – I included in my original post both a pro and a con for why it would succeed and why it would fail.  And I’m not interested in having been “right”.  What I am interested in is how reality is catching up to those proposals, and my own evolving thoughts on where the world of publishing is going, and what role I will be able to play in that future. Continue reading

The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution Part 2

Last time I started talking about what I called “the seedy underbelly of the digital self-publishing revolution”, by which I mean all the things I’ve been learning about it that leave me feeling uneasy.  Specifically, last time, I talked about Amazon’s proposed e-book subscription service, and my general unease with Amazon’s hegemony in the digitial self-publishing world.  But that’s not the only part about this whole thing that makes me worry about it.  Here are a few more posts that gave me further pause.

When one traditionally-published author decided to digitally self-pub some short stories her publisher decided she’s in breach of contract.  The Passive Guy relates the tale here and here.  The long-story-short of this tale: making this move on her own spooked the publisher – rightly or wrongly is not the point – and apparently on some level the publisher was offended.  Many of the most prominent cheer-leaders of the digitial self-publishing revolution will take stories like this as further evidence of the EVIL nature of the traditional publishers – a point that must surely be bolstered by the fact that some agents have written in support of the publishers in this case, as opposed to the author.  I don’t take it that way.  I take it that publishers are human.  And that they’re beginning to buy into the rhettoric of the digital self-publishing cheerleaders that this is an existential dilemma for them. 

The story, itself, wasn’t the least surprising to me.  I’ve heard warnings from established, traditionally published authors warning of something like this well before I read this story.  Self-publishing, they have said, is the kiss-of-death in the traditional publishing world.

The real point, then, that I wanted to make was this: if in the long-term, traditional publishing is your goal, is now the time to rock the boat and go-it-alone, in the hopes that later the traditional publishers will overlook your self-published history? Continue reading

The Seedy Underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution

So, I’ll start by saying that I see the arrival of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution as largely a good thing.  It’s more confusing than the old world – now instead of a comparatively straight-forward process of submitting to agents and editors and hoping for the best while expecting the worst, you’ve got a thousand different possible levers you can try and pull.  (Some of them you can’t actually reach.  Some of them don’t actually do anything when you pull them.  Some of them have an effect, but it’s hard to figure out what that effect is.)

But, largely, it’s a good thing because it gives writers and readers both new options that they didn’t have before. 

Still, I’m put off by the revolution’s cheerleaders who shout hurrahs: “The Revolution has come! Publishing is disintermediating! The Traditional Publishers are dying, and good riddance for they were made of EVIL and soon it will be complete freedom for writers and readers and puppies and kitties will rain from the skies forever! Amen!  P.S. And we’re all going to get so rich by writing!”

That’s hyperbole.  But the basic message is the same.  If you move in writing circles, you can’t help but read one or two such blog posts on various blogs per week. And that’s if you don’t actively follow Joe Konrath or Dean Wesley Smith or others like them.  But their message puts me off, not only because I think it’s an unrealistic vision of the future, but because something about this vision seems a little off to me.

In the past few weeks, I’ve come to understand a little better why I’m vaguely uncomfortable and unsettled about the digital self-publishing revolution.  There is something dark, something unspoken, something critically unexamined staining the underbelly of the Digital Self-publishing Revolution.  I don’t think these are things talked about enough, yet. Continue reading

Ethics of Leadership

Not this weekend, but the previous weekend there was another Leadership Academy class.  I wasn’t particularly excited about going to this one, honestly – though of course I went.  Before the class, we were to read a case and a paper about ethical issues in business.

I wasn’t excited for a couple of reasons: first, in my undergrad program, I’d taken two classes on the legal and ethical environment of business.  I took both the required Core class plus the advanced class that explored ethical issues more deeply.  Additionally, as a religious person who think deeply both about  his religion and about the moral and ethical implications of what he believes, I felt I had a pretty firm grounding in ethical issues.  The final reason I was unexcited had to do with the way business ethics is usually taught to business students: putting them in the role of a business leader facing ethical dilemmas.

Ultimately, I think this class went better than expected, but one of the main reasons that was so was that I brought up some of the points above.  The class did start with a video case study of a high-level executive faced with an ethical dilemma: a Sales VP who felt that the CEO was misrepresenting sales prospects to the Board during a Board Meeting.  What was mildly insulting about this situation is that it was presented as though there was no clear right or wrong solution, no clear black and white. 

I say “insulting” because the insinuation that the situation was really “shades of grey” obfuscates the fact that those shades are a sharply contrasting light grey and dark grey with no middle-ground.  I, personally, thought it was fairly obvious that as a high-level executive, this VP’s fiduciary responsibility to both share-holders and the Board made the right answer fairly clear.  As a class, we were presented with 3 options: discuss the issue privately with the CEO, take the issue to the Board, or do nothing at all.  “Do nothing at all”, I reasoned, was clearly an unethical choice.  Taking the issue to the CEO was unlikely to be fruitful: if the CEO is aware that he is lying, he is unlikely to be amenable to gentle correction on the issue.  Still, for proprieties sake, this would have been the necessary first step.  But going into that, I would have the full expectation that I would likely have to escalate.  Ultimately, the actual VP did just that, but not until after he’d hemmed and hawed over the ethics of going to the Board, and waited until he was contacted by a Board Member directly.  That, in my mind, was an unethical lapse.

This is often the case with high-level executive decisions.  We like to pretend their decision make is full of shades-of-grey and nuance.  In the example above, for instance, what if he’d lost his job for challenging the CEO?  Certainly, that was a risk.  But what if he had?  At that level, most executive contracts include escape clauses and severance packages and golden parachutes.  The risk of getting fired, for him, was overall not a severe one.

Now, consider an ethical situation like that from a very different perspective: a mid-to-low-level support employee who has a young family.  That person’s moral and ethical obligation is first and foremost not to shareholders, but to his family; though he does have a responsibility to shareholders, that responsibility comes to him filtered through several layers of managerial oversight.  His responsibility to them is indirect, whereas his responsibility to his family is very direct.  This mid-to-low-level employee has no escape clause, and no guarantee of a sizeable severance if he loses his job.  So, if this employee is asked, for instance, to add to his forecast some amount of money to cover a meeting of the Board at some resort in a Caribbean Island, what does he do?  What’s ethical? 

Let’s say this employee doesn’t think that a meeting of the Board in a Caribbean resort is the best use of the shareholder’s investments – especially during a Recession, at a time when employee benefits have slowly been eroding away to cost-savings initiatives.  Does he meet privately with the CEO or with members of the Board?  No; the very idea is preposterous if there are multiple layers of management separating him from the Chief Executive.  Nor does he go to an outside agency: there is nothing illegal about this Board Meeting.  He might consider informing a shareholder’s rights watchdog, but his non-disclosure and confidentiality statements, signed at the moment of his employment, may make that option ethically dubious.  Ultimately, he does what he must to ensure continued good relations with his immediate supervisors, protecting his job.  He will probably warn his supervisor that this is not a good use of the business’s funds, but he knows nothing will come of this complaint – his boss has no more authority over this decision than he does!

These are the kinds of situations that involve real shades-of-grey and nuance in ethical decision making, where the obligation to employer, to family, and to self-consistent ethics collide, and where options are few.  This is the crucible where ethical leaders are either born or lose their way in the mire.  It’s easy to justify doing something a little grey when the personal stakes have very high personal risk.  And once you start down that path, it’s easy to lose all perspective.

But for those who will become principled, ethical leaders, these are they who considered deeply, before entering the fire, where they stand on their moral and ethical principles.  These are they who have drawn the line that they will not cross, who know where it lies, and know the warning signs of when they are coming close to it.

That’s why, ultimately, it’s important for people in my position to think deeply about where we stand on ethical issues.  But not only from a high, C-level perspective.  It’s hard to know how you’ll really react at a C-level until you’ve done your time in the mid-level mines.  So, our ethical education needs to start here, where we live, and examine the problems that we actually face in our day-to-day.

The ‘D’ in PhD stands for ‘Dilemma’

Shortly before Christmas, my wife had a conversation with a friend of hers whose husband is an assistant professor at the school where I am earning my MBA.  She presented a very positive assessment of what it was like to be a college professor – particularly at a Business School, and it was suggested that I give her husband a call to ask about his experience.

It didn’t take much to get me excited about the idea of pursuing a business PhD.  In my undergraduate school, I had some professors suggest to me that I might someday want to pursue a career as a professor.  That idea has been in the back of my mind for the past six years.  But I decided that, business being a practical field of study more than a pure theoretical field, it would be useful even as a future educator to have ample practical experience to draw from.  Ergo, whether I wanted to become a professor or not, I should get some real-world work under my belt first.

But the school where I am currently earning my MBA – and the one where I’d likely want to go to get a PhD, if I went that route – is a top-notch research institution.  So, this was almost a whole new idea.  I talked to the professor, and then to another friend who is pursuing a PhD at the same school, and got a pretty well-rounded but overall positive assessment of the career choice. 

There’s a lot that’s attractive about the idea of being a professor: the relative autonomy, the concept of being, as my friend put it, a “net producer of new knowledge” as opposed to merely a “consumer of knowledge”, and the value and satisfaction of knowing that what you do makes a difference are all positives.  It’s also very demanding: research institutions have a high expectation that professors will produce and publish new research on a regular basis.  Those who do, it seems, are often compensated for those efforts.  Granted, this is based on a very narrow sample set of professors and PhDs. 

The “Dilemma” I mention comes in the form of significantly more financial debt – on top of what I’ve taken on to pursue an MBA – and deferral of compensation until after the degree is completed in another 4 to 5 years, combined with a potentially significant adverse impact on my family in the intervening years.  Added to that is the fact that these programs are highly competitive, and though I’ve done quite well in my education and very well on the entrance exam (which I could reuse if I applied for a PhD next year, but would have to retake if I applied in the following year), there are confounding factors against me, such as my lack of experience in a research-based field.

In all honesty, the idea got me excited, but since I started looking at the numbers, I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of my ability to make this work financially.  Many PhD programs are paid for with stipends, but these stipends are so small that they would not meet my growing family’s financial needs over the duration of the program, which without some other source of financial assistance would be crippling.  With my already outstanding student debt from the MBA, taking on further loans seems pretty unconscionable.  It would also mean deferring further retirement savings for those years – and every year lost saving for retirement is another year that you have to continue working before you shed your mortal coil.

It’s left me in a bit of an emotional tizzy contemplating it all.  Initially, when these conversations started, it was with the idea in mind that the deadline for applying for the next year was looming.  I soon realized it wasn’t possible for me to make an effective application in a few short weeks, much less decide whether this was a viable career choice for me.

Over the next few months, I’ll continue thinking about the possibility of pursuing a PhD, and trying to learn all I can about the career, its viability, and what it would take to succeed.   Only time will tell whether I eventually apply for the program, or decide that my MBA alone will be sufficient for the career I want to pursue.