Not long ago, an old Berkeley acquaintance introduced me to a friend of hers. The friend is something of a technology big thinker, the kind who does indeed have important insights but provokes a certain amount of hostility and snide comment through his habit of reminding people how important his insights are.
Because he is a better than passable writer, because he has accomplished significant things in the technology world, because he has been around for a long time and has a following, because a certain amount of controversy follows him and his pronouncements, and because he has got a smart agent, he is a good candidate for a book deal. All he needs is a book proposal his agent can go out and sell.
For whatever reason, The Thinker has not managed to write his proposal. I imagine that In his heart of hearts, he feels he doesn’t need one, that it’s a fussy demand imposed by an Old Media Establishment he believes his work has already doomed. Nonetheless, the requirement survives. The Berkeley acquaintance I referred to earlier tried to write a proposal for him, but it didn’t fly. We chanced to talk about The Thinker, and she suggested I meet him to see whether we might collaborate on the proposal and ensuing book. One of the incentives: “He’s willing to split the royalties–it could be a lot of money.” It could also be zilch.
A few days later, I met The Thinker and my acquaintance for breakfast. He wanted to know all about what I’d done in my career up to this point. Of course, I had to say that I haven’t written a book or a book proposal, but that was a known going into the meeting. To his question, “How do you write a book?” I told him I was pretty confident it was similar to doing a long-form magazine piece, something I have some experience with, and tried to demystify the process: “You know, I think it comes down to just sitting down and writing.” We talked for a couple hours, then met again a week later to talk for a couple more hours, and then once again. In the meantime, The Thinker had encouraged me to speak to his agent; I did and came away with a pretty good idea of his view of the project. Several editors he had spoken to were interested, but he needed a proposal to shop around. The holidays were fast approaching and January would be slow; it would be nice if he could have a detailed outline and introductory chapter sometime in February.
Armed with that information, my sessions with The Thinker, and a little research into what he’s already written, I wrote what I called a “proposal for a proposal” sketching how I would proceed. I suggested a fee for writing the proposal and closed by reassuring The Thinker that I wasn’t trying to stampede him into doing anything and invited his comments, criticism and great thoughts, to paraphrase Mike Royko.
His email response amounted to a grunt: “I got this, and I’m thinking about it.” Silence ensued, and in my experience, silence is never a great sign, though you have to make allowances for someone having had a stroke or a death in the family or a spare rib stuck in their throat.
The holidays came and went. The Thinker went to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January. When I knew (from his blog) that he was back in town, I sent him a note: “Still thinking?” Silence. And there, I figured, our conversation would end, though I was unhappy I didn’t know why. Then The Thinker’s agent dropped me a line: “Are you guys working on the proposal?” I called The Thinker. He didn’t pick up or answer my message. I called him again the next morning, left another message and finally got a response, by email.
He started out by saying he was “ambivalent,” and added that he always believed the process would take some time. But his real issue (he called it “a reset”) was that I had suggested that I be paid for writing the proposal. He said he definitely wasn’t paying anything out of his own pocket, and that his expectation was that the book would be something he would get paid for, not shell out cash to get done. I sent him a note back saying I understood his reluctance, that I thought compensation would have been a legitimate point of discussion and figured what I was paid for doing the proposal would come out of any advance offered for the book. His response was that he feared the payment issue was “a major disconnect” that would lead to other misunderstandings. He also pleaded that he has a low tolerance for business, needs an agent to smooth the way for him, and then threw in: “It’s been a rough couple of years here Dan, without going into details. When you become more visible more people show up wanting you to give them things. One of the really shitty things about celebrity. ”
That last made me sympathize with him. Poor Thinker, fending off the ravenous hangers on trying to suck cash out of him.
But it was an odd observation in the context, and one I’ve thought about for a while. Did he think I was demanding something from him? The way I saw it, I was proposing a simple “I do this for you, you pay me” arrangement. But perhaps even suggesting such a transaction was crass in The Thinker’s eyes.
Was I asking for too much in payment? The Thinker’s agent said my rates were “very competitive”; that’s a mixed blessing, but at least it tells me the deal I proposed wasn’t a ripoff. Would it have strained The Thinker’s resources? From the little I know of his circumstances, he’s well off by any reasonable standard; that’s not something I begrudge–he earned his dough through hard work and ingenuity.
So where was the major disconnect? What had I said that caused The Thinker to undergo “a reset” on the idea of working with me?
Talking to my old Berkeley acquaintance afterward, I finally understood. She had spoken to The Thinker after he got my proposal. ” ‘He wants money,’ ” The Thinker reportedly said. ” ‘I don’t pay writers.’ ” So it wasn’t that the amount was outrageous or that my approach was grasping. And it had nothing to do with any of the actual ideas I put into the proposal; those never came up for discussion. What stopped The Thinker dead in his tracks was the very notion I assumed I ought to be paid for the work I did.
And, I have to say, that’s a major reset for me. The Thinker claims particular insights into the evolution of media. Specifically, he’s a leading member of a particular subspecies of new media partisan: the technologist who, never having committed a minute of their lives to plain vanilla daily journalism, rushes to celebrate the death of old media and hasten it if they can. I admit talk like this gets my back up. I spent a long time in newsrooms doing work that I liked to think served some noble purpose at some level. It’s obvious that the Net and the new models for creation and distribution have altered the media landscape permanently and for the better. It’s clear that old media companies have badly wounded themselves through slavish pursuit of profIts above all and a blind belligerence to the new media forces reshaping their world. To a large extent, then, the media giants deserve the crisis that threatens their existence.
What the technologist insurgents fail to understand, though, is that generations of skilled, smart people who might thrive with inspired leadership will be thrown out with the hated top-down media model. The Thinker’s answer to that is that if these media people–and yes, I’m thinking mostly of newsfolk–are so smart, then they’ll seize on all the opportunities out there in the brave new world. (He’s not nearly so cavalier about the work of people he understands better: programmers. The Thinker can barely contain his outrage at the thought of brilliant developers and others in the code-writing brethren (mostly brethren) getting shafted by the suits in Silicon Valley and beyond.)
One of the things smart but displaced media people might do to land on their feet, of course, is hire themselves out to write. If they’re providing a service or a tangible product–a book proposal for a stalled or wayward genius, for instance–they might be able to pay some of their bills.
But not in The Thinker’s world. He writes something every day, so what’s the big deal about tapping out a lot of words on a computer monitor? What’s the opportunity for a collaborator who invests his talent in the project? Half, maybe, of whatever lies at the end of The Thinker’s literary rainbow. And if the collaborator wants to eat along the way? Well, he can always snack on some Lucky Charms.