The Trip Down Memory Lane via Canceled Flights, Da Bronx and West Point
Posted by Bob Mayer
This week I flew to New York to sit down with my business partner, Jen Talty, meet an author, and do a booksigning at my alma mater, West Point. The trip was supposed to be one big long business meeting with the focus on the future. However, it turned into an adventure taking us down Memory Lane with many reflections of the past, bringing us full circle to the present.
The trip did not start well. I choose to fly into Stewart Airport near Newburgh. So Tuesday I was supposed to fly from Knoxville to Detroit to Stewart. Except the Detroit flight was delayed for maintenance reasons, so I ended up getting off the flight, knowing I wouldn’t make my connection. (My bag did make it to Stewart without me—it later told me it had been molested, but we won’t get into that here).
They couldn’t rebook me into Stewart that day so I went home. They rebooked me for the following morning, even earlier, to go Philly, then Stewart. I got to the airport at oh-dark-thirty, a term which existed long before the movie, and the Philly flight was canceled. Not good. I eventually booked into LaGuardia via DC and Jen drove down from Newburgh into the city to pick me up. Then I reminisced by asking her to drive me around the Bronx where I looked at the two houses I grew up in. I know I was smaller as a child, but damn, those houses were TINY. Especially for four kids. Jen says I talked for a couple of hours non-stop, which she’s never heard me do. “Hey—that wasn’t here!” Duh.
The Bronx was pretty much the same and I was sort of able to navigate Jen up to West Point. It was not as bad as when Jenny Crusie and I got Lost in Yonkers at the start of our great He Wrote She Wrote booksigning expedition of ’06. Although we did meander a bit and I kept having to remind Jen that you can’t turn right on red in the city. She’s not a city girl. We took Bear Mountain Bridge over the Hudson and then into Highland Falls. At one point, outside of Stewart I saw a Super 8 hotel and said, “Hey—my company had a big party there one time Firstie year!” I explained the Academy’s 10k rule at the time, which I’ll get into in another blog but it was quite insane.
I didn’t even come close to making it in time for my signing on Wednesday so we drove through the Academy, I looked at it for the first time in a couple of decades (pretty much the same, but not). Jen wanted to go to the West Point Cemetery, so we went. I got out of the truck and said, “okay, seen enough, it’s cold.” Sadly, she wanted to see more. After freezing, we went up to Newburgh (getting my bag from the airport). We sat in a diner for a couple of hours starting to hammer out all the little business details we’d listed (we’re big on lists). Well, that is until Jen pulls out two folders with tabs, color-coded and graphs and charts. I stuck with the list. PS– to the left is the grave of U.S. Grant’s son, Frederick at the West Point Cemetery (Jen REALLY wanted to go to the cemetery even though it was 2 degrees out)
And then it began.
We were lost in the trees. We were looking at rebooting backlist, how to launch new titles, pricing, marketing, etc etc etc. But it wasn’t feeling right. So we started talking about the big picture. What had we accomplished at Cool Gus the last several years? What did we want to accomplish the next several years? I think it started when I brought up one of our Slideshares (example to the right) and said, “we’ve got too much on it.” I pointed out that the Cool Gus logo on the opening slide was misdirection. I’ve loudly proclaimed, “No one goes into a bookstore and says give me the next Random House.” Well, no one does the same with Cool Gus. And we still had Who Dares Wins under it and what the heck does that mean to someone? We’re getting rid of that. I’ve always found I’m very good at pointing out mistakes to others, because I’m making them myself. My wife says I’m a contrarian—tell me the sky is blue and I’ll start to argue it isn’t, just to argue. That’s hurt me, so I’m trying to stop it. But it is damn hard, especially when they throw you a slow ball you can knock out of the park.
Essentially, we had too much stuff, too much detail. Our messages were blurred and mixed. Then we started talking about what we were doing. We’d started as a publishing partnership. And we realized that’s what we were in terms of emphasis—not a Publisher. We’re a Partnership.
So the next day when we met this author (at Denny’s, we’re a very classy outfit) we wanted to partner with, that’s the way we discussed it. We’d work together to get her new series out there, starting this fall to supplement her books coming out with other publishers. They’re HER books, not Cool Gus’s. The partnership of our experience and the author’s writing and experience is what will sell books. It might sound like semantics but I think there’s a big difference between looking at ourselves as a publisher and looking at ourselves as a partner who works for the author. Part of that is I told Jen that she was now the face of Cool Gus, not me. I have to focus on being a writer. She was the one who came to me over three years ago and suggested we partner on my backlist. It evolved from there and now its come full circle.
Some of this came from seeing the data out of Digital Book World where 1/3 of traditionally published authors say they’d like to self-publish. That struck me. Because, if you want to do it right, you really can’t “self” publish. The learning curve is much too steep to risk it. That’s why most writers I talk to who are considering it say they are scared. They should be, and I say that nicely. It’s a scary world in publishing right now, but it’s also a very lucrative one and very wide open for authors who are willing take smart, calculated risks.
One thing Jen and I realized is we made a lot of mistakes at Cool Gus (still make some) but we made them on my books, not someone else’s. We look at everything we do and dissect it and try to figure out a way to do it better. For example, we discussed our visit with Kobo last year and realized when we go next, actually Jen goes back with our new author and then I go in June with a new book, how we’ll do it differently, much more effectively, in a way to engage their merchandizing department. Experience is invaluable in the digital world and there are not many who have the full gamut of experience from author to all the various aspects of making the book available to readers. I think larger publishers have all the pieces, but do the pieces work together smoothly? All our pieces are in two people. In the same manner, a lot of the work can be contracted out, but do those contractors have a vested interest in the eBook’s success, does the contractor have the full gamut of experience, and, very importantly do they have all the personal connections with the distribution channels?
I’m excited about this new mindset. Where we’re a partner with the author, actually working for the author, and we provide value to readers. Those who’ve been in publishing for a while understand that while lip service is often paid that publishers support their authors, the reality is that publishers often have had the mindset that they are the key linchpin in the process and there are very good reasons for that (distribution being the key one). But in a digital era, the key linchpin is the author and the consumer is not the bookstore, but rather the reader.
All in all, it was a great trip down Memory Lane with a good look at the future. However, I will not tell you what happened to my bag.