“YOU PROMISED US a publicist to promote our book. What happened?” my writing partner, Jodie-Beth Galos, a tough, brilliant lawyer, demanded.
“The one we assigned you doesn’t work for us now,” said the managing editor of our publisher, John Wiley.
“Will you assign another one, then?”
“Well, no,” the managing editor said. “Your book is what we call ‘author-driven’.”
“What does that mean, ‘author-driven’?” Jodie asked.
“It means, if we’re going to sell copies of the book, you’ve got to be out there promoting it. That’s the way modern publishing works,” he said. “Publishers put their money behind books they think will be blockbusters. The rest of them, well, we wish them well.”
In other words, I thought, modern publishing works like a plate of spaghetti thrown against a wall. Those strands that stick to wall get the publicity. The others that slide to the floor are dross.
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Jodie-Beth, whose husband, Michael, had been my college roommate, had been a vice-president in the legal department of a giant American financial corporation for many years. During her tenure, she had fired thousands of people. The tales she told me about the outrages and antics of the corporate workplace were entertaining and, for me who was working then at a big corporation, cautionary. Moreover, her stories confirmed my exasperation with the meanness and inefficiency I’d seen in corporate cultures. I supposed that workers there are satisfied that their salaries are worth the backstabbing and intrigue. I reminded myself that in the outwardly tolerant, studious, and genteel academic world, I’d witnessed plenty of brutal assaults, but they were executed with a sympathetic, caring smile.
Jodie-Beth was ready to quit her corporate job and go into private practice. She told me she knew a great deal about how to make the best deals for people getting fired.
“Why not write a book about it?” I said. “You could write it to atone for the sins you committed firing all those people.”
She said she’d think about it. I offered to write it with her.
- · ·
Our thesis was that most workers facing termination believe that they are powerless and can do nothing but accept their fate. Employers, after all, set the rules and workers must obey them.
You’re terminated; you think you have no options. It may be true you’ve lost your job. However, it’s false you have no options.
We went on:
Contrary to the nearly universal notion that termination is the stigmatizing hour of shame, leaving employees with their backs against the wall and no room to negotiate, the termination meeting and the subsequent severance negotiations offer employees unique opportunities to take back control of their futures—provided they know how.
Termination isn’t the result of supernatural forces beyond your control. The same company that hired you, and with whom you’ve been able to deal with such things as office space, salary and vacations is also the company that now wants you gone. You were able to work with them previously because you each had something to gain from each other and something to lose. Now, at the end of your business relationship, the situation is the same: They want you out, but it’s up to you to make it worth your while to go.
The substance of our book was going to spell out how “making it worth your while to go” could be done.
To sell this project to an agent and then a publisher, our first task was to write a one-page pitch letter outlining the intention and contents of the book. Copies of this we faxed to every agent in New York City. We received several positive responses and selected one: Dan Greenburg, because of his agency’s impressive publication record.
Dan had us prepare a book proposal, a document with several sections meant to acquaint an acquisitions editor with the scoop of the proposed book. I’ve seen proposal letters with more elements and others with less. Ours had these:
- Title: Another agent we’d spoken to had suggested the title, Firing Back, which we thought was great. Jodie-Beth and her mother had worked out the subtitle: Power Strategies for Cutting the Best Deal When You’re About to Lose Your Job
- Overview: We worked out this description, which was later used to advertise the book: “Turn the tables on termination! Firing Back gives you the ammunition you need to take charge and secure the best possible severance package. You’ll find powerful, effective strategies for negotiation, as well as clear guidelines for creating the best conditions for your financial future. You’ll also find scores of illuminating real-life stories— some tough, some hilarious—from people who’ve been there and survived.”
- Proposed Table of Contents: For this, we followed the sequential stages of what happens when you are terminated. In a small company, perhaps the only steps would be to be fired, get your hat, and leave the building. In a large company, however, the Human Resources department has myriad legal and corporate tasks to carry out to ensure that the termination is effective and doesn’t come back to haunt them. It is people going through this area of complexity that we thought our book could help.
- Audience: We thought this was obvious and we restated part of our Overview response.
- Production details: These include the proposed number of pages, the number of illustrations and graphs we would include, and other details.
- Competitive titles: We found several books currently trying to reach the same audience as ours. But the most chilling experience I had was when, in a small bookshop in Long Beach, CA, I found a book, published two years previously. It even had a similar title. Reviewing the Table of Contents I was shocked to discover that it was, line by line, almost word for word, identical to ours. I called our agent Dan. He was not upset. “Who published it?” he asked. I told him the name of the publisher. “Don’t worry,” he said. “They’re tiny. They don’t have the reach of a major publisher. I’m going to sell your book to a major. You’ll dominate the field.”
- Publicity: We stated that we were ready, willing, and able to do whatever we could to sell copies of the book, though, we assumed the publisher would handle most of it. After all, wasn’t it their business to sell books?
- · ·
Within a few days, Dan had an invitation from John Wiley and Sons, a major publisher with a corporate office—a city block-wide building—in Manhattan. We were invited to lunch with our new editor.
The “author lunch” was something I’d longed for. I imagined Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald being feted by the legendary Charles Scribner’s Sons editor, Maxwell Perkins. We met our editor at a small restaurant. Pleasant as the meeting and the lunch were, it was all business. We learned that we would be assigned a publicist, whom we wanted to meet as soon as possible; Jodie-Beth and I both had sales ideas.
Once we had the contract and had begun to write the book, we moved rapidly. Jodi-Beth’s role was to show me the direction, to provide her experiences with corporate downsizing, the laws that governed it, and the strategies to get our readers through the process, making, not losing, money and time, and securing the start of their recast futures.
My job was to rewrite Jodi-Beth’s legalese, and to create the chapters emphasizing the “human elements,” that is, the fate of those undergoing termination other than the tactical and legal maneuvers that we would suggest. Jodie-Beth, with her long corporate experience, contributed most of the anecdotes that illustrated our chapters. I was happy—actually, gleeful—to contribute stories from my own experience.
In all, we completed the writing in four months.
The next step, we believed, was to meet with the publicist. Immediately, we discovered she was not available to us.
We learned from Dan that modern publishers no longer encourage editors like Maxwell Perkins to coddle their authors, except those who consistently give them bestsellers. Other authors— especially first-time authors—have to do their own publicity if they want to sell books.
We set out to do our own publicity.
We set up dates with Barnes & Noble bookstores in New York City, New Jersey and all over Long Island to speak and sign copies of our book. The New York Post ran a full-page feature on us written by their business editor. Bloomberg Television ran a very complimentary review of the book, which aired about every five minutes over a twenty-four hour period. The Gannett newspaper chain ran a story nationally on the book in its Sunday papers. We did several radio and television interviews, including NPR’s Nightly Business Report. We set up a website for the book and invited readers to ask us employment-related questions. We were asked hundreds. We replied to each.
A large boost in sales came after The Sacramento Bee picked up one of the Gannett features. This was fortuitus: Silicon Valley, which was covered by The Sacramento Bee, and home of many electronics engineers, was downsizing, firing workers. Many, having read the story in the Bee, bought our book with the intention of getting something more out of their severance packages.
On a Friday afternoon, my wife, Barbara, put in a call to MSNBC where she thought we had a contact. She couldn’t reach our contact, but someone took a message about Firing Back. A few minutes later, the MSNBC managing editor called back. “I assume you want to come on one of our programs and promote your book,” he said. Barbara told him that’s exactly what we wanted to do. “Well,” he said. “I’ll do some checking. Can’t promise anything.” An hour later, when I was taking a shower, the phone rang. I picked it up. The Managing Editor asked if we could come on the air the following Monday.
We learned from this that, because the news cycle is 24 hours, and news programs are ravenous beasts, eating up everything that they can stuff into their mouths and broadcast, they will always find a place for people and books that they think of interest to their viewers.
Our publisher, Wiley, encouraged by the results of our home-made publicity campaign, decided to pitch in. Under their urging, the Wall Street Journal ’s business weekly reprinted one of the book’s chapters, which produced an immediate sales spike.
Wiley also sold a share of the electronic rights, which brought in a significant one-time fee.
And, of course, Amazon sold both the digital and hard copy versions of the book.
Firing Back has continued to sell for almost two decades. Its message and strategy have endured even though a few of the laws that we cited to support them have been changed. In all, as my old roommate, Michael said, “You and Jodie-Bth got well-paid for this book. You learned a few things. You can’t complain.”
CRAFT NOTE: Writing Firing Back gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I was able to work with Jodie-Beth Galos, proving to myself my growing ability as a writer by rapidly recasting her lawyerly prose and taking on the challenge of writing a book in a genre usually characterized by turgid, watery “business prose,” and making it into something that would give information and pleasure to the reader.
SURVIVAL TIP: A writer’s job isn’t done when you’ve written something good. You need to go out there and sell it.
Sandy McIntosh is publisher of Marsh Hawk Press. His fifteen collections of poetry and prose titles include the just-published Plan B: A Survivor’s Manual, from which this chapter is excerpted. The book is available at SPD and at other booksellers, including Amazon.com in two formats.