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Take Ownership

"Take ownership," my parents would exhort my brothers and I, as we griped and moaned and lazed our way through whatever chore we were currently completing, albeit shoddily, at their behest.

The idea was that we were supposed to want to mow the lawn or clean our rooms and thus invest ourselves fully in the task, instead of just doing what we were told.

But we didn't want to do chores, at least not as much as my parents wanted us to do them.

When I grew up a bit and entered the work force, I landed myself in a few managerial-type positions where my job was to ride herd on other young people who gave less than a good goddamn about whatever task it was we were supposed to complete.

And because I was always the type who was afraid of getting in trouble with the real manager people, I found the whole ordeal really stressful.

Because nobody I was trying to manage really took any ownership of their tasks, at least not as much as I took ownership of the fact that I didn't want to get in trouble and thus felt obligated to make sure all of the work was done perfectly.

Even if that meant staying late or working all night or doing everyone's work myself.

I'm not saying my minimum-wage-earning colleagues should have put their lives on the line for the Price Chopper grocery store, mind, or the PokerListings World Series of Poker live blog coverage; I'm saying I finally kind of got what my parents meant about taking ownership.

Which is to say that nobody will ever work harder at something than the person who has a real stake in the outcome.

Anyway.

When I was just a baby writer and before my first book came out, my publisher flew me to New York to meet my editor and the staff and the publicity, sales and marketing teams.

I remember being wide-eyed and daunted and also obviously thrilled as they led me into a conference room and introduced themselves and everyone told me how pleased they were to meet me and how excited they were about my book.

I remember feeling like, Wow, this is turning into a Very Big Deal.

I also remember wanting to make a good impression, so when they'd finished their spiels and asked if I had any questions, I asked them what I could do to take an active role in promoting the book and generating some buzz.

They all kind of looked at each other.

Awkward silence.

"Um, well," they said. "We'd prefer if you didn't do anything until you've run it by someone here."

I figured this was fine. I figured this was easy. I figured I would leave the promotion and the marketing to the professionals, and I would focus on writing books.

And for the next, like, six years, that was what I did.

I let my very wonderful, very competent publicists plan tours and wrangle interviews. I listened when the marketing people advised me not to keep a blog.

I did everything that was suggested of me and nothing that I was advised not to do, because this was, after all, a VERY BIG DEAL, and I was just a baby writer who didn't know what I was doing.

The thing is, though, none of my wonderful publicity and marketing people owned the book, or any that followed, like I did.

Nobody's career was going to be affected quite so much by the sales of my books as mine was.

And so while it may have been prudent to leave the publicity and marketing to the pros when I was a rising star debut author who everyone on the publisher's payroll was going to move heaven and earth to make the next John Sandford, well, four or five books in, the hands-off approach maybe wasn't the wisest.

I had a different experience with another publisher, around the time that my rising star trajectory was tailing off into something of a comfortably midlist orbit.

I'd written a young adult book and been paid a very nice advance for it and another book like it.

I handed in the book and waited eagerly for my publication date, expecting every day to get a call or an email from that publisher's publicity or marketing department to discuss strategy.

The call never came.

From my perspective, if any publicity or marketing effort was expended on that book or the one that followed, I was never aware of it.

From my perspective, even the publisher seemed to forget the books existed.

(I could be wrong, obviously, but that's not really the point I'm trying to make.)

I was surprised and, if I'm honest, ultimately left bitter and resentful by the lack of attention my books were paid.

I felt as though I'd married somebody really rich who bought me nice things but never remembered my birthday.

And the books sank like stones and I took a perverse pride in my dismal sales figures, thinking, hell, the advance checks still clear. This is what happens when you don't lift a finger to publicize a book.

To this point, those books have earned back precisely six percent of their Very Nice Advance.

Which is abysmal.

And for a while, I tried not to let this bother me. Rather, I tried to laugh it off and abdicate myself of any responsibility.

After all, it's hard for a book to find readers if there's no publicity or marketing push.

And isn't that the publisher's job?

Well, maybe. But I'll find it a hell of a lot more difficult getting another YA contract than those publicists and marketing people will moving on to their next house's next book.

Why didn't I take some of that Very Nice Advance and hire my own publicist? Why didn't I make some phone calls and send some emails and try to drum up some interest on my own?

Why did I choose to luxuriate in how victimized I'd been by an indifferent publisher, instead of busting my own ass to point readers to what is, after all, MY book?

Why didn't I own it?

So my YA career has kind of stalled. And as my adult books have continued to pub, year after year, I've noticed how my tours get shorter and the interview requests dwindle.

And I don't blame my wonderful publicists at all, who have multiple authors to juggle, and multiple books, and who even if they could devote all of their time to my stuff, still have to deal with the fact that the previous books in the series didn't sell well and the demand isn't there.

It's not personal. It's just business.

But so why, then, I wondered, was I still content to just let the publisher own the chore of marketing and publicizing my books?

Am I willing to let my career stagnate just so I can frame myself as a victim of an indifferent industry again?

Or do I want to, you know, get up, get out and do something?

So I decided to be proactive this year. My publisher was willing to subsidize four tour stops, which is outstanding and far more than many writers ever get.

But I wanted more.

I'm living a nomadic lifestyle this month anyway. I'm not paying rent anywhere but a storage locker.

I figured I would take ownership. Put my own skin in the game and pay for another eight tour stops on my own.

My publicists helped drum up interviews and media hits for my additional events. But I planned the tour. I made the calls and sent the emails.

I'm footing the bill. I own this. After all, I'm the one who stands to gain the most if this all works out.

And I stand to lose the most, too.

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