David Vinjamuri is a busy guy. He’s President of ThirdWay Brand Trainers, a Contributor to Forbes magazine, Adjunct Instructor of Marketing at New York University, author of Accidental Branding: How Ordinary People Build Extraordinary Brands, and, last but not least, of the recently released and self-pubbed thriller, Operator.
Lucky for us he made time for an interview.
Loren Kleiman: In Accidental Branding you talk about seven “accidental” brands and how their founders beat bigger competitors by breaking the standard rules of marketing. Operator is a departure from branding beat. Why fiction?
David Vinjamuri: Fiction is my first love. I have always wanted to write thrillers. I published my first detective story when I was twelve. I used business writing as an entry into publishing because I had credibility as a business writer from years of corporate experience. But when I wrote Accidental Branding, I broke the convention for business writing. Instead of writing a how-to guide, I told a series of highly personal stories about entrepreneurs. I did that because I think you learn more from stories than lectures and because I always hated reading business books.
LK: What gave you the idea for the story behind Operator?
DV: The premise for the story comes from a very personal experience. When I was in my twenties and living in Washington D.C., I went on a few dates with a girl there who grew up in my hometown. She had been teaching English in Japan but came to D.C. because a guy she was dating turned abusive and then started stalking her. He followed her back to D.C., and she was living this sort of shadow life there. Some months after we stopped dating, I found out that she had killed herself with a gun – which is very unusual for a woman. Then I heard that the guy who was stalking her showed up at her funeral and claimed that he was her fiancé at the time she died. I always wished that I had done something to understand whether there was more to her death. Operator starts with a very similar story.
LK: You chose to self-publish and go the indie route after you published Accidental Branding with John Wiley & Sons. Why?
DV: Operator was traditionally represented for two years. I had a two-book deal with a superstar agent who represented Accidental Branding. I expected him to turn down Operator because it wasn’t a business book and because Accidental Branding—though it received good publicity and reviews—wasn’t a bestseller. To my surprise he accepted it. He gave me excellent advice and had me complete a major rewrite of the manuscript but he turned out to be too busy for a real working relationship as his agency was understaffed at the time and he graciously let me go at my request. Still, that took about a year in total with just three months of it being my rewrite. Then I worked with an independent agent who said really nice things about the book but then gave up after he told me that of four publishers he had sent the book to, three said no and a fourth editor said yes but was laid off before he could bring it Operator to the committee. By then I realized that I’d spent two years in the traditional system and written almost nothing new in the entire time.
At the same time I had an epiphany about some dramatic changes in the publishing industry. I realized that I was reading a lot of indie books on my iPad without even knowing it. While a lot of the indie stuff was awful, some of it wasn’t bad. When I investigated, I realized that the economics hugely favored self-publishing over working with a small publisher (where I’d still have to do most of my own promotion and marketing). I also saw that more and more interesting things were coming from the Indie route – like Wool from Hugh Howey. I suddenly realized that the publishing was at a massive inflection point, like when Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were both hacking away in their garages and everyone was still saying the personal computer was just an expensive toy. I’m just old enough to remember that.
LK: Talk about ‘craft’ and self-publishing.
DV: In two years we won’t speak of craft in self-publishing as a separate issue from craft in traditional publishing. There is and always will be a lot of dross in the bookstore which is dictated by marketing considerations. We only talk about craft in self-publishing right now because low-priced eBooks are a new innovation and some self-published authors have been gaming the system. In the last year or two, authors have self-published blog posts and split poorly written, unedited genre novellas into trilogies and made stacks of money. But I do not believe that this will work for much longer.
Consumers are getting smarter and they are reading samples before they buy. I actually believe that self-publishing lends itself to better craftsmanship than working with a traditional publisher. I was able to review editing samples from over a dozen developmental editors before choosing one who fit my writing style. This is an opportunity that I would never be given by a mainstream publisher. Since chemistry is such an important part of the editing relationship, it makes a real difference in the quality of the final product.
LK: What do you think of Sue Grafton calling indie authors ‘wannabe[s]’?
DV: I met James Patterson at a screening this week and he was shocked to hear that Sue had said anything negative about indie authors because she is a generous and caring person. I don’t think she intended to make a negative comment. Sue’s comments would not have been controversial ten or twelve years ago. I think that she’s been working very hard on her books and not paying too much attention to the developments in self-publishing. She was shocked by the response to her comments and although she uses social media she doesn’t fully understand it. She opted not to respond to the criticism in Forbes, for instance, even though only a small number of people had read her apology to indie authors on the LouisvilleKY.com website. So I am afraid that she hasn’t really been able to walk back the perception that she is hostile to the Indie community.
LK: Do you think that self-publishing has become synonymous with the notion that writing has become devalued?
DV: That is certainly what you hear from the publishing industry and from successful authors, and I’m not just talking about Sue here. I also interviewed Brad Thor and Olen Steinhauer and they had similar concerns. On the surface it’s true because the average quality of writing on Amazon is lower than it was before the surge of indie books. But I think the reality is that you have two business models competing and that all of the bad writing is the result of that. Self-publishing is going to continue to grow and when traditional publishers and the media accept that, they will get on board. Then we’ll see better curating and the bad writing will start to recede from our view. In a year or two I believe that we will have more reliable sorting mechanisms. I also think that critics also overestimate the quality of what is in the bookstore today. As more great writers are identified through the indie channel, the conventional wisdom will change.
LK: Why do you think so many indie authors are getting picked up by traditional publishers after self-publishing?
DV: Publishers make three kinds of publishing decisions today. First, they market the work of established authors, that’s a no-brainer. Second, they discover writers with real talent, and that is most of what publishers talk about. But third, more often than publishers are doing the first two, they’re making cold-blooded marketing decisions that have little to do with writing quality. Just look at the flood of mommy-erotica following Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m not saying anything good or bad about the Amanda Hocking, John Locke or any of these other authors, but it’s clear that they have already built big audiences of their own in some popular part of genre fiction. Publishers are making a rational marketing decision by acquiring them. The only thing that’s not clear to me is whether some of these books will sell at the higher prices traditional publishers require to make their margins.
LK: Why should traditional publishers give a damn about indie authors?
DV: If you look at the mechanics of the current publishing system, the funnel capacity of traditional publishing that feeds consumer readership is far narrower than the stream of good writers and also lower than consumer demand for good stories. There is very good evidence that the rise in eReaders coupled along with lower prices has increased overall demand for books. The economic model for self-publishing is much more favorable to most authors who could not command six-figure publishing advances. Given these market forces it is an economic inevitability that talent will be drawn to self-publishing. Reasonable people can disagree about the quality of indie writers today, but that won’t be the case for very long.
LK: What has been the reader response to Operator?
DV: The response thus far has been very positive but it is very, very early yet. I won’t be comfortable knowing what readers really think until there are at least fifty reviews up on Amazon.
LK: Why do you think so many indie authors, after proclaiming they would never traditional publish, go back on their word to stay indie…forever?
DV: I am guessing here because I’m so new to this, but I already feel a sense of freedom that will be hard relinquish. I love the folks at Wiley (and Matt Holt is one of the best human beings I’ve probably ever met), but I was never really happy with the cover for Accidental Branding. This time around I had complete control. It feels a little bit like when I started my own company eight years ago. At first I thought I could never compete with bigger consultancies, but then when I got American Express and the U.S. Army as early clients I realized it was going to be a lot of fun.
LK: It’s getting harder and harder to survive as a writer regardless of whether you are indie or traditional. I know plenty of writers that wrote gems that were picked up by traditional publishers, and they’ve been stuck in a sort of PR purgatory. Part of the difficulty is that writers are managing all aspects of their book promotion, and they have no experience doing so. Has publishing become more about branding than literature?
DV: Self-publishing will solve this problem if traditional publishers stop fighting it. The problem with publishing today is that the big six have a bunch of brands that are unfocused and have little meaning to consumers. When I buy shoes and I am choosing between Timberland and Kenneth Cole and Adidas I know exactly what those brands mean and what I am getting. I have no idea what Simon & Schuster or Random House is supposed to mean to me. Even the boutique imprints seem to have lost their focus.
I think what happened is that during the eighties book discounting and the voracious requirements of superstores for heavily promoted authors really crushed the economics of big publishers. So they started taking a lot more bets and a lot of bets that had nothing to do with their core brands. Consumers want a brand like Tor in the old days, where you could look forward to that next book and know exactly what you’d get. Now Little, Brown publishes James Patterson. He’s an amazing author, but this is the brand that brought us Louisa May Alcott and Emily Dickinson!
If publishing houses would start building more imprints that have a dedicated focus, consumers would again rely on them for curation. This could only work, though, if they are relieved of the expensive business of discovering and supporting first time authors and building new genres. This is what indie publishing is great for. There will always be lots of consumers willing to sort through very inexpensive books to find the good ones.
When we get a more reliable system for peer reviewing that is less susceptible to manipulation than Amazon is currently, publisher will be able to pluck writers with great skills and small but established fan bases and give them economic security and a bigger audience. They’ll be able to offer more competitive terms (and lower book prices to consumers) if they aren’t making as many risky bets on completely unknown authors.
LK: In your article “Publishing Is Broken, We’re Drowning In Indie Books – And That’s A Good Thing,” you talk about how mainstream publishers need to find a new profit model. Why should they be so concerned with a new model?
DV: They’re not making money. I don’t have data on this but everyone seems to be in agreement that publishing is a very, very difficult business these days.
LK: Why should consumers care about indie authors?
DV: They shouldn’t. Consumers care about great stories and great writing. They also care about lower prices. Indie authors can meet some of those needs.
LK: How are you branding Operator? What’s next in the series?
DV: I did a great deal of research on the book. I was trying to build a character more in line with the actual Tier One Operators I met who reminded me more of Olympic athletes in terms of their training and discipline than the thrill-seeking, narcissist, alcoholic loners that are popular in the genre.
So in terms of a brand I was seeking authenticity – both factual and emotional. It’s hard to get because as an unpublished fiction writer the Army is not that interested in fact checking for you but I was able to get in through the back door with my business connections to some extent. On the emotional side I wanted my character to experience extraordinary events with real emotions. I think too much of the spy thriller genre is about wish fulfillment on the part of the author.
LK: What’s next for literature?
DV: A proliferation of new genres. Traditional publishing hasn’t pushed new genres because they are essentially making two bets when they do: a bet on a new author and a new genre. There’s a reason that Fifty Shades of Grey started as self-published fan fiction: a mainstream publisher never would have picked it up. I am excited to think that literary genres may experience the same growth and re-invigoration.