Fortune Presents Gifts Not According to the Book

Or; When Good Book Deals Happen to Bad People

Mark Halperin used to be the political director at ABC News, and then he parlayed that into a role as a senior political analyst at MSNBC. He was one-half of a team that created widely popular analytic summaries of the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. He was also, it turns out, a prolific workplace sexual harasser, and when that became publicly recognized in 2017, his media career as a political pundit imploded.

He’d been taking some small steps towards salvaging his career in early 2019, appearing as a guest on friends’ shows. Then, last month, he managed to score a book deal, for something called How to Beat Trump, and the subtitle (“America’s Top Political Strategists on What It Will Take”) feels like it reveals the entire concept—as in, he appears to have just emailed all his old colleagues in the punditry-industrial complex and asked them some broad questions about how they’d handle the upcoming election for the Democrats. And the amazing thing is, a bunch of those people, knowing full well what Halperin had done to get himself drummed out of the business, cooperated with him anyway.

(As it happens, the publishing company that agreed to work with Halperin is the one where I worked as an acquisitions editor a few years back. That experience helps me understand why this particular publisher would be willing to roll the dice on a book from Mark Halperin, especially if that book is really “James Carville, Donna Brazile, David Axelrod, and about six dozen other people you’ve seen on cable news shows, with Mark Halperin transcribing and occasionally interjecting something to make it look like he knows stuff, too.” And especially if every major publishing house has either preemptively refused to work with Halperin, or thought about it and then decided they couldn’t risk the public backlash. If Halperin’s book succeeds, it would not be the first time this publisher has managed to grind the lump of coal nobody else wanted into a diamond.)

People reacted about as you might expect them to react when a disgraced sexual predator scores a book deal, not least of all from the way I’m framing this story. Then, a week or so later, former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer landed a gig as a celebrity competitor on the upcoming season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, which really pissed people off. As well it should. After all, Spicer provided direct support to the establishment and perpetuation of a nascent fascist regime; he doesn’t deserve to be on a reality show, unless that show is set at The Hague.

(Spicer had a book deal, too—with a Washington-based company that has carved out a niche for itself catering to a far-right audience that never met a Clinton- or Obama-based conspiracy theory it didn’t like.)

So let’s say you’re a writer—a pretty good bet, if you’re reading this newsletter. You’re putting in the time and the effort, but you’re not landing any book deals, and you’re certainly not being invited to dance with the likes of James Van Der Beek and Christie Brinkley. But you see all the success that’s practically dropped into the laps of these assholes, for lack of a simpler term, and you ask yourself: What the hell?

All I can say is that you have to learn to acknowledge that response, let it out if you have to, and then get back to your writing practice. You aren’t in competition with Sean Spicer and Mark Halperin, or anybody else for that matter, and you can’t measure the fulfillment of your potential as a writer by anybody else’s material success, or you’ll always feel that you’ve come up short.

(That includes focusing on how somebody who can’t create a coherent sentence that involves even one subordinate clause manages to become a bestselling author while you’re still collecting rejection slips. It’s the path to madness, I tell you. Madness!)

Now, for me, “getting back to my writing practice” isn’t just about sitting at my keyboard. It’s about putting the likes of Halperin and Spicer out of my mind as much as possible. That includes refusing to clutter my life with the sort of companies that are willing to foist the likes of Halperin and Spicer on audiences.

In this case, I’m not really boycotting their publishers, because neither of their publishers puts out anything that much interests me. (The house where I used to work did, back in the day, but the main reason I was cut loose is that what I found interesting and what the publisher found interesting were widely divergent matters.)

I was prepared to boycott ABC, but as I thought about it, I realized I hadn’t watched anything on that network in several years, so that’s not any added burden for me. ABC is owned by Disney, though, so… I’m giving them a chance to drop Spicer before the show airs, but if they don’t, I’m done with Marvel and Disney. (Except for the last Star Wars movie. No way I’m giving that up.) Even if he gets kicked off the show early in the season for being a lousy dancer, the fact remains that they put him on in the first place, so that’s not going to bring me back.

Is that going to have much of an impact on Disney’s bottom line? Of course not. But it helps me to live with moral clarity… a moral clarity that’s an essential element of my writing practice. Longtime readers know that I believe successful writing comes from knowing, and understanding, what really matters to you, and focusing on those things—not just in your writing, but in your life.

The world may see fit to reward sexual predators and fascist toadies. You don’t have to play along. Instead of allowing the dispiriting news of their success consume you, find other, more inspiring stories, about people who put in the hard work and eventually got someone to notice what they’d accomplished. Don’t worry if you don’t live up to those stories right away, though. Focus on how you spend your time, and how you can improve your capabilities to perceive, and describe, what moves you most keenly, in fictional or non-fictional forms. (Or poetry! Let’s not leave out poetry.) Those are the parts of the story of your writing practice that you can control. Beyond that, much depends on the hazards of fortune, arcs that were set in motion long ago. You’re not going to be able to change the past trajectory of your life, but you can always chart a new course.

I’m available for editorial consultations, which means I’ll read your manuscript (or, if you want to dip your toe in the waters, the first fifty pages) and discuss what parts of the story you want to tell are working, and what parts you should devote your attention to in your next draft. Do your characters feel emotionally plausible? Does the world in which they live make sense, either as a form of conventional reality or on its own terms as a fantastic realm? What’s the pacing like? Are you choosing the most effective perspectives? Those are the sorts of things I can address in my critique. Follow the link to learn more, then email me if you’re interested in having me work with you.

ALSO: National Novel Writing Month is coming up in November, and I’ll be doing my darnedest this year, as in 2018, to deliver some motivational thoughts every weekday, except Thanksgiving and Black Friday. I’m still sorting out the balance between all-access and premium subscriber content, but it’ll be a fair distribution, I promise.