Wednesday, May 09, 2012


"Think of it as one of those 'do nothing' jobs on the Sopranos: show up once in a while and sit on a chair next to the construction work and talk with wise guy buddies."

Obama Unicorn
As a struggling author I can't help but resent how some people get started. I've written about this in the past, but having dealt with several years of sending out book proposals and query letters to agents, editors, and publishers, I have a better feel for how the system works. And President Obama's writing career is very frustrating to me.

I'll put aside the question whether he wrote any books or not and focus on the facts as we know them. A young Barack Obama, president of a law journal in Harvard and having only one published work we know of (a couple of underwhelming poems), was approached by a publisher to write a book. He wasn't trying to find a publisher, he wasn't known as a writer, he wasn't famous or a man of great accomplishments. He was 35 years old and had done little with his life. They came to him and offered him money to write.

Something you have to understand here about the nature of an advance. When an author is given an advance, that's essentially borrowed against their expected royalties. It isn't a signing bonus like in sports, its basically giving the author money in advance that they expect the book to earn. If you get a hundred dollars of advance, that means the first hundred bucks of royalties your book earns, you don't see.

Starting authors are typically given $1,000-2,000 in an advance. The reason for this is that there's no grand expectations of sales, and the general rule is that you get about $1 for each book you sell as an author. The publisher gets around 30% of the profit, your agent 10% or so, and you get the tattered remains of what's left over (but I've written about that in the past).

Barack Obama, total unknown, was paid $40,000 as an advance for a book, out of the blue, by a publisher who went and talked to him like a cold call investment broker. In other words, they expected this book to sell so many copies that he'd make more than $40,000 in royalties. That's many times over what a typical starting writer is given, and they have to go get an editor to pay attention to them, not the other way around.

Sure, if you're Brad Pitt or you had to hack an arm off to escape a climbing accident, you'll get approached by publishers. But Barack Obama? And get this. They wanted him to write a book on race relations. Seems like it would be right up Obama's alley, given that he's half a black man and the first Harvard Law Review editor who wasn't all white. He'd already done a few years of work as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project. Other than college that's pretty much all he'd done with his life by 1988 when the publisher asked him to write.

Except... the deadline passed, and nothing was ready. He couldn't get it written, so he contacted the publisher and asked them if he could change it to a memoir. Now, think about this a moment. The man has done virtually nothing with his life. He hasn't been a legislator yet, he hasn't done the Chicago Annenburg Challenge yet. He hasn't been in charge of the Joyce Foundation. All he's done is go to college and work 3 years with a leftist Roman Catholic organization in Chicago.

And the publisher accepted him. They not only figured he had something to actually write about, but that it was worth $40,000 in advance, which is simply ridiculous. Why on earth would they think his book was going to sell at least $40,000 copies? This is an outrageously huge advance for a totally unknown author to write about a topic almost nobody will be interested in, let alone when the publisher lets them change the entire topic of the book.

Was Obama's life all that unusual? Had there never been a single ordinary family have someone go to Harvard (helped in no small way by his ethnic background)? Absolutely not. It wasn't typical, but it was hardly exotic and interesting enough to sell a book around, not enough copies to be that optimistic about expected sales. At least the original book concept could be marketed to schools as a textbook but a memoir of a guy who's done little in his life thus far? Seriously?

The only plausible answer is that this was a Chicago Machine handout, a way to help the guy move his career along, and get some money on the side. Given the way the grants and loan guarantee machine works I wouldn't at all be surprised to find that the publisher was given a chunk of money to help minority authors get started and used part of it to hand to Obama, costing them little to nothing. And in the process, the Machine helped a promising young talent get started in their political career.

From the perspective of an author, that's incredibly frustrating, unfair, and annoying. But that's how most things work in life. Its about who you know, connections, and how valuable you are to someone else more powerful than you. Its why famous artists of the past are famous: they could get a patron, others couldn't and you never got a chance to see their work. Maybe they were better, but nobody will ever know.

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