From the archives: "Wrong Way Feldman: A Publishing Parable"

Rerunning a few "greatest hits" posts while I'm on vacation in Sicily. This from September 2007 still holds water. Ciao ciao!

In Dallas this weekend. Opening keynote at a Leukemia Lymphoma Society conference. I had a fraction of the expertise the rest of the speakers had, which is why I was there. I’m the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, as it were. Smart conference planners know people need to laugh a lot, cry a little, and put a face to lymphoma before they get hit with the solid wall of survival statistics, monoclonal antibody therapies studies, and T-cell re-engineering talks. I always work hard to deliver the goods at these gigs. I care a lot about the audience and get paid well, but this time I had the added incentive of a videographer filming me for a new demo video with which my speaking agent will hopefully score me oodles of gigs.

I got up at 4 AM so I could fuss like a Dolly over my hair and makeup. I wore an unadventurous but hopefully slimming all black ensemble, spiced up with a pair of funky brocade demi-boots so it would look more artsy than Amish. I drove to the address of the venue, no problemo, but when I got there…oh, dear. UT Southwestern Medical Center is a huge campus. I parked in the lot I’d been directed to by the event coordinator’s assistant, but had no idea where to go from there. A young woman in a lab coat got out of her car next to mine, and I said, “Excuse me, I’m looking for the blood cancer conference in Zale Lecture Hall…”

“Oh, I’m headed that direction.” She gestured for me to follow, adding, “It’s a long way. I don’t know why they told you to park here.”

“Me neither,” I said, silently cussing that assistant. Those spicy demi-boots are fine for a long day of standing, but not so good for trekking almost a mile through outdoor plazas, underground corridors, and winding linoleum halls. I trotted along as fast as I was able behind the quick-striding young doc, who happened to be going into oncology, and we had an interesting (though slightly breathless) conversation as we journeyed. She left me at a pair of double doors.

“Go through there and turn right. You’ll see the signs.”

Turns out I should have seen the signs a lot sooner. Long story short, I was parked right outside Zale Lecture Hall. She’d taken me to Zale…something else. (Damn those philanthropic Zales! Half the place is named after them.) By the time I got back to where I was supposed to be, my careful coif and makeup were melting down my neck, and I looked like…well, I guess I looked like a peri-menopausal author who’d just race-walked two miles through the stifling heat in shoes I fully intend to set on fire as soon as I unpack my suitcase.

Moral of the story: If someone helps you go in the wrong direction—no matter how kind, how smart, how quick they are—they are not helping you.

At the beginning of a publishing career, you know where you want to go, but you have no clue how to get there. You have the address, but it’s a mighty big place. Lots of doors and double doors. Lots of incredibly slick linoleum. The temptation is to follow people who act like they know what they’re doing or who’ve been successful at finding their own way, but every author’s publishing journey is unique. Each of us has to find her own way, and we have to be selective about who we ask for help. When you’ve been agent-hunting for years and an agent offers representation, the natural impulse is to latch on like a tree monkey, but does that agent share the same vision for your career? When you’ve been querying like an alms-beggar for months and a publisher offers you a contract, the natural impulse is “Where do I sign?”, but is this the right place for you and your book? Beggars can, in fact, be choosers. Beggars in this industry have to be choosers because mistakes cost far more than money—they cost time, emotional energy, and professional good will, and those are precious commodities.

In retrospect, obviously, I should have called the coordinator’s assistant. This is why God created cell phones. I should have paused to consider. I should have had my own plan in place for getting to where I needed to be. I should have asked the right questions. This is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way in publishing, too.

I don’t know the origin of the phrase, but whenever our kids go astray in some way, Gary shakes his head, gives them the big Easter Island face, and intones, “Wrong way, Feldman.” It’s just an observation. One which need not be elaborated upon. The consequences are self-correcting and educational. Hindsight is a bitch, baby.

A final note about the conference:

A moment of healthy perspective during the book signing after my talk. A man who’d been standing in line struggled for a moment and then said, “I’m sorry. My words won’t come.” I stood up and put my arms around him so he wouldn’t have to cry with some writer looking at him. He whispered in my ear, “Thanks for what you said about people who love people with cancer. When I was my wife’s caregiver, I wished I wasn’t. Now I’m not her caregiver anymore, and I wish I was.”

September is Leukemia, Lymphoma, and Myeloma Awareness Month with lots of educational events and fundraisers going on all over the US. Please visit the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society website to learn more about blood cancers and how you can help.


Suzan Harden said…
Damn it, Joni. This piece still makes me cry.

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