Monday, June 30, 2014

The Management Myth (or Making Your Own Future)

About a year ago, I wrote a post about the importance of liking your own work. The post was about how writers should like the work they are writing enough to believe in it and stick to their vision of what that work should be, but that idea isn't limited to just writing. You should take ownership of whatever it is you're doing in your life, believe in it, and not submit it to the constant whims and validation of others. But, if you want to read more about that, go back and read the post.

In that post, I touched on an idea that proved to be somewhat more controversial than I'd anticipated. Well, since I had not thought it a controversial point, I was surprised to find out that it was. So let's talk about aspirations.

I grew up in the South in a state that had and continues to have one of the poorest education systems in the country. It is both poor in that it is bad, and it is poor in that it doesn't have the kind of funding many other states are able to devote to education. I grew up knowing a lot of kids (teenagers) whose greatest aspiration was to, maybe, one day be a manager at Wal-Mart. Or something like that.

Now, before I go on, this is nothing against retail employees or any denigration of them. I spent time at Toys R Us among other places, so I'm not putting anyone in retail down or claiming greater status than anyone who is in retail. In fact, for a long time, my goal was to work retain, in comic books and games, and I've worked in various capacities in those environments, too.

What I am saying is that it's unfortunate when teenagers, due to their circumstances, cannot dream anything better for themselves than to one day be a manager at Wal-Mart. Being a kid, a teenager, is time when you ought to be able to dream big. To aim for things that may not be probable but could, actually, be possible with the right toss of the dice or enough work. Working at Wal-Mart is the thing you do in the summer or at Christmas while you strive for bigger things. Sure, some people will never make it past Wal-Mart, but you certainly can't if you never had aspirations bigger than that to begin with.

And here's the trap:
The goal of "one day being a manager at Wal-Mart" is a lie. Not that the goal itself is a lie but the possibility of it becoming a reality is a lie. At least from the standpoint from which I'm approaching this, that of the teenager (the teenager who is not going on to college or any form of higher education) right out of high school entering the workforce by picking up a retail job planning to stay there indefinitely.

Here's the thing about being a manager at a place like Wal-Mart or Toys R Us: "Regular" employees cannot be promoted to manager. It doesn't matter how long you've been there or how good you are at your job; they don't promote up like that. I know, because there was a point where I was under consideration for management training when I worked at TRU. Here's the process:
1. Be really good at whatever low level job you enter in.
2. Get promoted all the way up to Department Head (the equivalent of assistant manager (and I don't think they call it that anymore).
3. Be so good at that, at being a Department Head, that the regional or district manager takes notice of you.
4. Be sent away to management school which is the equivalent of getting a degree in business. And you have to pay for it, so it's just like going to college. And, sure, if the company (TRU, Wal-Mart, whichever else follows this model, but my understanding is that it's most of them) thinks you're worth sending, they will give you loans and stuff to pay for their school (sometimes you might even qualify for some scholarships, but that's difficult), but, then, you have to pay them back.
5. Be transferred to some other store other than the one you were working in to avoid issues between you and people you used to be equivalently employed with.

So let's look at this a moment:
If you are good at your job as a Department Head, the store you work at is not going to want to put you up for management training. If they value you, they don't want to lose you, so they won't recommend you. You have to get noticed by someone higher up than the store director, and that's tough to do. Especially if you don't know you need to (which I didn't). So, then, if you're approached for management training (as I was), the first thing they're going to tell you is that you will have to go away to school. TRU, at least, has training centers, and you have to go to one of those. You don't get paid while you're off doing that, so that's the loss of your income (such as it is) to your family while you're off at school. Then there's the fact that you will be transferred to some other store once you've become a manager.

The point of all this is that you don't go to work at Wal-Mart or Toys R Us and work there long enough to finally, one day, become a manager. That's not their system. There was a woman that worked at TRU as a department head while I was there who had been there in that position for something like 15 years. That was as far as she was ever going to go.

Of course, the other way to get to be a manager at Wal-Mart is to go to school for a business degree and apply for a management position. You can do that without ever having to work at Wal-Mart or TRU as a "regular" employee.

The whole system is rather deceptive and designed to make people believe they have something that they're working toward when, in fact, in almost all circumstances, they do not.

It's not completely unlike the way the traditional publishing industry works these days: The want to find already successful authors before they're willing to look at publishing them.

[Note: All of this is based on how things worked about 15 years ago. That's when I experienced all of this and discovered TRU's system and that it was based on Wal-Mart's system, which nearly every chain store had adopted. Things may have changed since then, but I sort of doubt it.]


  1. Some of those store probably only hire people who went to college now.
    So publishers won't take an author without previous success? I had none. And if you mean the larger publishers, I have several author friends who got agents and book deals with no previous success. It is possible.

  2. If by 'already successful authors' you mean 'are capable of writing a really good story', then you are correct. Otherwise, sorry, can't agree at all.

  3. I am so glad I am out of that rat race anyway. I can see the point of not having in store employees promoted to manager, it can cause a lot of conflict.

    Nobody wants to be an astronaut or a doctor in your State?

  4. Once I was out of grade school I always said my aspiration was to be a bum. So then pretty much anything I did was gravy.

    It is funny that the publishing industry (especially traditionally published authors) look down at self-publishing, but if a Hugh Howey or EL James or someone sells a bunch of copies, all the sudden the big publishers change their tune. Though obviously that's just for people who have sold a lot of books.

  5. My son is working at Wal-Mart this summer hauling carts in. HIs first part-time job. He's getting a lesson in the value of higher education I think. :)

  6. My mother worked for Safeway for 20 years and never was asked if she wanted a management position. They always brought people from the inside for that. And she was an amazing worker. Not that she wanted to be a manager, anyway.

    Oh, and Alex - traditional publishers will definitely snag up new, unheard of authors, but they won't do anything to promote them. They'd rather spend their marketing resources on proven authors. If the author can prove themselves, then they might get some marketing behind them. This is why we ultimately stopped shopping books around big houses after our Random House deal fell through, because Random House even told us up front they could do nothing to promote us, and we'd just basically be carrying ourselves.

  7. Dude, you are so spot on with this. It is rare that I agree 100% with anyone but I'm here nodding that I agree with you completely. In this topic, we are brothers.

  8. Alex: You are not traditionally published. And I didn't say that they won't take first time authors, but one of the major tactics of traditional publishers, right now, is to pick up indies that are already gaining success on their own. It's their new no-risk plan and no-work plan.

    JeffO: You are free to disagree, but I wasn't offering an opinion. What I mentioned is something that's an actual fact of what the traditional publishing industry is currently doing.

    Jo: I don't know about in CA, but I didn't grow up here. In LA, yes, no one wanted to be an astronaut or a doctor. Mostly, it was policemen and firemen as (young) kids and a lack of aspiration from teenagers in the regular public school system.

    Pat: Yeah, because then the traditional publishers can rake in free money.

    L.G. I think it's a good experience, in general. All teens should do some retail/fast food or manual labor job just so they know what it's like. I did retail and manual labor.

    ABftS: My grandmother worked for TG&Y at least that long and never made it to any kind of salaried position.

  9. Michael: Well, I'm glad to hear it. It's a horrible thing, actually, that they will hire someone with a degree and no experience in the work force over someone that knows the ins-and-outs of a store and has 20 or more years of experince.

  10. Sad truth of the world: most jobs are dead end jobs.

  11. But I am traditionally published. I receive royalties from my publisher every quarter and was even paid an advance for my last book.

  12. TAS: That's so true.

    Alex: That's not the definition of "traditionally published." If you are with a small or mid-sized publisher, you are considered an independent. Unless you are published by one of the big publishing houses in New York (or one of their subsidiaries), you are not traditionally published.

    That's not my opinion. That's the definition.

    To give you context, all of the Star Wars movies (so far) are "independent films," because they were not produced by any of of the Hollywood studios. Fox only distributed the film; they did not produce it.

  13. If an education system is producing kids who want to work in retail, something's going wrong.

    It kind of makes sense. Writing seems easy, but getting published is much tougher than it looks.

  14. I checked SFWA;s site -

    A commercial or trade publisher (a.k.a. a traditional publisher) purchases the right to publish a manuscript (usually together with other rights, known as subsidiary rights). Big houses and larger independents pay an advance on royalties; small presses often don’t. Commercial publishers are highly selective, publishing only a tiny percentage of manuscripts submitted. They handle every aspect of editing, publication, distribution, and marketing. There are no costs to the author.

    I may be with a small press, but it's still a traditional publisher.

  15. Jeanne: There are a lot of places where education has gone wrong.

    Alex: That is SFWA definition specifically to determine how they allow members, basically, to keep out people who self-publish (and people who publish through vanity presses). That is NOT, however, THE definition, or the definition as it has traditionally been held. (heh)

    The -traditional- method of publication has been through one of the large New York publishing houses. It has only been in the last couple of decades that smaller publishers have been gaining ground, hence -independently- published.

  16. Maybe I missed the point of the post or maybe I'm just dense--what's the 'actual fact' here?

  17. Your analogy to publishing is's important to point out that publishers want to find successful TRADITIONALLY published authors. It takes a lot of success in self-publishing to get a publisher's fact, I've heard publishers say it's irrelevant if someone has self-published books out there and can even hurt if that person's sales have been extremely low. I have, however, seen that being traditionally published can open some doors that weren't previously open. You still have to write great books, though. They'll look at it, but they're likely to reject it unless it's what they're looking for unless you have a huge readership.

  18. Perfect analogy with publishing! It's so epic. All of this. And yet we keep trying. Keep pushing. I do think it's extremely important to have this perspective, Andrew. We need to know how the world works and how to get to where we want to get. It's an interesting industry.

  19. JeffO: The actual fact here is that one of the main things traditional publishers are doing right now is looking at indie authors who are achieving success (success being defined as whatever arbitrary sales goal they are using) on their own and offering them contracts. E L James is a good example of this procedure. Really, it's just their way of saying, "Hey, why don't you share some of your money with us."

    Stephanie: Actually, having a great book doesn't matter unless you want to include Fifty Shades of Grey in the definition of great. Mostly, traditional publishers are looking at sales, not the quality of the writing. Traditional publishers are more and more looking at indie authors able to bring in sales on their own.

  20. Morgan: I think it's important to keep trying; it's also important to look at the situation and figure out where to expend that energy. Really, it's about making your own future.

  21. There are plenty of debut novelists pubbed every year. Some of them after they've self-pubbed or put their book on a free site and gotten a ton of hits/word of mouth. The problem isn't even the publishers and their "Business is business" attitude. The problem is the market is fickle. Many trad-pubbed authors don't do well or fail to make back their advance. Mid-listers way outnumber the bestsellers, but the publishers believed they could become bestsellers otherwise they wouldn't have pubbed them.

    You might be interested in Chris McVeigh's

  22. It sounds like being a manager at Wal-Mart is a lot harder than I thought. Decpetive though. Great points Andrew.

  23. Lexa: Actually, the percentage of novels that make back their advances in the first year is so small as to be negligent. On the other hand, the few mega-stars make so much money that the payout on the advances for all of those other novels is almost nothing.

    I'll check the link.

    Maurice: It is harder and, I think, purposefully deceptive. If an employee thinks they are working toward something, they will keep working, even if there's not really anything there.

  24. I remember working at Starbucks for four years. I started at 16, and when I turned 18, they immediately slapped keys in my hand to be a Shift Supervisor. I -personally- trained five eventual managers in the store (not just basic stuff, but actual in-store shift management), and every manager thought i should at least make Assistant... so I applied... Didn't get the position.

    Why? Because I didn't have a driver's license (was the reason, but I suspect sexist hiring practices, as every other manager was male, and a few didn't have a DL).

  25. OK, I don't dispute this as fact. Frankly, it would be stupid of publishers NOT to try to scoop up successful self-publishers. It's good business, which is what publishing is.

    Regarding "share your money with us", the question for the author is, "Can working with a trade publisher make me even MORE money/get me MORE exposure and readers/help me achieve MY goals?" It's quite possible both parties can benefit greatly.

    Where I disagree with is how you present this in your post. Again, plenty of authors debut and do quite well with trade publishers without any self-publishing or independent success. THAT is also a fact.

  26. Alex H: I've been in that position before, too: "Here. Train this guy whom we are going to put in charge of you." It's wrong.

    JeffO: I didn't actually make that presentation; however, I'll say this:
    On average, self-published authors make about $15,000/year more than traditionally published authors, and that figure has been going up the last many years. When you factor in that they include the major traditional players (like King and Rowling) in those figures, then you can see that your typical traditionally published author isn't doing all that well. They are not doing well, because traditional publishers are doing more abandoning than supporting, right now.

    And, actually, the link Lexa left has stuff to say about it, and that's from someone within traditional publishing.