• Waterhole Branch

What Would Archimedes Do?

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

By Joe Formichella

Photo (above): Suzanne Hudson and yours truly at the 2018 Alabama Book Festival, leading a workshop titled “Cutting Out the [Mad] Middle Men,” which has since developed into a master class, coming soon to a literary festival near you.

Lest anyone should think the title question is just gratuitous blasphemy—not that there’s anything wrong with that—there’s as much reason for any alleged trespass as there is for my Syracuse homey, not the least of which is, we know exactly what he would do. He would solve the problem. And we encountered a problem in New Orleans this past weekend. What would Archimedes do, indeed?

Here’s the thing: over the last twelve months we’ve been asked to give this presentation Suzanne calls, “Cutting Out the Middle Men,” four times. Each time the audience has gotten bigger, the response better, the residual effects wider. In New Orleans, it resounded loudly enough that other presenters and authors and festival staff commented to us throughout the rest of the day that they “heard” how well received the class had been. No problem with that, right? Who wouldn’t welcome that? Not so fast. Finally, as the day’s events wound down, sitting at the bar across the street from the Monteleone, the former, as-well-intended-as-they-get, president of the festival asked us, “So what are you trying to do, get clients?” That’s the problem.

“No,” I said, stupidly, totally unprepared to give any other answer than the obvious. The notion had never even come up. In all the prep work we may or may not have done over the course of those twelve months, the subject had never been mentioned. I don’t think either of us even considered it. Now, I suppose to some—all right, all right, to one, that nameless one—that just proves how clueless we are. Fine. Guilty, I suppose, if that helps you sleep.

More importantly, somehow, somewhere, the point of our “class” had been missed. I guess I just assumed that everyone had noticed by now that there’s very little ambiguity in Suzanne’s writing these days. (My entry for the coveted Understatement of the Year award.) When she penned that title—if only because our man Kurt needed something to put on the program—“Cutting Out the Middle Men,” she meant precisely that, eliminating the middle men, all middle men (yes, and women, genuflect, genuflect), including, and especially, us. No, we aren’t trolling for clients. We aren’t selling anything. (In fact, it was only after we’d settled with the bookseller and were on our way back to the Branch that we realized we’d failed to hawk our own books. Sigh.) Our only message is, if you want to publish a book, not needing anyone else, not paying for anyone’s services, is a legitimate option. Period. Yes, there are loads of questions about should you publish a book, about patience and determination and talent and technical skills, etc., etc., and we’re only too happy to discuss all those. Yes, we stress, ad nauseam, the need for a good editor, even good editors, even paid good editors, if you’re going to spend any money.And yes, we know we’re probably stepping on some sanctimonious toes of anointed feet rather accustomed to being slobbered over. (One might ask, though: Tell me, Random, et. al., just how sacred is your vaunted industry?) We don’t care, are beyond caring, arriving at this point after one of those “better elsewhere” stories. (But here’s a hint: de Soto was right.) The bottom line, as Bankster & Bean & Counter & Cunter like to say, the starting point, now is, if you want to publish a book, “You don’t need nothin’ from nobody.”

I thought it was simple enough. Apparently not. Apparently, there’s an unforeseen and as yet undetectable flaw in our calculus. Worry not, brethren. That’s why we pray to Archimedes. He taught us that problems reducible to mathematical equations are solvable. (If I ask you to please don’t bother to correct me on my attributions or my math, would you listen? There are just too many other reasons to like Archimedes for me to care.) It’s just a matter of assigned values, identifying and isolating variables, the proper order of functions, and a balanced equation.

Now, I like numbers. I trust numbers. In fact, when you think about it, numbers are probably the most reliable friends we’ll ever have. So, I got nothing against numbers. But that formula applies to way, way more than numbers. I might go so far as to declare it’s the secret to life! (If only because John Lennon told me so: The answer really is number 9.) But we need not do that now. How about a more prosaic example: any recipe can rightly be thought of as a set of values and variables, that when processed through a logical order of functions yields a—hopefully tasty—result. Right? At least, I found that quite useful in the midst of a foray into vegetarianism years and years ago. I learned right away that it’s a lot easier to be a vegetarian if you cook. A recipe is just an equation. I can do that. Problem solved. (Alas, that’s just one of the never-ending circle of wagons I’ve fallen off that sits rusted out, scavenged over and abandoned in the backyard of my Temple of Salvation with all the others. The vegetarian one, not the cooking. I still cook.) I could make the case that any problem reducible to an equation, or a recipe, can be solved, or figured out. Does that apply to all problems? Obviously not. But I’ve found that if I first test the application against a problem, I can save a whole shit-ton of time. Does it apply to our New Orleans problem? I think so.

Here’s how: We know what’s on one side of the equation. Zero. If the problem is that somehow the message of our class is not getting through, one of the factors involved has to be what we say in that class, right? That’s not good, because we’re dealing with a non-absolute entity, that whole communication thingy. All kinds of confusion lurking there. But if the message really and truly is that we’re not after any gain at all, have no motive beyond the stated, “Cutting Out the Middle Men,” then the class itself is a finite, definable factor. That is, it has no value beyond itself. It can be substituted for and factored out. Mathematics, in other words. Sure, like any mathematics worth the sweat, it’s probably going to take several passes. But I submit that over time—and I happen to think that’s not going to be very long at all—enough people will have become savvy enough with the technology and developments for print-on-demand publishing, even as they continue to improve exponentially, that there will no longer be any audience for such a class. None. Zero. Wasn’t that fun? I hear all you heathen non-believers out there, I hear you. Maybe you’re right, I’m full of it.

Before we decide that though, it might be worthwhile to take a look at the music industry, see if there’s any lessons there.

But that reminds me, here’s a great recipe for fun: Add expectation plus blame plus guilt, divide all that by give-a-shit, simmer until reduced, equals fun. Bon appetite.

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