I’m not the most convivial of travelers even under the best circumstances. But, stuck waiting in Long Island’s Islip Airport, I was pushed to where I wanted to burst through the security doors and run screaming down the runway, happy in whatever fate a landing airplane or rushing policeman might have for me. The fake-Rolex flaunting man in Southwest’s cattle-call-line behind me droned on about devotion to Art, Craft, and Muse in such an annoying way that I wished I’d answered “slaughterhouse janitor” when he inquired about my profession. He outlined his plan for securing a $3 million advance for a legal thriller, but during our conversation, he was unable to name a single editor or a single agent. His takeover of the bestseller list was supposedly well underway but Doubleday was the only publishing company he could name.
Ignorance of a chosen industry has always been a pet peeve of mine. I reckon that people have a right to pursue their careers in whatever manner they chose. But I absolutely, positively believe that to be successful in any endeavor, you have to know what is going on in that industry. Sure, there are some geniuses in every field who don’t need to pay attention because they’re buoyed by their greatness. But for most of us, we should strive to learn as much as we can. What are your chances of success in the technology industry if you don’t know who Bill Gates, Carly Fiorina, or Larry Ellison are? Imagine meeting someone who wanted to be a successful musician, but they can’t be bothered to learn about Capital Records, MTV, and Clear Channel. What about a financial manager who has never heard of Goldman Sachs, Charles Scwab, or Legg Mason? I can’t stress enough the importance of learning about an industry.
But, I must admit that there are downfalls to following an industry too closely. Paul Shirley is a professional basketball player who writes an entertaining and insightful column for ESPN.com. His most recent journal entry, Time of the Sign, details his thoughts on watching other basketball players sign professional contracts while he waits his turn. It’s an essay that, with just a few minor changes, could just as easily describe a writer sifting through all the book deal news.
Consider this passage: “They are constantly told no,” Shirley writes. “Even the best are routinely rejected. And that rejection comes about because they failed at baring themselves sufficiently — a rather violating pastime in the first place.” He’s discussing actors in this case, but could just as easily be describing you and me.
I still believe, and will always argue, that you should follow industry news to advance your career. Shirley should know who filled that open general manager position and he should know the market rate for power forwards. We, as writers, should know editors and who just signed a major deal for a novel like ours. We should learn as much as we can. But, as Shirley explains in his essay, sometimes that education can be heavy to bear.