July 15, 2009
The Art of Saying No
Planning is deciding what you will do. Yes? No, that's only half right. In planning, whether personal or organizational, some of the most important decisions you can make are what you will say no to, what you decide ahead of time you will not do. It's all too easy to simply respond to requests or ideas from others, to be reactive. The problem is that others then set your agenda, not you.
For instance, I know I'm going to get many invitations for parties, weddings, get-togethers and sporting events throughout the year. I couldn't possibly accept all of them--at least not without seriously neglecting my lawn. So how do I plan ahead? Will I just take what I'm offered first? Or will I set some sort of criteria to help me focus on what is really important? I might eliminate out-of-town events automatically. Or I might decide to always say no to anything that costs more than $50. Or I'll say no to all invitations in September because I know that will be a very busy month.
For publishers this likely means setting some limits on the stream of proposals that come from agents or authors you've worked with before. Without a clear grid with which to evaluate these proposals, a publisher's list can look like mush. If you decide ahead of time you will say no to humor or reference or science fiction--even by a bestselling author--you focus your efforts and rachet up your chances of success. Meanwhile, saying an undisciplined yes to a book now is itself a plan--a plan to turn down a more sensible proposal just because it arrived after you'd hit your cap for the year.
Whether personal or organizational, it's best to review and revise your "no" list annually. Circumstances change, and your plans should take that into account. Next September isn't going to be so busy next year, but March is. Aunt Matilda left you her Swiss bank account and now you can afford $75 per event.
On the publishing side, your line of academic monographs on Dora the Explorer tanked. Now you'll add those to your no list. But the market seems to have opened up for Rush Limbaugh/Bill Maher fusion cookbooks so now you'll start accepting such projects. In any case, a guiding principle should be your core identity as a publisher.
Deciding to say no could be the best thing you say yes to all year.