Mark Terry

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Art Versus Commerce

December 2, 2009
After yesterday's invigorating conversation, a friend of mine who clearly falls on the artsy side of things, sent me a lengthy e-mail to discuss her opinions on the subject. Here's part of what she had to say:

Obviously you already know I believe you mustn't or shouldn't think about marketing or promotion when writing a book, unless of course it's a manual or something.

I do think of writing the same way I think about painting or musical's an art form. If you start thinking about how you can make a living at it, you're already destroying the integrity.

I know this sounds stupid and blindly high minded. I've had conversations with communities of artists for years about this very thing. You have to eat. You have to pay your bills. You even have to maintain a certain life style.

But if you choose art/writing/music as a career to the exclusion of other careers, you have to be very lucky to be successful.

She goes on to say:

If you put everything you've got into your passion (spinning a good yarn, quality writing, internal truth, a modicum of integrity in regards to the use of language) and you end up creating a top quality product, THEN you can say, market this.

If you already have created a top quality product a couple of times and have an agent and a machine behind you to promote and sell your product, then you're freer to just do what you're supposed to do.

I responded with:

This sentence is a little problematic: "If you already have created a top quality product a couple of times and have an agent and a machine behind you to promote and sell your product, then you're freer to just do what you're supposed to do."

Because publishers have, by and large, pushed marketing and promotion back onto the author. And agents aren't necessarily involved in that, they sell your product to a publisher, but in terms of trying to sell it to readers, to find readers, to build up a readership, you have to figure out how to promote it. I think there's probably too much emphasis on this among writers (and God knows too many unpublished novelists obsess about it when they should be obsessing about their writing), but speaking as someone who had a multi-book contract and was dropped mid-contract due to soft sales, I just don't think you can focus only on the work and ignore the marketing and promotion, as much as I'd like to.

Now, do I think you should treat your novel as a "product" and focus entirely on marketing it? Well, no; we're still pretty much in arts business and we have to bring a lot to it to make it work, at least mostly.

Do I think you should, as my friend seems to be saying, and I know some writers say this as well, say, "Market be damned, I'm going to write what I want because I'm an artist and if I'm true and pure and tell the story that's in my soul, then it will be successful, it will find readers, it will soar like the eagles and..."

Well, as I got going on it, it's probably fairly clear where I stand on that. Uh, well, knock yourself out, it's your life and your time and your energy. If you want to self-publish your glorious work and believe it will find a readership because it's so wonderful, well, maybe it will. But the publishing business, at least as I see it and have experienced it, has precious little to do with "art" and a hell of a lot to do with "commerce" and editors and publishers, although they would love to be swept away by the artistic-ness of a novel, also are selling a "product" and are aware of their audience, how big it is, what it wants, and how much that audience is willing to pay for that "product."

As a commercial freelance writer, I'm CONSTANTLY aware of my audience, in all arenas, fiction and nonfiction. It this good for my fiction?

Yes and no. Although I don't necessarily believe in writer's block, the closest I've come to it is typically caused by an over-awareness of the market, which can be crippling. At the same time, why would I try to write a teen-romance novel about vampires right now unless I really wanted to? Because I think I could jump on the coattails of Twilight? Writers do that, of course; any idea how many Da Vinci Clones there are out there? How many bestselling thriller writers started adding historical religious elements to their thrillers post-Da Vinci Code?

But some of them worked and some of them didn't. Ultimately, you have to write the book that means the most to you. But when I sift through story ideas--and I've got tons of them--I tend to choose not only the ones that I like the most, but the ones I think have the best chance of getting published. There's very little either/or in my calculations.

What say you?


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

I don't think commercial viability and artistic integrity are necessarily mutually exclusive. I hear what you're saying, though. You don't want to spend a lot of time writing something with questionable marketability. Then again, the publishing business is largely a crapshoot anyway, so you might as well write the book of your heart and take your chances.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I can relate to those feelings, but not in writing. In piano teaching, I was way too idealistic, way too committed to the students' learning of both piano and important life lessons. I simply cared too much, when most parents in that community just wanted convenience and easiness and keeping-up-with-neighbor's-kid, whether they realized it or not.

With writing, the fun, for me, resides in playing with the readers' expectations, playing with the readers' reactions, communicating with them... that's the art in it for me, that's the fun. So marketability is a natural extension of that.

I understand about having to twist an art to make money from it, and it WILL ruin the love for your art. Having done that, I will never do it again. If I had those feelings about writing, I would quit writing for anything but my own pleasure, rather than have another love ruined. I am thankful every single day for every step of my writing career.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Integrity is bullshit.

Look . . . if you want to publish a book and never let any living soul touch a single one of your precious words, then self-publish. But anyone in this process who's earning a living at it knows there is an element of collaboration--creating something that can sell, that has had feedback and influences of agent and editor and CPs and so on. To say you lose "integrity" by even THINKING about making a living . . . that it is destroying integrity is pseudointellectual horseshit. Really. Self-publish then. I can write lots of pretty, pretty, BORING yet beautiful, ill-paced words that are meaningful to me and me alone in a journal. But when I write a novel . . . it is about a conversation--between me and the reader. Do I write something that I am passionate about? Sure thing. But to not even contemplate its sale before I begin may mean I ignore pacing, and even ignore that I have some respect for the people taking the time out of their very busy schedules to READ my stuff.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...


10:24 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I should add that the definition of integrity as your friend is describing it is nonsense. Like Spy, I think we all have some threshold where we love our work and don't want to see it hopelessly distorted. But that's not what this is about.

10:40 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think it's safe to say that although I am crass and money-fixated (ahem), there are things I probably won't write about or types of writing I won't do. Alternately, realistically, how idealistic am I going to be if I can't make my mortgage payment and the alternative to writing, say, some ad copy for a product I don't believe in, is to letting the bank foreclose on my house or go work some other job?

I haven't run against any editing to-date (knock wood) that's wanted to change my fiction (or nonfiction, basically) to such a degree that I've balked. My editors and I have mostly been on the same page (ahem) in terms of wanting the work to be as good as it can possibly be and although I've had the occasional editorial comment that seems so minor I can ignore it, in general they've all made the work better.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Michele Emrath said...

I will never sell my soul for a publishing contract.

That is a lie.

Let me start over.

I will never sell one of my children for a publishing contract.

That is the complete truth. I write in my own style and of a subject of my choosing. If that is good enough to strike an agent/publisher's interest then I am more than willing to take their suggestions into consideration to up my selling and promotion viability. Furthermore, if they have ideas for the next few books in my goldmine of a series, bring 'em on!

I must also point out that I am in a position of understanding "hooks" and "PR," as I come from the world of broadcast journalism.

And about that selling my children thing...


9:59 AM  

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