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Thursday, March 31, 2011

The House of Words (no. 8): Doing what you want to do, 1

8.  Doing what you want to do

"Late 19th-century bookseller's sign
in one of three languages on the Rokin, Amsterdam."
Courtesy of Herman Brinkman
of Amsterdam, the Netherlands and
Is there been a cost to doing what you want to do? Yes, there is a price, particularly if you pursue your own path, and even more particularly if your path takes you down various windings--in my case, to novels on a variety of subjects and set in various eras, formal poetry, Southern fantasy marketed to a "young adult" audience (I still hate labels), epic poetry, and a whole lot of uncollected short stories that are not bunched in one place on the continuum that runs between what is called realistic and what is tagged as surreal, irreal, etc. For practical reasons having to do with business, a great many large publishers find consistency more valuable than exploration and change. 

So about that price: I’m not the least bit unhappy about it, although when I was young, it disturbed me. Came to terms with it, you see. I willingly pay that price because I just don‘t measure success in the same way that the marketplace measures it. In fact, success is a word that sits uneasily with beauty and shapeliness and art. 

* * *

The big houses of New York City and elsewhere are increasingly commercial, as their editors openly admit to writers. I’m afraid this is no longer a brave thing to assert. It is the stuff of casual conversation between writers and editors and is the subject of many posts and articles. The days of literary-minded gentlemen who wanted to contribute to making the high culture of their country and make a modest 3% profit are long gone. (For that matter, their beloved houses are all owned by overseas investors.) 

Anybody of reasonable intelligence and patience with a willingness to revise may attempt to write a commercial novel. If you are one of those who wishes to do so, I leave you to the field and to any pots of rainbow gold you find along the way, with the reminder that most competent commercial books aren't rainbows and don’t actually lead to a leprechaun pot spilling over with money. You might do better with scratch-off tickets.

But if you are mad to write and mean to hew to making the books you are meant to write, those books that will change you as if by alchemy and, one hopes, bring deep pleasure to others, then you may well have to relinquish any delusions of a publisher hoisting you toward raging popularity. This is a concession that must be made if you refuse to make other concessions to the marketplace. In fact, unless you are among the lucky souls whose creations are anointed as a lead book to a major house--that particular gold ring is another matter, although even it comes with no guarantee--you will probably not have to worry about what to do with any raging popularity.  Instead, you will be busy trying to let the world know that your book exists. And if you haven't done so already, that might be a good time to give up measuring success or beauty or shapeliness or art by worldly means.
To be continued...


  1. I should have such worries. Right now, I just want someone to publish my two books, the chapbook and the poems.

  2. Other parts of the series will hit those sorts of topics a bit, too.

  3. "success is a word that sits uneasily with beauty and shapeliness and art" - too true for at least some of us!  Did I already mention how much I'm enjoying this series?

  4. marja-leena,

    Thanks! I was wondering if it was going all right, and I am glad it is going all right for you.

    It is interesting what and how much transfers well form one art to another. Definitely the whole business about "success" and its implications.

    Now, back to laundry and other un-beautiful things...

  5. i wonder:
    how many writers were successful enough to not need a job in the era when editors could focus on art and publishing houses were individual, home owned entities? Perhaps more novelists, poets, essayists were published but how well did all those books sell? How many were remaindered?

    Are there fewer successful writers--writers who did not need to supplement their income from advances-- now that publishing has changed so much?

    i wonder.
    It seems to me there have only been a few in each generation in each of the arts who get to do what they want and not need another source of income (perhaps in the form of a spouse who brings in the cash). Clearly publishing has become a very icky business and fewer writers get published...but does it mean fewer get to do what they want for an income?

    It is clearly harder to get published, but is it harder to succeed, financially, with one's art?
    i don't know. But i think it would be interesting to see those statistics.

  6. An impressive heap of questions! I shall answer in the next post, coming up soon...

  7. For those that want to leap, research these words "short tail" and read this blog "seth godin"

    publishing yourself is no longer the "vanity" printer exercise in narcissism and futility.

    self publish in an ebook format, do some marketing on your own, and sell 200, 500, or 1,000 copies. that will make you more money than most books published by publishers.

    at worst, it costs you nothing.

    at medium, you make a few bucks.

    at best, you get a larger marketing organization's attention and can sell the rights with a bit of "hand" in the negotiating process as you already have a marketable product. Or you sell 10,000 copies.

    If you like paper, have a close look at Amazon's createspace program.

    This comment is not intended to cure any dreams of grandeur and has not been approved by the FDA or any college creative writing program for effectiveness or truth. Should your constitution believe that a "real writer" needn't concern themselves with business or marketing, please ignore this comment and let others run off with 95% of the profits of your efforts. 1911 <> 2011 QED End of transmission... beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep.

  8. Gary,

    I will have some posts on small press and nanopress (a variety of self-publishing) and so forth, and if you want to do one geared toward nonfiction, please do because I have poets and novelists but nothing at all on nonfiction. (And though you very well might write a novel some day, right now you are thinking about nonfiction projects.)

    Really I think all your ideas about how to make alternative books and market them are interesting, so... Feel free.

    I would say that
    A.) a lot of smaller presses are simply not in it for the money,

    and B.) that as the flood increases, gatekeepers like them are going to be a help to writers and readers of poetry and fiction. It's already hard to get any kind of handle on new books--well,nobody can, the number is now so large.

  9. And I think bloggers will become even more important as people to recommend and weed the bad and mediocre from the good so it can be seen.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.