Writing as Art and Publishing as Business. I’ve been trying to get my thoughts around this topic for a while now, or rather, I’ve been trying to get my thoughts organized enough to write about it. To be honest, I’ve never had that much difficulty separating my art from business, possibly due to the fact that I was embroiled in the business side of publishing for years before I started seriously pursuing publication myself.
But that’s not entirely true either. I was writing long before I knew publishing was even a thing; as a child, I assumed the Book Fairy brought them to the shelves. The bulk of my formative reading years was spent in the 1990s (I know, y’all, I’m old), before social media and the internet made authors and information about publishing accessible. For me, books have always been something separate from the act of writing; books are objects, things I can hold in my hand, a product. Writing is not.
This ability to separate the novel-as-commodity from writing-as-creation is something all writers struggle with, some more than most. Why is it so hard? Is it because we think of art as something inherently personal, something tied up in our sense of identity? Is it because we think of business as coldly impersonal and soulless? How can we reconcile the two?
Do we need to? I’ve mentioned in several PubCrawl podcast episodes that writing is both a craft and an art: you can learn and develop your craft, but your vision and execution is what makes it art. But what about publishing? Publishing is what turns your work of art into a product. There is an inherent discomfort in assigning monetary value to a work of art, yet that is what publishing does. As an acquiring editor, you are trying to make a case to your backer, the publisher, to put up the money to buy a prospective work. You have to make a case to them that there is room in the current market for a book like the one you want to buy.
And that necessitates a certain amount of ruthlessness. Well, ruthlessness may not be the best word; perhaps callousness is better. The ability to distance the self from something you like and turn it into something you can sell. Because just liking something isn’t enough to sell it. You have to think about how to pitch it, how to package it, how to market it. And that means that some (most) of the books you acquire are not going to get the special treatment because it is a solid piece of work, but nothing special.
Ouch. And yet, there it is: the truth of what it is like to be published for the vast majority of authors out there. What we in the publishing business refer to as “the midlist”. There is nothing wrong with being midlist; in fact, being midlist at a traditional publishing house is a privilege not many writers get to have. Many bestselling and critically celebrated authors began their careers in the midlist: Hilary Mantel before she wrote Wolf Hall, Gillian Flynn before Gone Girl, and yes, even John Green before The Fault in Our Stars. Midlist writers are the workhorses of the publishing world; they produce good, quality, consistent work, and are the bread and butter of traditional publishing.
But despite all this, the term “midlist” has acquired an unsavory connotation, as though being a midlist title is somehow a bad thing. A saying we have in publishing is Keep your eyes on your own paper, meaning Do not compare your career with someone else’s. Yet it’s hard when you don’t get the fancy marketing package, the promotional dinners, the book tours, etc. that you see other authors getting, particularly those bestselling ones who are active on social media.
Perhaps it’s because I experienced publishing from the business side first that I have an easier time separating JJ the artist from My Book the product. The honest truth is that once you finish a novel and ready it for publication, it behooves you to disengage your feelings from the outcome. Publishing is not a meritocracy; it is not fair. We see it over and over again: the solid, well-written, subtle and nuanced book that gets outperformed by the trendy, less well-written novel. If quality were the only thing that made a book a bestseller, then the lists would look very different.
I don’t know about you, but I find comfort in that. My success, or failure (such as I define it), as an author is not dependent on me. I am not my book. My story, once ready to be published, needs to go out into the world and live its own life, separate from me. When I was on submission, many of writing friends were astounded that I seemed so calm about the whole process (which I wasn’t), but I found a lot of solace in the fact that rejection is not personal. I’ve written every kind of rejection there is; I should know. Those editors who turned me down didn’t know how to sell my book. That’s not a failing—either theirs or mine; it just is.
What about you? How do you navigate the Writing is Art, Publishing is Business divide? Are you as sanguine as I am about the whole thing?