Thursday, April 28, 2011

Art and The Unpublished Writer

I've read with both consternation and amusement the back and forth on blogs lately about "legacy" publishing versus self-publishing, which occasionally devolves into armed camps lobbing grenades at each other over their firewalls. There are some, like Joe Konrath, who are untiring cheerleaders for self-publishing and some on the other side who sound like grim grade school teachers warning the hapless kiddies about the dangers of crossing the street into a bad neighborhood.

I think that legacy publishing and indie publishing are going to coexist, and while the equilibrium and the models will be constantly shifting for some time to come, there's going to be a new balance, a new paradigm, that emerges. I think that one of the most likely outcomes is that authors will take advantage of both as their needs shift. We're in early days, and what lies ahead is going to be a new frontier.

One of the things that has struck me, though, is this idea that is held by a group of those firmly in the legacy camp that if you go the self-publishing route you're either a hapless noob, a talentless hack, or an unserious dabbler.

I read a post on a blog yesterday that went something like this (and it's not an exact quote, because I really am not picking on the poster): "I suppose that e-books have their place, but they're never going to be art."

WTF? For one thing, by its definition, all writing is art. If it's crappy writing, it just means it's crappy art. In art -- and by that I mean visual arts, music, literature -- what's good and bad is totally subjective. One person's masterpiece is another person's litterbox liner.

I think what the poster was getting at is that anything that's self-published can't have "merit." And again, I say WTF? Hate to break it you, sweetiekins, but merit is not what the publishing business is about in the main. It's about commerce. (Not to say that great books aren't published, and that there aren't small presses whose main concern is merit, but those often fold like cheap suits.)  You can write a masterpiece that makes the angels weep, but if a publisher thinks they can't sell it, back to the workhouse with you. Conversely, if you're the reality-show flavor of the week, you can snap your fingers and have an instant publishing contract.

True story: many years ago I was at a publishing conference and was lucky enough that my manuscript got me a sit-down for 10 minutes with a rep from Random House. (I still have his business card). He read my sample package and said, "Hey, this is a great story. If your name was Stephen King, we'd buy it." Translation: we can't market a horror novel by an unknown, so trot along now.

We can go round and round the Eisler/Hocking debate, but seriously, is what either of them publishes "art" or not depending on if it's got the imprint of a publishing company on the cover?

The funny thing is, most of the comments like that come from people who are new to what Robin Sullivan calls the query-go-round. They're working on their first novel, or are planning their first novel, or they've been querying for under 4 years. They still live in that world where an acquisitions editor is going to ride in on a white horse and slay the dragon that is the publishing committee, and they're going to live happily ever after in a little turret where all they have to do is tap away at the keys while an unseen legion of serfs takes care of the editing and proofing and artwork and marketing.

We have a phrase for that kind of thinking 'round my house: Congratulations! You've just been named ambassador to Candyland!

Now, sometimes that knight does ride in, but very rarely, and only during a blue moon occurring on leap day. And even when the knight scoops you up onto the back of his charger, most published writers don't make enough to live on and write full time. The scales of traditional publishing are weighted against you (although I think a day of reckoning is coming when that will change). It's not all hearts and flowers when you get that elusive contract, and often that contract goes away when you don't sell through.

Which is not to say that legacy publishing is worthless. It's not. I just think it's fair to point out that both legacy and indie have merits and drawbacks. You need to be armed with the facts, gauge your expectations and abilities and guts, and choose the path that makes sense for you. Or choose BOTH paths, which I think will become the default for good writers when this all shakes out down the road.

But for dog's sake, don't fool yourself into thinking that they only way you'll ever produce something of merit is if some bean counter in a corner office pushes the beads around on his abacus and says you're worthy. That, my friends, is definitely not art.

No comments:

Post a Comment