Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Ongoing Debate: Art vs. Commerce

by Matt Sinclair

I recently found myself in an interesting conversation among other writers. The question posed by a novelist with a dozen books published through a small press was essentially this: If I don’t think my idea for my next novel will sell, should I still write it?

The vast majority of those who responded to this thread said things was along the lines of “don’t worry about whether it’ll sell or not. Write what you love.” Similar ideas along the lines of “don’t follow trends” emerged, too.

That’s all good advice. I politely disagreed.

Let me qualify that: I don’t disagree; I just think that if a writer believes her work won’t sell, then her idea of writing something else that has a better chance of selling is a better use of her time.

The debate basically became one of art versus commerce. I think we’ve all heard that before, and it’s possible for both to be the right approach, even for the same writer. I came at it as someone who has spent years working, shaping, loving, and ultimately trunking more than one novel. (And you thought the pachyderm in Elephant’s Bookshelf Press was just because I loved elephants?)

A writer who does not want much more than to see a work on an electronic shelf should write whatever he or she wants. It might even catch lightning and surprise everyone, especially if that writer has some other marketable skills like social media savvy and the gift of gab.

I love the art of writing. If I may say so myself, I have some beautifully written pieces … that will never garner an audience by themselves. Perhaps if I’m fortunate enough one day to become one of those writers whose readers want to know what groceries I bought at Costco or Shop Rite (hmm, see that – he’s very conscious of unit costs. I bet that’s why his most famous character is a spendthrift…), I might be able to share those pieces. But they’re essentially exercises. Writing I practiced and did well with, like a great workout at the gym or a run that left me feeling reinvigorated and ready to tackle the rest of the day.

Exercise is absolutely critical to becoming a marketable writer. Exercising the mental aspect of becoming a sellable writer is also critical. What is the return on your investment of time? If you spent a thousand hours writing and revising your opus, another thousand dollars having a professional edit it, and a few hundred on a cover artist, and sold two hundred copies, was that time and money well spent? Only you can answer that.

At this point, my ability to live in a house and feed my family is based entirely on my capacity for weaving words together. (Not the fiction, mind you. But I’m working on that.)

Indeed, the explosion in self-publishing is a wonderful way for writers of all genres to take a swing at becoming an artist. Many of those who are doing so will not sell more than a dozen copies to people other than their family and closest friends. They’re fine with that, and I’m genuinely happy for them. My goals are different.

Matt Sinclair, a New York City-based journalist and fiction writer, is also president and chief elephant officer of Elephant's Bookshelf Press, which is hours away from publishing Battery Brothers, a YA novel by Steven Carman about a pair of brothers playing high school baseball and about overcoming crippling adversity. Matt also blogs at the Elephant's Bookshelf and is on Twitter @elephantguy68.


Jemi Fraser said...

Great post Matt. When we teach kids Writing in school, we tend to start with Purpose + Audience = Form. Knowing the audience of the piece is an integral part of the process!

JeffO said...

Good post, Matt. It's a tough call to make, one that is very individual. The question is, how do you know if something will have an audience? That's one I sure don't know at this point. Maybe it's easier to figure out with experience.

cleemckenzie said...

I edit a lot of manuscripts for people, and one of the biggest issues I find is the author's failure to know and write for his audience. Great post. Thanks.

RSMellette said...

I was at a play reading with a discussion afterwards. Someone started a comment with, "I don't mean to say you should concern yourself with the audience, but..." blah, blah, blah.

I said, "I think you SHOULD concern yourself with the audience, they PAID you, and you have to give them their money's worth in entertainment value.

No one agreed with me.

And they wonder why Theatre is dead.

Tina Ivany said...

I do believe you have an obligation to keep your reader in mind, but defining the difference between that real audience and the one you perceive is the hard part. I often look at lists of books that made it to publication and ask myself why?
Who would interested in such a subject? What is about this book that compelled an agent or editor to recommend it? I think if we could get inside an editor's head, we'd have a better handle on this perplexing puzzle.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks everyone for some really great comments! Yes, it's hard to know what will garner an audience, and it's also very hard to determine how big an audience is acceptable. That, too, is a very individual question for the self-publishing writer and a significant one for the traditional publisher.

Tina, that's a great question, and I suspect that editors' love for voice sometimes trumps a publisher's view of the potential audience. But you're absolutely right that it's perplexing.

Matt Sinclair said...

R.S., your comment reminds me of your story in The Fall (The Last Performance of the Neighborhood Summer Theatre Festival) and how the most common criticism of it -- including by you -- is that it's not an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic story. I totally agree that context matters, but I see the death of the theater as an apocalyptic death of culture. Abstract, perhaps, but still important.

Denise Covey said...

This is a very thoughtful post. I like to keep the audience in mind as I write. Every writing task I set as an English teacher has an audience...makes a difference to how it's written.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thank you, Denise. I really appreciate that. And keep up the good work!

Robbie Burns said...

Sharing your expressions with the widest possible audience is a noble goal for sure. But some artists – fortunately or unfortunately – are driven to articulate their ideas at any cost; lifestyle, relationships and health. For those brave souls, return on investment is not a high priority. In the end, if you’re serious, you’ll need to be as practical as your integrity – and your pain threshold will allow… Robbie Burns

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