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.