Market-forces and Art: Prelude to a Business Plan for Writers

I’ve had an epiphany of sorts lately, or at least a turn-about in my perspective that I would describe as radical. In short, I’ve embraced the effect of market forces on the arts, and on writing in particular. Heretofore, I’d stubbornly held onto the idea that writers were creating a private vision, nurturing a subtle relationship with an intimate muse. More to the point, I disparaged the market, oh cruel, unappreciative, capricious market, forcing writers to live and work in anonymity but with integrity. Something like that.

I certainly didn’t see the writer as a business person. Why should the writer, who must daily summon the courage to dredge her soul–and that of her neighbors–also worry about marketability, profitability, and spreading the word about a product so worthy as the book?

All this has changed, and more.

Think of Michelangelo. He didn’t wake up one day with a vision to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. This was no quirky artistic impulse, some sort of installation project. No–it was a commercial job, an assignment. Nonetheless, he created immortal art on the job, prone on scaffolding, painting the hand of God. People have lain on their backs for money and done worse.

Raymond Carver produced many a short story because he had a wife and kids and had to pay his rent in Chico, California. Do we wish he’d had the leisure to forgo that writing?

I’ve mentioned that I’m taking a marketing course, one that has integrity and even love writ into its principles. I’ve been studying how you think about what you do, how you talk about what you do, whom you serve, how what you do addresses the urgent needs and compelling desires of your clients. Then I’ve been thinking about how all of this business sense applies to fiction.

Are writers service professionals?

I pose this question and all my old objections surface: the originality and honesty of the writer must not be compromised by some sort of base grappling with supply and demand.

But Charles Dickens rewrote the ending to Great Expectations to please his editors and the audience of this serialized tale. Shakespeare stooped to greatness to garner a laugh from the rowdy crowd.

The parenting angle of this rant is this: I am solidly out of the self-centered musing and exploration of my solitary youth. Everything I do is in relationship. Demand and supply. Demand and supply. It’s humanizing. The expression “navel-gazing” itself might remind us that we were, each of us, nurtured into being from somebody else’s body. That very belly-button of solitude is the site of our first and most dependent inter-relationship.

What happens to a book when its author is concerned with attracting readers?

First, it means the characters must be fascinating, the plot enticing, the language compelling, the world drawn so that the reader is drawn in. None of this is bad for art. If we are modern-day Scheherazades, tale-telling to save our lives, our lives dependent on the continued interest of our listeners and their insatiable curiosity–fed by our craft–to know what will happen next, does this repel the intimate muse? Is she the sort who will not let you take her out in public? Who will not kiss you on the dance floor? Beware the finicky muse. She will not supply your bread and butter.

David Mamet said, “If you have something to fall back on, you will.” And yet by setting the writing to one side and the money-earning, world-facing self to another, we force ourselves to fall back on something else. The most prolific writers I know have a working-class work ethic. Work doesn’t surprise or offend them, and they understand that writing is work–making it and selling it.

A cousin of my great-grandfather invented the heating and cooling system for the Ford. My great-grandparents moved into a small apartment with this man and his wife, so that they could live inexpensively, and they all worked–my great-grandmother made hats and sold them door-to-door–so they could invest in the company that would make these heating and cooling systems. They became very rich, and it’s taken three or four generations to turn that fortune into the exhaust fumes of family bickering.

But what if the inventor of the heating and cooling system had felt that the effort of thinking of the thing was enough, was all that he could be expected to do? What if my great-grandmother made hats but did not want to sell them, wanted them to sell themselves by dint of their beauty and worth?

My communist, trust-funder grandmother may be rolling over in her newly minted grave as I extol the virtue of market forces on art, but if she’d been forced to complete her decades-long project, a screenplay about the Haymarket martyrs, the world would be a better and a richer place, both. If she’d been hungry not only in her soul but in her stomach, she’d have accomplished more.

It is a false luxury and a disservice to imagine that you do not have to peddle your wares if what you make is art. If you were making a better spark plug, you’d have a business plan. It’s time for writers to do the same.

One final note: perfectionism is the bane of really good writers, and market forces do a funny thing. They force you to get your best work out in front of people. They support greatness and push against perfectionism. This is a gift no writer can afford to turn down.

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  1. Another aspect of writing that gets overlooked is relationship building…between author and reader. The market is a collective way of referring to all those relationships.

    I’m not fond of writers who believe they someone else (or many someones) owes them a livelihood because they think what they are writing is good/important/whatever.

    It is the obligation of the writer to build that relationship with readers, to think about what they want to know, what answers, or questions, they are seeking, and to think about how to make our books speak to people in ways they can relate to.

    That doesn’t mean writing down to, patronizing readers, it means acknowledging that the relationship is a two-way street.

  2. You’re so persuasive, Elizabeth! I agree that the necessity to sell one’s work can actually have an important aspect to it — it pushes one to complete the ms., for one thing, and also to think of an audience as one writes — to think how it is to enter and stay in this work.

    The problem is that the market, at any given point, has blind spots and limitations. Something I’ve experienced many times this year, in submitting fiction for grown-ups and for children, is that editors may praise a book for its characters, its “classic” prose, its beautiful writing, its emotion, and yet the editors can’t get the book past their marketing people. I can’t, in this, sense, respect the market’s “choices.”

    On the other hand, what am I doing, but forging on, trying to write a new novel that will be able to slip past this market Cerberus? I’m choosing to write about Degas in New Orleans, because this is a subject that has an immediate “hook,” and a readership a publisher might feel they can count on. Yet I am still very distressed about not being able to sell my other work, and I’m still very cynical about the market; the writing I haven’t been able to sell is not navel-gazing work at all; it’s very much written TO someone out there.

    Yet I think your approach is wonderful, because it’s a “come on, let’s do this thing!” kind of approach, and in this economy, that’s incredibly valuable. I can’t think of a better alternative. My hat is off to you, my friend!

  3. wow, that got my attention! partly because I was just discussing with my husband about me going back to work vs. finishing my book. You are a natural writer Elizabeth, I’m sure you know that already. I love the story of your great-grandparents, it’s food for the imagination.
    I can’t wait for NaNoWriMo again this year. I hope you plan to teach/support that again.

  4. @Harriet–I am as much giving myself a pep talk as anything else. Of course the market (and marketers) mediating our relationships with our readers are flawed and frustrating. One alternative to the frustration of market forces dealt out perhaps inaccurately is small presses who perhaps have a different view of the market. Another is education: making sure people know how to read and get pleasure from reading in a way that creates a different demand than, say, a television-oriented generation would create. Annie Dillard says, no one ever read a book because they were too lazy to turn on the television. She disparages folks who are trying to get the attention of those whose attention is riveted on less worthy pursuits. So thank you, Harriet, for complicating this.

    @Amy–Thanks for your kind words. I am thrilled to hear you are excited about the next NaNoWriMo cycle. I am thinking of doing two months of prep/ planning, then NaNo plus a couple more weeks (folks dragged a bit there but it did lend itself to getting further along), and then a longer revision class. So gear up!

    @Gretchen–Well put!!

  5. Well said, Elizabeth. I’m not entitled to attention for my writing simply because it is good, or worthy, or anything else (or because I believe it is). I earn it the appropriate attention by presenting it to the market, and to do this I must deal with the market on its terms.

    The market isn’t perfect, but it has a degree of wisdom beyond its individual participants. And while bad writing can gather a market, just like any other bad product that is cynically produced and cynically packaged, all else being equal the cream will rise.

    This is a good reminder to me to keep working on the “all else being equal” part and not to hide any lights under bushels.

  6. Sometimes you have to go directly to your readers. Many books that are not easy to quantify or pigeonhole get turned down by agents/publishers. Love the story about the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” guys…

    If you cultivate an audience from readings or workshops or through serializing your stories on a blog…you can start countering their conventional wisdom with your own data. (Some of them seem to be really into data.)

    I will run up against that with my book in some circles. There is a common belief that “baseball books sell, football books don’t.”

    Well, I do have some decent responses to that. (Books, like mine, that go beyond just a football story sometimes do sell, like “Friday Night Lights” a more universal story told through the specifics of a town’s football team)

    But I plan to go to groups and reading excerpts of the book in progress to start building an audience. There can be a surprising number of avenues for doing that, I’ve found.

  7. @Michael and Grechen:

    Yes, Michael–I think focusing on getting very good is a key component, and yes, Gretchen–I think working through the ever-growing channels that connect us directly to our audiences is also key. In fact, these can be mutually supportive, as we hone our skills in public. (I wrote a blog about that some time back.) I am going to be looking at some of these new and not-so-new ways of putting ourselves out there, building a platform, hustling . . . Thanks for your thoughtful comments!


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