Of Art and Money

Dean Wesley Smith dismantles the “Write whatever is the hot and trendy thing” myth with his usual panache.

I don’t always agree with Dean Wesley Smith, but I found this post very common sense really. Don’t worry about trends, write what you want to write and make it as good as possible. It’s all very simple and straightforward really.

Hence, I was surprised to see that this post caused a bit of an uproar on the Kindleboards, a forum for Kindle owners with a very active subforum for authors. Part of the uproar was that people objected to the term “circle-jerk” used to describe the writer section on the Kindleboards. The objection was probably due to the sexual implications of the term, though considering how many erotica writers there seem to be on the Kindleboards one might think they could take it.

But a lot of people also seemed to object strongly to the content:

  • “Bah, he has the luxury to write what he wants, cause he’s established” – I’m pretty sure that is one of Dean’s myths, though I don’t have the time to look through them all right now.
  • “But publishers also look at what’s selling, so why shouldn’t we?” – And how many writers, including many going the indie route now, were rejected by those selfsame publishers with “X doesn’t sell”, only to go on to sell a lot of copies of that unsellable book, once they went indie?
  • “But I can’t waste time on a book that doesn’t sell. I have a family and I have to put food on the table.” – If you really just want to make money, surely there are easy and quicker ways of doing that then writing.
  • “My partner will hate me, if I spent time writing a book that doesn’t even sell rather than spending the time with him and our children.” – If your partner supports you and your passions so little, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship.
  • “You just hate erotica writers” – Well, I can’t speak for others, but I don’t hate writers of any genre. I definitely don’t hate erotica, considering that I used to write it (well, sort of).
  • “Anyone who doesn’t chase trends is just one of those artist types and possibly gay and communist besides.” – You say that as if that were a bad thing.

Okay, so the gay and communist remarks were my own additions, but the implication was surely there. Besides, I am getting very weary of this whole art versus entertainment and never the two shall meet dichotomy. Hang out in online genre fiction communities (it doesn’t matter what genre) and you’ll quickly see people complaining how all literary fiction is depressing and small-minded and only concerns itself with small problems. You’ll also see plenty of sneering at “artistes” and “special snowflakes”* and “literati” and “elites”, coupled with snarky remarks about how they, meaning some other writer deemed more literary, may have won the award, but I am the one who’s selling.

Here are two examples, both reports of the Reno Worldcon by two writers unhappy with the Hugo and Campbell award winners, which illustrate some of the attitudes mentioned above. No offense to the gentlemen in question, whose work I haven’t read (though the monster hunter books sounds fun). These were mainly the most recent examples that came to mind. There are plenty of others.

In many ways, I even understand the “Let’s get back at the literary establishment” attitude, considering how the literary establishment traditionally has treated and often continues to treat genre writers. They rarely distinguish between pulpy genre fiction and literary genre fiction either. For example, Lev Grossman, the winner of the Campbell award for best new writer, who is mentioned as one of those literary genre writers in the two posts above, got a terribly condescending “But fantasy is for kids” review in the New York Times for The Magicians, the novel that would win him the Campbell.

But why do art and entertainment have to be an either-or choice? Why can’t we have both?

I’m not a literary snob by any means. Hell, I called my publishing house “Pegasus Pulp” after all. But I also aim to make everything I write as good as it can be. And sometimes I even – gasp – get literary. One of the stories offered for sale here is written in a first person, present tense POV, i.e. a style that is considered hopelessly non-commercial. Another story has dueling first person narrators.

Why did I write them that way, when a traditional third person limited POV would probably have been more commercial? Simple, because I wanted to. In fact, that is the reason why I write any sort of fiction. Because I want to.

For me, one of the greatest things about indie publishing is the sense of freedom, the knowledge that I can write and publish whatever I want to. I don’t have to worry about conventional wisdom regarding what does and doesn’t sell. Nor do I have to worry about genre pigeonholing. Because – in case you hadn’t noticed – I write all over the genre map. And one of my greatest worries regarding traditional publishing and indeed what kept me from submitting Colfrith more aggressively was the fear that I would be forced to write one genre and one kind of book only for the rest of my life.

And I am not that writer. Republishing my old short stories has forced me to reread my backlist again, sometimes for the first time in years. And while I still like those stories (otherwise I wouldn’t republish them) and while I had a blast writing them, they are very different from what I write now.

I have nothing but respect for commercially successful indie writers who have found their niche. And it’s great that John Locke’s focus-group driven publishing policy works so well for him. But I can’t do that sort of thing, because I’m not that kind of writer. And I strongly suspect that all the focus-group analysis and targeted marketing in the world wouldn’t make John Locke sell as well as he does, if he hadn’t put all his passion into his novels and genuinely enjoyed writing them.

So regardless of what worked for John Locke and Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath and any other successful indie writer you could name, I still find it sad to see indie writers giving up so easily on the freedoms the indie model gives them. I suspect that those ultra-commercial indie authors – not Locke or Hocking or Konrath but their dozens of copycats – are what turns people like Paul Jessup off from the indie model. And I partly agree with him, because this whole “Does X sell, does Y sell, does it help if I sacrifice a goat to the publishing gods on the night of the full moon?” attitude is going on my nerves as well.

Would I sell better if I picked a hot genre and wrote just one sort of book all the time? Probably. But I also wouldn’t enjoy writing nearly as much. And while it would be nice to be able to live of my writing alone, I have a job (or two).

That’s not to say that I don’t have commercial considerations. While deciding what to publish next, I finally picked a novelette I hadn’t intended to publish for quite a while yet. Why? Because it is a pirate romance and September 19 is Talk Like a Pirate Day and it would make a nice tie-in, particularly coupled with Rites of Passage.

So yes, I am commercially minded. And I am an entertainer. But I also am an artist.

*What’s the problem with snowflakes anyway? Because I don’t get it why “snowflake” has suddenly become a synonym for arrogant artist type.

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4 Responses to Of Art and Money

  1. Paul Jessup says:

    Actually, no, Locke and Konrath DO annoy me and are a huge part of what I dislike about the current self-publishing scene. They sound like self help gurus in their whole “indie publishing will make everyone in the universe rich and we should all do it and we’ll all be rich!” stance. The fact that they sell books and go on speaking tours trying to sell how to sell books raises a red flag in my bullshit radar.

    I don’t like Hocking, Locke and Konrath’s writing (derivative, more of the same), but that doesn’t make them any more annoying than a lot of other books published in dead tree.

    • Cora says:

      I see what you mean about the self-help guru mentality of Konrath and Locke. Konrath has become increasingly shrill and the signal to noise ratio of his blog has gone down. Locke wasn’t on my radar at all until he started making waves with his How I sold a gazillion e-books book. And his whole ultra-targeted focus group approach (no, I haven’t shilled out for his book, but you can’t help but picking up the gist) is completely contrary to the way I think. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that Locke views his novels as a loss leader for the real moneymaker, that is his How I sold a gazillion e-books book. Nonetheless, I at least hope that both John Locke and Joe Konrath at least enjoy writing the books they write, even though I have zero interest in their literary endeavours. I have some academic interest in Amanda Hocking’s work, because I research urban fantasy and paranormal romance and she is too big to ignore.

      However, the wannabes are infinitely worse, because many of them seem to view writing merely as a get rich quick scheme, probably inspired by the likes of Konrath and Locke. A lot of them only care about what is selling. I recently came across one who absolutely hated both writing and reading, but figured he was good at telling stories and thought to make some money of it. Some of these trend-followers also get really aggressive whenever someone criticizes them. Those people would probably be better served just getting a 9 to 5 job.

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