March 29, 2011
A few years ago, I decided to devote myself full-time to writing fiction. The idea wasn’t to lie around in bed all day with a laptop or pace the kitchen looking for ideas on the shelves of the fridge. I planned to show up at a discrete office (as I always have) and apply myself to the task of writing like anyone with a “real job” — which is to say eight to twelve hours a day, five days a week or more, mostly at a desk.
Soon I rented a one-room office up the road from my house and commenced with this program.
My last business had been, of all things, tack stores, selling horse and rider supplies. I throw that parenthesis in (“of all things”) because it seems as unlikely a pedigree as one might expect from someone who’s now set out to write and publish fiction.
Then again, what is a likely pedigree? T.S. Eliot — who is mentioned in the very first paragraph of the prologue of Primacy and never again — toiled at a bank. Joseph Conrad ran guns. Isaac Babel was a cossack. Doris Lessing worked as a nursemaid.
So I owned — with my wife — these tack stores. I’d been an editor and a literary agent and an entrepreneur in the book business, but I was officially out of publishing by then, though our stores did have extensive book sections and my wife and I wrote a book — or, more accurately, slapped together a book (it was the kind of thing the trade calls “merch”) — about horses.
The retail experience, which we’d fallen into almost inadvertently, taught me a great deal about business from the end of things closest to the consumer, which isn’t a bad perspective to have if you plan to make a product of any kind.
Oh, yes, I’ve said it: books are a kind of product. They’re products because someone created them and — usually — the creator seeks to part others from their money for the privilege of owning said creation.
If you’re not interested in getting someone to pay you for your creative output, by the way, you’ve come to the wrong place, because that’s what this series of blogs is about.
I feel a little defensive about this assertion with regard to placing books squarely in the world of commerce because young artists of all stripes often blanch at the idea of giving any thought to money. Some go so far as to suggest they’d never set out to sell anything, that they write or paint only for themselves — the world and its bourgeois tastes be damned, etc. Yet I have thought, at times, that people in the arts who claim no desire to sell anything are only putting up their defenses in case they fail. I have known successful artists and actors and authors and filmmakers. Every one of them wanted to make money. It wasn’t the only thing they wanted to do; it wasn’t what drove them. But money at the very least freed them to create more than they’d otherwise have the opportunity to do. Also, let’s face it: having a few kind words from a stranger about one’s work feels great, but having someone give over dollars feels even better. After all, an honest-to-god purchase is the only objective statement of the work’s value to another person. Praise, on the other hand, comes cheap.
Now, before some writers get their pens all in a blot let me quickly add that I know all authors don’t aspire to achieve commercial numbers, especially if it means having to write like — oh, fill in the blank with your favorite hated successful author. But any author who calls the act of writing its own reward — full stop — tends to devalue all writing, I think.
In fact, I’d go a step further and assert that there’s something noble in seeking to get paid for one’s writing. Art has been meeting commerce since Homer sang for his supper. And the added pressure of filling seats at the Globe every week helped make Shakespeare the best he could be.
But challenges to the author as businessperson arise on many fronts: time, skill set and temperament, to name several. Here are the objections involved and the answers I gave myself before daring to pursue a new model for Primacy:
1. Do I have the time?
While from the start I endeavored to report to my desk for a normal workday, I don’t have the mental stamina to write fiction for ten hours a day. In fact, some of the most prolific writers — Stephen King comes to mind — “only” write half a day. In King’s case that’s seven days a week, and I tend not to work much on weekends, but this still leaves a great deal of time for “other” pursuits.
More to the point, the question arises whether a writer trying to establish himself today can afford to sit on his hands and wait for book sales to strike. Because the fact is that one’s audience also has a finite amount of time. If I don’t find ways to put my work in front of that audience, another author surely will use modern tools to seize the moment, making my odds of success that much longer. Am I going to stand for that or am I going to make the time?
2. Do I have the skill set?
It’s easy to feel daunted by the complexity of the task ahead: making my book product as professional as can be, getting it distributed, marketing it and promoting it. But I don’t have to do all these things myself. One factor that drove my decision to form the Verbitrage authors consortium was a conviction that the ongoing retrenchment in major book publishing has thrown a lot of talent onto the street. That talent is there for the hiring, which means Verbitrage authors don’t have to do everything themselves. They only need a consistent vision.
In future posts I’ll talk about the team I put together to produce and publish Primacy. For now, the important thing to remember is that authors wishing to take control of their publishing lives needn’t act as writer, editor and bottle washer.
3. Do I have the temperament?
I introduced this series in an essay entitled, “10 Ways All Authors are Entrepreneurs.” Authors create entire worlds from nothing. Isn’t it possible that more than a few of us can turn around and tap similar creative skills — imagination, structure, passion, assiduousness — in service of building a readership?
By now you ought to know my answer to that question.
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