Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Requiem For The Romantic Ideal Of Authorship

Well, my last post (If You're Not Ready To Invest, You're Not Ready To Publish) drummed up a lot of...sentiment. A surprising amount of that sentiment was negative, and I think it's because an awful lot of us fiction writer types grew up believing in the romanticized ideal of what it means to be an Author. That's Author, with a capital "A".

All those years of being something of a sensitive but clever and observant outsider would finally pay off, as we spent hour upon hour filling page upon page with our sensitive and clever observations. We'd spend the requisite one to three years toiling in obscurity, fielding numerous rejections from editors, agents and magazine publishers. We'd have Meaningful Experiences and while many of them would be painful, they would ultimately inform the work, thereby bringing us closer to that inevitable day when our breakthrough theme, character or plot would finally materialize, ready to catapult us past the less clever, less sensitive and less observant droves of poseurs and wannabes, right to the front of the Next Big Thing line. From there, getting an agent, a contract, a book tour and bestseller would be just a matter of time and checking off the right boxes in the right order.

Then we would purchase and move to a gorgeous, costly yet unpretentious, picturesque writerly sanctuary, like a beach house, ranch house, mountain house, or for those truly committed to maintaining their outsider status, a yurt. Someplace where we could sit on a pier, or rock, or deck, gazing pensively into the center distance, clutching a steamy mug of coffee and ruminating on this thing we call life and how to shape it into our next pithy yet accessible and entertaining opus.

We'd never compromise our artistic vision for sales---we weren't screenwriters, for God's sake---and readers would thank us for it. It would just so happen that our zeitgeisty insights would strike a chord with the general public. More bestsellers and movie adaptations would predictably follow, along with awards and accolades, all of which we'd publicly accept with deep humility and self-deprecating humor even though inside we'd be thinking things like, "Take THAT, Inland Valley Writers Critique Group!" and "Was there ever any doubt?" And so on and so forth, impressive body of work, et cetera, college speaking tours, lifetime achievement award, blah blah, culminating with a glowing and worshipful obituary in every major outlet following our peaceful death of natural causes while we slept. But even then, our work would live on, CHERISHED FOR GENERATIONS TO COME!!

Ahem. Sorry about that, got a little carried away.

What a drag then, to be setting off on that yellow brick road to Authorship at a time when the publishing industry is in crisis, formats are in flux, the hermit lifestyle is no longer compatible with mainstream authorial success, your platform seems to matter almost as much as your writing, book review sections are an endangered species (as are the print magazines and newspapers that used to run them) and anyone can publish anything. No wonder everyone's pissed. We thought that so long as we had the talent and a drive to create, the rest would take care of itself. Or at least, once we'd caught the right editor or agent's attention, other people would take care of the rest for us.

It was a nice dream while it lasted, but now it's time to wake up. This is a time of unprecedented opportunity for authors and would-be authors, but it's also a time of unprecedented competition and change.

If you're in it purely for the art or the satisfaction of telling stories publicly, it's never been a better time to be you. No gatekeepers stand in your way any more, you can publish at will.

But if you're in it to make a living, to substantially supplement a day job income, to build a large and appreciative audience (whether or not you're turning a profit), or have any kind of impact on the culture at large, your talent and drive to create are merely prerequisites. For you, craft is only the beginning.  The work is only part of your work now, and sometimes, it's not even the most important part (like when you're planning a launch campaign). It's nothing like the romantic ideal you imagined, and it blows.

So go ahead: be angry for a while. Rail at the injustice of it. Have many animated discussions with like-minded individuals about how art and commerce were never meant to mix, how marketing is fundamentally incompatible with the pure and noble drive to create. Eloquently hold forth at the bar or coffee house about how Hemingway, Cheever and Salinger were never expected to give even a passing thought to promotion, and how the purity of their work was surely preserved as a result.

Then get back to your manuscript. And your blog. And your website. And your social media sites. And your continuing education in the art and business of publishing. Because actually, it's never been a better time to be you, the writer with commercial aspirations, either. You've got more tools and information at your disposal than any previous generation of writers. It's never been easy to make it as a mainstream, commercial author, the romanticized ideal of authorship has never been true. Maybe it's difficult now for different reasons, but work and sacrifice were always going to be part of the equation.


Marie/Underground Crafter said...

Sing it, sister!

Anonymous said...

I had thought you already covered this in your book, maybe not in quite as much detail as your last two posts, but it was at least mentioned.

I have no money to put into self-publishing a book right now. I'm still in college, my husband works at a grocery store. And in a couple of years, he will be the one in college and I will (hopefully) be the employed one. That's actually why I want to self-publish, that chance at supplementing our income even a little bit.

I have no idea who I could borrow money from to get things going, it doesn't seem right to me when the odds are seemingly stacked so high against me, (I'm hoping things aren't what they seem) but I'm not worried about getting together the money. I'm going to try and crowd-fund it.

Kickstarter ( lets you create a page for your project, set a goal amount of money to raise by a certain date, create tiers of rewards for project backers, and nobody is on the hook for anything if you don't get the goal amount of money raised. I'm more comfortable with that.

And if I don't raise the money I need, then maybe now isn't the time for me to be entering the self-publishing world. Or maybe this isn't the book to enter it with. Maybe someone will donate the money, if fundraising with Kickstarter fails.

I'm not going to let it deter me though, I've waited this long to start working towards my dream, what's a little more time?

Judith said...

Thanks for this post! I can never have too many reminders of how daydreamy, not to say lazy, I can get.

Judith said...

P.S. Plus, it was very funny

Unknown said...

You got negative comments from your last post? Those people are idiots. As an emerging writer, I really appreciated knowing the reality of self-publishing. I have always known it was going to be tough, anything worth doing isn't going to come easy after all, and I just wanted to thank you, for putting information like this out there. Blogs like this are an invaluable tool. I haven't been deterred and anybody who has given you hate for telling the truth should eat some concrete and harden up.

yaminatoday said...

Love it. Couldn't agree more. 'Nough said.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, all. =')