When Art and Business Collide

June 7th, 2004 · No Comments
by Booksquare

We read Sarah Weinman’s post on the publishing business without our rose-colored glasses (they were lost in an unfortunate incident we’d rather forget). Her comments and experience certainly mirrored ours. A few other bloggers have weighed in on the topic, and while we appreciate idealism (we even exhibit it sometimes), we feel compelled to offer our thoughts on their thoughts.

Maybe it’s because we suffered in Hollywood for too long, but we know the struggle between art and commercially viable. It is the commercially viable that often makes the art possible, as much as we hate the idea that the world ever suffered a single Pauly Shore movie… Especially given the chances that they actually made money for the studio (it is not true that movies never make profits, but that’s another topic).

s a suggestion that the book publishing business is a business, but not a business like, oh, Citibank. We both agree and disagree, but it is our disagreement that requires us to play the “publishing is a business like any other” game. Once upon a time, publishing was a gentleman’s pursuit, probably harkening back to an age when gentlemen weren’t supposed to soil their hands with work. There were other people who did that sort of thing. And publishers didn’t make money, not in the way it is expected now.

Today, publishing is a constant struggle for market share and shelf space and good reviews. And readers — they actually do figure into the equation. But book publishing is a business, and making connections does matter (if only because it increases the chance that you’ll find someone who understands and appreciates your work — reading tastes are subjective and finding that right match requires time and loving care). When The Reading Experience says:

How about 50 pages that are good? Agents don’t have time to sit around and read 50 pages of a manuscript? They have to be queried and blurbed? They have to be sold on the manuscript based on activities that have nothing to do with the manuscript beyond hyping it? Then what are agents for? It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when editors can’t edit and agents can’t facilitate because they can’t find the time to read. Or want to avoid it if they can.

we wonder if he’s completely serious or perhaps frustrated by the reality. Because what he describes is reality, as much as we wish it weren’t so. Perhaps Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson didn’t jump through hoops — though we wonder if the pulp fiction of the day was possibly a form of compromise — but today’s authors do. We don’t think the struggle to find just the right hook to get an agent to consider a query or an editor to read past the cover letter is confined to genre fiction (admittedly our area of expertise). There are simply more authors than publishing spots out there (and, to be honest, there are too many authors submitting sub-par work, taking valuable editorial/agent time). And, sadly, this often means that truly wonderful writers are passed over for commercially viable projects.

Also, a quick look at the bestseller lists reveals another reality: the readership for literary fiction is smaller than for mass market fiction. We could explore the various reasons for this, but, as noted above, readers do factor into the publishing equation. At some point, they must be given what they want — it’s a little like succumbing to fast food even when you have fresh fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator.

He also says, on the subject of rejection:

The reasons likely are not personal, but I confess I find it almost incomprehensible that good work could be refused for reasons that “may not have anything to do with your abilities as a writer,” even though I know that good work is rejected because of various and sundry “editorial” decisions.

Rejections are rarely personal, but they’re also not always done on the merits of the writing alone. We know too many good writers who have written many great, but rejected, stories to believe anymore that talent, the ability to tell a story, is the only factor in the decision-making process. We firmly believe that talent does eventually rise to the top — or maybe it’s that the author has found his or her perfect match in an editor or agent. This is a subjective business, after all. And it’s a trendy business — who could predict the success of The Lovely Bones or The DaVinci Code?

The Literary Saloon looks at publishing as a business in a slightly different way (we highly recommend all the articles be read):

It’s not “literary” or “serious” fiction that most of publishers’ advances are spent on, or where they lose (or, occasionally, make) most of their money: the biggest losses are in the six-figure advance level, often non-fiction flops by personalities (or, as it turns out, non-personalities), or fiction by authors with good name recognition but (relatively) poor sales.

This comment feeds into something we rant about frequently (Teresa Nielsen Hayden recently commented upon this — we simply haven’t had time to respond…though we’ve included a link to another article we wrote on the topic). The entertainment industry, perhaps because it involves so many artists, is ego-driven. There is a fear of being scooped — nobody wants to be the next Frank Price (who had the distinction of passing on a little film called E.T. in favor of a reasonably successful film called Starman). So publishers, like their record and music industry siblings, often enter into unwise deals. We’re not talking about sure bets like the Bill Clinton book (we also suspect the Saloon’s comment about the loss on the Ronald Reagan book may be proven untrue due to renewed interest in the subject); we’re talking about those dubious deals — the ones that are not likely to recoup (as noted in a recent PW article, advances within the $250,000 to one million dollars are less likely to recoup than others…publishers write off a lot of advances).

Publishing is a business. Authors who don’t pay attention to this fact are doing themselves a disservice. Perhaps readers can remain idealistic because they only see the end result — we don’t know. The factors that go into signing an author are so subjective that maybe readers should be aware of the business behind the book…then maybe (and here’s another favorite rant) they’d see that buying used from Amazon and bookstores isn’t always the best way to support their favorite pastime.

File Under: Publishers and Editors