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Thursday, December 7, 2006

Choose this day whom you will serve

Publishing is a business. Writing is an art. We have probably all heard this, but the distinction is important.

Not because one is good and one is bad, or because they're in opposition to one another. I know, as a writer, it's easy to disparage "the market" and criticize other writers (who have sold more) for "selling out." But to publish a book, story, article, etc., you have to convince someone to buy it. There is nothing wrong with selling something, as long as it is something you believe is worth paying for.

At its best, "marketing" can force you to take a look at your work, and appraise it more critically. Is this really the best you can do? Writers often say at this point, "But such-and-such sold 8 bazillion copies, and it's crap: full of cliches, repetitions, stock characters, stiff dialogue..." What we need to understand is that, as unknown or unpublished writers, we have nothing to fall back on but the quality of our art. It is not enough for us to write as well as the worst writers being published--or even the best. We must try to write better.

Because publishing is a business, much of what goes on there is not controlled by writers. This sometimes feels as unfair to us as anyone else's industry feels to them. I recently read of a very experienced novelist who has published many novels, writing them on deadline--i.e., at the request of a publisher--only to write her latest novel "on spec." Translation: the way we are writing our first, second, third, fourth novels. Writing the best book we can, and hoping someone, somewhere, will want to publish it.

The point is not to be discouraged. While we struggle with how hard it is to publish a first novel, a published writer like this can look around and envy a "fresh, new" voice whose first novel has distracted publishers from the voice of experience. The grass is always greener (cliche). But this is true of life, not just writing!

So we need to learn as much as we can about the business of publishing and treat everyone in it with respect. More significantly, we need to decide whether we are going to devote ourselves to writing or publishing. If we are going to get up every day and do this, I don't think we can be sustained by the vagaries of an industry that are largely out of our control. We just don't know what readers are going to want next year or whatever year our book finally wends its way into the world.

But here's the secret: neither do publishers. They are hoping, just like we are. Our chances of writing a story that will move readers--and, more mundanely, move books off the shelves--are greater if we forget about the business and concentrate on the art.

As Joshua said in the biblical book named after him: "Choose ye this day whom ye will serve." If we love stories, if we dedicate ourselves to telling them with the best words possible, there will be more than enough to keep us busy.

And the Bible is still selling rather well after thousands of years.

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