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Business vs. Art

Is writing a business or is it art?

Should a creator focus on one or the other exclusively?

How far into art do you go before you’re an idealistic hippie with no “real world” perspective or chance for success? How far to the business side do you have to lean before you’re a capitalist sell-out with no heart? Is there a happy medium?

This is a fascinating topic that brings a million different conversations to mind. Just for the record, I don’t believe any of the stereotypes I mentioned in the last paragraph, but a lot of people do. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what art really is, about what business really is, and about the gray area where the two meet. But, as most working writers and publishing professionals will tell you, that gray area is more productive and beneficial to both sides of the debate (the art, and the business) than the fringes.

As much as writers and agents and editors want it to be all about the art, they need to make money for themselves, for their agency, for their house. As much as people like paying their rent and putting their kids through school, they also want to create something meaningful and fulfilling…that’s what attracted us to books in the first place.

I wish more people would see the creative calling as a mix between business and art, instead of thinking that this mix is somehow dirty. But people’s bad attitudes about either “stuffy business” or “flaky art” — and, as an agent, I’m biased — is that this is a delusional, destructive stance. Writers need to learn about the business end of things, even as they’re honing their craft. Not to sell out their artistic ideas but to be informed about how things work, what happens once you write your book. I agent. I’ve also worked at a publishing house. I believe that business and art can — and must — coexist. A book isn’t just a beautiful dream poured into paper and ink form. It’s not just creativity personified. It’s a product, too.

And that’s a wonderful thing. Not only is your creation out in the world (art), but others can buy it and read it and share in the experience of it (business).

One of the big shockers in my self-publishing debate on the blog seemed to be that I ask myself, “Can I sell this?” when considering a project. A lot of people were outraged that the question wasn’t, “Is this good? Is this well-written?”

Since part of my business is selling, I really don’t mind being labeled a sell-out by people who don’t know better. But this is a writing blog. I write mostly about writing here. And I just finished my own MFA in…yep…creative writing. Why would I possibly bother being so darn passionate about writing if the writing of my submissions or client manuscripts didn’t mean squat to me? A huge part of what goes into the answer to “Can I sell this?” is about the writing. Bad writing is severely grating to me. I can’t imagine reading a poorly-written manuscript once, let alone the four or five times it will take to fully revise it. So representing good writing to me is a matter of course. I should’ve mentioned that, I guess. I didn’t think I had to.

But I can’t just have the art, I need to think of the business, too. The truth is, not everything that publishers publish is fantastic art. Because a lot of fantastic art novels, the ones with lower projected sales numbers, are bigger risks for publishers. And I don’t think a lot of editors would be taking those risks if they didn’t have revenue from the less-artistic-but-really-commercial properties that are selling like hotcakes. So the “literary” books balance out the “commercial” books and vice versa.

This is the #1 reason why I have absolutely nothing but love for the Twilight saga. Is it great literature? No. My literary standards are much higher than that for most books. But has it revitalized YA? Did it pump money into the publishing industry? Did it get kids and adults into bookstores, where they discovered other kidlit to read? Yes! So while it won’t be remembered as a literary masterpiece, it has done a lot for the publishing industry, the children’s book biz in particular, at a bad economic time. And that bit of great business has enabled a lot of art.

There’s something out there for everyone on publisher’s lists. And that’s what I strive for with my own list. And there are publishing tools and technologies for every kind of writer — the one that wants to publish traditionally and the one that wants to self-publish.

I keep saying it but it needs to be said: this is all so subjective. What’s good writing, to me, could be too literary for someone else. Or it could be too commercial for yet another reader. I think the “business vs. art” debate is tiresome and short-sighted, just like the “publishing is dead, long live publishing” debate, just like the “e-books will completely replace printed books.”

No, no, and no. As everything changes these days, life and business and writing becomes all about the gray area. Not everyone has to be a businessman or an artist. Traditional publishing doesn’t have to be a writer’s only answer anymore, but the other route isn’t a magic bullet, either. Not every book has to be published in paper or in digital or vice versa. To get the most solid books, the most solid products, the most solid careers, you need to think of a blend. Both business and art, traditional publishing and self-publishing, printed books and e-books, are necessary and valid.



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