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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  1. Nicholas Rose’s avatar

    This is a lot of interesting points, and a lot of good things for writers to keep in mind. I remember at the Writing for Young Readers Conference an author saying how to break into the business, he needed to learn to not only write for himself, but to also have a specific audience in mind for his books.
    Thanks for the blog post, Mary!

  2. Charles’s avatar

    I think a lot of people forget that most artists, not just writers, have always created for payment. Sometimes they didn’t get paid what they thought they were worth, and sometimes, their worth wasn’t recognized until long after they were dead. But if you look at writers like Tolstoy and Dickens and Twain (and Shakespeare)–these guys were pulling in money because they were good at playing with words.

  3. shelley’s avatar

    I think a lot of people, myself included, came into writing without realizing the whole other side of marketing/selling/self promotion. It’s an education in and of itself, and the two have to go hand in hand. But, that’s taken me years to get to that understanding. I do write, not for the market per se, but certainly with an ear to what is selling and what agents and editors are acquiring.
    But why would any agent rep something/someone that they didn’t think would/could sell? When I acquire an agent if he/she doesn’t say, “I love this! I can sell it!” I’m not buying. I guess I see the two together. If they love it and feel passionate about it, they will know they can sell it.
    Interesting post.

  4. Buffy Andrews’s avatar

    Another thoughtful post, Mary. Business and art must co-exist. I love the art side of it, but I also want to share my book with as many people as possible and that’s the business side of it. I happen to love marketing and meeting people and sharing so the business side doesn’t intimidate or scare me. Have a super weekend!

  5. Dale R’s avatar

    I’ve often found that commercial restraints or considerations often help make “art” into “better art.” Take movies, for example: the director’s cut is almost always worse than the official version released by the studios.

    Artists, left to their own devices, often go too far or go on too long and forget the needs of the audience. Art is nothing if not communication.

    Mary FYI: “poorly-written manuscript” should be “poorly written manuscript.” No hyphen is needed with the “ly” modifier.

  6. zll’s avatar

    You know, I love the comment about SM and Twilight. I teach writing at Stephanie’s Alma mater and had her cousin in my class last year. After spending the first week discussing our relationship to art–what makes it good, what defines it, where pop cult comes from–several students lambasted SM for “selling out,” then declared themselves purists, essentially committing themselves to the life of the starving artist because they couldn’t feel comfortable knowing that anything about their art was warm, fuzzy, escapist, or fun. While I can appreciate that purist notion in some contexts, I also appreciated SM’s cousin for standing up during class and saying pretty much exactly what Mary said: it revitalized a genre. It redefined how and why many people read. It reaffirmed the importance of good storytelling and emotion and connecting to your audience.

    Furthermore, to repeat the OP, I personally know other authors whose literary work has benefitted (i.e. the fact that it’s being published) from the money SM brings in. If one cash cow’s making money for the company, that’s more to spread around, right?

  7. D.J. Morel’s avatar

    My first comment here, though I’ve been lurking for a while. I think it’s also worth noting that this art and business intersection is nothing new, not by a long shot.

    One of my favorite Renaissance artists is Albrecht Durer. He’s probably best known as a painter, but I really love his woodblock prints. He got his start doing illustrations for books shortly after the creation of the printing press, and went on to create some phenomenal work. He’d leave the woodblocks with his wife while he traveled. She’d print them and sell them to support the family until he got back. These prints are now each worth a small fortune, and some of the images he created have become nothing less than iconic.

    Wanting to know more about him, I picked up a collection of his letters and notes. The letters are mostly to his patron, and they’re all about money. Stuff like: I traded one of my paintings for this ring which I enclose and trust is sufficient to cover the advance you lent me to finance this trip. He almost grovels. It amazes me that this Renaissance master spent a good chunk of his time worrying about how he was going to pay the bills so he could travel and study and keep creating. He most definitely approached his art in part, as a product he could sell. Yet at the same time managed to help usher in the Renaissance.

  8. Christina Bell’s avatar

    It seems to me that if we all just focus on what we’re good at writing and do that really well, it will all work out. A half-assed attempt is just that, whether it’s commercial or artsy. Quality comes through, regardless of genre. I’m in no way implying that what I do is quality, but I do think about what you were saying in your article, and ultimately, I always decide that I just need to do my thing as well as I can. If I’m do my best, and it turns out to be dreadful, then I tried. If we try to write something we don’t love, just to be more marketable, the result will probably be less than great.

  9. Kate B.’s avatar

    I’m not trying to be artsy…I just really want to entertain. I’m trying to come around to the idea that if I have five ideas that make me excited that I should try to think about the market and work on the one that isn’t a vampire or a werewolf story. For me, it can be a challenge because sometimes I take inspiration from the popular things I see around me.

    Thank you for this, Mary.

  10. Lisa Albert’s avatar

    I totally agree with this. I come from the “make a living (cough-cough) doing what you love” camp. That means mixing art and business to make it happen. The end result is a product and that’s just the way it is. You’re aking “Can I sell this” and writers should be asking the same thing, IMO. If not, write away but do it for the art only.

  11. CB’s avatar

    I love art, all forms of it. I love to draw and I love to write. I’ve learned a lot about the writing business over the last few yrs.; however, I am sure there is quite a bit I still don’t know and may never know. I’ll continue to listen to anyone who can share their insights; I’ll continue to send out my pieces in hopes that someone will assist me through the gray and help me find my way to the gold. And I’m not talking about money! But for now, I find solace in these words: “Write only for yourself,” and “Write like there is no tomorrow.”–L. Hemingway
    *anyone know how to do the em dash on a macbook?

  12. Talia Vance’s avatar

    I completely agree that there has to be balance. Publishing is a business, but to me writing is always personal. I don’t think it’s possible to ever really sell out, since even the most commercial concept is filtered through the writer. Every writer has their own aspirations, and while I can respect those who prefer to focus on the art of the craft, I’d rather write to a broad audience to increase the chances that someone might actually read (or even pay for) my work.

  13. Karen Collum’s avatar

    I love the fact that business and art can and should co-exist. That is essentially the reason I’m in this game. I love the business/marketing/logic side of writing just as much as I do the creative side. They both challenge me but in different ways. I feel like it’s a privilege to be in an industry where I get to stretch myself mentally and artistically. I’m yet to find out if I’ve got the right mix, but I sure hope I do!

  14. Jean’s avatar

    Well spoken!

    Jean

  15. Alison Pensy’s avatar

    You only have to look at all the hand-crafted wares on sale across America throughout festival season to prove that art and business are closely connected. Festivals are full of creative people trying to make money from their art. Writers are no different, nor should they be. Why do some people think that you shouldn’t be paid for being creative? That makes no sense to me.

    A brain surgeon gets paid for using his talents, why shouldn’t creative people shouldn’t get paid for using theirs?

  16. Susan James’s avatar

    Wow. I’m not a fan of Twilight but I never saw SM as “selling out.” She’s a writer. That was her story. Who am I to judge her vision? She took the time to write it up and put it out there. She made millions. So did her publisher and hopefully her agent. Fantastic.

    As I said, there’s a lot I don’t like about Bella, but my daughter read four fat books and came to me asking what “epoch” meant. And even when we argued about the books- we were talking; discussing theme, religion, boyfriends, how not to treat friends-all sorts of stuff.

    I agree with you Mary. A successful book is a win-win all around.

  17. Claire Hennessy’s avatar

    Great post! There’s nothing noble about writing so obscurely that no one could possibly understand it with some notion that this is ‘true art’. And writing for absolutely everyone leads to completely anodyne stories. The blend is where it’s at. :)

  18. Joan’s avatar

    Though I read the Twilight books, I’m not a fan. However, I’m thrilled they got people reading and have done well because it does help the industry. There will be fans and foes of any work as long as people think for themselves; this is as it should be.

    Art is great, but it doesn’t put food on the table if business doesn’t come into it at some point.

  19. C. R. Boone’s avatar

    Thanks for covering difference between sellable and good. At a recent SCBWI conference, I heard an agent say she’d occasionally received a “good” story but passed it on to a colleague because it wasn’t something she normally represented. She also talked about trends and timing in the market in relation to selling a work. And on the business vs art point, I try to balance both keeping in mind what Robert McKee said in his book Story, “The writer must believe in what he writes.” He also talks about vision and understanding why we’re motivated to write what we put on the page. Hopefully, with thoughtful crafting, the result will be fulfilling on the art side and sellable on the business side.

  20. Margo Gremmler’s avatar

    Thanks for the great sum-up, Mary. Gray areas abound, and I for one am grateful. Sure, purely commercial books usually dominate – but it seems to me more YA lands on the literary scale than ever before. We have so many good books to read – and write. :)

  21. Rob Kent’s avatar

    I know I’m late to the party, but I really enjoyed this post. Just a great outlook on the industry and what we as writers should be striving for. Good luck with your move and keep these great posts coming!

  22. Dan Holloway’s avatar

    What people who fall for the stereotyopes need to do is look back at the art scene in the 90s (or just at Andy Warhol for that matter, and apologies that I’m talking about the UK scene, but the principal applies both sides of the Pond). Thanks to exhibitions like Freeze and Sensation, and with the growth of the Turner Prize, and the hoopla created by larger than life curators like Jay Jopling, Nick Serota and Charles Saatchi, the average person in the street started talking about high art and incredibly conceptual pieces became mainstream and fetched large sums. Sure, there was sell-out talk, but the fact is many of the very biggest booms in the art world start with bizarre, underground work that finds a champion and a moment. We as writers (and those who are publishers, too – I can understand the need to be reactive, but new tech and the climate for new contract models gives you the chance to test the proactive water) need to stop being so frightened of “the market” and to stop seeing art and business as being in conflict

  23. Shira’s avatar

    I only just discovered this blog, but I agree with this entire post! I know people who put art on this tremendous pedestal and look down on mass marketed books as trashy or not literary, without even attempting to see that it’s possible for modern, mass-marketed books to be well-written and literary, too.

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