“I’m A Writer.”
Guest essay by Maxwell Cynn to appear in the Author Essay section my forthcoming book Publishing and Marketing Realities for the Emerging Author.
“I’m a writer.”
A lot of people say that. But I don’t write to make a living, I live to write. It’s like eating, sleeping, or sex. Being a writer is more akin to being a sculptor than an accountant. It’s something that comes from within, unbidden, uncontrolled. Though it is possible to learn the technical aspects of writing, there must be a spark that transforms writing into literary art. But none of that really matters toward being published, and being published is the aspiration of most writers.
Publishing is a business. Publishing revolves around packaging, marketing, and selling books. That’s a hard lesson for many writers to learn. Like many aspiring authors I naively believed that the words are what sells books. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Some of the best writing sits unwanted in slush piles, or is published in short runs by small presses, while mediocre scribble hits the best seller lists.
Great writing is still great writing, but many great artists have died in obscurity, their genius only recognized later, and literature is in its essence a form of art. Yet, great writing stands the test of time, while many best sellers are forgotten in a few months or years. As artists, writers seek the sublime heights of classic literature, but writers also need to make a living.
Writers, all artists really, live in two worlds; following the call of their muse, while seeking recognition for their hard work. The two are, unfortunately, mutually exclusive and they must be addressed separately. Though the art of literature is very personal and cannot be learned, writers must train the skills which allow them to transfer to the page what they hold inside. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning the technical aspects of the craft.
As a writer, I’ve taken many creative writing courses, and attended seminars on writing, but the best courses, the ones that improved my writing the most, were journalism courses. Journalism focuses on the tools of the trade, more than the art of writing. But all of the creative writing courses in the world cannot teach someone how to be a writer, and as I said before, the greatest writer remains unread unless they are published.
A writer must come to terms with the other side of writing, the business side. Many writers spend a great deal of time developing their art and very little developing their knowledge of publishing. Again, and I can’t say it often enough, publishing is a business. Once a reader buys a book the writing becomes important. If they love the writing, they look for more, they tell their friends, they stand in line to meet the author, they become fans. If they don’t like it, they can also be virulent detractors. But first they must buy the book.
Readers buy books for many reasons, most of which have little to do with the writing. They may have heard about the author from friends, liked the cover art, or were intrigued by the back-cover blurb or reviews, but they are buying the book without knowing whether or not it is well written. They buy because of marketing, that dark side of writing which literary artists don’t care to think about. It is the business of publishing to sell books, not to provide literary art.
Granted, it is important that, once a reader buys a book, they like it. The good reviews and word of mouth sell more books. That’s good marketing, but we need to separate marketing from art. A good salesman can sell a bad product, but a poor salesman couldn’t sell Shakespeare. At the level of sales, quality only effects future sales, and business is focused on now. The product must reach the consumer before the after-effects of good writing can be realized.
A writer must stay true to their art and make it the best it can be, but they must also become market savvy if they ever want to see their work in print. Great literature, after all, does not sell itself. Even on the level of pitching to agents and publishers, most projects are undertaken without a full reading of the work. The editing process can do wonders, even with a mediocre manuscript, if the concept and author are marketable.
Even after an agent has agreed to represent a writer, and a publisher has bought the rights to publish one or more of the writer’s manuscripts, the dichotomy continues. A writer is at once working with an editor to produce a work of literary art, and with a marketing team to sell themselves and their work. And that duet of responsibility doesn’t end once the copy goes off to the press. There remains promotion of the book, and of course, writing the next manuscript.
As a writer, it is disheartening to realize more and more of my time is spent marketing, leaving less time for writing. Yet as a writer, selling my work is the work at hand. It is the business of writing that pays the bills, but more importantly to the artist, it is the business of writing which allows literary works to reach an audience.
With the realization of the business aspects of being a professional writer come many options and decisions, and making informed decisions requires knowledge of the publishing business. As I said before, readers buy books for diverse reasons; agents and editors do as well. A writer’s greatest asset, and one they can build and nurture, is a fan base. But how does a writer build that base before their book is published?
A writer’s primary tool is words and there are many levels to being published along with many outlets for a writer’s work. The novel is perhaps the most difficult to sell, and expensive to produce, form of literature. When a publisher buys rights to a novel, it is a huge investment with an uncertain return. But when an editor acquires a piece for a magazine it is less of an expense, and the magazine itself has a certain readership, so the editor is willing to take more risk. That simple fact of business means it is easier for an unknown writer to publish in magazines.
Today there are limitless outlets for short stories and articles, from blogs and e-zines to major print magazines and anthologies. Many such outlets offer no pay, or token payment, but a writer’s name and work is made available to the reading public, which builds a fan base. Others pay quite well, for more established writers. But it is the writer’s name and reputation on the byline, whether it is a short blog post or a high paying feature article, so it must be a work of literary art. That reputation brings me to the subject of self-publishing.
Vanity presses, those who publish at the author’s expense, have always been looked down on in the publishing industry and many consider self-publishing to be equivalent to vanity publishing. But self-publishing can get a writer’s name out to readers, and writers can even make good money at it. Yet, as I’ve pointed out, it is the writer’s name and reputation on the byline. A self-published work must be as good, or better, than what the big houses in New York produce. And even then, some print publishers will look askance at a self-published author.
Another concern with a writer self-publishing is they must take on the responsibility of being the publisher. That responsibility includes professionally editing, designing, and marketing a book. Some writers do quite well wearing both hats, as writer and publisher, but it is often difficult enough for artists to think like businesspeople and a publisher must be completely comfortable with the business side of publishing. But the modern ease of self-publishing, in my opinion, is the greatest development for writers since the printing press, and it is bringing about a paradigm shift in the art of writing, and how literary art reaches the public.
Maxwell Cynn is the author of two e-Books, ArchAngelxx and CybrGrrl, available on Amazon Kindle. He has also published a number of short stories and essays, both online and in print, including stories in recent issues of The Absent Willow Review and Fissure Magazine. He currently writes for several literary blogs and continues to write novels and short fiction. Max, his books, and all his social networks, can be reached through links on his website, MaxwellCynn.com.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing? Is the stigma lessening? Do you even look at the publisher when buying eBooks?