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Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Hard Working Writer Should Be a Hard Writing Writer

The last few years have been really interesting for writers and readers alike.  Publishers, writers, self-publishers, and others have been pushing for the view of the writer as one who must not only write, but do everything else too.  While I understand why this vision is necessary (published authors have to sell books and all that), I am also opposed to it in principle.  The only thing that should be important to the writer, in my opinion, is the writing.  Selling books, gaining fans, and so on are important, but secondary items.

These things are not part of the vision I want to cling to.  I would love to live in a world where the hard writing writer is the one who gets the attention, because telling a good story is more important than anything else.  Period.  Stop telling me about learning how to market yourself and all that mumbo jumbo.  I get it.  Writers have to do this, and it's something I know I'll have to learn
how to do out of necessity too, but the purpose of writing is to write and develop one's craft.  There's a reason a lot of writers (particularly big name ones) have yet to tread into the self-publishing world:  they'd rather spend the time needed to promote their material doing the act of creation itself.  The time one could spend on the Internet and in bookstores trying to push books onto people could be spent writing two or three more books, and getting better at doing them too.

As a reader, I care more about seeing my favorite writers get better at doing what they love than I do about ad copy and whether a writer is a brilliant marketer (sometimes I find brilliant marketers annoying, actually).  We have enough crappy novels with barely serviceable prose flooding the shelves as it is; we don't need more.  We need better novels.  You can tell a riveting story with strong writing.  Hell, there's no reason why literary novelists can't take all those skills they've developed learning how to craft sentences and beautiful images and apply them to the kinds of exciting stories that people love to read.

But maybe I'm naive.  Do people really dislike reading more beautiful prose styles in general?  I don't mean difficult prose, but prose that is more than bare bones, that uses wonderful metaphors and images, digs into the souls of its characters, and so on.  Is it equally naive to want the hard writing writer to become the norm?

Maybe I'm just frustrated, partly because there is a childish backlash in the SF/F community against the suffering literary fiction world (yes, it's childish to point and laugh at the people who used to do the same thing 50 years ago), and partly because I'm tired of seeing publishers, self-publishers, and everyone else pushing writers and readers to adopt or desire the "hard working writer" persona.  That's not what writing should be about.

But everyone is acting out of necessity, I guess.  It's sad, but there it is...

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  1. I wholeheartedly agree that writers *should* concentrate on writing. But the reality of the publishing world is unfortunately very different.

    I read somewhere, about five years ago, that 85% of books lose money. I.e., publishing is buoyed by that 15% which is made up of bestsellers, celeb autobiographies, and stellar names.

    The average mid-list author with a big publisher sells 3,000 copies. With a small press that might be about 400.

    The big publishers, however, require most of their authors to sell 4,000 copies. Immediately you can see a disparity between those figures. There's an increasing pressure to sell more books or else mid-list authors have to leave their major publishers and get a small press publisher instead. The alternative is to get higher sales.

    It's also not necessarily true that better writers mean more successful writers. If that was the case, J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer wouldn't dominate so much of the book sales. Those books sell because they're well marketed as well as capturing the public mood/attention at a specific time. The latter part of that is the difficult part (capturing the public mood/attention), but the former part is the part you can at least have an input in. So it makes sense to learn good marketing skills to increase your chances of literary survival, as it were.

    Workin in publishing, I've also noted the most successful books are those where the publisher *and* the writer have worked together to push a book. If the publisher pushes it but the author doesn't, the publisher will generally redirect their energies to a more cooperative writer. Of course, if a publisher doesn't help out, then all the author's efforts will go to waste because the author isn't following up by making the books available.

    So it's a difficult position for writers. There's just too many writers, too many books, and the internet to contend with, and even if you write a great book there's no guarantee you can get anyone to notice that book unless you learn to shout loud and clear enough.

  2. Adam, I get that this is how publishing works, but I don't have to like it or agree with it. And I don't. I think over-commercializing fiction to the point where quality becomes less important than how fast you can exchange it for money is destructive. In my opinion, it makes for lazy writers, which is not good for writers in general, and definitely bad for readers (reading overly simplistic work is not challenging to your brain; that's not to say that reading should be a difficult process, just something else).

    This all seems to be a societal problem that won't go away. So long as we keep buying mediocre work, they'll keep giving it to us. I'm just not going to be in that group...

    On another note: never put J. K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer in the same sentence, :P. They sell a lot of books, but Rowling isn't an awful writer; Meyer is. Rowling is a flawed writer, certainly, but her writing is more than serviceable, in my opinion.