Tonight Twitterverse roared with outrage over Kendall Grey’s post on Authors for Life where she bemoans the fact that sometimes, publishing is hard. Grey spent four years writing and a great deal of money and effort promoting an urban fantasy trilogy; it tanked. She wrote an erotic novel she describes as a “piece of trash” in two months, spent much less in promotion and gave it much less effort, and that book made some decent money. She’s angry that she wasn’t rewarded for her “beautiful, artistic” book and that by selling out she made money. Grey writes:
I know it’s depressing to hear that in order to find success, you may have to compromise your principles. I’ve come to grips with the fact that in the current market, trashy smut sells, and urban fantasy does not. Tough shit for me. If you want to sell books, you have to feed the market what it craves.
Grey goes on to state that
once you’ve done your part to feed the reader machine, and you get paid ridiculous amounts of money for publicly shaming yourself and lowering your standards, you’ll be armed with the power to write what you want.
I think the best place to start in response is to take a moment to acknowledge where this kind of selfish, angry thinking comes from, and like most things gone awry, it starts from something well-meaning. We could build several acres of affordable housing out of the stacks and stacks of books, blogs, and inspirational memes urging writers to write from the heart, to follow your vision, to let your voice ring out and be heard. The problem is that almost always after that advice comes the promise that should a writer (or any artist, really) follow this path of purity, success and happiness will unquestionably follow.
It’s not that this promise isn’t true, exactly. It’s that for far, far too many writers “success and happiness” gets equated with “lots of money and fame.” Here’s the reality of making art: the brass ring is BRASS, not gold. To believe even for a moment that simply producing the work of one’s heart means one will now be a bestseller is beyond naive. To proceed as if commercial success is due because of one’s effort or expenditure is embarrassingly foolhardy. But most of all, publicly ridiculing readers, especially one’s own, is a hanging offense, and anyone who commits it will very quickly feel the cinch of a brutal noose.
Without question, it would be wonderful if every time an author produced a work of her heart it met with commercial success—or if not wonderful, it would at least be very tidy and cute, like a toddler league of tee-ball where both sides go home convinced that they won the game. It’s understandable that writers approach publication with the conceit that if they write it, it will sell, and probably a little of that bluster is necessary to get through those initial rounds of trying to get published. It’s an incredibly conceited idea to put words on a page and ask other people to pay to read them. Hell, even asking for their time is arrogant. Requesting payment is graduate level self-importance, and being part of a corporation allowing many people beyond the initial author to make livings off these sold words is a doctoral thesis of hubris. To even consider stepping into the hot mess of being an author takes some serious mental jujutsu, and yes, imagining one’s story as some kind of messianic tome likely cuts through a lot of white hot terror.
Writers may live in that rose-colored bubble, but authors cannot. Anyone who puts words on a page and calls it a story is a writer; authors are those who intend to make at least a subsidiary living off their works, who write for more than themselves and their besties. Authors do not write because they believe they have innate truths they must impart upon the world but because they would like to be read. Most importantly, authors, true authors, quickly shed their writerly crutch of predestination and come to terms with grizzly truth: authors exist entirely at the pleasure of the reader.
Some genres sell better than others. This isn’t because best-selling books are more artistic or even better written than their peers. This is because the books that sell well are the books which more readers wish to read. Only in literature classes are books read because they’ve been put on a pedestal. Even the snottiest, the-smell-of-a-book-makes-angels-weep erudite societies read because the books they’ve chose to elevate give them pleasure. Every reader believes the books she loves to be the most holy of texts, and the truth of the matter is that every reader is absolutely correct in her conviction. What happens in this little thing we like to call a market economy is that when a great number of readers all happen to find the same kinds of books or titles of books pleasurable, the authors of those books make money.
A failure of a book to make money might be a failure of marketing, but it also might simply not be a book which gives a large number of readers pleasure. That’s as deep as this shit goes.
I understand that it’s disheartening to pour effort and money into a work of art and find that others do not value it with the same intensity. I’ve been to this rodeo more than a few times, and yes, it’s painful and hard on the soul. It is also the sort of thing that grown-ups do every day. Anyone deluded enough to think they are owed monetary success because they bled for their art is in for some hard, hard knocks and buckets full of tears. There will be many cries of “unfair” and much jealousy and hatred. And to be fair, all authors go through this every time they watch their books ride the waves of bestseller charts and the ego torture chamber known as Goodreads reviews. Even the most well-adjusted of us watch that horrible piece of shit book beat our baby to pieces and gnash our teeth and shout at our monitors demanding to know what brain-donors are shopping on amazon.com these days.
But holy Smart Bitch on a cracker, Batman, to write a post about how stupid readers are and worse to actually put it out there on the internet is so beyond the pale there’s a special hell for that kind of idiocy. Let me repeat: authors exist at the pleasure of readers. Without the people who buy and read my books, I am just another dizzy broad writing shit down. Readers aren’t just an author’s audience; they are her lifeblood. Yes, we make up characters and worlds, but readers are the magical, ephemeral beings who give their time and money to our work, who sing praises of our stories to their friends, who make this whole game possible. Readers are the holy ground where authors’ egotistical nonsense transforms into story. Readers are to be treasured and worshipped, and if an author has an urge to type a nasty review in reply to a reader or write a snarky post, she’d cause so much less harm to herself if she’d cut off her hand first.
Yes, it’s true, one can phone in a book in a popular genre and make more money than one can by bleeding out in a less popular one. However, “the market” is not some craven, slobbering beast created by men in smoky rooms twirling their mustaches. The market is made up of readers gathering without prompt or organization to purchase what authors write. The market is the reason writers are able to even dare to dream of getting paid for creating story. The market isn’t here to prop authors up so we can write what we want and tap our toes until our work gets the kind of attention we think it deserves. The market isn’t here to serve us. It’s here for us to serve.
Ms. Grey, what you’ve dished out for the market tonight might have come from your heart, but much like your urban fantasy series, it isn’t something anyone has a taste for. The market, your readers, and the internet have heard your scorn, and we won’t forget what you truly think of us anytime soon.
That isn’t just a promise. It’s reality. And yes, it’s going to follow you all the way to the bank.