Getting Published is Easy, Getting Read Is the Tough Thing

Getting Published is Easy, Getting Read Is the Tough Thing September 27, 2016

J. R. R. Tolkien Public Domain, via The Times of Israel
J. R. R. Tolkien
Public Domain, via The Times of Israel

Karl Marx, among the absurd things he said (some things were pretty sound, but I’m digressing), as I was saying, Karl Marx once said (and this is a paraphrase), “Someday, when the proletariat run things, we’ll spend our days writing poetry and fishing.”

I don’t know about fishing, maybe that’s growing in popularity, but it sure seems like everyone has a story he’s working on. But whereas fishing is intrinsically satisfying and you’ve got something to eat when you’re done, writers want to be read.

And just because you’ve written something doesn’t mean anyone will read it.

I know three people who’ve had book deals cancelled in the past few months, one of them being me. We’re all published authors, so we’re not first-timers. And we all had contracts in hand. The problem is the publishers are passing on their own problems. Everyone I talk to in publishing is in something of a panic; belts tightening, imprints getting shut down, everyone consolidating, and editors only want the sure thing, something that will sell big and save the company. Traditional publishing is in trouble.

My friends are going to self-publish their books. That’s happening more and more. The stigma is gone, almost. But we all know that if you’ve got a few thousand bucks you can get a passable-looking book published.

The challenge is distribution. Getting on the shelves at Barnes and Noble is almost impossible if you self-publish. And as anyone who sells Amway knows, your friends can be trusted to only bring in so much business. (At least with multilevel marketing you can promise a piece of the action.) But if you even break even on self-publishing you’re among the elite.

It looks like this is the story with every creative endeavor. My son tells me that’s the way it is in music. And I was at Hartford Comiconn last weekend to check out the work of the comic book artists there. Most were self-published.

They had a few heavy hitters–but they were clones of the “Marvel Way” and they didn’t hold much interest for me. There were some second tier guys, very good, but one of them looked just like Frank Cho, and the other was a Dave Stevens wannabe. Then there were third tier people, all looking hungrily at passersby. I couldn’t bear stopping very long at any of their tables. I just wasn’t interested, they were fine, just not great.

And so it is. Marx’s dream of the democratization of the arts has come to pass but we’re not happy about it. We all want what the old world offered to the few, the prospect of inclusion among an elite, to be recognized as producing praiseworthy work. In a way it is easier than ever, and in another it is harder. These are the best of times and the worst.

Which has got me thinking about why I’m in this game.

I write young adult fiction under my pen name, Mortimus Clay.

I’ve asked myself many times, am I willing to produce the best possible work of which I am capable and dying without anyone ever reading it?

There is a myth out there that good work will always be recognized by someone in this world, even if posthumously. Well, I believe in the resurrection of the dead, but I’m not so sure about the justice of men. I think we will learn of many unknown Mozarts on Judgment Day.

Is that enough for me?

I believe every artist deals with this. Art is a lonely pursuit, and it is one that is accompanied by many doubts. Tolkien wrote a marvelous story about it. It is called, Leaf by Niggle. I won’t recount it for you. If this is something you wrestle with, like Jacob in the night, then you ought to read it for yourself.

But I will say this–Niggle, a painter who wonders whether or not he’s wasted his life, dies unknown and his work is largely lost. But it doesn’t matter, because his work wasn’t for this world anyway. Like Abraham, he was looking for a city, even though he didn’t know it.

And so, I plan to keep it up. I will try to write the best stories that I possibly can. I’ll do it because doing your best is intrinsically satisfying, but also because I have another audience that I’m trying to please.

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