Or: Do NOT come to me for advice on publishing.
I get email, facebook comments, and tweets from time to time where I am asked questions about marketing, publicity, and the publishing business in general. I hate these questions a lot more than I ought–enough, in fact, that I’ve been forced to ask myself why.
I’ve spoken before of how important it is for a writer to figure out what sort of lies are required to produce his or her best work. Do you have to tell yourself that you’re “just writing for yourself” to keep from freezing up? Do you need to convince yourself that you’re writing to change the world in order to focus properly? I have a bunch of lies I tell myself, and they’ve been very good to me. It’s the worst sort of pragmatism, and I hate pragmatism; this contradiction, I’m sure, has an effect on my work. I hope generally a positive one.
But one of the related things is my belief that the business of publishing–the way I need to produce work that will sell to a market in order to keep a roof over my head, food in my mouth, and nicotine in my bloodstream–has no effect on the words that end up on the page. On the face of it, this is absurd. Publishers sell a commodity–books–and will continue to pay me only as long as I provide something that they can use to secure a profit; and to say that this process has no effect on the work is to deny that I am a part of the same world as the publisher, the readers, and all the vagaries of an anarchic social system. To believe that, I’d have to be very good at denial. I am very good at denial. Significantly, it is only the fact that I have been very, very lucky, extraordinarily lucky, in that I have been able to live as a writer for so many years, that has permitted me to continue this denial.
Thirty years ago, this fiction was much easier to maintain. Things like publicity and market awareness were much more the responsibility of the publisher, not the writer; it was easy to be contemptuous of “hacks” who wrote to a market–one could pretend, in other words, to be above all the “base material considerations.” I still mostly believe this about my own work, because I am convinced that, if I don’t believe it, my work will suffer. Deliberately writing to please the reader will, I am convinced, result in work I’m unhappy with, and, almost certainly, be disappointing to those who have stayed with me over the years as I’ve pushed and explored and challenged myself as much as I can in order to keep myself entertained. How much am I really, in a part of my backbrain I’m not comfortable acknowledging, “playing for the crowd” in order to keep myself afloat? I don’t know, and I don’t want to.
The trouble with this self-deception mostly comes up when people ask me for advice about publishing, self-promotion, and what sort of stuff will sell. Not only do I not know the answer, but, because of how my own process works, I have to tell them that they ought not to be even thinking about that. It’s a very strange and contradictory position to be in, because I believe what I’m telling them all the way down to my toes, and I simultaneously know it’s wrong. I mean, John Scalzi, if no one else, provides proof that consciously writing to a market is no hindrance to producing high-quality, entertaining work. Neil Gaiman has no trouble promoting his work, and it has clearly not diminished his ability to produce wonderful and amazing stories. A good illustration of how things have changed is provided by Cecelia Tan’s career: she started her own publishing company in order to get her work out there–and this in spite of having had a solid fan base for many years (of course, erotica publishing has its own problems and peculiarities, but I think the point is still valid).
Honesty is important to me. I believe that honesty–in fiction and non-fiction–is a process and a struggle, not a yes-or-no thing. It begins with the decision not to lie, and then becomes difficult. To tell the truth, you must know the truth, and if the truth you’re looking for is easily plucked from the ground, it’s not worth the bother of bending over. But in order to concentrate on that little piece of whatever part of reality has taken my interest, I have to wrap myself in deceit. And when someone puts a question to me that involves those areas where I’m lying to myself, I have the choice of lying to that person, or admitting the truth to myself, and I’m certainly not going to do the latter, because I love doing my work too much to do anything that will threaten my ability to continue.
So if you have questions about marketing, promotion, or making a living as a writer, do us both a favor and ask someone else.