Thursday, December 2, 2010

Why Must We Publish Everything?

There’s an innocence that exists before you publish a book. I’ll tell you right now that the first and second books I published were written with the intention of self-publishing them. To be quite honest, self-publishing intrigued me (still does) and I needed some material to feed through the process. But one of the things I’ve noticed is that people working on their first book have no clue when it comes to publishing. Almost universally, they have this idea that all they have to do is to write their book, send it off to the publisher and it’ll be in the stores before long. And though their hopes are dashed quickly after they finish their book, I keep encountering people who say, “I’m almost finished with my book and I’m going to look into a publisher soon.”

I don’t think we have much opportunity to educate these people. I suppose some of us novelists could write stories about authors seeking publication, but I’m not sure that even that would reach all of these people. But there’s something pure about that first book. Even though I know that most of the authors at that stage are writing some junky stuff, there’s something to be said about these authors who are off doing their own little thing, writing what they want to write with no idea that it’ll never be published. They aren’t influenced by the forces of the market. They don’t have the conference training that teaches them to write exactly like everyone else. They write because they have something to say or a story to tell.

That sad thing is that these publishing innocents run smack dab into the jaded industry insiders. They send a query to a literary agent and later they discover all the stuff they did wrong. They violated some industry protocol and now their query letter is posted on someone’s blog for the whole world to see—name removed, of course. Not wanting to make a mistake again, they begin to study the query process. They learn all there is to know about how to write a query letter. They sign up for conferences. The read agent blogs. But they don’t write anymore. They don’t have time. All their time is spent worrying about how to they’re going to get their work published. Innocence is lost.

Writing is the only art form I know where no one writes simply to just write. At times, I am a painter, but I’ve never sold a painting. I’ve given a few away and I’m not terrible at it, but I can appreciate that there are people who are more skilled at painting than I am. Sure, I would like to be that skilled, but the fact that I’m not doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of painting. I’m also a pianist. I do well enough to play for the offertory at church occasionally, but I’ll never be a concert pianist. My sister could’ve been were it not for her priorities. She still amazes me with her skill, but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying playing the piano. But in writing we do things differently. We’re all looking for that big publishing contract. And if we don’t get it, we can’t understand why. In reality, it shouldn’t surprise us at all.

If we did things the way other art forms are done, we would write our stories and share them among our friends. Instead of novels, we would probably write more short stories. We would show up at critique groups and read these stories aloud, after which we might sit around discussing the story. Most of us wouldn’t bother with seeking publication at all, preferring instead to just enjoy writing and sharing the stories with our friends. A few of us might find that our stories consistently move our friends and we’d consider entering our stories in contests. Some of us would try to make a career of it, but not nearly the number of people seeking contracts today.

We probably won’t ever get to that point and I’m not sure we should. There’s something to be said for enthusiasts self-publishing their work and letting people buy it or not as they will, but I think we’re pushing publication a little too much. We’re not giving writers an opportunity to enjoy what they do without also… No, let me rephrase that. We’re not giving writers the opportunity to enjoy what they do. The fact is that once you enter into the highly competitive world of publishing, the art form becomes a job. There’s a lot of stress that comes with it and for what?

It’s a weird sort of thing that people lose their jobs they get this idea that they’ll just stay at home and write books. That’s got to be one of the worst ideas someone could come up with, but it makes them feel like they’re doing something productive. Then there are the housewives who decide to write so they can pull their weight or whatever it is they think they’re doing. Maybe they should go read what the Bible says about the virtuous woman. I’ve got nothing against women writing or people writing for a living, but there are easier ways to make money, if that’s what the goal is. I can make more money doing my job than what I could make writing about how to do my job. So, if the goal of writing is publishing and the reason we want to publish is to make money, why don’t we just give up writing and go to work doing what we’re trying to tell people who to do?

The simple answer is that it’s because writing isn’t really about making money. Yeah, publisher, agents and some authors think it is, but writing is about something else. Most of us aren’t like Charles Dickens and can sell a story when we’re about to run out of money. I think a lot of people will talk about how writing is a business because they want to impress agents and publishers with their professionalism, but I think a lot of us could be happy writing with no financial compensation. But I’m not going to start giving away my books anytime soon.