Literary vs. Commercial Writing:
a false dilemma
"Writers are like women of easy virtue: at first they write for their own pleasure, then for the pleasure of others, and finally for money."
This quote sums up an ideal writer's career beautifully. Why ideal? Because, unlike women of easy virtue, only a very small percentage of people who start down the path of writing ever reach that final stage. Exactly because of this fact, it is often fashionable to say that writers should avoid taking this last step, as if it made their work dirty and, therefore, comparable to the easy gal from the quote. But this is a false assumption.
Let us take a look at the first stage of the development, writing for one's own pleasure. This is the kind of situation in which everyone has been at least once in their lives, whether by discovering the truth about life, the universe and everything in a high-school paper, composing a wobbly sonnet during some freshmen fling, or putting together a dirty couplet to while away a particularly boring moment at some social function. If we defined writers as people who produce writings, we'd be dealing with some 5 billion active writers on the Earth today. However, most of such efforts wind up in a dustbin moments after their creation. Obviously, there are always going to be some exceptions to this, people on whose death whole trunks full of feverish scribblings will first see the light of day. But authors of such works, even if their works as such are absolutely brilliant and would change the face of the Earth forever if they were read, omit the key element: they never create communication. The tree falls in an empty forest. It may make a loud sound, but we will never hear it-and it will be as if it has never happened.
Nowadays, however, with the new media developing so fast, almost anyone can get published. Apart from the old-fashioned paper-publishing houses, there are small presses, vanity presses, print-on-demand, e-books, the web. If all you want is to see your own words made available to a large number of people, you need a computer and internet access. That's all: web-pages can be got for free in many places, and the number of people who have put their work up on the web is amazing. But take a closer look at their counters: they will seldom reach three figures, much less thousands or millions of readers as urban legends would have it. The web today is simply too big for readers to waste their time waddling through tons of slush in the hope of finding that rare gem of literary genius. And if they want free reading, they can turn to already-filtered sources, such as e-zines or on-line libraries, where public domain works and new talent are offered to the public. Some such places, for instance Eternity Online, Alexandria Digital Literature or the Guttenberg Project, have gained both reputation and faithful followings. And the reason why some e-zines survive, while other perish within an issue or two, is the same as for print magazines: the survivors offer quality which their readers recognise.
And that brings us to our final group: the people who actually gain money with their writing. In pre-electronic days, just like today, getting published did not equal getting paid. The difference, however, has always been, and always will be, the same: those who earned money to their publishers earned money for themselves, too. And they were the ones who touched the widest audience-to put it crudely, those who sold best.
Not all of that money will necessarily wind up in your pockets. Thanks to Barbara Cartland, people often mistakenly believe that all romance writers live wonderfully off their writing. They conclude that it's an easy, indoor work with no heavy lifting, so they set out to write a romance novel.
The first thing they discover is that it's more difficult than it seemed: even if you do know all the clichés by heart, if you don't offer earnest, good-quality writing, your novel won't sell, or if it does, it will be to one of the numbered Harlequin editions which offer miserable fees at indeterminate intervals. There are simply too many romances out there today for the audiences to lap any crap up gratefully. You may or may not object to the approach of romance-or mystery, or any other genre, for that matter-as far as subject matter is concerned. However, if you look closely at the top romance authors of today, you will find that most of them do have a significant grasp of the craft of writing. Because, like any other art, writing is a craft as well, and has to be learned before it can be changed. The difference between Picasso and my kid's drawing is in the fact that Picasso knew the rules he was breaking, and broke them consciously. The same goes for writing: if you want to use flat characters, you had better know how to create convincing ones first, or you'll miss your target. 90% of geniuses too big for any established outlet are, to be frank, people who simply can't write. But then, to quote a famous SF author, 90% of everything is crap.
That is why literature today is a buyer's market: there is only a limited number of magazines publishing fiction, and it is growing smaller daily. The same thing goes for publishing houses. On the other hand, the advent of computers and other contemporary means of communication has made it incredibly simple for any kitchen-genius to submit his or her work to the biggest names in the field. The result-hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts litter the desk of any and every editor. After all, anyone can write, we've established that. So to get picked up from the slush pile, to get into one of those twelve monthly slots, means to be chosen from among hundreds or thousands. That it also means a 6 cents per word fee is, actually, an additional perk, not the focus.
As another famous SF author is fond of saying, money flows towards the writer. Of course, you can put your story up on a geocities web page, or pay to get your book published. But if you do that, you have skipped the selection process. You have not competed against anyone. You might be the one exception, that Mozart among writers whose genius alone will be enough to gain you a wide, avid audience. But if you're not, if you're just one of us mortals trying to do the best you can, it's not going to happen. To reach your maximum audience, you will need editorial help, marketing, and decent distribution. You will need to get published through an existing, established medium. And, in recognition for the quality of your work, you will get paid, whether you want to or not.