Essay:

Literary vs. Commercial Writing:

a false dilemma

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"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.


On to the second stage, then: the pleasure of others. Every once in a while, one of those bored scribblers decides that the scribble is funny enough, or touching enough, to be shown to someone else. Most often that first audience consists of the author's mother and/or best friend. The comfort of such a limited audience is obvious: even if you get laughed at, it will be done gently, but chances are on your side to be pronounced a literary genius. Although a lot smaller than the first category, this group is still fairly large. Unless you are part of the Select Cabal, though, don't expect to know about it. "Private audience" authors are usually loath to let anyone new in on their secret, and will remain content producing new installments of their sister's favourite teddy-bear story forever. They may, eventually, end up being the world's best teddy-bear story writers, but, similarly to the first group, they will always remain within that limited circle of audience, a tiny little sapling making a soft splat in someone's back yard. At the same time, focusing more and more on the same audience, they will, in time, almost inevitably fall into the trap of mannerism, honing their style to answer their audience's need to perfection and eschewing all challenge, all change.


However, it is from this group that the last selection is made. Some of us decide-some sooner, some later-that Mom and Dad are not enough. Some of us decide that reaching a wide audience is important. And to reach that wide audience, we start for the new goal: publication.


In the old days, publication was a complicated, expensive process. Unless a would-be author was very rich, they could not afford to have their work printed. So, if you wanted to gain any sort of wider audience, you had to find a publisher willing to risk the expenses involved in producing a printed and bound book. Getting published, in those days, meant getting a chance at an audience.

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.


Shakespeare lived off his writing. So did Byron, and a number of other classics who managed, at the same time, to shape the future of literature. Today, it is much more difficult to live completely off writing-the sheer multitude of media at our disposal has made sure of that, so that some people even predict that in the future it will become completely impossible to make one's living solely as a writer-but the basic principle involved hasn't changed. The bigger the market, the wider the audience. The wider the audience, the more money is earned.

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.