Friday, September 10, 2010

On the Ultimate Goal of Publication

Free-form Friday

I regularly hear writers without contracts talk about their journey toward their ultimate goal of publication. It's as if writing is a sort of personal quest--a hero's journey--and publication is the grail.

Indeed, I've heard these phrases often enough that the journey and the goal are beginning to sound like the things one has to say to indicate that they're part of the group. (See George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946.)

What strikes me as odd about this way of talking is that publication, in some form, is easier now than it ever was. Because of that, if your ultimate goal is simply publication, there are a variety of ways to achieve it that don't require the involvement of agents and major New York publishing houses.

Of course, what we don't want to admit when we talk about our writing journey and our ultimate goal of publication is that our goal is really vindication: we want the stamp of approval from the gatekeepers (agents and editors) and establishment (publisher) which will admit us into the ranks of the "published" authors and will make us full fledged citizens of the literary city.

And it's perfectly understandable that we should want our largely solitary pursuits validated by other people.

It's also true that the personal experience of producing a novel is much like a journey.

But as the publishing industry changes, it's going to be harder to maintain the pleasant fiction that it's about you and your efforts. The fact of the matter is that anyone who wants to be a commercial author (i.e., someone who gets paid regularly for their writing) is attempting to set up a business that produces and licenses intellectual property. The process by which you produce your intellectual property may feel like a journey, but your business partners (e.g., your agent and publisher) are only interested in your products.

I'm not saying that art and expression must take a back seat to business. I'm saying that with the possible exception of memoirs (and your support group) the people with whom you do business are interested, first and foremost, in what's in it for them.Think about it: when the traveling merchant comes to your village, do you ask them to tell you about their trip or do you ask them what they've got to sell?

Image: Photography by BJWOK /

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