Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood

I have been haunted by Robert Frost’s, “The Road Not Taken,” ever since I blundered into the poem in a high school English class. The final stanza should be familiar:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two Roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Is this a lament or an expression of quiet gratitude about the road not taken?

The notion of opportunity costs is a poorly understood economic concept for similar reasons. As part of an effort to quantify what it will cost to pursue some line of endeavor you should add in the cost of not doing something else. In the relatively simple case of an investment, the opportunity cost of buying stock is the interest you would have earned if you left the money in the bank. The analysis, however, rapidly becomes much more complicated as you move from the predictable to the unpredictable. For example, what is the opportunity cost of taking one job instead of another, or marrying one person instead of another?

Artisan publishing doesn’t preclude other kinds of publishing. There are certainly cases where an artisan publishing effort led to a lucrative contract with a major publisher. But a simple fact of life is that the more time you put in to one line of endeavor, the less time you have for others.

In the third stanza, Frost says:

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Your good intentions notwithstanding, way inevitably leads on to way and the road of artisan publishing will take you to different places than the well-marked path of traditional publishing.

It isn’t simply that in addition to writing you will have to become skilled at production and marketing, it’s that as an artisan publisher the nature of the projects you undertake will be different: you may choose to go ahead and publish a manuscript that agents and editors say isn’t sufficiently commercial; you may produce a collection of short stories or a novella that would have stood little chance of being published in the past because it was too long for a magazine and too short for a book; or you may simply write more or less than a traditional publisher is willing to absorb.

The differences arise not because one road is better than another but because they simply go to different places. What counts as success for an artisan is different from what counts as success for a large organization. Making money is, of course, part of both roads, but questions of how and why have different answers depending on the road.

If, instead of being fascinated with the new prospects opening up before you as you go down the road, you find yourself looking over your shoulder and spending more time wondering about the other road—the one more traveled by, and better marked—perhaps artisan publishing is not for you.

[If you enjoyed this post you may also be interested in Artisan Publishing, book 7 of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides.]
Image: Simon Howden /

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