I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about the place art (literary art especially) has in the business world and the power of the market. Because, like it or not, we all live in a system designed by and for business which, for better or worse, view the works we create not as works of art—unique and we hope transcendent—but as just another consumer product. As far as the business world—including all the financial, marketing, and branding machinery it uses—there is no intrinsic difference between the Mona Lisa and a roll of toilet tissue.
Both are products to be marketed and sold to someone.
Yes, writing is a business. So is painting watercolor landscapes, sculpture, music, and film. In each case, someone creates a work and tries to find a receptive market where someone will buy it. To achieve that, the smart artist will research prospective markets, learn the vehicles (media) she can use to reach those markets and then promote (advertise) their work to the best of their ability.
With hard work and some luck, they might be able to scrape a living out of the process. In reality though, very few artists do actually make a living from their chosen art. The success stories are so few and far between as to be the exceptions, rather than the rule.
Why is that? Because art and business are intrinsically different. Because of those differences, the rules of business don’t translate well into the art world. And art doesn’t translate well into the business world.
The primary difference lies in the purpose behind art and the purpose behind business. Art, in whatever its form, is driven by a passion the artist has for the medium and the way he can use it to interpret the world around them. For instance, a poet develops a love for poetry. She studies the masters who have crafter poems before her, practices and learns how to create her own and adopts poetry as the art she uses to interpret the world around her and express her emotion back to that world.
In contrast, the primary purpose behind the businessman is the making of money, of profit. Certainly, the good business person will study the business world just as much as the poet studies poetry, but in a more general way. They might study the financial aspect of business, or the marketing part, or the legal issues, but their commitment is still primarily to the desire to make money. The manner is secondary.
For instance, a man opens a restaurant specializing in hamburgers and fries. He hires good cooks and gives good service. He does okay. But talking to his customers, he notices that many of them would like burritos. Is he so committed to making good burgers that he refuses to add burritos to the menu? Probably not. Because he is not committed to creating and selling burgers. He is committed to making money. If he can do that making hamburgers, fine. If he needs to make burritos as well as hamburgers, then that’s what he will do.
The object of the businessman’s effort is not to sell perfect burgers, it’s to sell whatever the public will buy in order to make a profit.
Substitute the word “poetry” for “hamburgers” and “piano concertos” for “burritos” and you see the difference. Even if the public is clamoring for more piano concertos, the poet doesn’t switch to writing classical music. It isn’t her passion. Poetry is her passion and she will continue to write poetry, whether anyone buys it, or not.
The immediate problem this dichotomy presents is that despite all the study and hard work the poet puts into her craft, she may never sell enough of her poems to pay for having them printed up, much less make a living from them.
This holds true even if the work the artist produces wins contests and accolades from fellow artists, art experts, and scholarly authorities. This is because business is market driven and the market is not terribly smart. The market likes what the market likes. Quality has nothing to do with.
And the market is the only thing the business cares about.
For us writers, this means that publishers don’t care whether you’ve written the most ground-breaking novel of the last hundred years. They care about how many copies you’ll sell. And if they have to make a choice—and they do—they will choose the trashy erotic novel that will sell a million copies, then be quickly forgotten over a masterfully written one that won’t sell every time.
Because business is only concerned with making money.
And Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies will probably outsell 99 percent of all the novels published the same year.
So what do we conclude from this? Primarily, that if you’re hoping to grow rich by writing, especially writing fiction or poetry, you might as well quit right now. Sure, it can happen and I sincerely hope it does. It happened to Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and a handful of others, but they are the exceptions.
If you are going to write, you will be doing it because you love it. You love the form in all its living variations. You love being part of that wide sweep of literary history. You love the process of creating the work. You love seeing your ideas in print and you love the experience of having someone come up to you in a bookstore or coffee shop and tell you how much they loved your work.
It is love that drives you to even attempt to create something like you do. And it is love that is your payment for the work you do. Let that be enough.
Everything else is just business.