The Intersection of Art and Commerce

A fellow said to me the other day, “I’ve got a great idea for a book.  How do I get it published?”  Whoa dude, I replied – or words to that effect.  To get a book published, you first have to have a book.  Then, and only then, do you even think about publishing.  That is the point where art meets commerce.

I get a lot of questions about publishing from folks who know I’ve written some stuff and had it published.  My first question is always, “Have you written the book?”  Sometimes, they want me to write the book for them.  Well, I don’t do that.  But I’m happy to share what little wisdom I have about writing, along with lots of encouragement.

The best wisdom I can share is what a graduate school professor gave to me.  He said, “The way you write is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  There are lots of folks with good stories to tell, and many have a facility with words that would allow them to put the story on paper.  But only a few will apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

There are a several tough parts along the way.  The first is simply getting started – sitting down in a quiet place and facing a blank piece of paper that’s waiting for words.  Once you leap that hurdle, the next one is when you read what you’ve just written and say, “Oh, that’s awful!”  Well, maybe it is.  But the remedy is doing it again and making it better.  If you want it to be perfect the first time, you’re doomed.  What you do is get something down, and then re-write.  The getting it down is the toughest part.  The re-writing is where you begin to have fun.

But maybe the hardest part is the absolute requirement for stubborn, patient persistence.  Going to the work every possible day you can, carving out slices of time during which you absolutely refuse to be interrupted or distracted.  A good story, worked on daily, takes on a life of its own, a momentum.  And keeping that momentum is crucial through the long process of making a book.

Only when you’ve done all of that are you ready to think about publishing.  This is the intersection of art and commerce.  A writer is not complete without a reader.  We want as many folks as possible to enjoy and appreciate what we’ve done.  So we go through the tough process of finding a publisher, or publishing ourselves, and then reaching out to the widest possible audience.

The reaching out is hard work, too.  It’s hawking the merchandise, and that means using every possible means to let people know about the work and why they should pay their hard-earned money to obtain it.  Published writers today  know how crucial it is to use social media to get the word out, how important it is to go to places where readers gather, how necessary it is to work tirelessly and persistently in behalf of sales.  Crass commercialism?  You betcha.  Without the commerce part, the art part just lays there.

The good news about publishing is that today, anyone and everyone who produces a work can get published, thanks to the rise of the e-book: Amazon’s Kindle and the like.  Those folks are delighted to have you publish your work on their platforms, and I know from experience that it’s easy to do.  But just because it’s there doesn’t mean anybody will actually buy it and read it.  That’s the writer’s job.

I suppose any successful business is run by people who understand the intersection of art and commerce.  Just because you produce a good product or service doesn’t mean you’ll do well.  You have to do the grubby commercial part too.

We writers are no different.  Stop in the middle of an intersection and you’ll get run over.  You have to keep moving.


We'd Better Speak Up For Libraries

Some friends in a community not too far from mine told me the story of a candidate for local political office a couple of years ago who said, at a candidate forum, “I think people who use the library ought to pay for it.  I never go in there.”  This candidate got elected, along with some others of like mind, and sure enough, when it came time to pass a budget, library money was drastically slashed.

The impact was immediate and drastic.  The library had to lay off workers and cut operating hours.  When folks who needed the library’s resources showed up, they often found the doors closed, or no staff member available to help and answer questions.

Looking for a job to support your family?  Good luck being able to use a library computer to look up online job listings.  A student working on a term paper that requires current reference material?  Good luck getting access in the evening or on a weekend.  Looking for that new book by your favorite author?  Sorry, the library doesn’t have money to buy it.   

The impression I got from my friends is that the frustration level is high, and that a grassroots effort is underway to get library funds restored.  I hope they’re successful.  Like me, they share the view that a library is an essential community service, just like police and fire protection, the health department, road maintenance, garbage pickup, etc.  I think of a library as a vital part of the school system, which in its broadest term includes adults as well as young folks.

I would not be a writer if it were not for the influence of the library in my hometown as I was growing up.  It was a modest operation, a single room tucked between the fire station and the city clerk’s office, staffed by a dear woman named Miss Glennie.  She was not a trained librarian in the modern sense, but she knew every book in the place, and she was an ardent advocate of reading.  She challenged me by pushing good literature on me, had me reading Faulkner and Hemingway when I was in junior high.  Those books not only entertained me, they taught me what good writing looked like.  Those books, and Miss Glennie, helped shape the writer I would become.

Libraries have changed a lot since my youth, when they were mostly places where you put books on shelves and patrons came in and checked them out.  They’re now firmly in the grasp of the digital age, and much of what they hold is accessed through a keyboard, a collection of knowledge -- much of it sight and sound -- that has to be updated at lightning speed.  But in the broadest sense, the role of the library hasn’t changed.  It’s a repository of the community’s wisdom, there for every soul in the community to use.

No community service exists unless the people in the community insist on it, work for it, and support decision-makers who share their views.  I don’t think we’re inclined to let crime run unchecked, houses burn down, garbage pile up at the curb, or ceilings fall in at the schoolhouse.  The question is, do we also think knowledge and wisdom are important?  If we do, we’ll back our libraries to the hilt. 

The Indies Are Back!

I’m winding up a two-month promotional tour for my new novel with some really good news: independent booksellers are back.

Everywhere I went on my 20-city tour, I found independent book stores that are thriving; owners who possess that essential combination of a love of books and good business sense; staff who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and helpful.  It’s a dramatic reversal of a 20-year trend, and for midlist writers like me who depend on word-of-mouth to sell books, it’s the best news in years.

Here’s an example of what’s happening in a good-sized city I’m very familiar with: fifteen years ago there were perhaps a dozen independent bookstores of various stripes scattered about town, some of them doing well, others gamely muddling along, showing slim profits but having lots of fun in a business they loved.  Today, there is one full-service, general-purpose independent bookstore in this city.

What happened was the double-barreled onslaught of chain bookstores and Amazon.  Within a ten-mile radius of this one surviving independent, there were suddenly four big chain stores – offering a huge selection and bestsellers at loss-leader prices, cheaper than the independents could buy them.  Customers the independents thought were fiercely loyal bolted for the chains and their discount prices.  The bottom fell out of the independents’ business and one by one they agonizingly gave up – all but this one store, which struggled mightily but held on by its fingernails.


Today, the landscape is profoundly different.  One of the chains went belly-up.  Two more closed their stores in the area of the city where the independent survived.  The last remaining chain is, in many parts of the country, closing stores and reducing inventories.  And many of the customers who shopped the chain stores are turning back to the independents, re-discovering what made them once-loyal customers.  That surviving independent in this city is seeing double-digit increases in sales from a year ago.  Life is good and getting better.

Independents still face an uphill battle.  There is stiff competition from the remaining chain operations.  Online booksellers offer books at discount prices.  And there is the steady and continuing movement to e-book formats, especially for fiction titles.  Kindle, Nook and Kobo have taken a big cut of that market.  But there are still huge numbers of people who insist on holding a real, physical book in their hands, and they are the core of the independents’ audience.

If you go into an independent bookstore and ask, “What do you have that’s good to read?” the staff will give you an informed suggestion, based on what they know about you as an individual reader.  If you’re looking for a book on a particular subject, the staff will help you find what fits your needs, and if it’s not on their shelves, they’ll have it for you in a couple of days.  If you want to spend an hour just browsing, soaking up the smell and feel of books while you have a cup of coffee and a muffin, you’ll find it a comfortable, inviting place.  If you want to meet one of your favorite authors peddling his or her new book, you’re likely to find them at an independent.  It’s old-fashioned customer service, married to modern technology and store owners with a keen sense of what makes a successful business. 

What’s happening these days with independent bookselling is a nationwide phenomenon, as noted by Fortune Magazine in a recent article: “The Indie Bookstore Resurgence.”  Author Verne Kopytoff noted that sales at independents grew 8% last year and are on track to do as well this year.  And membership in the American Booksellers Association is up 16% over the past five years.

Independents’ competition won’t go away, nor should it.  People who buy books and related items want choice, convenience, a good deal.  But for the moment, that immensely important part of the book culture that independent stores inhabit is the healthiest in years, and getting more so.  And the folks who are happiest about that (after the owners themselves) are scribblers like me.