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.


Ralph Keyes on "The Courage To Write"

My guest blogger today is Ralph Keyes, superbly-talented and prolific author, renaissance man, and good friend.  His fine book, The Courage to Write, has been an inspiration to me and countless other writers.  Ralph’s books are available on


Before publishing The Courage to Write I sensed that a fear of putting words on paper was common among aspiring writers.  I had no idea how common that fear is.  Nor did I realize that it wasn’t just neophytes who are anxious about writing, but anyone at all.  Only after Courage was published and I began to hear from other writers did it become clear how prevalent writing anxiety is.  “Each fear described is of acute familiarity to me,” wrote one.  “I’m not alone in my fears and silly writing habits!” added another. 

 On the verge of publishing his first book, a Canadian author wrote me, “For a long while I was (and am) dealing with the kind of issues you wrote of.  The writers I knew rarely discussed anxiety, or failure, or even fear. I thought we were supposed to strut around with this hard shell attitude, this blazing self-confidence, and I always wondered why I alone suffered these crippling anxieties and doubts.”

 After getting enough responses like this I finally concluded that the definition of a frightened writer is “whoever dares to put words on paper (or in pixels).”

 Why should writing be so scary?  I think it’s due primarily to a fear of being exposed. “Will readers see right through me?” is a question that plagues writers as they write.  “Naked” is a word they commonly use to describe how they feel when their work is about to be published.  One bestselling novelist compared that feeling to dancing nude on a table.  (She’d done both and found publishing novels far more frightening.)

 But there’s an upside to the nerves all writers experience.  Just as actors, athletes, and public speakers find that being on edge gives them an edge, anxiety can lend a powerful edginess to writing.  It also helps writers reach out to readers. 

 Everyone has an inner self that they’d rather others not know about.  We go to great lengths to hide that self, the one that is ambivalent about our mother, who betrayed a friend in high school, and who sometimes picks its nose no one’s looking.  Keeping this self hidden isn’t an option for writers, at least ones who are any good.  Because the secret self is usually the most interesting self.  His lair is where the richest nuggets of golden material can be found. 

 One reason memoirs are so popular these days – especially ones like The Liar’s Club and Angela’s Ashes – is that their authors risked sharing their inner lives with readers.  Since readers too have hidden lives, they identify with that type of writing, and are grateful for the authors who dared to be so candid.  To the degree that an author can risk being candid, to that degree his or her writing will leap off the page, grab readers by the lapel, and say “This is something you’ve got to hear!”  Doing that is scary.  Terrifying even.  Yet it’s the best way to produce anything better than pablum.  That’s why I believe the most important line in The Courage to Write is “If you’re not scared, you’re not writing (anything of consequence that is).”

Ralph Keyes's new e-book, Second Thoughts: The Power of Positive Regret, is available as a Kindle single on Amazon. 

If You Want To Be Published, You Will Be

            I sometimes lead writing workshops.  Folks who sign up are a diverse group – women and men, young and old and everything in between, folks from just about any walk of life you can imagine.  There’s one thing in common: they write and they passionately want to be published.


            I try to be honest with the folks in those workshops, and until fairly recently, I had to describe how difficult it is to get a book of any stripe into the hands of readers.  I warned them about unscrupulous agencies that will offer to read your manuscript for a hefty fee, then blithely tell you there’s not a market for it.  Companies that will promise to publish your book (for an even heftier fee) and market it (another big fee).  They ship you boxes of books, and that’s it.  Little or no marketing or promotion.  You’re on your own.  I had to tell them how difficult it is for a first-time author to find an agent, how hard it is to get an editor at a reputable publishing house to even look at your work.

In short, publishing these days is a daunting affair, and many good, worthy books never make it into print.  For a first-time writer (and even for some grizzled veterans like me) it can be a crushing experience.

            But now I can give my workshop friends some really good news.  I start the first session of a workshop by saying, “If you want to be published, you will be.”  Faces light up, the energy level in the room goes way up.

Final cover.jpg

The reason, of course, is the e-book: Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple.  The traditional publishing houses have embraced it.  John F. Blair Publishers is making my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, available in both hardcover and e-book editions.

But the e-book phenomenon has given new life to literally millions of people who don’t – or can’t -- go through a traditional house.  They publish an e-book themselves – straight from computer file to internet.  It’s not hard to do, and other than some initial out-of-pocket expenses (cover art, copyright registration) it’s free.  Kindle, Nook, and the like welcome your work and walk you step-by-step through the process.  I put my first four novels on the internet last year and did the vast bulk of the work myself, with some great guidance from writer friends who had already done it.

The big challenge is those millions of other people self-publishing e-books.  Some of it is sheer junk, some so-so, some really good.  As a new author, you have to compete with all those other folks to find readers, and there’s no traditional publishing house putting its muscle behind marketing and promotion.

The first thing you have to do is make your work as good as it can possibly be, to separate it from the junk and so-so.  When readers find something they like, they tell other readers.  Then too, there are lots of resources out there – Websites such as Goodreads, how-to books on the internet – to give you marketing ideas.  People who’ve done it successfully are eager to share what they’ve learned.

By some accounts, half the fiction sold in America is now on e-books.  Fiction is easier because it’s usually just text.  Non-fiction and children’s books are harder because e-books don’t handle pictures, illustrations, charts and graphs very well.  But that’s improving.  We’re just at the beginning of the e-book wave.

I’ve heard writing described as a disease you can’t cure.  I like to think of it as a passion that’s both maddening and exhilarating.  For so many of us who scribble, the e-book makes it possible to show the world what our passion has produced.