Normally I have a rule. Well I have a few, but the one I mean in this case is that I don’t talk shit about other authors. I don’t normally name and shame because it’s just silly and I may talk about a book I didn’t like or something an author did that I didn’t like, but I don’t use names or titles.
I’m going to break this rule today. I’m breaking this rule because yesterday, an author named Kendall Grey wrote a blog post that not only really made me mad, but it attempted to sling all sorts of her own guilt issues on other authors and on our readers too. So, Kendall Grey, though you deleted your post because people reacted with anger to the shit you were slinging, I have an important lesson for you: The internet is forever.
Turns out, Ms. Grey wrote some UF and put a lot of money and effort into it and it didn’t do well. Now, here’s the thing – I have some books that I LOVED. Books I worked my ass off on. Books I think are my very best work and they just didn’t hit it off with a lot of readers. It happens. To all of us. Grey is not a special snowflake for failing. If there’s a constant when it comes to art and publishing, it’s failure. There are books I read all the time in series that go on to die out and I LOVE them. I think the writing is amazing and it bums me out that more people just didn’t click with the books. But that’s the way of the world sometimes and if you mean to make your career in publishing, it’s a hard truth you have to accept. You do.
I’m going to say this one more time and hopefully Kendall Grey hears it – It’s a hard truth you have to accept that sometimes a book you pour your heart and soul and a great deal of work into just goes nowhere.
So okay, I get her feeling upset by that.
But then her post just jumped the tracks and barreled into crazytown. She says that when her UF didn’t do as well as she’d hoped:
I sold out.
I wrote an erotica book.
It kicked my UF series’ ASS in sales and rankings.
Now, I feel pity for her that she’d view writing any story as “selling out” but whatever, that’s her business.
My problems with this post begin with this:
Some hard truths came to light through this process. The biggest revelation was that as authors, we have to decide whether we’re in this business to make art or to make money. We can’t have both. Very few authors make art that sells. Commercial viability does not lend itself to artistic endeavors, and vice-versa. If New York doesn’t want your book, then you’re probably too creative. If they do want it, then you’re marketable. New York publishers run a business. They don’t give a shit about art.
Um, quit it with the “we” stuff okay, Kendall? Because I disagree that “as authors, we have to decide whether we’re in this business to make art or to make money. We can’t have both” In fact, that’s something YOU have hung around your neck and that’s what’s holding you back from being happy with what you’re doing. Me? I’m over here writing what makes me happy. Creating my art and, as it turns out, making money from it. Seems to me, Kendall Grey is the one here who doesn’t “give a shit about art”
Here’s another hard fact – you can cry all you want about how NY didn’t want you so clearly they don’t want art. Or that you’re too edgy or too awesome or that they just don’t care about quality. But really? they just didn’t want your story. Shrug. Now, sometimes you get rejected because your book sucks. Or because whatever editor you subbed to has just bought something very similar to your book just a week before. Or, in the case with UF, the market has tightened. Which isn’t about art or not art, it’s about which of their products people are going to want to read in what quantity. Because art galleries and publishing houses want to put out products people wish to consume. That’s sort of how it works.
The problem with the leap of (il)logic Grey makes is that because her books didn’t sell like she thought they should, that NY hates art. When really, art is in the eye of the beholder and unless you’re just creating it for yourself (and you publish so that’s not the case) you do have to understand that consumption is part of the process.
And then, she compounds all this shame spiral with this:
Apparently, they have something there. Readers generally (don’t throw stones—I’m referring to the masses here, not individuals) don’t want art either. They want easily digestible, bite-sized nuggets of warm fuzzies. They want simplicity. Art is neither easily digestible (you sometimes have to chew on it for days to filter meaning from it) nor simple.
Hear that readers? You don’t care about art! You aren’t smart enough to understand her art. Her failure is because you don’t want to put in the time to understand her books.
Now see, there IS a rule I don’t ever break and that is: Thou Shalt Respect Your Readers
There are several things about that statement Ms. Grey needs to understand. One: Not EVERY reader is the right reader for your book. So you write for the readers who enjoy you and your voice. Two: Telling readers, the people who in fact give up a great deal of their time and energy to read our books and if we’re lucky enjoy them and speak about them, that they are too stupid to understand our art is, in fact, YOUR inability to understand art, not theirs.
Reading, like other types of art appreciation, is intensely personal. So what appeals to people is going to depend on who they are. It depends on what is happening in their life at any given moment. On what has happened to them over the course of their personal history and what makes them feel any number of things. The value of art, when it comes to being appreciated by the beholder makes the person consuming it part of that process. Failing to appreciate that integral part of the process is done at your own peril.
But it gets worse. Because Grey goes on to say:
I know it’s depressing to hear that in order to find success, you may have to compromise your principles. I’ve come to grips with the fact that in the current market, trashy smut sells, and urban fantasy does not. Tough shit for me. If you want to sell books, you have to feed the market what it craves.
So in one paragraph, you’re told “trashy smut” sells and that she’s feeding you something she hates to write because you’re all Oscar the Grouch living in the garbage craving that disgusting filth she’s sold her soul to write instead of her “beautifully artistic UF”
But never fear because:
For us artists who want or need to make a living at writing, there is a silver lining. Once you’ve done your part to feed the reader machine, and you get paid ridiculous amounts of money for publicly shaming yourself and lowering your standards, you’ll be armed with the power to write what you want. Once you’ve built your readership, there’s a good chance many of your readers will follow you into your preferred, artsy-fartsy genre because they like you. Yes, you may have to compromise and write more sell-out books along the way to feed YOUR machine, but the beauty is that you can do BOTH and make it work.
Now, Ms. Grey has to own her shit here. So if she feels what she’s been writing is trash? I have to take her at her word. And as she apparently thinks readers of her books are not intelligent enough to understand her other books, I’ll take her at face value on that too. Which is to say, I have no need to read or buy anything she writes because I am fine with understanding when an author says her books suck and I’m a dick for wanting to read them.
Now I’m going to talk about what I think.
I contracted my first book back in 2004. An erotic romance. With a digital publisher. Back then, all those things were considered trashy. Digital books weren’t considered “real” books and erotic romance wasn’t even considered romance by a whole lot of authors and author organizations.
But the readers? Well, they thought so. I just had my 8 year anniversary of the publication of my first book earlier this month. In the time since then I’ve written over 50 novels and novellas. Some I published with traditional publishers like Berkley and Harlequin, some I published with smaller publishers like Samhain and Carina. I’ve hit lists with books that came out from NY publishers and from Samhain. I’ve won awards. I’ve hit best of lists. And I make a really nice living with my art.
Two things I believe are responsible for this – I write the books I am proud of and I have the best readers in the whole world.
Writing books I love doesn’t mean I live unaware of the market. Publishing is, after all a business and readers are the consumers. So when readers are sick to death of a sub genre, it’s harder to sell a book in that genre. That doesn’t mean I am too awesome for readers to comprehend and it doesn’t mean NY publishers hate art. It means people buy what they like. Which means that when I have an UF out on a pitch, I understand the market is very tight right now and my chances of selling a book are lowered because of that fact. The causation here, however, isn’t “readers and publishers hate art and only love trash” it’s “I exist in a market where selling my product is part of the ecosystem and so I need to offer the very best product I can to increase my chances of selling it.”
Does it make me bitter sometimes when I have a book I adore and it doesn’t do well as another book that didn’t take me as long to write, or as much energy? Yeah, sometimes. But that’s how it goes. That is simply how it works. And in the end, it has nothing to do with not understanding my art, it has everything to do with what people are moved by at any given time. And sometimes you can know it up front and other times their reaction to one thing over another thing is a surprise. But it’s never because the consumer of that art is stupid or that they hate art.
So I love what I do. I don’t write trash. I write books. Some of them have a lot of sex in them. Some of them have less. Some of them sell better than others. Some of them that I worked the hardest on and am proudest of do not sell as well as those that were a snap to write. Sometimes something out on a pitch is a project I love so much and I know, at the same time, that its chances are very low (I have a project like that out on an option right now). It’s important to understand that creating art is complicated and if you want to sell it, it’s also a business. And business means you need to be aware of what the consumer is most in the mood to see.
Understanding your business and your place in the publishing eco system, whether you self publish, publish with a small publisher or with NY (or do all three as I do), does not make you a sell out. It does not make you a failure or a purveyor of trash. It makes you a savvy business person.
I will never, ever apologize for wanting to make a living from my art. Nor do I think any of us should. ANd if you do, that’s your own business, but don’t sling your guilt my way and expect me to wear it like a hairshirt.
I’m not a sell out. I’m not writing things I’m ashamed of so I can one day write what I want. Building a base means you best be writing what your readers like if you want to keep them as you expand. It’s a silly waste of that energy to fake who you are until one day when you can finally say, ‘hahah! Now I’m going to write this other thing” Because that’s not going to work.
Be who you are. Love who you are and what you do. If you hate yourself for writing X, don’t write X. Though please do understand that different things sell better or worse given time and trends.
And in the end, I’m gonna quote Madonna who I’m sure has no discomfort at all doing whatever the fuck she wants whenever she wants and who has made a pretty lasting career at it: I’m not your bitch, don’t hang your shit on me.