Remember Ernie, the piano player from The Catcher in the Rye? Holden was disappointed that Ernie had grown more proficient since the last time Holden had heard him play. Although Ernie’s playing was technically “better,” Holden noted that by mastering the established rules of how to properly play piano, Ernie’s performance had lost a lot of its passion. This was one of many things Holden found to be not as good as he had remembered, and his disappointment struck a chord in countless readers.
We are driven to writing by masochism. For the vast majority of us, there are many more fruitful ways to make money or derive personal satisfaction from life. We pound away at our projects for hours on end, fueled by the hope that this one is the career-maker. This is the one that will enable us to quit our jobs and make our living tucked away at a cabin in the mountains or house on the beach for months on end, leisurely producing more bestsellers for a vast, insatiable audience.
That’s nice work if you can get it. But for most of us, our love of books does not translate into a love of the business of books. And that’s okay. The business of books, as frustrating and demoralizing as it is, can be handled if you know what you want (assuming, of course, you don’t get offered the cabin or beach-house with your first submission).
There is a world of difference between commercial writing and literary writing. These are like McDonald’s and Burger King… they have their similarities, but they’re completely different arenas.
Commercial writing is, as it implies, all about getting readers and making that sweet, sweet paper. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Unless you’re going to live like those folks on Life Below Zero, we’ve all got to support ourselves. (Note: I saw a guy on Life Below Zero talk about how great his life was because he was able to dig a glob of fat from behind the eyes of moose so I can tell you I’m not aspiring to be one of those folks). Commercial writing keeps the industry running, so it is inherently awesome.
But if success in commercial writing is your goal, you will most likely have to tailor your writing accordingly, at least in the early stages of your writing career. Publishers understandably want books they can sell. That’s what they do. And they want to sell a book using the least amount of resources possible. That’s just good business. So, if you have a decent manuscript that can easily be assigned to a popular genre, your odds of reaching your goals have gone up considerably.
Your job in commercial writing is to provide a manuscript that will appeal to as many people as possible. This is derisively coined as “the lowest common denominator,” but not even the loftiest of authors would shy away from having throngs of admiring readers. Secretly, we all want to succeed commercially. But, at least before the world recognizes our genius, we need to be mindful that this will involve giving folks what they want. If you aren’t interested in researching what is popular, what will scream “EASY SALE” to an agent, and will be a slam-dunk for a skeptical publisher, you are not interested in writing commercial fiction. But if that’s okay with you, then you can measure your success easily.
Does the sound of all that suck the joy of writing right out of you? Then commercial fiction is most likely not your thing. The good news is that you can pursue your vision unfettered by concerns of commercial success. The bad news is that achieving commercial success will be that much more difficult. Fortunately, success in literary fiction means you find your success in putting out the work the way that warms the cockles of your tortured artistic heart. The work itself is the triumph.
But be forewarned, if you are a literary fiction author, your rejection-proof skin must be even mightier than others. Herman Melville died broke without ever knowing the classic status of Moby Dick. Van Gogh sold one painting his entire life. You may very well depart this world before seeing your project truly bear fruit. Make your peace with that. If you can’t, consider at least doing some commercial fiction so you can measure more immediate success.
Fast food exists because it’s a way to appeal to a lot of people and sell a lot of product. There will be no intrinsic satisfaction from a chef by working fast food. But for people who want to have a successful restaurant, that’s not a concern.
Countless record companies rejected Joan Jett before putting out her breakthrough hit, “I Love Rock and Roll,” independently. Her experience with record labels after that brought about a lot of unhappiness and frustration, but it also brought in the revenue so she could bankroll her passion projects.
Know yourself. Know what will make you happy. Find the balance that keeps you scribbling on that legal pad or tapping away on that laptop. Success is more than dollars. Success is more than fame. Success is your joy.
About the Author – Adam S. Barnett
When I was in kindergarten, my report card said I “had a tendency to be sarcastic.” I write fiction novels that are unique without just being odd for the sake of being odd. I wish ketchup-flavored potato chips were available in the USA. I’m a raging introvert, but a friendly one. I’m the guy you see pulled over on the side of the highway trying to rescue a stray dog. Or a turtle. I’ve moved more than one turtle in my day.
Where to find him
Adam S. Barnett author, “The Judas Goat”
You can find Adam on twitter @adam_s_barnett
or on his website