things to think about in the struggle of art vs commerce

Jonathan Karp is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Twelve, an imprint within the Hachette Book Group. Twelve is an interesting imprint experiment because it acquires and publishes only one book a month. And it has an assigned publicist working on just that one book each month. (See this February 2008 NPR article for more on their individual approach.) Most editors I know handle several titles per month, some of them inherited from editors who have moved on to other houses or other careers. It really makes you think about what kind of attention each book gets. And how incredibly competitive it must be to get on Karp’s list.

In any case, Karp says in the article, Turning the Page on the Disposable Book (Washington Post)
“Like most publishers, I want multitudes of readers to buy our books. Moreover, authors prefer publishers who believe in the broad appeal of their work and are committed to selling as many copies as possible. Most authors want their work to be accessible to a typical educated reader, so the question really isn’t whether the work is highbrow or lowbrow or appeals to the masses or the elites; the question is whether the book is expedient or built to last. Are we going for the quick score or enduring value? Too often, we (publishers and authors) are driven by the same concerns as any commercial enterprise: We are manufacturing products for the moment.”

The article goes on to discuss the options available to publishers to meet the bottom line, and show a profit, which, as a business, they must necessarily do. But the outlook isn’t always pretty because it can result in books driven by consumption rather than by the artistic endeavor. That’s not to say that some books don’t satisfy both. But it can become a struggle to balance quality with expediency, as authors who are pushed to produce at least one book per year know. The compromises can be unsatsifying, particularly when each author generates their best work at varying rates of speed and levels of revision.

This art vs. commerce question is also a quandary I face myself when considering books to represent. When faced with the oft-asked question: “What are you looking for?”, I feel I must reply: “Something I love…. and something I can sell.” Because without the latter, neither I nor the author can pay the mortgage, no matter how much of a fangirl I am. Nevertheless, here I sit, reading books looking for the love, and hoping that the sale won’t be far behind. And, yes, there is currently a book on my list that I took on for the love and knew that it would be a challenge to sell. Luckily, I currently have the option to work on it, whether it takes me three months or three years, but not everyone is afforded that luxury.

13 responses to “things to think about in the struggle of art vs commerce

  1. I just read something about this on Jonathan Lyons’ blog, and it makes perfect sense: you have to take on what you think you can sell; but it’s nice to see you took one on for the love, too.

  2. “Something I love…. and something I can sell.”
    And I imagine somewhere in those ellipses is “someone I can imagine working with over the period of a career.”

    • Well, that’s an interesting point. I do want to work on many books over the course of the author’s career, but that one’s harder to pinpoint sometimes because the interview process of author-agent revolves more around the writing than the personality of either person. One occasionally does discover that one is ill-matched, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the writing, or even the quality of the agenting. It’s ultimately a partnership, so all those personal quirks also have to jive. Tricky, isn’t it?

  3. While Karp’s take on the future of publishing is certainly interesting, I think he’s coming at it from a very specific angle.
    As someone pointed out in a comment elsewhere, what Karp himself likes to read would be considered by most people to be highbrow fiction, whether he wants to label it that or not. He is quick to dismiss the worth of things like genre fiction (“Readers of old-fashioned genre fiction will die off, and the next generation will have so many different entertainment options that it’s hard to envision the same level of loyalty to brand-name formula fiction coming off the conveyor belt every year”), which, while it may not appeal to him and may not constitute what he thinks books should be, is what many fiction readers want to read, even if they occasionally also read a book by a Pulitzer or Booker prize winning author.
    What Karp seems to be saying, even if he doesn’t state it, is that in the future the big publishing houses will end up ceding huge amounts of territory in the entertainment industry to either small net-based publishers or other forms of entertainment, but these same big publishing houses can thrive by publishing the sort of book he sees as worthwhile. The main problem I see with this idea is that it means taking the current pool of readers, which is already dangerously small, and basically tossing aside all of those who don’t find that sort of “worthwhile” book to be especially appealing as a form of entertainment. Publishing great works of art may be a laudable goal, but it seems unlikely to sell enough units to sustain a big publishing house, especially with those same houses increasingly being owned by corporate masters who care mainly about the bottom line. Note that Twelve itself is an imprint of a larger corporation that currently makes plenty of its money off of books that Karp would consider to be disposable.
    I also take umbrage with the idea that somehow great books can only be written slowly and painstakingly and must therefore always take more than a year. It seems to assume that all writers do their best work at the same pace, which is obviously not true.

    • :: transiting through the discussion ::
      I can talk out of both sides of my mouth on ‘s last point.
      On the one hand, I think the meme that slow writing = good writing is somewhat pernicious. It’s rooted in processes and issues outside the realm of fiction, including generations of invested experience in academe, and heavily tinged with a bedrock assumption that disparages commercialism, per the argument in the original post above.
      On the other hand, speaking as someone whose name is almost literally a byword for hyperproductive writing, my career process seems to be all about learning to slow down.
      What does that tell me? Something I already knew: that the truth of this is a continuum which varies for each writer, and varies within their career phase. Somehow, though, the slow=good faction always has the moral high ground in these discussions.

    • Okay, I’ll bite and say I agree w/ this post. Quality isn’t necessarily what sells currently. Da Vinci Code sold more than I can probably imagine. Is it the kind of fiction Karp suggests is the future of publishing? No. Did it capture the imagination of many (many) readers? It sure did.
      I also don’t think the future generation will give up on genre fiction. Schools still emphasize reading is ‘better’ than TV/video/multimedia entertainment. So kids have to read, daily if you go by school guidelines. These kids aren’t limiting their reading to award-winning fiction. They are reading Dear Dumb Diary, and Captain Underpants, and Goosebumps etc (books that are likely churned out in less than a year). Some of these kids will give up on it all as soon as they can, and live connected to their iPod-on-steroids gadget of the future. Other kids will always love reading, and will have books downloaded to their iPod-on-steroids gadget.

    • Of course, I’ll have to respond. 🙂
      I happen to agree with you. The reading market seems to be diminishing in general and having someone decide what is best, in something as broad and varied as the fantasy market seems kind of off. Yeah, publishing companies are losing to the entertainment and small markets, but isn’t that how everything works?
      Larger publishing companies aim for the broadest appeal. The first publishing company I worked with was very small but they aimed for a rather thriving niche market. They could afford to aim for that neglected area of readers, simply because they didn’t have to have broad market appeal.
      They just had a smaller budget. 🙂
      His stuff also reminded me of a writing contest I read about some months ago. I forgot the name, but it was a “highbrow” literary where a famous author determined who won the prize. That itself wasn’t that amazing, but it was the notice that they canceled the contest for the year ended up being bigger news. It wasn’t because of not enough entries, but they simply decided there weren’t any great entries, just good ones. There seems to be parallels to this, mainly because it is a small group wanting to focus on only the “best of the best”.
      I think this works, but as you mentioned, only with the backing of a much larger company, or with a teeny tiny company that might not make more than a few ripples. And what is best for my mother, my wife, and me are four entirely different things. More so when talk about stories.

    • Thank you!!

  4. for an elitist, Karp seems overly preoccupied with profits…
    Karp has reinvented the “Hollywood blockbuster”, and discovered elitism as a marketing gimmick.
    He is welcome to live in a world where only rich snobs can own books, where only a few can afford to write the ‘great works,’ and are sponsored by conformity-inducing institutions… (and the really neat stuff is printed hot and fast on cheap paper… scandalous pamphleteers for the win).
    Meanwhile, the young adult mills will continue to print money.

    • footnote:
      my opinions were colored by these guys’ response to Charlie Stross’ suggestion that perhaps business models aren’t forever…

  5. I’ve worked with Jon Karp, and he’s a brilliant guy. He’s also someone who can have real tunnel vision when he thinks he’s closing in on The Next Big Thing.
    I remember when he left publishing entirely to go work with Scott Rudin because publishing was dead and movies were The Next Big Thing. Now “prestige books” are The Next Big Thing in the Karpiverse. And my guess is that there will be a next Next Big Thing, because constant reinvention is part of Jon’s genius.
    He’s also an incredible manuscript editor, and I learned a lot from working with him. (On a work of the soon-to-be-extinct genre fiction, no less!)

  6. What is Art?
    I saw some comments making the distinction of art (as used in this post), as in genre fiction vs. highbrow fiction. When I first read this post I immediately assumed we’re talking about quality of writing (writing, characterization, plot) in a novel—any novel—rather that different genres; that publishers, for example, jump on publishing a novel which might not be that “good” simply because it will sell and not because it’s a thriller vs. e.g. about an immigrant struggling in a new country (though genre fiction could talk about that too). Because, well, isn’t that argument true? Don’t most prefer that kind of entertainment? Though I guess the numbers of Pulitzer et al. winning books sold don’t really validate that point. Anyway, “built to last” = art = good writing, that’s what i had in mind.

  7. The phrase that keeps appearing, and that is like fingernails on a blackboard for me is “churned out” applied to any book that is produced in less than a year. The use of that phrase seems to imply that only low quality work can come from “fast” writing, and it marginalizes all work produced at that pace. I have seen this phrase thrown around in several places in the last couple weeks, mostly in response to Karp, and to the article in which several authors (Dennis Lehane among them) were bemoaning the pressure to produce that “fast.”
    Can we, in the name of all that is holy, retire “churned out”? As Jay said (thank you, sir) pace is a variable.
    Perhaps there is another distinction to consider. I think of myself as a story-teller, an entertainer, if you will. I wonder how other writers view themselves?

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