Saturday, November 10, 2007

Beauty vs Utility

When you talk about finding "something I want to acquire" in the slush pile, what do you mean? Is this a literary gem that speaks to your heart or is it a commercial manuscript with a hook that will beat out the competition?

The answer is yes.
I don't pull things out of slush that I think will be a commercial success but that I personally despise. Those stay there. The less said about them to Marketing, the better.
But when I do pull something from slush and get excited about it, it can be for lots of reasons. "Literary gem" is one of them; so is "kids are going to love this" and "what a great read-aloud." And many other categories. I love many different kinds of readers, so I love making many different kinds of books.
I guess what I'm trying to ask is are you (and other editors) looking to create art these days or is your company (and you by extension) mainly fixated on the bottom line?

The answer is yes.
Editors are in this business because they love books and want to help create great ones. Publishers are in this business to make money.

Editors work for publishers, which on the one hand put an emphasis on profitability, but on the other hand pay us to work in books.
And publishers hire editors, who on the one hand are stubborn and headstrong and care much more for literature than for profitability, but on the other hand are the only types of people who can do the job.
So each side has some trade-offs.
Is there any room for beautiful writing in picture books?

You're sounding awfully discouraged. Did you notice Show Way got a Newbery honor last year? What a great book.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

The imprint I work for can't afford to have a book that doesn't sell, so sometimes I will have to turn down "literary" things with "beautiful writing" because we know from experience that even when we love them (and we often do), we risk losing tens of thousands of dollars on them when they don't sell enough to recoup their production costs.

And sometimes I will come across a book that I don't really love but recognize as having good market potential, and I'll recommend we acquire it. I don't feel my personal taste ought to trump the imprint's chance to have a successful book on its list.

And then again sometimes, my coworkers and I will look at the very commercially successful books published by other companies and realize that they're not interesting to us, just not the knd of stories we'd ever want to publish anyway. So while we have to be very pragmatic about the business, we still have some kind of literary sensibility that runs deep enough to turn down the next Fancy Nancy. Even if that hurts our sales.

"Art" and "the bottom line" are never a simple either/or proposition.

Anonymous said...

I am coming here anonymously which I usually don't do... but because
"Fancy Nancy" reminds me SO MUCH of Jon Benet Ramsey, I must. That book goes against everything I would hope for my children. EVERYTHING.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your honesty. I'm the author who originally asked the question. I AM discouraged. I made up my mind recently to only write and publish books of value that I think are truly different and unique. I won't do another duck or rabbit story or a bio of someone who's been featured a million times before.

It's hard to find a publisher for these manuscripts. I'm not a beginner by any means, but I don't want to be beaten down by the commercialism in the culture anymore--if that means none of my newer manuscripts will get published, well so be it.

emay said...

I actually liked Fancy Nancy. I think (from a parent's perspective) it's a story about parents who take a relaxed, accepting, and loving attitude toward their child who is a little different from them. As much as we promote our own values, the reality is that our kids at various points are going to love some things that we don't think are very worthwhile. Just like we did when we were kids.

Now, parents dressing their daughters up like Fancy Nancy is something else again . . .

Anonymous said...

I feel very sympathetic with the Anon who asked the question. It's not that I think what I'm writing is superior to what's being published. It's just hard when editors love your work but don't think they can sell it. And it's hard when your agent starts asking you to write a different, "more commercial" kind of book that isn't what you care about or are good at. Editors are always telling authors to ignore the current market and write what we love, but . . .

ae said...

You kind of have to find that happy medium. And obviously it can be done.

Anonymous said...

Writers, being word people, love "literary" and "beautiful" things, and may often enough be able to engage editors, their fellow word people. But books are purchased, we hope, by the masses, only some of whom are themselves literary. I think what's being said is that the industry isn't a sorority. We need both art and commercialism, and I see us as constantly striving for a balance of both.