To Be or Not To Be… Published

Photographs by Joanne Drayton

Photographs by Joanne Drayton

When living in the Finnish countryside during a snow storm, there are a surprising amount of options for entertainment — curling up under a wolf pelt on a sofa and reading a book, going for a long walk in the snow storm, working feverishly on a drawing, or enjoying leisurely conversations with one’s housemates.

This morning over coffee,  Joanne Drayton, a fellow Arteles resident who spends her days carving Lewis chessmen pieces out of bone, and I shared a boisterously candid conversation about the trials and tribulations of building a career as a published author.

Jo, an associate professor in New Zealand and renowned author of The Search for Anne Perry, first started publishing her work in academic journals but quickly shifted her attention towards writing books for mainstream publishing houses:

I was still working with an academic framework but looking for a bigger audience and a platform to talk to more people.  I also felt that engaging with the marketplace was a much more honest test than a whole lot of ivory tower self-promoting prima donnas who are really just scratching each other’s backs.

Initially, Jo’s titles were only published in New Zealand, and she proved to be quite successful there.  She realized, though, that if she wanted to create a sustainable career, she would have to develop an international audience.

When she succeeded in obtaining a contract with Harper-Collins, she felt certain she would gain solid footing as an international author.  Her first book with them sold well and received a wealth of positive critical reviews.  But what happened with her proposal for her next book?  Well, she was treated like a newcomer.

The publishers have no sense of commitment to you.  The old-fashioned relationship of a publisher cultivating and building an author no longer exists.  So you have to start from scratch with every book.  Even if you have had success, as I have, for the past several years, they still look at you as if, “Do I know you?”

Publishing houses are in a crunch now, with online content and digital ebooks fastly overtaking print as the easiest methods for transmitting information.  So it makes fiscal sense that these companies would become increasingly cautious in making financial commitments as the entire industry changes around them.  Publishing is just another cog in the capitalist machinery, after all, with obligations to employees, vendors, and boards of directors.

But how are authors supposed to cope with this harsh, close-fisted system?  Jo has chosen to begrudgingly play by the rules set by her publisher and has started another proposal for a non-fiction book.

I feel aggrieved by the treatment, but I’d still rather have the marketplace dictate the decisions about my work than deal with the academic puffery.

However, she has not swallowed this system hook-line-and-sinker.  She mentioned that she is giving serious consideration to self-publishing a novel that has been percolating in her brain.  At this point in the conversation, I began pouring out the hard lessons I have learned from leaving a full-time job to pursue a life as a nomadic artist.  After all, the systems that surround authors parallel the systems that surround visual artists and musicians and creatives in all fields.

As an artist who has chosen to self-publish this project rather than go through the exhausting process of sending off proposals to publishing houses (that will most likely not be interested anyway), this conversation only strengthened my resolve to retain my creative autonomy and to market the sketchbooks in the ways I deem appropriate and respectful to my audience and my work.

But what do you think?  Should artists continue to brave systems that are not set up to benefit them consistently?  Is the risk of going solo (with all the burdens of marketing and promotion placed on the artist) worthwhile?

For more thoughts on publishing, check out Orangutan Swing’s recap of a roundtable they held on “The State of Publishing.”


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