by Kristin Thiel, Senior Editor, Indigo
As writers, we have a lot of tools in the proverbial toolbox, and eavesdropping is no minor one. It teaches us conversation patterns, sparks new ideas, and sometimes even gives us fodder for e-newsletter articles.
Recently, I was in the office catching up on some work on a Saturday, and Indigo’s monthly classes were happening in the room next to mine. I couldn’t help but overhear instructors Susan DeFreitas and Shanna Germain, and two nuggets, one from each of them, have stuck in my mind since then.
Susan was reprising her popular Willamette Writers conference class, Fantastic Fiction: Effective Techniques for Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Beyond. I heard her say at one point, to paraphrase, that Shelley’s Frankenstein wasn’t sci-fi when she wrote it, and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” wasn’t horror—but they would have been called that if they’d published now.
The distinction lies with marketing, and marketing doesn’t always serve the artist. This is not to say that marketers and publicists are bad people or that writers should avoid them as much as possible (quite the opposite, really, as the need continues to grow for all authors, regardless of publishing house, to promote our own work). I also don’t mean to presume Shelley’s and Poe’s feelings about the boxes in which today’s world would have their books reside. Rather, I’m saying that marketing always wants to sell products, and artists always want to share their voice, birth something new into this world. Marketing can also strive to promote voice and creative innovation, and artists can also aim to become famous and make money by selling our art, but each one’s main foundational purpose is fundamentally different from the other’s. The means to different ends do not always overlap.
Passing no judgment on whether or not this is true, think of even the most casual common usages of labels for books. When you heard about Hunger Games, did your friend encourage you to read it with something like, “It’s YA, but…”? There’s a reviewer’s blurb on the back of my copy of Lydia Davis’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant that says the pieces are at once poems, short-short stories, meditations, one-liners.… Powell’s, Portland’s neighborhood bookstore, shelves copies of the same book in different sections—one title may fit under small press, general fiction, mystery, fantasy, and feminism, for example (I imagine there’s an Ursula K. Le Guin or Margaret Atwood that appears in all these sections).
The point is, just as we read the labels on the packages our food comes in, so should we be mindful consumers of what book marketers and store owners are selling us. It can do nothing but help us see books in new ways and expand our reading repertoire. And, of course, when we get ready to publish our own writing, we should be ready with questions about how our books will be marketed (and be prepared for when the answers don’t meet our vision; we may also better appreciate the tricky spot where the publisher or store owner stands too).
Indigo’s other teacher that day was Shanna, who’d traveled from her new home in Seattle just to teach Breaking the Genre Barrier: The Practical Guide to Writing and Submitting Genre Work. She reminded the class with multiple examples that the writing life is an unorthodox one. We don’t work the same basic way as most others, and we also aren’t rewarded in the same ways as many others are.
One of Shanna’s books of poetry received a Literary Arts award several years ago, but it has yet to actually be published, and not for her lack of trying. She told the class that she’d tried every lead she could think of, and the manuscript remains on her hard drive, no one interested or able to publish it. Writers can write the most beautiful, smart, creative, thoughtful and, yes, even lauded work and still never see it published.
This is of course changing now, as self-publishing sloughs off some of its taboos, book-publishing technology gets better and more accessible, and writers, finally so fed up with the mismanaged or undersupported system, throw up our arms and sow and reap our own dream book projects. But we must remain ever aware of our profession’s realities and perhaps ask ourselves: What’s my first publishing goal, and should that not happen, for whatever reason, what’s my second, and (how) will I be okay with that?
Remember, at its core, writing is an art, not a commodity. That doesn’t mean we writers never stop striving for publication or demanding rights and compensation—we just have to agree that all of that sprouts from a necessary mustard seed of love.
For deeper insight into developing your craft as a genre writer, don’t miss Susan DeFreitas’s workshop, Speculative Fiction: Tapping the Imaginative Dimensions of the Scientific Paradigm, at the 2012 Willamette Writers Conference.
Senior Editor Kristin Thiel loves the written word, its playfulness and intricacies, and working with writers to snap each one into just the right spot. Her editing skill is supported by her life as a writer. Even before she knew how to form the letters of the alphabet, Kristin was “writing,” dictating stories to her mom to put on paper. Her short fiction “Patient” is featured in Men Undressed: Women Writers and the Male Sexual Experience (Other Voices Books/Dzanc Books), and an excerpt from her story “Pilgrim for Hire” is in the reference book Don’t Sabotage Your Submission: Save Your Manuscript from Turning Up D.O.A.