Friday, August 22, 2014

Balancing art and business

As a writer, one of my pet peeves is that there's so little regard for originality and creativity. The prevailing mindset seems to be: it's ok to copy a style/storyline/ideas or ride on the success of a formula, as long as it sells. It doesn't help that from primary school, kids are taught to follow model compositions which of course, ends up with all the compositions reading like they were mass produced.

When Lesley-Anne and I were brainstorming ideas for Danger Dan's time-travelling adventures, Epigram Books suggested that the character had a mad scientist dad who invented a time machine. Both of us protested because it was so formulaic and overdone. They said, "it's ok to be formulaic!" but let us have the final say. (That's one of the great things about Epigram Books - they never force their suggestions on us.)

I don't blame them at all because I understand why publishers like things formulaic. It's safer. Doing something original is risky because you don't know how it will affect book sales, vs something that has been tried and tested. However, for Lesley-Anne and me, writing is something very close to our hearts and the books are like our babies - we want to be proud of them. We want to add value to the world of fiction. We want people to love the story we've created, not something that was ripped off from somebody else.

However, I claim this as my personal philosophy and not as a judgement against others because I realise that I'm in a somewhat enviable position of having a day job. Writing books is a hobby and I don't have to depend on it to earn my living. Since I'm not doing this for the money, I have the luxury of being able to write what I want (as long as I can convince the publisher!) Whereas authors who depend on writing for income are under greater pressure to ensure their books sell.

That is the one of the reasons why I don't see myself giving up my career to pursue full-time fiction writing anytime soon. I don't want to be in a position where sales become so important that I feel the need to churn out books and series at the expense of the quality of writing.

Having said that, it would be silly to deny the importance of book sales. Fashion guru Michael Kors once said on an episode of Project Runway, that fashion is both art and business. I totally agree and I feel that this statement applies to books as well. Authors need to understand that a book they put out should at least have a chance at commercial viability. Publishing something that nobody wants to buy is just narcissistic and a waste of trees. Write a journal then.

Before I become an author, I thought how nice it would be to have a book published, end of story. Now that I'm one, I find myself looking at sales numbers, hoping my books will sell well. For the publisher, sales are critical to survival. A book that doesn't sell hurts their bottomline because it translates into real costs for them. Book publishing is a tough business to be in in this day and age where reading, especially fiction, seems to be low on the priority scale of most people. The stats are pretty scary.

In a challenging landscape, there's bound to be politics and underhanded practices and it's the same for the book industry. Becoming a published author has been an eye-opening experience for me. I won't go into detail but I was like a wide-eyed country bumpkin when I heard about some of the cut-throat stuff that went on behind the scenes in the industry.

Did I expect that because this was an industry that dealt with books, people would all be aboveboard and function with integrity? You can call me sotong right now. Even a seemingly minor decision like getting a book agent for school talks and sales created a moral dilemma for me. Originally, I was linked up with a book agent whom I had reservations about because she was rude and abrasive. Later, I heard that she treats books purely as a commodity and found some of her sales tactics questionable. I saw her once at a school book sale and was rather put off by her behaviour.

I couldn't imagine partnering with someone like that, let alone entrust my precious Danger Dan to her. Thankfully, I think God must have been looking out for me because before any arrangements were made, my book agent was changed to Denise of Closetful of Books instead and it has been such a blessing. Even though Denise is less established in the business, she is a fellow book lover and only recommends books that she has read and loves. We hit it off almost immediately and I knew Danger Dan was in good hands.

On Lesley-Anne's birthday, Denise surprised her with a gift - a visual art book of writer Neil Gaiman's speech "Make Good Art". All because she heard Lesley-Anne mention once that she loves Neil Gaiman. Such a sweet and thoughtful gesture. (Incidentally, that keynote speech for Philadelphia's University of the Arts is inspirational - it encapsulates so much of my own philosophy of life. You can read it here.)

For all my naivete, I've been incredibly fortunate. Epigram Books has been a godsend. So has Denise. I don't know how well Danger Dan will do and whether it will take off, but if it does, I'm glad that I will be sharing Danger Dan's success with people who have their hearts in the right place.


Rachel Tan said...

whoa....and how to you juggle a job, writing fiction, managing the kids and household. You're amazing. I'm barely keeping afloat just holding to a job and keeping half an eye on the kids' school work.

monlim said...

Rachel: Haha, thanks for boosting my ego! Nolah, since my kids are older now, I'm hardly involved with their schoolwork, if at all, so that frees up a lot of time. Looking after kids' schoolwork is a real energy and time sapper.

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