Artist or Entertainer

For the career writer, “artist” or “entertainer” remains a perennial problem.

I use the term “artist” to distinguish the most personal, creative goals of a writer. The “artist” wants to tell the stories that the writer wants to tell, regardless of their commercial viability or any other external value. Every writer has an “artist” inside them.

The “entertainer” distinguishes the writer’s need to cater to her audience. The “entertainer” wants to be loved, respected, valued and compensated. The “entertainer” wants to know how her stories are being received by the audience, it’s the ear that’s turned outward, listening for every laugh, titter, clap, sigh and boo from beyond the footlights. Every writer has an “entertainer” inside them.

The conflict between “artist” and “entertainer” represents a serious, ongoing emotional challenge for the writer. I don’t want to address this because it’s too personal, every writer is on his or her own journey and I’m not sure I could say anything valuable.

I do want to address the concrete, practical dilemmas that writers face around this issue.

First, let me sketch for you the gospel of commercial publishing. I believe that what I’m about to write plays into the goals of all the major publishers. I’ve heard it from their lips many times and in my own analysis I see it in their behavior.

The chief goal of all fiction publishers is what I would call “franchise publishing.” They do not want to publish one book by a writer. They do not want to publish a number of very different books by a writer. Their ideal writer originates a character, a voice or a fictional world so compelling that they create a fan base for this entity. With this valuable entity now established, they want the author to ride it as long and as deeply as possible. As a practical matter, they are not interested in the artist, but the entertainer. Give ’em what they want is the motto here. Create a “franchise.”

This worldview permeates the philosophy of all genre publishing and reaches into the literary world as well. Mystery publishing is a pristine example. Mysteries editors more often buy series than “books.” They believe it’s so hard to establish a writer, the initial shipments of the first book are so small, that they must spread their risk and the authors chance, over a number of books. It is a sound publishing philosophy. It’s the single most important philosophy out there. All writers must live with it, understand it, and even exploit it for their own good. I am not writing to criticize this philosophy, but to point out the conflicts it creates for the writer.

Franchise publishing conflicts with the goals of the writer as artist. Let me share two specific instances that brought this home for me for writers that I represent.

One writer is an up and coming writer in a certain genre. She delivered a manuscript on spec to her present publisher because the publisher wasn’t happy with the original outline and the publisher did have enough of her books accepted so that they did not have to commission a book at that juncture. The writer went forward with the book because it was important to her and felt creatively that this was the book she needed to write. When completed, the publisher wasn’t really taken with the finished book.

This writer had previously originated a fictional world that was quite successful. As it rejected the spec manuscript, the publisher requested more books set in this world and had been doing so for some time, making it clear they believed this was the best way the author could advance her career. The author had already sold them a few other books not set in this world, but remained convinced that these books were the way to go. The author did have ready an outline set in this fictional world and we did conclude a deal to write one additional book in that universe. The advance we got was a substantial increase on her previous advance and that increase did represent the publisher’s belief that books set in this universe were worth more than any other book the author could write. The book that was rejected is being shopped elsewhere and the author’s dilemma remains in place. She wants to write the stories she finds compelling, she also wants to succeed.

Another writer I represent faced a similar dilemma recently, at a much earlier stage of his career. He sold a first thriller for a modest advance to a good house that is publishing it in hardcover. The opportunity is a good one. He delivered a new outline for his second book, using different characters than the first book. Before replying to the new outline, the editor asked us why the 2nd book did not utilize the same characters from book one and was not set in the same universe. The editor articulated the franchise publishing philosophy almost exactly as I’ve described it in this article.

After some real soul searching and even writing a second outline set in the original world, the author decided to stick with the new outline with the new characters. We received a modest offer for the second book and as of this writing, the author has decided not to go under contract, choosing to write the second book on spec. With publication a few months away and his own very serious marketing plan in place, this author would rather wait and see if he can establish himself at a level where he may have the freedom to write a second book more of his own choosing or get a substantial advance based on the success of the first book. He is also writing the new book, so when the first book is published, he will be ready to contract for the second immediately and be published one year later, not missing a turn. Authors are sometimes given the advice to never write on spec. Here are two instances where it seems to me, writing on spec was the right decision.

These are just two examples in the real world of the real dilemmas writer’s face. I wouldn’t suggest any hard and fast rules here. Franchise publishing is a legitimate goal for any writer. Know yourself and think about your choices. Apprenticeships are common in many businesses, accept the fact that you may have to write a number of books as an entertainer to earn your shot as an artist. Don’t be afraid to dig in your heels either. You may have to switch or add a publishing house or work under a pseudonym or find some other way to have certain of your books published. I would encourage writers to be flexible enough to work for love and money. Each demand sacrifice. Each has rewards. I never advise writers to drop their favorite projects regardless of market conditions. But if market conditions are unfavorable, you may have to live with an unpublished manuscript.

This article originally appeared in Novelists, Inc.

Copyright 2021, The Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency