A New Life in Seattle

A New Life in Seattle
August, 2018

Monday, June 3, 2013

Selling vs. Selling Out

Some of the world's best-selling writers have been hard-as-nails at business too. Virgil drove a tough bargain with the emperor Augustus and became one of the wealthiest men in all Rome. George Bernard Shaw and Lord Byron both kept gimlet eyes on sales and dickered with their publishers. James Clavell was once described as a 'filthy sea pirate' in all matters pertaining to contracts. I'm sure we could come up with a very long list of like-minded sharpies. But then we'd need another list of writers, even great ones, who were financial clowns with no sense of the market and no interest in sales.

At the end of the day we'd know on which list our own names belong. And I wouldn't mind seeing two long lists at all. But I have something else in mind: a general confusion about writing and money or writing and success. Take a quick look around and you'll see no confusion about this in the fields of music, sports or acting, where earning hundreds of millions of bucks is the common goal. 

But pity the poor writer. Sit some of us down at a laptop, or a yellow legal pad, or a Moleskine notebook, and our noble brains are filled with images of geniuses--too good to live in this cruel world--dying dead broke in their garrets. Many have, true. But then many of those simply failed to see the difference between selling and Selling Out.

To some extent, all writing is and must be salesmanship--and not just in the marketing, in the creative act itself. What are we doing but selling when we devise an outline to ensure that our structure and pacing are sound--and sure to draw in the most readers? What are we doing but selling when we revise over and over again to make sure each word does its job--and has the most impact on readers? We'd do well to admit it and sell just as hard in the writing as in the marketing. For the better we well, the better our chances to earn the bucks we need to buy the time to write more books.

Well! Now that we've got that cleared up, let's move on to Selling Out. For once the Sixties got something dead-right. Though the Hippies were also confused about selling, they knew that Selling Out was wrong. To Sell Out means to compromise something of great value for money or security. A brilliant film may be sold out to a committee that insists upon a different ending. A masterful book may be sold out at an agent's insistence, gutting it of parts deemed to potent for buttoned-down brains. But generally we use the term in a more general way, referring a dazzlingly original talent that's been deliberately watered down for commerce.

Two examples. One a Sell-Out, one not quite.
1) James Patterson is less a writer these days than the superintendent of a literary factory. He lends his name to projects that he conceives but which are written by 'co-writers' then, he says, polished by him. Some are quick to say that Patterson's Sold Out. Not quite. His literary aspirations were never really high and he'd already gotten rich as the 'god of all things creative' at  J Walter Thompson. Patterson was a master marketer with a passion for money, business and great hooks. He simplified his style for speed: short chapters, snappy sentences, two-line paragraphs, etc. And from there it was a simply a logical step to mass produce the novels...then stop writing them, almost completely. Say what you like, JP never Sold Out. He kept putting new spins on his marketing plans. And he went on to rule his world exactly as he'd planned.
2) Robert B Parker, however, is a different story. The first half-dozen entries in his Spenser series were bold and fresh and young and new. In a world of jaded and tired P.I.'s, Spenser came on proudly as something new under the sun. But read the last books, if you can, then sit there and weep for a while. Paint by numbers all the way with Patterson-style paragraphs and uninspired prose. Parker had become, in his own mind, his hero. The saintly Susan had become his wife. The books were now speed-written Valentines to the happy couple...and their bank account. Parker joked about laughing on his way to the bank, near the end. But the joke was all of his fans. He'd Sold Out.

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