Publishing as Showbiz


In recent days a self-published author has been excoriated for arguing with someone who gave his novel a one-star review online.  The author doesn’t claim the book doesn’t deserve the one-star review; his argument is that it is unfair to him for the reader to have posted it because it could hurt his sales, ruin his life.  Because, come on, this writing thing is hard!

Herein lies the great deception in the many shortcuts to publication now available.  Is the goal to see your name on an Amazon page?  Or is the goal to create something worthy of being seen on an Amazon page or elsewhere?

Before it’s my turn to be excoriated for giving indie authors a hard time, let me say that I’m fully aware, as are lots of folks, that there are some good ones who are succeeding brilliantly at publishing their own work.  They have created something that appeals to readers enough that they will spend money on it.  Some have even created a solid revenue stream.  They have no doubt worked really hard at that, because writing something good is not easy.  It takes perseverance, discipline, study, ambition, and talent.

It takes talent.  Talent is something that is scattered unequally over the population.  In itself, it is no guarantee of success, but without it, success can be all but impossible to attain.  Edison said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but as others have pointed out since the Wizard of Menlo Park spoke, without the 1%, the 99% is wasted.

A nice singer I worked with tried out for the New York Yankees before turning to music.  He said to me once that baseball had been kinder to him than singing had, by which he meant, he learned early that he didn’t have the talent for a career in baseball.  It took longer for him to learn that he didn’t have enough talent for a big career in music.  (Of course, then we have to define success, which is fodder for another discussion entirely.)

Baseball is, in its own way, a form of showbiz, and many yearn to be professional ballplayers who end up disappointed.  Many people long to be movie stars, too.  Only a few will make it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise so many people.  We understand the showbiz effect, that strange system that makes Tom Cruise is a huge star and someone better looking and more talented only moderately famous.  (Greg Kinnear, not that I’m naming names . . .)  That’s showbiz, and we get it.  Baseball, ballet, sculpting, newscasting—all of these have elements of showbiz.

So does writing.

What bothers me about the anecdote I started with, a writer complaining to a reviewer that it was unfair to negatively review his work, is the sense of entitlement the writer evidently possesses.  That entitlement is not justified.  Publishing is hard, as is every creative field—or perhaps I should say, every field.  There are no guarantees of fame and money, no matter how hard you’ve tried.

We all know plenty of fine writers who work day jobs because their excellent novels and short stories don’t earn them a living.  Are they failures?  I don’t think so, because they’re doing what they love.  Are they justified in whining about that?  Nope.  And they don’t do it, either.

We can’t know ahead of time whose work will catch the zeitgeist and whose won’t.  Despite what lots of books about writing try to claim, no one knows what the next bestseller will be, just as no one knows what actress will turn out to be a top draw at the box office when another one doesn’t.

I have a hard-and-fast rule that applies here.  I learned it in my first career, and it is this:  Never, never respond to the press.  Even the amateur press.  Suck it up, know that everyone gets the occasional bad review, and move on.

In the meantime, as I’ve said to many students, let this one go and go write something new.  Try to write better with each new project.  Everything we publish is a tryout, in a way.  An audition.  And when you audition, you take your chances.

The great 19th century contralto Elisabeth Schumann-Heink said, “To be a singer you must have the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It’s true for all of us who put our work out into the public eye.  We are performing artists.  It’s our job to entertain the public, and the public owes us nothing.  We have to earn it.

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