by Stephen Jay Schwartz


I grew up in the Seventies and in the Seventies artists didn’t expect to get rich being artists unless the artistic value of their work was magically discovered by the world or they did what most artists would never, ever consider doing: sell out.

Selling out meant they went commercial.

I remember my first encounter with the concept. It was in 1988, when Eric Clapton played “After Midnight” in the famous Michelob commercial that turned many of his fans against him. What was he thinking? Did he really need the money? Didn’t he have any integrity? These were the questions people were asking at the time.

I remember the scene in the movie The Doors. Jim Morrison came back from one of his black-out drinking binges to discover that the rest of the band sold the rights for “Light My Fire” to a car commercial. Jim was incensed. How could his bandmates have sold out like that? Nowadays, most bands would kill to sell their music rights to a television commercial.

The late Sixties, the Seventies. Antiestablishment years. Us against the man. The Man, represented by the cops, the politicians, and corporate America.

The Eighties saw the rise of a different kind of attitude. In the movie business the corporations took over and started developing content. Star Wars and Jaws began the trend, while films like Flashdance sealed the deal. Gone were the days of Apocalypse Now and Midnight Cowboy. At some point, making a big, popular movie wasn’t considered “selling out,” it was considered “making it.”

I’m not sure artists struggle with the concept anymore. I don’t hear people complaining about how their favorite musician, film-maker or author “sold out.” The only guy that comes to mind for me is Kenny G, who I mentioned in my last blog. He went from being a brilliant, unknown jazz fusion artist to a hugely successful brand name, playing simple, sappy elevator music for the masses. I really don’t believe he was playing the music he loved, I think he was playing the music that sold. In my humble opinion, of course.

I suppose it’s really up to the artist involved. If an author writes a purely commercial novel that he hates to write, just so he can widen his readership and make some money, has he “sold out?” Or has he simply given himself some breathing room, so the next time he can write the “special” novel that may or may not have a chance at gaining commercial success?

I tend to think that most authors I know write exactly the type of novels they want to write. Some try different genres in an effort to gain a foothold in new readership, but I don’t know if they see themselves as “selling out” when they do this.

Most authors I know just want to write for a living. They’ll write anything and everything in an effort to turn that dream into a reality. I do, however, know an author who turned down a high-paying ghostwriting assignment because the employer was a highly-annoying radio talk show host who didn’t share the author’s political views. I don’t know if the author would have considered himself a sell-out if he’d taken the job; I think he just realized that the money wasn’t worth the headache it would cause.

Personally, I’d love to only write books that I’m passionate about writing. I was passionate about writing Boulevard and Beat. When my agent told me to write a “bigger book,” something more “international in scope,” I struggled to find my way. It felt like I was trying to write for the market. And no one can predict the market. It felt like I was writing Hollywood screenplays again. I had to come back to myself to determine what I really wanted to write, something that may or may not be considered commercial or marketable. I only have so much time to devote to my writing and, in the end, I want to know that I really love what I’ve written. Maybe this is what keeps me from getting those juicy ghostwriting gigs. Not that I wouldn’t take them–because it’s work and I want to be a working writer. But if ghostwriting doesn’t pay enough to quit the day job, if all it does is take time from the projects I love, well, I’d rather let those opportunities go. I’ll keep the boring day job and write passionately, for myself, after hours. I guess these are the choices we make. As far as “selling out,” I don’t think I’ve found myself in a position where I can make a choice either way. I first have to establish a career from which to sell out. I’m working on that.

So, what do you think? Are there any authors, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, or film makers that you feel “sold out” in order to advance their careers? Does it even matter?

13 thoughts on “SELLING OUT

  1. Jake Nantz

    I think the concept of selling out is as much a fan elitist thing as anything else. Like the guys whose whole identity was wrapped up in how special they were because they were into the underground music scene and they could turn people on to this punk band called "Green Day." Then the band signed with Atlantic, the album "Dookie" hit the airwaves, and – God forbid – trend-followers and even YUPPIES were listening to the same stuff, and the elitist fans couldn't stand out anymore, and yet somehow it was all THE BAND'S fault. The band's reaction was the best part, though. Instead of getting angsty or lamenting that their new throngs of fans wore golf shirts and ties to work, the guys basically looked at the people shouting "you sellouts!" and went "piss off." Picture Powers Booth in Tombstone: "Well….BYE."

    It's stupid. If a writer I like hits it big, I'm going to be happy and keep reading his or her stuff. I'm not going to grumble and bitch and see if I can find some other indie that no one's ever heard of so I can show off how cool I am that I KNOW THIS PERSON'S BOOKS AND YOU DON'T like some fuckin' hipster snob.

    And Dusty if you got that gig, I'd drink a Michelob just to show you some support, and I think that shit tastes worse than coffee.

  2. Sarah W

    There are a couple of bands whose earlier stuff made me a fan, but whose later work seems to have been . . . mellowed for the mainstream audience? The new releases by Linkin Park, whose métier was pretty much screaming emo rage, strike me this way, though maybe the musicians simply grew up and over it.

    Or maybe they just like eating–it's a tough call.

    I don't know if this is selling out, exactly, but I think authors who become trapped–or think they're trapped– in very long series may run the risk of burn out, and later books can appear to be written solely to cash in on the habits of the readers–when really, that's all the writer has left to give for those particular characters.

    Maybe the difference is in the denial?

  3. Richard Maguire

    What does "selling out" really mean, Stephen? If the alternative is the bread line, then poor fool the writer who travels that road. I'm sure most don't. I agree, though, that writing screenplays for the execs. could stick in the craw. Armani suits and business degrees sitting in judgement on writers must be hard to take. But then screenwriters know what they're getting into, don't they?

    I'm a really big fan of Hayden Glass and was looking forward to book 3. There are times you shouldn't listen to your agent. Not when he/she plans to turn you into the next Robert Ludlum. You have too much poetry in your soul.

  4. F. Paul Wilson

    Trying to think what an author would have to do to make me think he was selling out. Ad copy? Porn? Tie-ins? Nope… can't think of a thing. (as long as the writing was up to his/her usual snuff)

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Sarah – yeah, I can't really get into those long, long book series. I tend to like a trilogy – it feels like the right amount of time for me to spend in someone's world. And I see how an author can feel trapped into writing the same series for the rest of his/her life. It would probably kill me to have to write twenty books in the same series. I wouldn't have anything new to say after book six.

    Richard – thank you for your lovely words, man. There will be a book 3 for Hayden Glass – I put the big, international thriller on hold and now I'm focusing solely on the next Hayden book. His story is definitely a trilogy, and I need the next book to complete the cycle. Unfortunately, my agent doesn't feel he can sell it – his advice to me is that I shouldn't write it. But I have to go with my gut. I'll probably release it as an ebook. We'll see. I have to write it first. It's really hard for me to focus on writing something that I know doesn't have my agent's complete support – it makes me feel like I'm writing in a void. I just have to keep remembering that I wrote the first book in a void, too, and it did all right.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Stephen – go with your gut. Write that third Hayden Glass book and put it out there as a digital original. No hesitations, no doubts. Just do it.

    I KNOW how hard it is to go against your agent's advice when the whole of the build-up to an author's career has been first to get an agent and then to get a publisher, but don't let that blind you to why you wanted to become a writer in the first place.

    At the moment I'm walking the hybrid path and loving it. I've just put my supernatural thriller (changing genre was something I was actively discouraged from doing previously) with somebody to see if it will find a traditional home. If it doesn't – or I don't like the terms – I'll go indie. The amount of amazing support I had here when I posted about it a few weeks ago was a huge boost.

    On the other hand, I'm planning book #11 in my Charlie Fox series. When she's nothing left to say to me THEN I'll stop. But meantime I still have so many places to take her – and Sean.

  7. Gar Anthony Haywood

    Stephen: As you know, this is a subject I could go on and on about, but I won't. All I'll say here is that I think selling out, as it applies to the literary world, has become so mainstream that everyone's doing it to some extent. Next to nobody who's being published is writing strictly for him- or herself – everyone's got at least one eye on what they think they can get away with (in terms of their own tastes) and still sell. It's survival, man.

    But while we're on the subject of really and truly SELLING THE F*CK OUT: No one's ever done it worse than Aerosmith. Nobody. Try listening to "Toys in the Attic" and "Cryin'" back-to-back and not barf. Damn.

  8. Brian Hoffman

    I think this purity of artistic intent is pure horses__t.. Write the best book you can. Period. No question. Writing is a communication. If you communicate your ideas in a mystery or thriller context and READERS BUY it, you have communicated If you indulge in some self-serving exercise that only you and a handful of snobs read, you've wasted your talents.

    Blend the two together.

  9. Lisa Alber

    This is a good question–selling out. As well as the elitist reader types, I've seen writers raise the "sell out" sign when one of their colleagues make it big. Color them green (and not in the environmentally friendly way).

    However, what do we think about folks like Patterson, who became a brand-name, multibazillionaire on the backs of nameless ghostwriters until they rebelled? Quite a few bestsellers don't even do their own writing anymore. This, I have a problem with. Would you call this a form of "selling out" or something else?

    I do notice that many once-a-year megasellers succumb to their own formulas. Evanovitch comes to mind. I can't read her books anymore. They're all the same. Is that a form of selling out, or is that a by-product of the contractual grind with a traditional publishing house? I'm sure many of these authors would like to branch out but feel they can't. Others, sure, are riding the gravy train doing what they know will sell–there's a part of me that has a problem with this and a part of me that says, more power to you.

  10. Reine

    Putting my head on the chopping block here. I think, here in the states at least, it's the logical extension of our corporate form of government.

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