By Toni McGee Causey

One of the most frustrating things about teaching new writers the ins and outs of publishing is trying to communicate just how subjective the business is. Grasping just how subjective the business can be is perhaps one of the first real steps into grasping the business itself — moving from starry-eyed newcomer to experienced writer. Those steps? Can be torture. Because when you do finally grasp just how random and coincidental and subjective the business can be, you finally have to acknowledge that you cannot control it. You move from being the God of the world you created to the person subject to an enormous amount of whims and choices beyond your control. If you’re a control freak (and I think most writers are, to a degree, especially about their own work), it’s positively painful to realize that your control can’t extend much further than who you query or whose offer you accept, should an offer be proffered.

I was teaching a few weeks ago at one of the library events I do throughout the year, and it was a crash course on publishing. The event was very well attended and several of the attendees came chock full of questions (which is wonderful — the time flew). But we kept circling around to the notion that they might not have control over some of the things they thought they’d get to choose about their books. Like cover. (coughcoughinyourdreamscough) If you’re really lucky, the publisher/editor will ask for your input and/or feedback once they have some designs, and if you really loathed something, hopefully they’d take that into account and not inflict you with a terrible cover, but often, they have reasons that go far beyond what you saw for the book … reasons that have more to do with market research and what’s selling well and what just hit the bestseller lists and on and on — none of which may be right for your book, but that’s impossible to predict.

When I was discussing this with the group, talking about subjectivity in general, I tried to use the dress metaphor. (I lost the men almost immediately.) We were talking about why not every editor will love every book, even when a book might go on elsewhere, and become a bestseller. Today, however, I had the perfect example right in front of me.

I’m in New Orleans. CJ Lyons is down teaching and I scampered over today to hang out during her down time today. CJ knew that one of my goals today was to take the time to look around at some of the galleries here for art. I’ve been doing some remodeling in my house and I have almost no art up anymore. Some things I just outgrew, some things I’m simply tired of, and mostly, my tastes had grown and changed over the last few years, so that what I wanted now was different. We meandered in and out of several galleries, and I suddenly imagined what an editor feels like when they’re perusing stacks and stacks of manuscripts: overwhelmed with the choices.

There are so many great artists out there, so many of them right here on this one street (Royal) that I could spend hours and hours angsting over the choices to be had. I didn’t have hours and hours, and I had a budget in mind, should something happen to grab my attention. And when you have that many choices in front of you–so many of them great–you have to create your own criteria to help whittle down the choices so that you can actually buy something.

For example, I eliminated certain styles of art immediately. I appreciate looking at them, I appreciate what the artist is doing (or tying to do), and I can see the value in them, see the impressive skills … but the bottom line was, I didn’t want to live with it. I didn’t want to wake up day in and day out and see it. It wasn’t going to bring me joy on that level, and it wasn’t something that spoke to me or resonated with me in a way that gave me new pleasure, every time I looked at it. An editor (and an agent) goes through this–they know that whatever they sign, they are going to be seeing it for a long long time. Maybe not day in and day out, but they’re going to be reading and re-reading and thinking about it and talking about it and figuring out how to do more with it and market it and then get it as much promotion as humanly possible. If it doesn’t really speak to them? That a lot of time to spend on something that is just technically good. If you had the choice of spending a lot of time on something technically good vs. something that blew you away, which would you do? Assuming they cost roughly the same, or both could at least be purchased by you — you’d be crazy not to pick the latter.

 Once I had automatically eliminated the obvious things that weren’t in my tastes/zone, I had to start whittling down the remaining choices. Many of them were beautiful works. Some were paintings, some were photographs. This is where budget and space contraints came into play. I could have spent more on something, if I’d found the exact right thing that grabbed my heart and held on and made me want to sit in front of it for hours, just mesmerized. I was willing to go there, for something like that. For the smaller things I was looking at, I loved what the photographer had done, (and it speaks to something I’m doing in my new work), so it resonated with me deeply and I knew that I would enjoy these smaller pieces. I saw a slightly bigger item at that same gallery which impressed me, but not enough for me to go so far over my comfort zone, budget wise. I bought the smaller pieces, and am not only happy with the purchases, I know I’m going to enjoy looking at them again and again.

A few shops later, I saw two pieces that I flat out loved. They were amazing works of art and I wanted them. Wanted. But there were two issues that prevented me from having an automatic “yes.” (1) I wasn’t sure if I had the right spot for them. You don’t buy something that large  and that dynamic without knowing where you’d hang it, and I wasn’t sure if I even had the right place. (2) I wasn’t sure it was ultimately what I wanted. If I was going to blow my budget by that much, I had to feel like it was something I couldn’t live without. Something I’d feel bereft at losing. Something I’d lament not having, day after day.

An editor is faced with the same sort of issues. There are small projects she/he will love and/or enjoy and while they may not be masterpieces, they are something the agent/editor connects to and will not mind living with for a long while through the course of the book. But for an editor to spend a lot of money on a big project, they have to have two things going in: they have to absolutely love it in order to convince those with the actual money to part with said money and they have to believe, in the world of their business, that this gamble is going to pay off. In my art choices, I only have to gamble my daily satisfaction–I’m stuck with something that expensive, and if it turns out to be a bad choice, I don’t want to have to be reminded about it day after day. But imagine if you are not only reminded of it … imagine if your job hinged on its success. If you’ve got the passion for a project and tout it up the ladder and convince everyone to spend a lot of money (both on the project and on marketing) and then it doesn’t sell? Your career as an editor could be over or in serious jeopardy. So you’ve got to really really love the work to go that distance. Even for an established writer, with a built-in audience.

It’s a subjective world. We can’t control the business, and we can’t say “I’ll be happy when …” and then put things like “sell” or “sell X number of books” or “hit X list” at the end of that sentence, because those things are outside of our control. The only thing we can do is control the quality of the work. Do the very best we can do and put it out there, in as many ways as possible, to interest the one right buyer (gallery [art] or agent [books]) who can then get it to the right audience. We need to look at the work for satisfaction, not the career trajectory, because to do anything else is to court insanity. The day everything goes really well and we think we can take the credit for that? Is the day we’ve bought back into the delusion and no good can come of that.

So love the work. Enjoy the process and the people you meet along the way. Don’t worry about all of the other things beyond your control. Do the best you can do to educate yourself about the process, of course, and the best you can do to put your work into the rights hands, and then let go and move on to the next work. (Unless you’ve self-published, which brings with it a host of problems, because you have to do everything yourself.) If you want the NY publishing career, know that, at best, you will control only a little of it, and that is mostly what you put on the page.

The good news is, there are lots of people with lots of different tastes. With a little education and tenacity, you can get your work in front of many of those people and increase you chances for good luck.

28 thoughts on “Subjectivity

  1. Cornelia Read

    Toni, this is so so so perfect, and such a great way to think about it all. And I’ve taken to calling this aspect of getting published "involuntary zen." You just have to let it go, compartmentalize that part of your mind, and keep writing. Which is damn hard for me to do, still, but entirely necessary.

    Thank you for this exquisite post, it’s the perfect food for thought for me right now.

  2. KDJames / BCB

    If I think too much about what happens once the book is done, if I even think about other people reading it and whether they might like it, I freeze up and can’t write. Great reminder, Toni, to concentrate on what you can control and let go of the rest. Thanks.

    Back to it.

  3. Anonymous

    Karen in Ohio!!! Thank you thank you thank you for the links to Claudia Lynch!! I had never heard of her. My daughter writes similar ‘stories’ for REAL shoes for the catalogs and ads and windows of the shoe company she works for. She has used noir and historical and literary themes. I enjoyed Claudia’s website immensely. Wonderful.

  4. Anonymous

    Toni. Great message for all, even those of us who do not write.

    "So love the work. Enjoy the process and the people you meet along the way. Don’t worry about all of the other things beyond your control."

  5. toni mcgee causey

    Extra thanks to Louise who posted this for me last night when I couldn’t get squarespace to let me post.

    Karen — how neat! And nope, I didn’t see her shop this trip; I’ll definitely be going back.

    And thank you, everyone — I’m relieved this made sense. (And, sadly, could’ve used editing… oy!) After seeing such stunning art and wishing my budget was ten times what it was several shops in a row, I could only imagine an editor’s feelings. (I wish I could post photos of the art, but most places wouldn’t allow cameras and several didn’t have a website. Which just made no sense, but there ya go.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I like the art analogy, too, Toni. And I think that what people don’t realize before they break in is just how many books they’ll be writing as a professional writer. So if the first one doesn’t sell, it’s really no big deal at all. It will sell eventually if it’s good. The important thing is to just keep writing. Book after book. And eventually book after book will be published, or…. you might come to your senses and do something else!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Toni

    So true – all of it. Somebody said that it’s much better to be a human surgeon than a tree surgeon. A human surgeon can bury their mistakes. A tree surgeon has to look at theirs every day.

    Hope you love the art you found, and found the art you love.

  8. Allison Brennan

    I want to see your art too!

    Brilliant post and very, very true. When an editor came to speak to my RWA chapter, (I want to say it was Rose Hilliard with St. Martins but I’m not positive) she said that there were a lot of books she liked, but she had to love the book if she signed the author. Why? Because she had to feel passionate enough about the book to fight for it with the editorial board; fight for it with marketing/sales; fight for more co-op; fight for the right cover design; fight for placement on their list; etc. For a year or more, she had to love it so much that she would go up against everyone to prove how fabulous the book was. She also had to read it multiple times and still love it. 🙂

  9. Terry Odell

    So true. I think it’s about loving the work that gets you through the realization that it feels more like a crap shoot than the "work hard, study, perform well on exams, and you’ll get top marks" we’ve dealt with growing up (or growing older, anyway).

  10. Tom

    Terry, that’s been a big disconnect for me. You captured it. Thank you. Now I know what I’m seeing from the wrong angle.

    Allison B., that explains so much . . .

    Hooray, Toni. Once again you’ve made the sun rise over my marble head.

  11. judy wirzberger

    Your post should be included in every conference pamphlet where prepublshed writers gather. It makes rejections much more bearable. Keeps the writer from running to the mirror and yelling "I suck, my writing sucks, my story sucks." More like getting a rejection and saying, "Oh, they like Renoir and I submtted Warhol." Thanks

  12. Cathy

    Wow Toni – I had this conversation with my writing group after our annual winter trip to Scottsdale to get out of the PNW gray gloomies. I walked through the most amazing display of artwork (the art-fest, artists in res, giant tents, go if you can) and found myself walking right past some sections, not because the artists weren’t fabulous (they were) but because it simply wasn’t my thing.

    We talked to several artists we’ve gotten to know over the years, to see their latest and ended up bringing home a painting we love by a woman having her first showing (eh, debut??)

    The thing I came away with was how subjective it all was. The talent was amazing – but the decisions process – it really wasn’t them, it was me. Deciding what I wanted to live with and love.

    Thanks for reminding me this week about all this as I shop a new story, trying not to get excited about the requests and perusing the rejects. Thick skin intact, I’m actually enjoying what the form letters say (intended or otherwise) about the agency

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Toni – sorry I’m coming in a day late and a dollar short. This is a great and inspiring post. There are so many career distractions out there, we often forget that it all starts with doing the best work we can do. I’m old enough now to know that I really love the writing, or I’m obsessed with it, or both. At least I know that I will ALWAYS write, whether I’m paid for it or not. Whether there’s a market for it or not.

  14. Spencer Seidel

    This is so true. When I was looking for a publisher, I used to like to think it was like eHarmony. You go on a bunch of dates. Some look hopeful, but most end with no sparks. I used to imagine all those agents and editors in a bookstore reading thousands of back-cover synopses, including my own, tossing a select few into the ‘pursue’ category.

    As long as what you’re doing scratches that itch you have, someone else WILL get it. The world is a big place. You just have to have faith.

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  16. rashda

    Hi Toni,

    Thanks for more good advice. Enjoyed meeting you in New Orleans. And yes, I’m writing.


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