I was asked an interesting question at the weekend, ‘would you rather be Dan Brown and make millions, or be critically acclaimed and scratch a living?’ I thought about it for a moment and then I realised how old my 6-year old was becoming.
But seriously, is this a relevant question for a new writer? Perhaps you can hide behind the stock response of, ‘I’ll write whatever’s inside me and leave it up to the market to decide which I am,’ but this sounds like a cop out to me. I’m all for planning where you want to get to and believing that it’s possible, so where am I heading?
The Millionaire Route
This would be nice, I’m not one of these pretentious people who believes that money, in some way, dilutes the quality of the art. As if being commercially successful detracts from the authenticity. This is a popular opinion held by bitter artists. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference between being successful and selling-out. The first happens if enough people like your work, the second happens if you try and give the people what you think they want.
Dan Brown has a formula and he knows that formula will sell a gazillion books every time. I can’t help but admire that. The formula, which was perfected in The Da Vinci Code, can now be rolled out every time. There’s two arguments here; firstly, it’s his formula that he created whilst being authentic to himself, but secondly, every subsequent time he uses that formula he’s kind of giving the people what they want. I can see both of these points of view.
Most successful authors find their formula and roll it out. Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse were both guilty of this business model. James Herbert has a team of unknown writers churning his formula out. What’s wrong with making some money?
The Tortured Artist
To some, it’s more important to be a slave to your art and to concentrate on ‘The Craft’. It’s not a formula that you seek but critical acclaim instead for every book you produce. I personally think this is important to, what’s the point of doing something every day unless you harbour some kind of an ambition to get better at it.
To have the respect from your peers is a good thing. Without it you’d feel a fraud and after the first million had been banked, I think you would feel an emptiness if you didn’t have it. For example, JK Rowling is often criticised for her ‘craft’ and I reckon this was the reason why as soon as she had shed the albatross of Harry Potter, she went in a completely different direction. What’s the one thing missing from the most commercially successful author of all time? Peer respect.
But what did I say?
My first instinct as a new writer is to make enough money from this profession to support my family. Once I’ve hit that quite modest income I would then like people to say that I can actually write. So, it’s a halfway house for me.
I don’t understand why someone would write the novel that’s inside of them, ‘… just because I’ve got to get it out,’ if that book focuses on the nutritional diet of a stag beetle. No one will care and it won’t sell. You have to have a vague notion of what’s going to sell. It would be like opening a shop to sell left shoes, no point. Writing is a business and therefore requires its players to make money.
But… churning out guff in a concentrated niche that you know will sell, but has no relevance to you as an author, has to be frowned upon to.
Who would you rather be?