Friday, November 4, 2011

How Do You Choose between Art and Commerce?

Last week I talked about career choices I’ve made, and in particular balancing what I want to do with what I need to do to make money. Molly Blaisdell is on a similar path. She started by writing novels, and still hopes to publish fiction. But she needed to make an income and wanted to do it from writing. To turn writing into a career, she advises, “Take any gig you can get. If the checks don’t bounce, it’s a good gig.” (See her “toolbox” of information resources for children’s book writers interested in work for hire.)

This attitude has given her over 30 books in print, most of them work for hire beginning readers or picture books. It also led to her first trade picture book, Rembrandt and the Boy Who Drew Dogs (Barron’s Educational Series). “Work for hire made me bold and helped me put together a professional front,” Blaisdell says. The novel sales will come someday. In the meantime, Blaisdell is a working writer.

Not everyone puts income first. For Louise Spiegler, another job pays the bills. With writing, the main goal is always “to write compelling, passionate, funny, tragic, thought-provoking books that really speak to my readers. This means I need to keep pushing myself to work on my craft, to think hard and work hard.”

But Spiegler recognizes that being a successful writer doesn’t stop with craft. “Professionally, I also want to make sure that I get more people reading my second book, The Jewel and the Key (Clarion) than read my first. I get emails from people who have read The Amethyst Road (Clarion) and felt very moved by it. This is the most rewarding thing for me. I just want to make sure my next book finds its readers.”
 Janet S. Fox, author of the historical romantic mystery Faithful, (Puffin), says, “I want my books to be exquisite. To be loved. To be read forever. To sell, yes—to be commercial—but to be beautiful, and beautifully crafted. I’m constantly questioning my work from two angles: will readers read it? And, will it be eternally beautiful? Commerce and craft—my overwhelming goal is to keep these two warring factions in balance.”

Staying Flexible

Goals can change over time, as we learn more about ourselves and our field. Author Esther Hershenhorn discovered joy in helping other writers tell their stories well. “I began coaching writers in person, via the mail, on the phone, from near and far,” she says, “Like my character Pippin Biddle in my picture book Fancy That (Holiday House), whose hidden talents save the day as well as his three orphaned sisters, I returned home from my journey with a prize far better than what I’d first sought. I spend my days doing what I love and loving what I do: writing, teaching and coaching other writers.”

Hershenhorn adds, “I remind my students to be open to unimagined possibilities and opportunities. I’ve watched writers assess their interests, talents and experiences to find related children’s book niches—reviewing children’s books for a journal or website, writing curriculum materials, working with book fairs, selling at bookstores, writing PR plans for fellow writers, returning to library school.”

It’s important to realize when you are consciously changing goals, and when you’re being led astray. Suzanne Morgan Williams found a tempting side path early on, when a fiction submission led to an offer of a nonfiction book project. “I found I loved the research and people began to offer me nonfiction projects,” she says. “I kept busy, met great people, and wrote ten books.”


Williams could have kept going down that easy path, but she remembered her original goal. “I always wanted to write fiction too.” Eventually, she says, “I made the conscious decision not to pursue more nonfiction contracts until I’d spent some real time working on my fiction skills.”

With that new focus, and the skills she’d built up as a nonfiction writer, Williams got an agent and sold her first novel, Bull Rider (Margaret K. McElderry Books). “I love knowing that kids will be reading about Cam O’Mara, rodeo, the real cost of war to real families, and about my home state of Nevada,” Williams says. “I get to use story to share what I see as a little bit of truth—even though we all know it’s fiction.”


  1. Goals have to change. Mine have been all over the map this year because of terrific challenges. Good post, Chris.

  2. Thanks for featuring me (and these other awesome authors) in your excellent post. It's always a balancing act I'm still trying to master!

  3. Hi Chris! Finally got to following you now the campaign is over! Sorry! I'm just getting around to all the Romantic Suspense writers who've signed up for the blogfest.

    Nice to meet you! Hope we can get to know you better, but it's been just so frantic this year!