Hey, So A Book Deal Went Down This Week

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There’s been a lot of grumbling in my local area about a certain Book Deal, the astronomical sum it amounted to, its potential to displace sums that could be allocated to other books, the dubious economics of such a deal, and on and on and on. The Iron Fist of Isaac Fitzgerald (quite a fearsome instrument, I swear!) has forbidden me from talking too much about money in this space so I won’t quote the sum or name the author or otherwise say too much specific about it. But the thread of all the hurt conversations I saw around this is on a very old theme: the idea that the book business is about to descend into crass commerce with no regard for the True Art much of the writing world struggles to practice. This complaint will come ’round again I assure you.

I would suggest that everyone re-read Dear Sugar #69: We Are All Savages Inside. (Those Sugar columns are endlessly re-readable.) To wit:

If you are a writer, it’s the writing that matters and no amount of battery acid in your stomach over who got what for what book they wrote is going to help you in your cause. Your cause is to write a great book and then to write another great book and to keep writing them for as long as you can. That is your only cause. It is not to get a six figure book deal. I’m talking about the difference between art and money; creation and commerce. It’s a beautiful and important thing to be paid to make art. Publishers who deliver our books to readers are a vital part of what we do. But what we do—you and I—is write books. Which may garner six figure book deals for the reasons I outlined above. Or not.

If what you want in life is to be a mogul, then sure, you should be concerned if your brand isn’t worth a six figure book deal to a publisher. That’s simple economics. But if what you want is to be a writer, it’s not nearly so much of a concern. (Don’t think I’m judging, even the best of us compromise. As Dorothy Parker once famously put it, “I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money.”)

I found myself saying many times this week (including to myself, late at night and alone) that it is too much to expect the marketplace, any marketplace, to allocate value in a way that makes external sense. We just went through a whole economic cycle where we learned that in a very real way, even people who “know money” are susceptible to a kind of herd mentality. If one of them thinks he is sitting on the next moneymaker, everyone rushes over to make sure they aren’t Missing Out on the next mortgage-backed securities craze. Everyone’s operating on leaps of faith, rather than logic and sense. The entire field of behavioral economics exists to prove this. Please understand that I am not discounting the role of greed and avarice in an economic bubble. I am, however, discounting the idea that it’s the only problem there.

The result of a stampede in literature is not inevitably as catastrophic as the over-valued stock trade; another name for the herd effect can be “good word of mouth.” But surely we’ve all read a novel everyone else has told us is amazing, life-changing, the biggest thing in American literature since Twain, and thought: really? This Is It? And there are certainly books that go out there with a ton of fanfare behind them and get sucked into the black hole of remainderdom in a few weeks. Literary value, on top of being presumptively thought to be not-marketable, is also pretty subjective.

Still, arguing about the relationship of literary value and economics and even “fairness” — all of which are more subjective than most people are willing to admit — is not in any way a waste of time. It’s important that everyone be keeping each other accountable, and the only way to do that is to keep having the conversation. But becoming depressed about it is poison. Nothing is written in stone, neither from the amount of the book deal or even the good reviews. Even David Foster Wallace felt he largely got panned in his lifetime; he never won a big award, got a news-making advance. So much depends on things you cannot control. The only thing you can do is try to write your way out of it. And often enough, that works.


Michelle Dean has written for a variety of places, including The Awl, ELLE and Bitch. More from this author →