Monday, June 27, 2011

Writers into "Literary Entrepreneurs"

There's a lot to discuss in HTML GIANT's revealing, wide-ranging interview with The Huffington Post Books' resident hatchet-man, Anis Shivani. Most of it is blustery, some of it insightful, and all of it seems in service of keeping the lights on at the Shivani show.

There's not much I agree with, except for one small neologism that says something about the literary day in which we live. Rather than live with a binary in which critics are on one side and authors the other, Shivani suggests that today both fall into the category of "literary entrepreneur."

He doesn't build the point out (in fact it is a bit of a throwaway), but this particular phrase tells us something about the current position of the writer within publishing and a lot about why Shivani operates the way he does.

Thinking of people who make their living with words not as "authors" but as "literary entrepreneurs" makes today's requirements for earning a living by the pen plain. It once was that a writer was a basically an employee of a publisher, providing work on a spec basis in hopes of having the house pick it up, sell it, and return a percentage of the proceeds to the creator.

Recognizing that today's writer needs to be an entrepreneur (and all that implies) is a great service and coalesces some of the more pressing issues facing a would-be professional: social networking, personal branding, self-driven publicity, risk, independence, and a host of other digital-age commercial concerns.

The literary entrepreneur model strips away some of the romance of being called a "writer" and replaces it with pragmatism; writing a great book was never a guarantee of being successful, but today, at least, writers have considerably more agency in maximizing their post-publication returns.

There are downsides to this model, some of which Shivani himself demonstrates: ruthless self-promotion, very little critical generosity, attention-grubbing public discourse, and intellectual narcissism among them.

Still, the fact remains: if the message is useful, there's very little to be gained from arm-wrestling the messenger.


  1. Huh, that  is a really interesting analogy. I like the way you've discussed it here. Very interesting for sure. 

  2. The way I see it, there are two worlds. Ideas and Reality. Ideas lose their romanticism is you have to work and get your hands dirty to make them realities. Times changed and I am really comfortable with the "Literary Entrepreneur" as long as the product is good. The industry is having an interesting scramble right now. Publishing is getting increasingly democratic and it's not necessarily a good thing. I do trust writers to keep things interesting a up to traditional publishing standards.

  3. Hmm he might of hit the nail on the head about what it takes to be a successful author now a days but it's a sad state of things if you ask me. What he calls entrepreneurship, I might call whoring yourself out. I know a lot of people genuinely enjoy social networking but to me, twitter for example, is about 90% boring spam and kiss my -ss, I'll kiss yours. I can't help thinking most writers, would rather just write

    I know I sound like a crotchety old lady here, and I'm only in my 30s lol. Social networking burn out I guess

  4. I'm still deciding what I think about this. My boyfriend, however, loves the idea. He's going to bring it for discussion in his entrepreneurship class.

  5. In a sense, publishing has been the transition from patron of the arts as it was before the printing press and before the average citizen could read. Wealthy men and women patronized the arts (and all that implies, good and bad) by promoting an artist -- in this case, a writer. Publishers evolved out of that noblesse oblige with very little nobility and a lot of obligation. However, in the 20th and 21st centuries, they have become more like barrowmen hawking their wares on a street corner and vying for the best spot, usually to the detriment of the product and the writer. Enter the writer as entrepreneur. When has it ever really been any different, except in the good old days when publishers actually took the time to read, promote and showcase a writer's work? The writer had to do the promotions (TV shows, radio, print, bookstore signings, etc.) while the publisher took the lion's share of the profits, and a bit of the risk, except where publishers actually helped sculpt the raw work into something better.

    Now it is all different. What has been essentially the case (the writer writing and promoting) is now the status quo. Although I have a problem with all the social networking, which does not help the cream rise to the top and only focuses on the ones who perform the best and are willing to eat a bug (or something even more disgusting) to prove it, it is the way things work now. It's difficult enough for really good books to rise to the top and enter our consciousness or the mainstream without having to juggle all the balls without a partner, and yet there are those who do and succeed. Locke and Hocking immediately spring to mind.

    In essence, writing has always been an entrepreneurial venture with capital coming from the outside. With the current technology, capital is not nearly as necessary, and the blinkers and bets are all off. Welcome to publishing in the 21st century where the cream is likely to be non-dairy.

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