What’s the Place of Capitalism in Book Publishing?

This past weekend we had house guests. A friend I hadn’t seen in a long time visited with her new husband. I hadn’t met him yet, but I knew he was a scientist who has been writing a children’s fantasy chapter book.

We ended up discussing writing over breakfast. The scientist-writer said that at a writing conference he attended writers were asked if they wanted to write timeless novels or if they wanted to be marketable.

The idea is that, as a writer, you can aim for the highest quality writing or you can focus on writing what will sell. The implication is that these two goals rarely, if ever, overlap.

My friend’s husband thought a lot of writers want to be marketable because they need to make money from their writing. He argued that this goal is a manifestation of capitalism (which he favors), and that the market should determine which are the best books, the most deserving of being read. I would add he is also talking about democracy (although he didn’t say that) and that the vote of the reader will shape what will be read and published.

But should the number of readers be the main or only consideration for which books ultimately succeed?

Maybe if I look at the subject through visual art, I can see the issue more clearly. I love the old and new masters at the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Uffizi, and the Courtauld. To be able to see a piece anew every time one sees it (or a representation of it) truly reveals the depth of the artistry.

But I admit that I love cels of Disney cartoon art. I love them for their imagination and because they resonate with the popular culture I grew up in. No way do I think they are art of the quality of a Renoir or a Picasso. And I don’t want to live in a world with only Disney cels. Or pictures of babies with angel wings (as cute as they are).

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney's great illustrators, Bill Peet

Autobiography for children and adults of one of Disney’s great illustrators, Bill Peet

So I think the idea of capitalism determining the books that are published and that we read can be carried too far because we still need deeper, more complex, and finely crafted literature, not just books that sell well.

Do you agree that capitalism should or will determine which books are published or do you think that high quality writing should be nurtured in other ways?

One of my favorite paintings at the Chicago Art Institute: Gustave Caillebotte - Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877

One of my favorite paintings at the Chicago Art Institute: Gustave Caillebotte – Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877


Filed under Books, Vintage American culture, Writing, Writing goals

19 responses to “What’s the Place of Capitalism in Book Publishing?

  1. I’d like to believe the two are not mutually exclusive, but I’d probably be wrong. Thank goodness for the fast-growing venues for writers to promote and sell their own work without relying on the “marketability” factor. I suppose to, it depends on your goals as a writer.

    • Luanne

      It does depend on your goals IMO, but I worry about the future of books. I hope we continue to have a place for books which require a more active reader. Books that stretch the mind and don’t just entertain.

  2. jeannieunbottled

    I have been living with someone who loves “American Idol.” Knowledgeable, entertaining judges vote on performers and the public also votes by phone. But what are they voting on? Skill, likeablility, starglow? Let’s look at elections. What are voters using for criteria? They like someone’s smile, slogan, or look of truthfulness?

    Some literary works are commercial failures but are later elevated as great. The elevator is usually a person with a lot of clout with a group that can also promote the work. As you well know, this elevating occurs in literary canons from time to time. The public said no, but literary critics said yes.

    I’m interested in film. “Peeping Tom” was blasted when it came out in 1960; it ruined director Michael Powell’s (“The Red Shoes”) substantial career. “Peeping Tom” is odd and creepy, like Hitchcock’s “Frenzie.” It became a cult horror film, and a couple of decades later, experts, including Roger Ebert, were calling it a masterpiece. Have you seen or heard of it, Luanne? Criterion sold for a while, but it’s currently out of print. So “Peeping Tom” is still not a big money maker though it is considered one of the great British films.

    “Peeping Tom” gave me the creeps, but I must admit that it fascinated me because it gives the viewer so much to analyze. This quality would appeal to film critics but probably not the general public.

    • Luanne

      I have not seen “Peeping Tom.” I think my film appreciation skills are lower level than my book appreciation. I do like a movie to entertain, whereas a book should do more for me. That said, I now watch movies like a reader. I saw Farewell My Queen last night. Have you seen it? I kept waiting for a story!!! It was really just the “situation” without it being shaped into a “story.” So flat.

      • jeannieunbottled

        No, I haven’t seen it. If you have a chance to a see Powell & Pressburger films, you might like them. They have story and a kind of musicality –> tension throughout and a rise to a big climax. “Black Narcissus” and “I Know Where I’m Going” are a good pair to start with.

  3. I believe high wriiting skill should be nuture because no matter story you tell, the angle in which the story is written will determine if the story would sell or not.

  4. I think traditional books will always be in vogue, capitalism has been around for millenniums and books are still here. So while we might experience a bit of a hiccup, high quality writing will prevail.


    • Luanne

      Sheri, I sure hope you’re right. We’ve never had the internet and other related technology before, though. A related issue is that writing may become so prevalent that there will be no way to sift through it all to find “literary” quality stories.

  5. I think your friend’s husband is exactly right. It isn’t necessarily quality writing that sells best. Sadly!

  6. The internet has taken away from publishers the power to act as gatekeepers. An author can publish on a web page, and/or make a pdf file of a book available for downloading, with or without a fee, and/or arrange to have hardcopies printed and mailed on demand, for a fee which can be set so as to either include or exclude a profit. In any case, quality and popularity are not mutually exclusive. Jane Austen is an example. Shakespeare is another.

    • Luanne

      Regarding the gatekeepers: this is both good and bad, to my mind. Good for me 😉 as a writer, but potentially bad for readers as the quality of what is available could become diluted. Regarding quality and popularity–I think this is sometimes true that they aren’t mutually exclusive. But Jane Austen and Shakespeare are too ancient to persuade me as examples. The world was a different place in those days. And Shakespeare isn’t what I would call popular today.

  7. This is such an interesting topic. I would have to say that market-seeking books tend to fall short of reader’s expectations. I think it’s important to write for the love of writing and for the love of reader’s enjoyment… less for the profit that comes. Pursuing writing from this standpoint can strengthen a writer’s bond with a reader.

  8. I believe the quality of writing should be nurtured. The internet has changed the world of publishing as we once knew it. Some say for the better, some say not. Not to be critical, but there is a ton of crap on Amazon being given away for free without proper editing. So like you, Luanne, I do worry about the future of books.

  9. Great topic. I think capitalism definitely does drive what is published nowadays (I have only to read through all my “how to get published” books to see this), and the result is a lot of mediocre writing hitting the bookstands. This is frustrating to someone who values good writing; however, it also heartens me when I continue to see books that I feel like I could have written better. I have realized I’m probably never going to equate with the anthologized author masters, but I like to think I combine quality writing with marketability…after all, if no one wants to read your quality writing, then it can do no one else any good. I’m not sure the two have to be mutually exclusive; I like the idea of good writing that also responds to the needs of an audience.

  10. Pingback: Disney and Me:A Memoir | Writer Site

Leave a Reply