When is an artist a sellout?

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“[By] the time I met my wife Maggie I was 25 and… I began to make plans to sell out… I wanted to sell out in the worst way because I wanted to be with her, but the wonderful thing about creativity is that once you get an idea that’s decent, even though you may want to commercialize it, you can’t. I tried to be commercial and it never worked, because my intuition was so powerful always in my life, I could never be a commercial writer.”
- Ray Bradbury
 
Previously, I’ve talked about the distinction between the fear and insecurity of thinking you’re no good as a writer, versus knowing that you’re awesome, but fearing you’ll never find the people who recognize your brilliance.

As I spoke of this difference, I neglected to mention another trepidation that I think many self-published authors cultivate like a garden of crap. For all my brave talk of fearing nothing, I also feared making an effort to find an agent and publisher. The truth is, I was afraid of that for as long as I could remember. Something about it scared me, but it wasn’t rejection. Something else burrowed under my skin with mandibles of terror. Something I had feared all my life, but never knew how to articulate until now.

Compromise.

That is what all creative souls fear. That is what fans berate musicians for when their favorite punkrock band finally becomes popular. That’s what the degenerates crucify their skateboarding heroes upon when the skaters actually manage to make money and earn a living.

Sellout.

The ultimate insult. More offensive than any other word in the English language.

I know what you’re thinking. No. Those other words aren’t as offensive. “Sellout” is the worst, because a sellout is something you choose to become.

That was my fear, only I never knew it. Because “sellout” is never a word that anyone uses to describe themselves. Sellouts call it “compromise”.
 
“Commercialism is the last sinkhole of love, and when it is reached, by paths of desperation and paths of cruel, misused emotions – all hope is gone.”
- Harlan Ellison
 
Harlan wrote those words in a short story called “Lonelyache” in reference to a character hiring a prostitute. But the “love” of which he speaks can apply to any love, not just sexual.

As the old saying goes – “Sluts do it for fun. Whores do it for money.”

I have feared making an attempt at traditional publishing, because I fear I might need to compromise. To sell out. That is why I have never sought a publisher. Why I have never queried an agent. I fear that the things I want to write, and the stories people want to buy, might be two different things. I know there are people in this world who will be adoring fans of my writing. But what if there’s only 5 of those people? I’m going to have to sell my books at $15,000 apiece! What if I am expected to change my writing to be more “marketable” to the world?

Like that scene in the movie Amadeus when Mozart is devastated at the notion of changing his music and he cries to Salieri, “It’s unbelievable. The Director has actually torn up a huge section of my music. They say I have to rewrite the opera! But it’s perfect as it is. I can’t… rewrite what’s perfect!”

I may not be the literary version of Mozart, but I’m delusional enough to think I am. This is the truth of why I mistrust editors and publishers. What if they ask me to change my work? I can’t… rewrite what’s perfect!

There is only one reason to ever do that. Every single editor who has ever existed has altered work for one reason and one reason alone – to sell more books. I know. I know. They will lie and say it is done “in service to the story” and the “story is the most important thing”. Blah, blah, blah.

Bullshit.

The truth is, no editor or publisher has ever wanted a story to be the “best” it can be. Their job is to make it the “most marketable” it can be. “Best” is publisher-speak for “sellable”. The “best”, not for the sake of the artistic integrity of the tale, but for the bottom line. For sales.

That is selling out.

That is compromising.

To write as I will, and make a living at it, is freedom.

To alter what I write, at the whim of publishers and editors, is servitude.

One is a dream.

One is a job.

I’ve had plenty of jobs in my life. I want to live the dream.
 
“You can live in your dreams, but only if you are worthy of them.”
- Harlan Ellison
 
The job of the author is to write. The job of the publisher is to sell. Publishers don’t know their jobs. They think their job is to make the work of an author profitable. That is not true. Their job is to make a profit from the work of the author. Huge difference. Their job is sell what the author gives them. Period. Too many publishers think their job is to alter the work of the author, to make it more bankable. Their job is never to alter the work of the author. No. False. Never. If they can’t sell what the author gives them, then they have no business working with that author. Work which is not “easy to sell” is not the responsibility of the author. It’s the responsibility of the publisher. If work by an author isn’t selling, that’s because the publisher is bad at selling that work, not because the author was bad at writing it.

If ever I met an agent or publisher or editor who understood those things, who knew their place in the kingdom, I would embrace them and be honored to have them serve as my knights and shieldmaidens.

Many folks would say, “How do you know so much about publishers if you admit you never had one?” Hey, go fuck yourself. I don’t need to have a rhinoceros shoved up my ass to know it would hurt.

At what price do we sell our souls?

When do we turn from writing sluts into writing whores?

Sometimes I feel like I’m Ernest Borgnine in drag. No wonder I struggle to sell my whoring.
 
“Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you… a writer always writes. That’s what he’s for. And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place… Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.”
- Harlan Ellison