What Do I Actually Want? Thoughts on Writing, Publishing, and Creative Control

I read an interview last year that really stayed with me and has made me rethink where I stand as a creator. For a while, I thought I had a totally clear picture of the writing career I was going to build for myself, if I could. But lately, my perspective on this has changed.

The interview in question is from a May 2019 edition of Salty, and it is with one of my favorite singer-songwriters of all time, Allie X. During the course of the interview, she’s asked why creative control is so important to her in her work, and she replies,

“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t a control freak, but I just am and it’s really the only way I see my project working. I’m not pumping out Top 40 hits; what I do is more nuanced and it appeals to the fan base I do have because of all the personal detail—at least that’s what I think. The ‘big guys’ in the industry have never immediately believed in me, and a lot of them still don’t. I’ve always had to show them, and I will continue showing them.”

And this brought to mind another quotation from one of my other favorite singer-songwriters of all time, Tori Amos. At the end of her foreword to the 2000 poetry anthology SLAM, she writes:

“Sometimes, if you expose your writing to other people, some of them will try to dilute you—give your words or your music a nose job or a little bow tie. But I’m a small vineyard. And I’m not willing to sacrifice the way I make the wine to get into the supermarket. You know what I mean?”

These are two women whose work has inspired me through many of my own creative endeavors. I’ve learned a good deal from following both of their careers. And I didn’t really actively think of it until these two quotations merged in my mind, but they’re also two artists who have retained an unusual amount of creative control over their work. Allie X is an indie artist who “handpicks” her entire team, and I don’t think Tori Amos has had anyone else produce a single one of her albums since before Boys for Pele in 1996 (as she says in the EPK for that album, “I like being in the driver’s seat”).

But how important is creative control? And what’s the difference between fully understanding what a creative project needs and being precious about your work? (In case you haven’t heard it before, “being precious” is a negative term used to refer to artists who are resistant to revision and/or advice.)

One of the things you’ll hear often if you join in writing conversations online is to never self-publish your work simply because it wasn’t accepted by mainstream publishers. This is, in part, self-published authors reminding other writers that they’re not a rejects club, and rightly so—self-publishing is its own industry, and those writers who do it well have claim to legitimacy. Despite the stigma of twentieth-century vanity publishing and its ilk, the new millennium has demonstrated that self-publishing is here to stay in the digital age (I wrote my fourth Master’s thesis on this, so if you want proof, I’m happy to share my references). It takes work to publish one’s own writing and to do it well, and that part of the industry includes many impressive voices, talented minds, and excellent books.

But as much as folks will be quick to tell you why not to self-publish, it’s harder to get a clear answer as to why that choice is made by so many creatives. I think the reason for that lack of clarity is because there isn’t a single answer—people self-publish for many different reasons, and some of those people are also publishing traditionally at the same time.

When I made the choice to self-publish Sibyls, it was for several reasons. I knew that this story was ready to be in the hands of readers, even if the number of readers would be modest at first. I also really wanted to learn the process of self-publishing, and I’m a big believer in learning through experience. I knew that there were limited places for novellas in particular to be published traditionally, and for this particular project, I only thought one of them would be a really good fit. And that one place rejected the book! Rejection certainly shouldn’t be the only reason a writer turns towards self-publishing, but it’s also a fact of writing life that we’re all going to be rejected more often than not. And if the book still needs to exist in the world and you feel you’re the right one to get it out there, well: you do it.

For a while, I really thought that I wanted to be traditionally published and only traditionally published. And who wouldn’t at first believe that was the ultimate dream, with tales of six-figure deals, magical sales of screenplays, and appearances on late-night television and the covers of fashion magazines? Glamour sells for a reason, folks—like many of you, I enjoy pretty things.

Beyond that, the stigma of the 90s and what self-publishing used to be hasn’t faded completely. Some readers won’t even consider glancing at something they know is self-published. Even other writers will say self-publishing is just “not for them” when what they really mean is that they feel their work is “better” than self-publishing. And it’s hard to be on the receiving end of such remarks and maintain one’s objectivity.

Trying to break into any industry comes with an unexpected education: you learn a ton as you try to kick down that wall that seems to be keeping you on the outside no matter what you do. The more I learned about publishing—traditional, independent, self—the more I started to wonder about what it is I really want. And not for nothing: it hurts to keep running into a wall!

One important lesson I’ve learned is this: you can learn to know the difference between when you’re being precious and when you’re retaining artistic integrity.

It is possible to think you’re doing the latter when you’re actually guilty of the former, of course. A good way to avoid that is to reach out to a lot of qualified people and hear what they have to say about your work. Don’t get defensive. Don’t get distressed. Just listen, because if you’re talking to readers—and writers and industry folks should be readers first and foremost—you’re going to start to hear the same thing about certain aspects of your work. And what you hear is probably going to be a combination of good and bad, and you should take note of both. Do more of what you know is good, and work on what you know isn’t going so well.

But back to artistic integrity: if you work at a thing for years, there will come a point where you have a kind of control that you’ll be very aware of. You’ll know that the thing you always wanted to do is finally coming out the way you knew all along that it needed to, and through the wisdom of others, hours of committed work, and the application of discipline to raw talent, you’ve finally got it under control.

Then, of course, it gets harder. Did you think it would get easier? It doesn’t—I’m sorry! But it also gets really good because now, you’ve raised your own bar, so to speak. With this kind of artistic control comes an understanding of what will work for certain projects and what will work for others. You’ll learn that how the writing is delivered can matter as much as the writing itself, and on top of that, you’ll learn what you are and are not willing to give up.

To give an example using something that many writers obsess over when they’re first starting out, let’s discuss: cover art.

If you get picked up by a big publisher, your book’s cover is likely to be out of your hands (I have a friend for whom this was not the case, but she has a design background and is very much the exception to the rule). That cover will look professional and polished, and if you’re lucky and your publisher thinks you’re worth it, you’ll get plugged all over the place. If mass distribution of the book is the most important thing to you and your input on the cover is low on your list of priorities, then this will work out great—you’ll have your book, hopefully a tour, and many readers raring to go before a copy even reaches their hands.

Now, if you want more attention and less competition for access to your editor, you may turn to an independent publisher. In this case, you might actually have some say in your cover art (I have an old classmate with a background in art who vetoed the first cover and was given the opportunity to design what became the final product—again, something of an exception, but not as rare as with a big publisher). You’ll have less distribution and immediate attention from the public, but you’ll still have the support of a reputable publisher backing you, plus a more intimate relationship with your team. You may be a writer who seeks such close relationships above all else, and the cover may not matter much to you, in which case: awesome! You’ve found your perfect home.

But let’s say you’re an artist. You have just as much skill and knowledge in that department as you do in writing. And you have conceived of this book as a whole: the story, the layout, the cover—everything. You know that the finished product will work together magically, and you are the best person to put it together. You’ve worked with an amazing editor and you have a proofreader on standby to make things flawless. But you know in your gut that the cover has to be what you’ve envisioned. You’re willing to have much smaller distribution, less attention, and to put in all of the work that a team would do for you if it means that this book as a whole is what you set out to create. Then you’re going to publish it yourself and see your vision realized.

These three situations are all victories, in my mind. But it’s so important to know which situation your project fits, and in this case, we’re just talking about covers. What about the writing itself? What could you potentially gain from each type of publishing? And what will you lose from each? At the end of the day, you will absolutely have to give something up—whether it’s mass distribution, media attention, intimate creative relationships, or a certain degree of creative control depends on which path you choose.

I used to think that I only wanted to be traditionally published, but that’s no longer my perspective. And I don’t really think in terms of me anymore, either—this isn’t about how I want to be published, it’s about how I want each project to be published. There are some that I’m working on that I think would be great coming out of a big traditional house. There’s one in particular that I think would fit perfectly at a smaller independent publisher. And there are others that I fully intend to put out there on my own.

Creative control is important to me. That doesn’t mean I object to collaboration or criticism; it means that I have a sense of what the work needs to be, and I trust that I have the background and vision to see it through. I know which projects could use many sets of eyes and hands before going to readers. I know which books I’m capable of putting out there myself. In the end, I believe I’m going to be a hybrid writer, and I also believe that I’ll be happiest that way.

I hope this post gave you some food for thought about where you stand in relation to your own writing! Remember, no matter what path or paths we may end up on, there will always be gains and losses. It’s important to know what your own bottom line is, and to be true to yourself and your work.

Wishing you safe and healthy days of writing,
Melissa

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