Sales Versus Selling Out

Give me money

Give me moneyMy introduction to the realities of book sales came in junior high school. I was one of two finalists for a story contest in Language Arts class, and my competitor’s story was a literary masterpiece. I don’t remember the plot exactly, but her story involved an orange cat and the writing was so offbeat and lyrical and deep that I knew she had a special talent and deserved to win.

My story wasn’t even good enough to be considered ordinary in my own mind. But my characters were named after each student in the class, and I put the girls in situations with their guy crushes and made several of the jocks fall face-first into a pond, plus other giggle-inducing drivel. So when the class voted for the winner, I won by a landslide.

I felt horrible about it. Apparently, I still do. That story represents to me the epitome of selling out. Not because it was entertaining to the class–I believe pure entertainment has an important role in life, and I love to giggle. Not even because the best story didn’t win — readers will always have their own criteria for what is “best”. No, I felt like a sell-out because I had originally written a different story, one straight from my heart, but changed my contest submission at the last minute to something I threw together to get votes. I felt like a sleazy politician.

I don’t think it’s wrong to strive for popularity. Popularity is the axis of the world. (That might be the most important thing I learned in junior high school.) So when skyrocketing book sales come from a story that resonates with people enough that they tell others about it, that is quality success. When a political candidate is elected because his or her message honestly reflects the viewpoint of the vast majority, that is the way representative government is supposed to work. It’s all about the integrity of the process.

I recently realized that politicians and writers have a common challenge to their integrity — the constant tension between a desire to be true to their own driving vision and the reality that no vision can come true if they’re oblivious to the audience they need to engage. So where is that tension line crossed? I think politics become corrupt when a candidate delivers a message to get votes while harboring a different agenda. Similarly, I think book sales would approach “selling out” if I wrote the stories that made money at the expense of the book burning in my soul.

But maybe that’s easy for me to say because I have a day job. What do you think?

Author: Krista Tibbs

Krista Tibbs studied neuroscience at MIT. She once had a job that involved transplanting pig cells into live human brains. She had another job that gave her clearance to the White House. Her books, The Neurology of Angels and Reflections and Tails, are mostly not about those things. Learn more about Krista from her blog, and her Amazon author page.

8 thoughts on “Sales Versus Selling Out”

  1. Thanks for this post, Krista. I was an advertising copywriter for more than 20 years and nothing – not a single word – I wrote was not contrived to have the desired effect – sales. I was good at my job, as is every copywriter who knows how to manipulate people into buying things they don’t need. There’s not a week of those 20+ years that I didn’t feel I’d prostituted my talent. But, I was a single mother, so I did what I had to do to support my son and myself. Now my son is an adult, I’ve retired and taken the vow of poverty. I write what I please, when I please. No thought of public opinion, no deadlines – just words straight from the heart and soul. Pure joy.

  2. I do freelance writing that chafes a lot. I could write a novel that would sell more than my current novels do, but I haven’t “sold” that part of my writing yet.

  3. Great post.
    I write what I feel like writing. Odd characters and situations come into my head the way I think they do for most fiction writers. Not everyone will like what I create and that’s okay with me. There is a reader for every writer, I believe. And I would have liked the jocks falling into ponds. Humor is difficult to write.

  4. Good post. And I think that ‘some’ (note quotation marks) trad published writers also have to do that to please their editors. They have to write what editors think will sell, not what they feel in their hearts. Another reason to stay Indie.

  5. It’s a tightrope, for sure. I got out of news when I did partly because I was beginning to feel pressured to write stuff that served only to promote other programming. News, I thought, should be above that sort of thing. Luckily, I don’t feel that same kind of conflict as an author — but then, nobody’s standing over me, insisting that I tell my story a certain way, because otherwise it won’t sell. That’s a big part of the charm of being an indie: I’m able to write whatever I want. Yeah, I have a day job, too, but I think I would do it this way regardless. I like to think so, anyway.

  6. This is a real can of worms isn’t it? I’ve always had this fanciful and rather grandiose hope that my writing would be my legacy, a sort of immortality for atheists. But if I’m to be remembered then what do I want to be remembered for?

    For me the answer has always been ‘for honesty’ so I write from the heart. Nice and noble right? Except… what if no-one ever finds my heartfelt writing or, having found it, aren’t interested? How do you find the delicate line between giving readers what they want and giving them what you believe?

    I really don’t have an answer to that one. 🙁

  7. Agree it’s opening a can of worms, AC. But don’t agree writing from the heart is necessarily an act of nobility, nor a desire for immortality. Just as different writers are motivated by different things, readers don’t all enjoy the same kind of book. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander. Writing from the heart doesn’t prohibit promotion of a book – which is how we get our books into the hands of readers who, hopefully, will enjoy reading something we’ve enjoyed writing. And if we’re lucky enough to hit the bestseller jackpot, that’s the icing on the cake.

  8. Thanks everyone for your comments, and I apologize that my replies never showed up! Apparently I had an issue with my firewall, but I think it’s fixed now. =)

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