The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode XV: *Deep breath*
In this installment, I speak with Rachel Edidin. Topics include The Worst Muse, books as dialogue, commercial success, the biggest mistake writers can make, teaching reading in schools, a brief history of modern comics & more.
I’m here with Rachel Edidin, a self-described “all-purpose editorial mercenary and publishing consultant”—which we’ll get back to in a bit. I originally came upon Rachel through a Twitter feed she runs, @WorstMuse. The Worst Muse is hilarious in a too-true way, exposing writing tropes to the harsh light of 140 characters, like The Onion, condensed and just about writers. It’s also, in essence, an advice feed, as long as you negate every statement, i.e. “Deadlines are for hacks. YOU’RE an artist”—all writers deal with deadlines, so deal with it. Or “If you make that kid the Chosen Hero, you can totally bypass any other character development!” That means, you know, don’t do that.
First things first. We’re far away—to bridge the digital divide, would you describe where you are and what you see?
I'm on my living room couch; so, a TV, a lot of bookshelves, a very messy coffee table (which is where I've been working today), and a cat who is (mercifully) very soundly asleep.
Excellent. What’s the rundown on The Worst Muse's origin story?
The Worst Muse's most direct origin--what led to the Twitter account--was a very tipsy late-night text conversation with a friend. I don't remember what we were actually talking about, but I was sending him increasingly over-the-top terrible suggestions for something, and insisting that I was his muse. He responded with something like "you're the worst muse," and I was so entertained by the idea of a muse who was just persistently and categorically awful that I decided to run with it.
Going back further--I've worked in publishing for a decade, and have a writing degree. In practical terms, the Worst Muse is born from about equal parts affection for and frustration with that world.
(Or, rather, those worlds.)
Is it as satisfying as I hope it is to flog all of the tropes that drive other people crazy?
Sometimes. I try to be very careful not to punch down, to keep from going after aspiring writers, or kids, or people who are just finding and experimenting with their voices; and that's challenging when you're going after tropes and cliches, because they're a huge part of a lot of people's growth as writers. The line between satire and cruelty can be very thin and very hazy, and it's very important to me to stay on the right side.
That was less of an issue at first, but as she went viral, I started thinking a lot harder about what I wanted her to say, what constituted an okay target and approach. I also discovered very early on that anything that can conceivably be read as making fun of teen girls will be. Which I HATE.
I didn't get the impression you were ever targeting a specific demo. I recently interviewed the creator of @GuyInYourMFA, which is similar to @WorstMuse, though targeting a smaller, more specific writer. You seem to be exploring the way people do things (write), as opposed to people themselves. I wonder: how much of great writing (or, in turn, poor writing), do you think, has to do with the writer, and how much has to do with the actual writing?
I don't think you can entirely separate the two. Writing doesn't just happen. My favorite books didn't generate spontaneously; they're the product of craft, of editing, of lifetimes of experience and the minds and skills of the people involved in making them. And, I mean, Muses are fundamentally tied to process, not product.
That's fair, and that brings me to your consultancy. What do you think is the key difference between a book in its final form, and a group of well-executed ideas?
Binding? *rimshot* Nah, I think it depends wildly on the book, the writer, and the structures in which they're working--editors, publishers, venues, schedules, etc. Two books rarely happen exactly the same way. There are great writers who hammer out drafts and do most of the craft in the revision; writers who outline and shape their stories before they begin drafting; writers who let their works grow more organically; and all of those are very different processes with very different demands and stages.
Alternately: What makes a book--writing for consumption or publication, maybe--is the recognition that a work is dialogic; that it's meant for an audience. Again, how that'll affect craft and process varies; but if I had to pinpoint a single difference between a book and a collection of well-executed ideas, it'd be that.
That's a great point. I’ve talked with a few friends about the problem of making a book out of material that’s available online for free. Do you see this a lot with clients? Does it really hurt your chances of (successfully) publishing?
Nope. Here's the thing: markets--at least for non-essentials--are largely driven by access and convenience. This is the basis of, say, the iTunes model: given a low enough price point, people will generally choose to pay for music if it's more convenient than acquiring it illegally. When I was at a publisher, one of the things I worked on were collections of webcomics, which sold really well--people like physical books--but what blew my mind was that the e-book collections of those webcomics also sold a lot.
Here's why I think they did: Some of it's convenience. A lot of it is curation and aggregation: Having everything in an accessible, convenient bundle in one place. Having it in a form you own (or kind of own, depending on e-book formats), that you won't lose if the author decides to stop paying for their domain registration or hosting. Different formats have different benefits, and different people value different aspects of those.
These are all crucial points. This next question, I know, is impossible, but what do you think is the biggest factor in influencing whether a book becoming a commercial success? You can opt to answer this just in reference to humor books, or all books in general.
Ha. Oh, god. Honestly, I think it's a mix of quality, relevance--hitting in the right place at the right time--canny promotion, and old-fashioned dumb luck. There's really no formula, at least not for works from people who don't carry the name-recognition to guarantee best-sellers.
Honestly, that's probably a better question for my agent.
Because the other thing is, Worst Muse is SO far outside of my bailiwick as a writer. She's fun, but she's very much a whim.
Great use of bailiwick. And in your experience, what do you think is the biggest (or at least most common) mistake you see in writers seeking publication?
Cynicism. Writing to trends, trying to hang on to the coattails of a zeitgeist instead of creating works capable of propelling themselves.
I used to read slush, and I'd get these submissions whose cover letters were basically lists of the trends the writer had drawn from, and the works they came with were universally lifeless, derivative, and just flat-out bad. If you've got a great story to tell about vampires, awesome, tell it. But if you're writing about vampires because vampires are the hot trend, you're wasting everyone's time, including your own.
I mean, it's useful to be able to recognize and point out the markets your work will tap; but don't start there.
Well that's sort of at the heart of this series: examining where art meets commerce. Obviously going too far to either side isn't healthy. You point out writers trying to tap a market first—what about those ignoring it completely? Do you encounter writers who are unwilling to see the commercial potential in an idea?
Yeah; and that, I think, goes back to recognizing that writing is dialogic. You can write solely for yourself, and if you're good enough, and if your own taste is broad enough or has enough in common with a lot of other people's taste, you'll do okay. But writing is communicating, and communication requires a second party, the ability to recognize and reach them.
The idea of "writing is dialogic" is one of those that are so simple, so true, so evident, and yet so frequently lost.
YES! ABSOLUTELY! And it's so intrinsically tied to how we teach writing, how we frame it in schools and in life. We teach mechanics, and we completely ignore the fact that what we're ultimately doing, the whole POINT of writing, is a tool for communication and interaction.
And so on one hand, you get kids who have a rough time with the mechanics, and who stop trying, because they think their writing is worthless because they can't jump through a specific and strikingly arbitrary set of hoops as learned by rote in a class of thirty, wholly divorced from function.
And those kids are often BRILLIANT. Talk to them for five minutes, and they are full of ideas, and bursting with the desire to communicate and express them, but they think they can't, because they're stumbling over what ultimately amounts to window dressing, because that is the only thing that anyone has ever told them has any value.
And on the other hand, you get kids--and I was one of these, for a long time--who are very good at those tricks, at paragraph structure and language mechanics, who have learned to and been rewarded for parroting a specific tone; and you ask them what the essay is about, and they can't tell you. Because, again, it's totally divorced from meaning. ideas. Communication.
(I spent six years working in and later running an undergrad writing center, and a lot of how I think of writing--a lot of how die-hard dedicated to the idea of it as dialogic and expressive--as well as my intense frustration with how it's framed and taught, is a product of those years. Writing Center theory should be compulsory for anyone who works in publishing, or wants to.)
You're sort of circling around primary and secondary education, which is a topic I'm endlessly interested in. I never liked English class. I wasn't a terrible student, but getting through Where the Red Fern Grows was a nightmare. I'm going to guess you've got strong opinions about our public schooling system and how we teach lit. Yes?
Ohhh yeah. Again, I think it comes back to function. We tell kids that they need to read X and Y and Z because they're Important, but we don't tell them why. We don't encourage them to find and identify their own points of entry, to interact with works instead of just consuming them and producing five-paragraph essays with topic sentences at the beginning of every paragraph.
My mom teaches in an alternative middle school, and the way her kids talk about and interact with books--with everything they do--blows my mind. It's all about connections, and personal relevance, and the idea that none of the subjects they study exist in a vacuum--that math is relevant to history, and history contextualizes literature, and everything connects; and these kids, who are 12 and 13 and 14, are engaging with books in amazing, mature, interesting ways.They're so cool.
Preach. Preach, preach, preach. I often wonder what the point of an education is if it will leave you allergic to the subject material itself.
Right! I thought for years that I could never study lit, because I saw putting it into a analytical, academic setting as sucking the life out of it. I was super lucky--I had some amazing English professors who showed me otherwise, very early on--but a lot of people never get that experience. I don't know if I would have, on my own.
I do think the internet, and especially social media, is changing that, though. There are avenues for kids and teenagers to engage critically and actively and thoughtfully with books, with stories, with any subject, that just weren't there at all five or ten years ago. And that has downsides--lack of curation, for instance--but the way I see 16-year-olds talking about books on, say, Tumblr? I could never have engaged that way in 1998. I didn't have the lexicon, the context, or the community; or any way to access them.
There are definitely more and more routes to access the right kind of engagement in lit. And whenever I hear of a program that seems to be doing it right (and it's almost always in a private or charter school) it makes me hopeful, but I know that we're trending towards a national curriculum that teaches to the test, which is surely going to make our country as interested in a wonderful Bildungsroman as they are in the quadratic equation.
Yeah. That's really, really scary. Because access to all of those alternate avenues--including the Internet--is so heavily class-mediated.
That is very true. I want to switch gears slightly to talk about another one of your interests, and growing up. I recently watched Crumb, the excellent documentary on R. Crumb, and couldn’t help but think that the landscape he grew up in (comics as one of the key influencers in adolescents literary behavior) is no longer as ubiquitous. Am I wrong to say the readership for comics is in decline?
You are! Or, rather: there's not a straight line from the way the readership for comics was when Crumb was a kid to the way it is now, and it's a lot more complicated than decline or rise. So: Comics were pretty much ubiquitous for a long time, because they were cheap, fun, and accessible. Look back to the 40s, and you see a huge range of publications and genres, but what they have in common, again, is that they're cheap, and you can get them anywhere.
In the 50s, there's the CCA, which is nominally a response to the congressional hearings; but it's also a very canny business move that lets a handful of publishers corner the market and push some other major contenders--most notably, Bill Gaines--out of the business.
From there, you see comics narrow exponentially, and very fast. Romance comics--once the top-selling genre--gradually die off. The other big players--war comics, crime comics, horror and SF--wane and disappear. And what's left are superheroes.
At the same time, printing prices are growing, disproportionate to general income and inflation. This, again, isn't a simple thing--it's connected to industrial shifts, paper mills closing or moving, changes in things like import tariffs.
But the end result is that cover prices go up fast. (Still talking about pamphlets at this point; I'll get to book-length and bound stuff in a sec.) And comics that were financially accessible to ten-year-olds? Not so much anymore.
So, comics starts looking toward the collector market; toward adults and legacy fans. At the same time, you see the development of what's called the direct market--comics shops--which significantly changes both the distribution model and the finances involved. When you sell stock to a bookstore, they can return unsold merchandise, and the publisher eats the cost. Comics shops can't, which makes their relationship with the publishers a lot more either symbiotic or codependent, depending on the day of the week and who signs your checks.
This leads up to the boom and subsequent crash of the 90s. And I really can't overestimate either. Bubble, burst. Companies fold, hundreds of people lose their jobs (or their work, since it's largely a freelance industry, which is another big factor in all of this).
And two things happen: First, comics publishers realize they have to look at alternative models of distribution. You suddenly see more focus on trade paperbacks, collections, book-length comics; all of which have existed for a long time, but have never been the center of the market.
Second, there's a gradual rush to fill the vacuum. Smaller publishers, lit-comics publishers, start to pop up. Self-publishing has always been a viable publishing avenue in comics--it really doesn't carry any of the stigma there that it does in the prose market--but it becomes a tool by necessity; and THAT dovetails with the rise of web publishing. Suddenly, the tools of production are in the hands of creators, without intermediaries, in ways they've never been before. And most of those fail, but what they prove is that there's a market for and interest in a far wider range of material and voices than the industry had supported.
Fast forward a decade and change to now. What I'm seeing happen--have been watching happen--is comics becoming more granular. There are a ton being made, in far wider variety than they have been in a VERY long time, definitely in my lifetime, maybe ever. And that divides the market, but it doesn't diminish it. Comics are taking their place as a medium rather than a genre. With all the variation and diversity that involves.
And yes, the popular focus (and sales) are still concentrated in superheroes, but that's also changing generationally. Raina Telgemeier is taught in elementary schools. Comics are part of the media landscape in ways they've never really been before--as a popular and literary medium.
So: it's not that comics culture is dying or shrinking, at least not now. It's changing, and growing up, and I very much hope it continues to.
Well that was just an incredible history lesson. Now when someone asks again, you can just link to this article!
And with that, it looks like we're out of time.
Thanks, again--this was fun!
Thanks for your words Rachel.