By Jean E. Pendziwol
I attended elementary school in the 1970’s, when Thunder Bay schools were bursting at the seams, where St. Vincent on Redwood Avenue had portables in the playground and two grade six classes sharing the gymnasium. Our librarian was the enthusiastic Mr. Christie, who always managed to make our weekly trips to borrow books an adventure, offering suggestions for great alternatives to the standby favourites, helping students find the most recent Nancy Drew book, and demonstrating how to use the Dewey Decimal System. He recognized that the awkward gangly-legged child checking out stacks of books each week had a particular interest in playing with words, in creating character, and weaving story, and offered to publish my very first work of fiction. What a proud moment seeing my story, bound with a piece of scrap orange wool and illustrated with crayon drawings, tucked on the shelf next to all the other “real” authors in the St. Vincent school library. I even had an entry in the card catalog.
It was some years before I again had that thrill of seeing my work on a library bookshelf. My early career as an editorial coordinator and writer for commercial magazines allowed me the opportunity to craft with words, but I didn’t pursue fiction again until after my children were born. It was then that I fell in love with picture books, enjoying the challenge of writing in a genre that necessitated a constraint of words; that demanded excellence while simultaneously requiring a story that was engaging and entertaining for both my reader and my audience (not the same in the picture book world, but that’s another blog.) And although by this time I was comfortable with the commodification of my writing, it was different when I viewed that writing as art.
It is interesting to examine our responses to the business of being published – when a work of art becomes a product. It’s something many people struggle with. Does commercial success somehow diminish artistic merit? Is it because our work – our writing – is so tied up in our sense of identity? Can we separate our “self” from our “product” or book? How do we respond professionally as we journey the road to publication? These were all questions that I grappled with as a newly published author.
When I finished writing my debut novel, The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and decided to pursue publication, I was faced with additional challenges I hadn’t experienced previously, in spite of successfully publishing numerous picture books with two different houses. I waded into the world of beta readers, agents, international book deals, foreign rights, and the need to build a “platform.” And I became aware of some minor differences between the commercially driven US market and the Arts Council funded, awards-driven, literary Canadian market. It became important for me to keep the art – to keep my story – at the heart of every decision I made, while at the same time recognizing that in choosing to follow the publishing route, my story was becoming a book, and a book is a product.
In the words of Nicholas Sparks, “Writing a great novel is the most important thing you can do to become a success, but sometimes it's not enough.” That’s where a community of writers can help. Heather Dickson and I are looking forward to co-facilitating the upcoming NOWW workshop on The Business of Writing. We don’t have all the answers, but we are happy to share our own journeys in the ever-evolving world of book publishing. It is our hope that by understanding the business aspect of being an author, you will have the confidence to make informed decisions about your work and where you’d like to see it end up, whether that be in your private collection, on a bookstore shelf or in the eager hands of a child, waiting to check it out of a school library.
Every book is a different story; every writer has a unique journey. Publishing is the intersection where art becomes business and poetry becomes a pitch. Sometimes harsh, rarely lucrative, always complex, we welcome you to grab your pens, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get down to business. The Business of Writing.
Jean E. Pendziwol