The Tension Between Art and Commercial Realities

Beatrice by Ron Hogan

Today’s Q&A is with Ron HoganFor anyone who’s worked in publishing for more than two minutes, Ron hardly needs an introduction. In 1995, he launched one of the most legendary sites in the literary community, Beatrice, which features interviews with authors. Even when Ron was working for Amazon in the late ’90s on book reviews, he kept up with his interviews, as well as when he served as senior editor of GalleyCat. For the past two years, Ron has refocused his creative energies on the site, and he recently launched a Kickstarter project to fund a Beatrice app.

In the following Q&A, Ron shares memorable moments from his years working on Beatrice, plus some insights for writers.


You started interviewing authors for Beatrice in 1995, and have spoken to hundreds of people about writing. What is the advice that has stayed with you the most over the years?

The first time I spoke to Allan Gurganus, in 1997, it was just after Harper’s, which had published several of his stories, had accepted an excerpt from his second novel, Plays Well with Others, and then pulled it just before publication because he refused to change the title, which they felt was too provocatively queer.

We talked about the artistic integrity that went into a decision like that and the ways in which, over time, through the practice of daily attention to his craft, his writing life and his emotional life and his ethical life had come together, and how he strove to keep that unity.

In his case, another magazine swooped in to publish the excerpt Harper’s rejected, but he hadn’t known that would happen; it could have been a serious blow to the media campaign around the book’s release.

I’ve thought about that conversation a lot, whenever I hear a story about the tensions between a writer’s artistic ambitions and the commercial realities of the publishing world—and I also think about a conversation I had just a few years later with William T. Vollmann, who wound up returning a significant portion of the advance on one of his novels rather than cut the roughly 700-page manuscript by at least a third to make it less expensive to print.

The point of those stories isn’t that writers should always close themselves off to editorial suggestions, but you do need to know what your core values are as a writer, and commit yourself to expressing those values through your writing to the best of your ability at any given moment.

Did you uncover areas of significant disagreement among authors in their advice to writers or on the business of publishing?

When I conducted the original Beatrice interviews, between 1995 and 2003, the transformation of the publishing industry was still a few years in the future, and Amazon.com was still just taking its earliest steps in the direction of being more than an online bookstore. There was a conversation going on about what Amazon would do to independent bookstores, but we hadn’t gotten around yet to the conversation about the long-term effects of Amazon’s growth on publishers themselves. And, of course, the e-book market was nothing like it was today. In that sense, there was barely a set of issues around which authors could disagree, let alone a significant disagreement.

During this same time period, though, the “chick lit” boom reinvigorated the debate about the status of women writers in the literary spectrum, and those arguments played out very much like the arguments that were set off in 2010 by the excessive media attention to Jonathan Franzen—the main difference being that, because the literary media landscape was generally accepted to be smaller in 2010 than it was in 1995, the problem took on a greater intensity in people’s minds.

Do you have a favorite interview? Or, if not a favorite, perhaps a memorable one that changed you in some way?

I’ve been really fortunate in that almost every interview I did during those first few years went well. Most of the authors I encountered were very generous with their time and their perspectives, and eager to talk with somebody who was as passionate about books and writing as they were. So I wouldn’t say that I have a “favorite” interview, although a lot of them stick out in my memory for various reasons.

James Ellroy was the first interview I ever did, and that was very much a case of me gunning for the interview so I could meet one of my all-time favorite writers.

Gavin Lambert, a screenwriter and novelist who wrote some excellent Hollywood biographies late in his life, was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.

And I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some writers on their first book tours, like Jennifer Weiner and Laura Zigman, who I’m still in touch with today and still learning a lot from.

You hold tremendous knowledge about the industry, and I know you have advice of your own to offer authors about how to succeed during the digital shift we’re all experiencing. I’m asked constantly by authors how they can rise above the noise and get their work discovered. While you could probably write a book on such a topic, what do you think most authors forget or misunderstand about the process of connecting with their readership?

Sometimes I feel like I DID write at least one book on that topic—it’s just spread out over four years of posts on GalleyCat!

The two things that I stress the most when I talk to writers about connecting with their readers online are authenticity and patience. Whatever online strategy you use—a robust web site, an active presence on Twitter or Facebook—you need to be genuinely comfortable with it, because people will be able to tell very quickly if you really don’t want to be there. And that emotional authenticity extends into the way you communicate with people. It’s not about being gut-wrenchingly personal; you probably wouldn’t learn all that much about, say, Colson Whitehead or Margaret Atwood’s personal lives from reading their tweets—but you WOULD get a sense of their personalities, and the things that fascinate them, the things that get stuck in their heads until they can’t resist sharing.

And then there’s patience. There are no shortcuts to connecting with readers, just like there aren’t any shortcuts to doing the writing. You have to put the work in, every day. Most days your progress will be incremental at best, and some days you’ll make a mistake. When that happens, you get up the next day and you work your way back to where you were before and move on from there.

But you’re not alone. One of the most valuable things I learned from my interviews with writers, an emotional understanding that I’m hoping to pass on through the interviews that appear in the Beatrice app, is that these published writers have been exactly where we are now—they’ve faced the same challenges and frustrations, might STILL be facing them after all this time, and yet they’ve come through it with a book, or books!

So don’t give up; be patient, be authentic, and give yourself the time to grow into your writing and your audience.


Note from Jane: Ron has a Kickstarter project underway to launch a Beatrice app. You can choose to support the project on a variety of levels, and each level offers a unique reward. For a basic $5 pledge, you receive a free e-book with 25 Beatrice interviews. Higher pledges can score you one-on-one consulting sessions with Ron. I highly recommend checking out his project.

Posted in Author Q&A and tagged , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Barbara McDowell Whitt
Barbara McDowell Whitt

Ron, as you said in Jane’s interview, Colson Whitehead and Margaret Atwood are two examples of writers who use Facebook comments and Twitter tweets to “post things that get stuck in their heads that they can’t resist sharing.” In the 1960s I wrote the darndest things in my diaries, some of which now make me snicker and some that cause me to question my then “self,” as I share them now in my blog.   

Kalpana Mohan

Thank you, Jane. I wanted to hear this today after waking up feeling frustrated that I couldn’t finish my column last night. I wasn’t being me on the page the way I wanted to be and I just went to bed. I feel a lot more ready this morning.

Ashen

Thanks, Jane. I appreciate the affirmation of what I seem to be doing naturally. I’m slow, angling, until something bites, then get spurned into action.
Curious, I can’t get google to connect me to the Beatrice website.

Ron Hogan

Hi, Ashen — Yes, when I woke up this morning, I discovered that the Beatrice website was not loading. I’m on the phone with Earthlink support now, and hoping that maybe a high number of referrals from this post have maxed out the connections or something… Fingers crossed!

Ashen

Thanks. Works now. I’ve joined the Facebook site.

kathryn magendie

This post just  made me feel happy!

August McLaughlin

Fantastic interview! Such an honor to gain Ron’s insight. 

I’ve been amazed at how much our authenticity, or lack thereof, comes across and matters online. And as a relative newbie to blogging/Twitter, etc., it’s refreshing to know that growth takes patience and time.

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Book Bits #173 – Patterson donates books to troops, Money from blogging, ‘Island of Vice,” news and features | Malcolm's Book Bits and Notions

[…] The Tension Between Art and Commercial Realities, Q&A with Ron Hogan (Beatrice), with Jane Friedman – “The two things that I stress the most when I talk to writers […]

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[…] Ron Hogan, founder of Beatrice, talks with Jane Friedman, assistant professor of e-media at the universityof Cincinnati, about what he’s learned from interviews with authors over the years. […]

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Best Writing Links From Around the Web – 3/19 – 3/23 | Ladies Who Critique

[…] 3. The Tension Between Art and Commercial Realities – Jane Friedman […]