The Invisible Hand

I’m fascinated and repelled by the idea of the artistic marketplace–as in “right now the romance marketplace is constricted in terms of historicals.” I say this sort of thing all the time. And indeed since at least Adam Smith, people have been invested in thinking about the marketplace as if it were sentient. Smith coined the term “invisible hand” in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), where it describes how rich people’s consumption helps the poor. But he most famously used the phrase in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776):

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.

And thus were a thousand neoliberal economic policies launched. But I digress.

What Smith is saying (I think) is that we’re running around acting irrationally in terms of our self-interest but unbeknownst to us, our production and consumption decisions are being shaped by (and are shaping) the market in which we participate. This market is greater than the sum of all the choices the producers and consumers in it make. If we try to shape the market consciously–for good, but maybe also for profit–we will fail. The market is uncontrollable but real.

Or you know, something like that.

When we apply this to art, the waters grow more turbid still. Art has an undeniable economic dimension, but artists do have extra-economic motives for writing, painting, dancing, etc. and consumers (or maybe I should say patrons) have extra-economic motives for reading, going to galleries and ballets, etc. But as important as these extra-economic motives are, it’s the economic ones I find particularly sticky.

I would argue that even famously positioned outside the marketplace artists like Emily Dickinson respond to Smith’s invisible hand. Dickinson may only have sold something like twelve poems out of thousands written during her lifetime, but she read traditionally published books, circulated manuscripts to friends, and organized and curated her writing: all of which involve participating in the commercial marketplace or in setting up a counter-marketplace. She was running around acting out of self-interest, but she couldn’t make the marketplace more amenable to what she was writing. Equally importantly she couldn’t escape it.

I don’t bring up Dickinson to argue that she was somehow more pure for her limited participation in the market. After all, she wrote “Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” but also “‘Remember Me,’ implored the Thief–” and “This is my letter to the world / That never wrote to me, –” (though of course she uses lots of dramatic personae so all or none of these lines could reflect how she felt about the market). When I read her, I don’t see the recluse of Amherst. Instead, Dickinson seems to demonstrate the impossibility of getting away from economic forces. From the economic language to the discussion of immortality and memory, these questions are all over her poems. She might not have been a commercial poet (whatever that might mean), but she was an economically-inflected one.

I’m glossing a bit, but what I’m trying to say is that art is always going to be both a desire to express something about one’s humanity and a waltz with the invisible hand.

But who controls that hand? Who shapes the market?

For myself, I make consumption choices in random ways. The most important factors that go into me buying a book are whether I have read/enjoyed the author before, reviews, and some basic facts about the book (the blurb, cover, and title). Sometimes I will say, “Oh, that’s an ‘unusual’ historical and I want to see more of those” and I’ll click buy. Or I will want a book but balk at the price. But other times, for reasons I’d have difficulty explaining, I’ll buy a pricey book just because or load the dozen-eth duke romance onto my old Kindle.

Is it pure irrationality? Marketing? Buzz? The invisible hand at work?

I ask because I feel some frustration with today’s romantic marketplace. I feel like all the bestsellers sound the same. I feel listless about my reading and my writing, more so about my “brand” and positioning in the market.

I don’t think I’m alone. I wasn’t at RT or RWA, but almost everyone seemed to describe the atmosphere as quiet. We seem to have stumbled into Dr. Seuss’s waiting place.

This makes sense. There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty related to the rise of digital and self-publishing, consolidation between publishers, etc. The forces that attempt to control the invisible hand, which is to say gatekeepers like agents, editors, and publishers, are understandably nervous. While the gatekeepers may have driven some of changes (New Adult as marketing stunt, for example), they’ve been chasing the invisible hand on the rest; of course those steps are taken in fear.

So as I ponder simple questions like, “how do I balance writing what I want against writing what seems to sell” and “what’s the ideal balance between the expressive and economic dimensions of art” (I’ll totally have these solved by lunch, BTW), I want to know two things: do you think the market can be shaped? And how does the invisible hand influence your reading and writing?

4 thoughts on “The Invisible Hand

  1. Oh man. The romance market… I feel you on this one. I am so bored with the books I see put out by the major publishers. I’ve actually stopped buying them — even the free ones — because I’ve been so disappointed. If someone tells me “YOU MUST READ THIS” then I usually try to find it at the library or in the library’s digital collection. But I would say that of the romances I’ve read this year, I haven’t finished probably 3/4 of them. (This is usually due to the fact that the tension drains out of the romance once the characters have sex, which seems to be happening earlier and earlier in the books I’ve picked up this year.)

    I wonder sometimes, though, if this is a product of me starting to write my own romance. Am I more critical because I always have the “I could do this better” thought in my head? At the same time, I am with you on the historicals, especially. So many goddamn dukes. So many hidden secrets.

    But I think being bored is exactly why it’s important to work outside of the big market places, even if it means less promo, no big reviews, or anything that goes with getting a book deal. Like you said, there’s enormous uncertainty in the market right now as publishers figure out new models. And I think that makes them extremely conservative in their book strategies. They’re going to go with what they think works until forced to do something else.

    It’s a great time for independents to step in and give people something new!

    I’ve just been considering whether or not to enter the Harlequin So You Think You Can Write contest. I could probably get something together for it. I have a romance series in my mind. But I sat for awhile yesterday and really listed the pros and cons. (And this was all assuming there was interest from Harlequin in my manuscript. Yes, my ego is that big. lol) And regardless of the prestige of writing for Harlequin, the benefit of having professionally designed book covers and text, the professional openings it might give me, I found myself hesitating. Mostly because I now know the self-pub space. I’ve built a readership that grows with each book. And I have complete control of my product. I can get it out to my readers quickly and efficiently. And I can write what I want to write!

    All of this long thing I’ve just written is to say that I think the marketplace might be too much of a heavy hand now. It will be interesting to continue watching how self-pub changes the market. It might at least make it a little bit more responsive.

    1. I agree with everything you’ve written here–and all of these are reasons I’m thinking about going indie.

      But I would add that one of my interests is how you can be subversive or fresh or innovative within a mainstream, commercial text. Like, anyone can challenge expectations and experiment with form in a book that 50 people are interested in reading. It’s so much harder to do in a book that might sell 50,000 or 500,000 copies.

      For me, it’s this tangled intersection of wanting to write what I want to write, which I’m realizing is so out of step with the mainstream market; to participate in a conversation with readers and other texts; and be happy/find balance. And I don’t know what the answer is. How much thinking about the market is too much? How much formal innovation is too much? If I write a book that feels emotionally true to me and no one reads it, was I wrong? Etc.

      I want the “recluse of Amherst” myth to be enough–to say to hell with all of it and just put the words on the page. But I don’t think even Dickinson could just put the words on the page. So there’s no hope for me.

      I don’t think anyone has answers, but I appreciate that we’re asking the same questions!

      1. I feel like, at least in the romance market, you might have to be a well-established author in the standard fare before you will be able to take risks and push. So I wonder if moving things isn’t a combination of innovating from the outside and showing that you can find an audience with “non-traditional” stuff as well as established authors pushing from inside out.

        As for being true to yourself, I think that’s what it comes down to. If you want to take on the market and being true to yourself means writing a book that will be a bestseller, then do it. And that will be okay. And if you want to write and self-publish novels that are true to your vision but might not sell as much, then do it. And that will be okay, too.

        I do think, however, that trying to write what you know will sell simply in order to sell it (as in, not because you have any passion or excitement for it) is always going to be a bad thing. But if you have a passion to write what the market seems to want, then that’s a happy intersection.

        I don’t believe you should ever think something you wrote from a place of passion and because you thought “this book needs to be in the world” is wrong. If it makes you happy, then it’s right. And if it happens to reach even one other person, that’s an added bonus. Not a very financially rewarding way of looking at writing books, but hey…

  2. But The Siren was Tiffany Reisz’s debut, A Lady Awakened Cecilia Grant’s, Outlander Diana Galbaldon’s, Twilight Stephanie Meyer’s, Fifty Shades EL James’s, and Interview with a Vampire Anne Rice’s. High bars to aim for, but I think you can break rules right out of the gate–but only if you’re brilliant or connect with audiences in an immediate, alchemical way.

    I’ll add “achieve brilliance” to the to-do list!

    More seriously, there are rules and everyone knows the market works in a certain way until someone comes along who proves that there aren’t and it doesn’t. I don’t have a way to explain what that quality that these books–and others that break rules like The Bronze Horseman or almost everything about the career of Kristen Ashley–do and why audiences/gatekeepers will accept these books and not others. But I guess that’s the unpredictability of the market that Smith describes.

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