Arts and Crafts on the Market
I’m a crackerjack editor. A professional writer has to be; there is no such thing as no word limit. I can edit a piece down to an arbitrary number in short order. I’ve done it with two books and a stack of articles; before that, I did it for commercial magazine articles. I submitted an article this past week to a journal with a generous 10K word limit. That meant a 247-word edit which would normally be a cakewalk but in this case was a bit more challenging.
I received a somewhat high-handed and rather cliché rejection, complaining that it needed to directly engage the following scholars’ work and you should read this book and while your narrative is beautiful, you need to make the piece much more analytical (conveniently not bothering to mention how to do all this when the piece is already just three words shy of the limit).
I didn’t bother to respond. Problem is, the highest word limit for any other journal I know of that might suit is 9K. I started working on a 1K edit, but I abandoned it pretty quickly. That’s unusual; I have lots of experience cramming square pegs into round holes to suit editors.
I have a friend who’s a mural artist. I should ask her what she would do if the mural she saw in her head was twenty feet long but the wall was twelve. I bet she would say, “it depends.” That’s what I would say if someone asked me what I would do if I wanted to submit a 10K piece to an outlet with a 9K limit. In this case, my answer is, “I won’t submit it there.”
Why? Because I can’t get around the conviction that this particular story—and it is a story—needs to be told as I’ve told it. To cut a thousand words from this particular story would be to mangle it. Valuable parts would be lost. Justice to the story and the people in it would not be done. On the other hand, justice won’t be done to it or them if no one reads it.
Shipwrights in the eighteenth century contracted with merchants to build vessels for them for a price per ton. The merchant-owners stipulated the details to a varying extent, but the basic design was always left up to the skill and judgment of the shipwright. Sometimes, the prospective owners would stipulate something—a proportion, usually—say, breadth to depth—that the shipwright would refuse to accommodate, deeming the result of such a compromise unlikely to be seaworthy. The shipwright himself was unlikely to be directly affected by that; he wasn’t going to sail on the vessel, and he would get paid by the owner for building it. But the principles of his craft, and his reputation, depended on his adherence to certain standards. Those standards ran up against the merchant-owner’s pursuit of maximum profit.
An artist or a craftsman is free to create whatever he wants, however he wants. But, if he wants someone else to experience it, or buy it, he has to create something accessible or useful to at least somebody. Freedom of expression may at times compete with the need to reach an audience or an end-user. It seems to me that conflicts between the two have to be resolved on a case-by-case basis; can I compromise with other people without damaging the basic integrity of whatever I’m making?
Unfortunately for me, editors of journals do not compromise with authors the way merchants had to compromise with shipwrights to get their ships built. I haven’t figured out what to do with this story yet, but one way or the other, I’ll put it out there, intact, and in the narrative form it demands. When I do, I’ll let y’all know, because it’s a good story, and a good story deserves readers.
To my Substack subscribers: We have an official release date for Book #2, A Boston Schooner in the Royal Navy, 1768—1772: Commerce and Conflict in Maritime British America: 18 April. Anyone who wants a hardcover copy may order it directly from Boydell & Brewer, and it will ship on or maybe slightly before that date. Use the link below, and use the discount code BB135 at checkout for a 35% discount on the hardcover price of $99.00/£75.00. An e-book will also be available on that date, for a price of $29.95/£24.99.