LivingArts: How the Sausage is Made

In a lively Facebook discussion the other day, a fellow literary organizer made the immortal statement: “People don’t want to know how the sausage is made.” Sure, we were talking about book distribution, a particularly arcane subject, but I think this applies to how arts happen in general. We don’t want to know how the book got on the shelf, we just want the book to be there when we want to buy it. Beautiful paintings appear in galleries naturally, and of course the musician we want to hear is going to come to our city.

We want our interactions with art to be seamless. While thinking about the hours of rehearsal it takes to put on a play, or the hours an author must have spent perfecting their lines of poetry, seems to enhance our appreciation of their work, no one wants to talk about logistics. Why does it take away from our experience with art to think that someone is trying to get the books not only printed, but put on the shelves in stores; to produce the songs and get the musician gigs to tour that new release? Is it strange to think that someone is negotiating contracts, organizing financing, finding filming locations, promoting the work on Twitter and Facebook, holding events, talking to the media? And that someone else is coordinating all this so it comes together neatly?

If we want art to get in front of an audience, some version of these tasks has to happen in all the disciplines. If there isn’t someone to negotiate, produce, market and promote for them, the artist has to do it all themselves. They can of course, and some do it brilliantly. But it’s an awful lot of work, and it takes up time that many artists would rather spend making their art.

I run a small publishing company. Wolsak and Wynn publishes about a dozen books a year, a mix of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. People often wonder what a publisher does. When they come to the office, they sometimes peer into the back looking for a printing press. It’s not quite that straightforward. We take our authors’ manuscripts, edit them, lay them out, print them, market them, distribute them and promote them. We try and sell rights to our books internationally and we talk to local film producers. We pitch our authors to literary festivals and try to arrange readings. We send their books in for awards. We set up launches. We give away books in contests. We do everything we can, given our size and resources, to make people aware of our books.

This is administration in an arts setting. We tend to think of administration as something that involves moving papers around, but it’s about managing an organization – whether it’s a small arts company or an international conglomerate – to reach a goal and to fulfill a mission. Our goal is to get people to read our authors’ books. Other companies make sausages. I’m not sure I want to know how they make their sausages, but I bet it’s not as easy as it looks.