On March 22, 2004 Neil Gaiman posted a link to a piece by a woman calling herself “Jane Austen” in his blog. I'll wait while you read his comments and her rather long whine. Oh! And don't fail to follow the link to the Bookslut comments too. You'll have to scroll down a bit to get to them but it's worth it.
Now, maybe I was prepared to be less than sympathetic going in based on the comments in Gaiman's blog but I really wanted to smack Jane and tell her to grow up.
The declaration “I want to be a professional writer” changes meaning depending on who is speaking, and where they are on their journey towards meeting that goal. For this woman I suspect that it meant that she wanted a life of artistic freedom where she would carefully craft prose that would resonate in the souls of her readers. It could be serious or silly by turns but it would speak to universal themes. In other words, she wanted to be an artist. It is certainly possible to create works of artistic merit and sell them and to do so while staying true to your inner muse without compromising your vision, but as she learned the hard way, don't give up your day job.
She frequently mentions the business aspects of publishing in her article but then proceeds to demonstrate that she has failed to comprehend what that means to her as a provider of products for that business. Instead she wails about how awful it is that it IS a business and how all they care about is sales instead of quality. Well..DUH!
When 9 editors tell you that your work isn't commercial enough you should believe them instead of trying to find a 10th who disagrees. Large publishing houses are in business to make money, not to offer patronage to deserving writers. If your work isn't commercial enough, that is, if it will not make them at least some profit, then there is no reason for them to buy your product. That's not cruel or unjust, that's just sound economics.
When this happens, if you want to be a professional writer – in this case meaning someone who derives the bulk of their income from writing – then you find out how you can change your manuscript so that it IS commercial enough or failing that write something else that will sell and market your artistic masterpiece to a small press for the pleasure of seeing it in print.
Shakespeare, that most lauded of literary heroes, wrote his work with an eye toward what would sell. He frequently included elements to appeal to the lowest common denominator (the groundlings), as well as things to stroke the egos of the nobles who might hire his troupe for private performances. You can produce good work that is also salable but you have to know your market.
If all you want is to write finely crafted books that are true to your artistic vision than go ahead and do it, but don't complain when a market that is geared toward what will sell at Wal-Mart and airport book shops doesn't buy it. You wouldn't try to sell hand-sewn, one-of-a-kind dresses to the buyer for JC Penney's, and this is the same sort of thing. Go to that funky little boutique near the university (a university press or other small literary publisher) and you'll both be happy.
There's also absolutely nothing wrong with writing for pure pleasure and posting your work on line for free. Of course you will still need to make a living doing something else, and it is unfair that people can't survive on genius alone, but that's life and it's something grownups accept and then get on with what they have to do to put food on the table and pay the rent.
If you do decide to try and make a profession of it then realize that it's a business, just like selling soap, just a lot more intellectually satisfying. Getting mad because reality failed to rearrange itself to fit your fantasy isn't going to change that.