Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Plea for Peace and Good Will Among Authors

Tis the season. At this winter holiday time we rejoice—whatever our beliefs—in the pleasure of fellowship of friends and family, in the simple joys of special food and music, and in the joy of giving. Perhaps in keeping with the season all authors and publishers could step back from animosity, take a look at what we share, and think about how we can work together to further common goals.

What do we share? A love for the written word, a respect for the craft of writing, and perhaps a profound awe for literature at its best. What do we all want? More people reading more books, enjoying and learning from their reading, and looking forward eagerly to new books coming out.

Is fighting amongst ourselves about who and who isn't a "real" author or writer likely to further our common goals? Is calling some authors wannabe writers who don't measure up likely to spread love of the written word?

Probably not. To see the futility of this sort of attack, we need only turn our gaze toward Iowa with its escalating political competition. Voters are tired of negativity and candidates know this. Surveys show the majority of Americans are disturbed by the level of personal attacks in political campaigns and that negative ads turn people off. Candidates have taken note of this and are focusing more on their own positives rather than on criticizing their competitors.

Do we need surveys to tell us that writers calling each other names, running down each other's work or trying to keep some colleagues out of the marketplace makes us all look bad? We should remember that most readers don't choose their books by the publisher or even know who the publisher is. Trying to exclude certain books based on who published them only raises alarms about books in general. Consumer confidence is likely to be the biggest casualty.

Instead of contracting by dividing ourselves and each other into star-bellies and non-star-bellies like the Sneetches (see my 11/15/07 post), why not expand into the joy and wonder of so many people caring enough about books that they take the time and trouble to write one? If—as Bowker reports--over 290,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2006, that's a good thing, not a threat. In fact, it's amazing in a time when we keep hearing that people no longer care about reading.

According to Wikipedia, "The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) monitors both the number and type of books published per country per year as an important index of standard of living and education, and of a country's self-awareness." So all of us authors and publishers are contributing. Not in the same way, and not at the same level. But we are all writing and putting our work out there to be read. And that's a lot of work and it takes perseverance and courage.

So let's share some good will amongst authors, applaud our collective effort to improve our craft, and enjoy the successes of our fellow authors as well as our own. Happy holidays!


  1. The more I read about stuff like this the more I realise that the publishing industry is simply a business with a product to push. That the product is a book is academic. It could be widgets. There are very few products on the market with anything like the variety that books offer; the closest has to be music. After that, how many of us own more than a couple of cars or televisions or DVD players? But books are different. People own dozens or even hundreds of books. And every one of them is, to a greater or lesser extent, a work of art, a product of someone's imagination. Any yet it is treated like a product, packaged, branded, tag-lined and advertised with little real interest in what the book contains.The sad thing is when authors start to treat their own books as product, buying into the corporate mentality. Sales matter. Sales mean royalties. Royalties mean lifestyle. Most books don't have a sell-by date. Even if they're dealing with something topical, like the Cold War, they don't suddenly become useless once the war is over; they become records for all time. And yet the way books are presented it is as if you don't read such-and-such's latest book within a given period of time then it'll have gone off in some way. Books are not a fashion accessory: "Oh, did you see her, she's still reading 'Atonement' – that's so last week!"So there were 290,000 books published in one year. And this year will likely top that. Is that a bad thing? Having too much choice can be as bad as having too little. It's like trying to find Waldo in one of those pictures of crowds, Waldo being the perfect book for you. Most people don't have the time and will settle. But the thing about books is that, as I've already said, people rarely only buy the one. And the competition is not 290,000-1 because that figure covers all kinds of books. What if you only write cyber-vampire novels (please tell me that genre doesn't exist) – who exactly out there is your competition?And yet the whole point to a novel is that it is new. It doesn’t matter how derivative it may be, there will be something new about your book, some reason for people to buy it. Perhaps the fact that it is derivative is the selling point. Richard Brautigan is not exactly churning them out any more and I would love to read more.Selling books may be a business but books are that one product industry loves: collectibles.