When I was a reader, I spoke as a reader, I understood as a reader.
When I became a writer, I read as a writer, I understood as a writer.
I just finished "Readers Don't Owe Authors S**T" on the online site Book Riot. The credo of the post is basically this: writers and independent bookstores shouldn't nag readers (into shopping Indie, posting reviews, asking for shout-outs, etc.). Much of it resonated in me. I've been asked to spread the word many times--and though most of the time I'm happy to help, I don't like to feel I'll be ostracized for non-compliance.
When my first novel debuted, it was pretty late in my game. (I was 57.) Though an addicted reader, the only "insider" information and terms I knew, came from novels such as The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith. (The first time anyone used the term "the list" I didn't have a clue that's how the cool kids referenced the New York Times Bestseller list.) I published my first novel just around the time social media exploded (at least in my awareness,) so I've never experienced books or authors online, except as an author/reader--but being a reader is my identity.
As a small child, I went to the library daily. (The only books we had was a Reader's Digest Condensed Digest, an oversized photo book about Africa with a scratchy grey cover, and a copy of Ideal Marriage by Van de Velde, hidden in my mother's nightstand.)
Eventually, I built up a small shelf of books--spending my babysitting dollars on the YA of my time, by Beverly Cleary (Fifteen! The Sister of the Bride!), I read and re-read every book I owned. When I traded Brooklyn NY for Berkeley California, books took up as much room in my backpack as my teensy mini dresses. When I became a mother, I managed my book-a-day habit by using the library, so I could buy books for my daughters.
Books have always been the platform on which my sanity rested. Reading was a quiet private pursuit, consisting of reviews, bookstores, library shelves, and trading books and titles with friends.
Authors were akin to gods.
Is it different now? I go back to the sudden onslaught of articles such as "Readers Don't Owe Writers S**T." (The article references other essays.) It's an article I agree with in many facts, if not tone. The author writes, in bold, I don't owe you your dream career, explaining:
"I want very much for my favourite writers to write books, and I often make the choice to support that by purchasing their books. Sometimes in more than one form. Sometimes in multiple copies as gifts. But I don't owe my favourite writers those things. Likewise, when I read a wonderful book, I tell lots and lots of people about it. But I don't owe that to the wonderful books I've loved. These are choices I make freely because I love stories and books. And when I make these choices, it is about my relationship with the person I am sharing my love of the book with. It is about neither author nor bookshop, at the core."
The author goes on to say, "When an author I follow on social media tells me I am not doing enough to sell his or her books for him or her on social media, I stop following that author."
I understand. Completely. Who wanted to be scolded? It's not a readers' job to sell our books. I've winced seeing writers online doing everything from groveling to begging to screeching for readers to buy them, "like" their pages, write Amazon reviews. I've winced at myself, even as I pretend that when I do it I somehow sound cute and not pathetic.
But, though books have a life outside of the writer, they are still our books. Readers do not need to do a blessed thing after closing the last page, that is true--but at their core, these are our books. They exist only for the multiplicity of hours we spent writing them.
Stephanie Cowell, author of five novels and a winner of an American Book Award, wrote this when I asked her opinion on the topic: "I do think that kind of pushy behavior (described in the article) is beyond the pale ... no one should be pushed like that. But I think if we like an author's work or the author is living and not making a Dan Brown fortune, it is the right thing to buy the book, not borrow it. We contribute to all sorts of things, most of us. We don't borrow a meal in a restaurant. Of course, if we can't afford it, then we can do second-hand or borrow by all means...but again, the author has no right to say anything. It just creates bad feelings. I remember when a friend with a lot of money sent me two remaindered books to autograph... I bit my tongue hard."
Here's the thing--we're caught between the proverbial Scylla and Charybdis. Just as actors love acting, dancers love dancing, and comedians love cracking jokes, writers love writing. But though some of all of the above are doing it for a joy of craft alone, a great deal of us are doing it for a living and suddenly, in this new online world, this translated into promoting anything and everything we can. (Cute puppies! Funny kids! Adorable elderly parents saying the sweetest things!)
God save the writer with neither cuteness nor tragedy to promote, because we're all fighting for attention. There are more books than ever. Bowker reports that over three million books were published in the U.S. in 2010 (May 18, 2011 Bowker Report). The number of new print titles issued by U.S. publishers has grown from 215,777 in 2002 to 316,480 in 2010. And in 2010 more than 2.7 million "non-traditional" titles were also published, including self-published books, reprints of public domain works, and other print-on-demand books.
Cable television somewhat democratized the medium, but it also brought a din of competition--the same is going on with publishing. There are fewer mainstream reviews and a greater number of consumer reviews. There is tremendous pressure to be online, get the word out, do book clubs in person, by Skype, by train, plane & automobile. Write posts. Do events. Go to festivals. Participate on panels. Form support groups. Shout out other writers. None of the above is breaking rocks, but for mid-list writers there is no money in it either. It's done for free, or, more likely, it's done for free and paid for by the writers. When you see those "book tours!!" you can bet that 90% of them are author-funded.
After our books are published, most writers spend months online and in person, trying to convince readers--without turning them off--that our books are worth their time and money. (Or just their time--libraries are book buyers of the highest order. Writers love having readers request our books. )
All this après-writing work requires learning the close-to-impossible: how to do it graciously and well. One (well, me) can spend hours and hours studying how to do it properly, how to find the right tone and voice, and one can still blow it. Ah, that rock and hard place: on the one hand, squirming at posting another "Me! Me! Me!" and on the other hand, studying your Bookscan numbers and Amazon ranking as though examining the Dead Sea Scrolls. How tempting, how easy, to simply post one more me-me-me about one's book.
MJ Rose, owner of Authorbuzz--a book marketing firm--and a bestselling author (her next book, Seduction, releases May 7) says,
"Authors live in a time when what we're asked to do, what we think we need to do, and what our publishers often expect us to do, make us look unseemly. Authors online act in ways they'd never allow themselves in person. It's rare when I meet an author in person who acts the way they do online. One rule I use is this: before I say anything online, I ask myself is this something I'd share with someone I just met at a cocktail party? If the answer is no, then I don't post it."
Author Catherine McKenzie (her latest book is Forgotten) is acutely aware of this issue: "I think every writer these days has that me-me-me feeling whenever their book comes out (and in the months leading up to it and after it). I remember when my first book came out a couple of years ago in January, 2010. I dubbed it the "month of me" and was thoroughly sick of myself by the end of it. One thing I find helps is I turn that me-me-me spotlight onto other authors. It's so much easier to say "read this!" or "buy this!" when I'm getting nothing out of it other than turning other people onto good books". (You can see Catherine's current such project here.)
Relentless recounting of successes by authors (the extreme-don't-try-this-at-home version of Me! Me! Me!) can also drive other writers insane. Internationally praised historical fiction writer C.W. Gortner, (his most recent book is The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile) is the friend I need when the torture becomes too much. As we went back and forth about a recent online debacle, he said:
That's okay. In some ways. I am doing my dream job. And I don't expect anyone owes me a thing (except not stealing my book. No piracy please. I never did it to a musician: I'm glad my karma is clear.)And then, with in between all that booty-shaking, uber-gracious tweeting, and traveling, you have to write. Most authors will say writing their first book, in the quiet of non-selling, was the most comfortable. I know for me, because of the whole corporate problem my publisher is caught in ongoing negotiations with Barnes and Noble, which has resulted in almost no Simon & Schuster books being carried at the only major chain bookstore in the United States) my promotion time has extended beyond the normal month or two. I'll be traveling, online and on Amtrak, from February through June, visiting independent bookstores, book clubs, and participating in events. The result is that I'm fighting for a quiet space to write. And the result of that is working seven days a week since my book came out in February.
"Watching that was like a mash-up of Wonder Woman and Shameless. I'm going to Prada to bask in things I cannot afford and escape the Me-Me Circus. It's getting to the point that Facebook qualifies as an instrument of torture."
So, are writers being unseemly? Perhaps some of us are, sometimes. Some appear me-me-me all the time. Laura Harrington, winner of the 2012 Massachusetts Book Award for fiction, says, "I like to think of Katherine Hepburn. She understood stardom and she also understood privacy.
Her desire for privacy actually enhanced her mystery and her allure. She will always be considered a "class act." I think there's something nearly desperate about some of what's going on - and that is never attractive."
I agree with Laura. And yet, I study my numbers. I worry, I watch, and like most authors I vacillate between my desire to be Katherine Hepburn and my pull towards jumping up and down like a contestant on Let's Make A Deal.
So, when I cringe at another's (or my own) urges towards me-me-me, I try to remember to allocate a bit of kindness towards writers (like me) trying to dance as fast as we can.