I had a conversation with a writer friend recently (yes, an actual conversation, phoning her up and hearing a voice, not just letters appearing on a screen) with the usual mutual groans and moans of the published (covers, tours, deadlines) and sharing of titles we’d fallen in love with recently. Then she said something that got me thinking about the ecology of publishing.
At an event, she was answering a question about the nuts and bolts of publishing when a woman stood up and said that all this talk about advances and numbers was well and good, but she hoped that my friend would write the books even if she didnâ€™t get any money for them. Just for the love of it, you understand.
My friend was too gobsmacked to give a reply of brutal honesty, which would have amounted to, â€œAre you nuts?â€ (She may not be as pathologically polite as LRK, but she does have excellent manners, and one is expected to treat readers as a guest.) She downplayed the question and went on, briskly, to other matters.
She could have said: That book in your hands took me forty weeks, working forty to sixty hours every week, to write. What would I live off, were it not for income from those hours of labor? Of course I love what I do; of course I feel privileged, each and every day, that I am permitted to sit down and tell myself a story, and be able to keep dry, clothed, and fed thereby. But if a lot of people donâ€™t transfer a little cash from their checking accounts to mine to thank me for my labor, Iâ€™ll have to find something else to do that keeps the roof on and the fridge full.
One of the important book review blogs recently had a post mourning the closing of a book store where the blogger used to take his review copies to sell, before he discovered how convenient the internet was for that purpose. Um, hello? Why does he imagine that once-favorite bookstore is no longer available to him?
The other day, Sarah Weinman linked to a site that suggested ways to save money on books (and no, Iâ€™m not going to give that site, you can find it on Sarahâ€™s blog if you really want to.) And some of the suggestions are good (reading reviews, yes; using libraries, oh yes) but what am I supposed to think when â€œAvoiding new releasesâ€ comes the first on the writerâ€™s list of â€œself-discipline and common senseâ€ tips? Share books, yes; buy second-hand, okay, but honey, please donâ€™t come to me in five years and ask me why Iâ€™m not in print any more, you used to really love my books.
I buy organic produce when I can, even though itâ€™s more expensive, because I think we have a responsibility to support men and women who are trying to keep from drowning the world in chemicals. I buy hardback new releasesâ€”especially new authorsâ€”because I know that if I donâ€™t, that writer wonâ€™t be around for long.
The business of books is a complex ecological system, one in which the readerâ€™s role is often overlooked. I write books, quite simply, because people continue to buy them. I am grateful to all of you for giving me the opportunity to make my living in a way that suits me and brings me pleasure. And I am aware, every day, how precarious my own position in the ecology is.
Just a thought.