Literary ecology

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 didn’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, “Are you nuts?” (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 don’t transfer a little cash from their checking accounts to mine to thank me for my labor, I’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, I’m not going to give that site, you can find it on Sarah’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 “Avoiding new releases” comes the first on the writer’s list of “self-discipline and common sense” tips? Share books, yes; buy second-hand, okay, but honey, please don’t come to me in five years and ask me why I’m not in print any more, you used to really love my books.

I buy organic produce when I can, even though it’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 releases—especially new authors—because I know that if I don’t, that writer won’t be around for long.

The business of books is a complex ecological system, one in which the reader’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.

Comments

  1. “Pathologically polite”–I love it. At last, an accurate and succinct description of what ails me. And it sounds so much more high-falutin’ than my daughter’s complaint of “Mom, your problem is you’re too nice.”

    Too bad we can’t all be independently wealthy enough to do what we want “for the love of it.” I find myself wondering what that woman at the event does for a living . . .

    And if we all avoided new releases–well, my mind just boggles and comes to a screaching halt. Isn’t there a word for that? [Cainophobia]

  2. tangential1 says:

    After looking up the article, the author seems to have a problem with compulsive spending. I can’t say that I understand how avoiding new hardcovers is really going to help that kind of OCD, except that you are taking yourself away from the object of your obsession.

    Personally, I love getting a new hardcover because the books I splurge on for the new hardcover are the books that I’ve been anticipating. I fully appreciate the work that goes into a good book and I have no problem paying the higher price to support both the author and the indie bookstores that can’t afford to give me a hardcover at 40% off.

    I can kind of see where the woman might have been going with her “for the love of it” comment. I think it’s more, if you weren’t being published and forced to undergo deadlines and spend 40 hours a week cranking out a new novel, would you still be writing for yourself because you like to write? If it wasn’t a job, would it still be a hobby? It kind of throws back to what made you start writing in the first place?

  3. When I read the title of this entry I was expecting a discourse on how to use recycled paper in printing new books, or how the ink used in the latest LRK novel was actually made from recycled tires or something. One never knows what they can recycle things into these days.

    Whenever I go to a used bookstore, there is nary an LRK book to be found. I take it that people are either loathe to let go of them, or the shoppers of the early-morning variety found those proverbial worms on the shelves and gobbled them up right quick. I tried to buy cheap (I was in art school- we are pathologically poor) but to no avail. Full price for the hard covers was as cheap as it got- but boy are they worth their price and more.

    Does that inquiring woman do her job just for the love of it? Would she? And someone should kick that author who whines about the store closing when he ceased giving it his business anyways. He needs to be weeded out of the literary food chain.

  4. Thanks for putting out all of this so clearly and well.

    Back when I taught in the public school system I was often urged to not notice my piss-poor pay but to focus on the “intrinsic rewards” of the work. If only little anecdotes of “intrinsic reward” moments would have worked in place of checks in my electric bill!

  5. So, I don’t buy hardcovers of any books where I can help it, though I feel I can afford it. Why? Because I don’t have the storage space for them. I can easily fit 2 paperbacks in the space a hardback takes, and while a book (or 10) doesn’t cost that much, adding on a room to my house to store books is more than I can afford. I think that publishers need to think about this — book readers of the future are all going to read online (or on their Kindles) or are going to be people like me who who treasure the physical book (and probably have a lot of them).

    Oh, and there’s the fact that a hardback doesn’t fit in the carry on that I take on the airplane, which is where I get to read most of my fiction.

    I support the idea that you should be paid for your labor (while I too love my work, I certainly expect to get paid for it), but there’s a lot more going on here than cost (and for people where cost makes the difference between being able to buy 1 book or 3, they need to not feel guilty about buying paperbacks.)

    Music is more on the forefront of this, but books too will need to find new ways of compensating artists/authors, as new media, new form factors, new distribution methods, are all changing how we consume this stuff.

  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2008/feb/21/4

    Well I was surprised to spot this! Authorised, unauthorised, or a coincidence?

  7. A fascinating reflection (or rant, as you call it). The “for-the-love-of-it” question is an interesting one. I would be surprised to learn that the good writers don’t love writing, and even most of the not-so-good ones.

    But the question isn’t about if writers love their writing (the act, not necessarily the product though that is important too). The question, in my mind, is whether or not readers, and society and general, are willing to pay for beauty. Do they even recognize what is beautiful and good? People are hesitant to take time out to enter into the arts because it confronts us with ourselves and it’s something we can’t control. And if we don’t recognize that something is beautiful or of great worth, what’s the reason to pay for it?

    Wonder how that change can come about. I’m looking at the many shelves of books in my room right now and thinking of how much I appreciate the way they reflect some element of beauty. Some of these books were given to me; some bought at the big stores and some at the small. Every one of them has a story (not just the written story) and that’s what makes them so grand.

  8. Robin–Paperbacks are good. We like paperbacks, and it’s thanks to good folk like you who buy them that I have a complete backlist available, even after 15 years. I hope you don’t imagine I was trying to make you feel guilty for not shelling out money and shelf space (and back problems from your carry-on) for the hardback; I was merely pointing out the workings of the bookselling environment, in which hardback sales occupy a major niche. Like trees in the rainforest, to extend the analogy to the brink of snapping.

  9. Sara says: Whenever I go to a used bookstore, there is nary an LRK book to be found.

    That has been my experience, too. I have only once found a used Laurie R. King title, and that was at a library book sale–a well-loved, much-read trade copy of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. My first copy had fallen to pieces, so I scarfed up this second copy with a swoop and a yell (arousing curious stares from the other people at the book sale). For my part, I never ever part with a Laurie R. King title. I am in the process of moving and have been forced to seriously weed my books as my new apartment is 1/2 the size of the old one. How torturous it has been to decide which friends to hold onto, which I can bear to part with. All of my Laurie R. King books, each and every copy, are coming with me. No matter what.

    I let out a little snort when Robin wrote that a hardback doesn’t fit in the carry on. That’s why I have every Laurie R. King title in both hardcover and paperback: one for reading at home and a lighter copy for carrying on trips and to appointments, etc.

    Hey, Robin–what is a “Kindle?”

    Roxanne

  10. OMG. I just Googled “Kindle.” Gulp. Really cool. But what can this mean for the book industry? My little brain boggles and comes to a screeching halt (smell the smoke?). I want one! But I feel guilty for wanting one. Visions of one of those Star Trek movies that featured a society without books and Captain Kirk receiving a pair of antique reading glasses as a birthday gift (‘antique’ because spectacles weren’t made anymore as no one read actual books!) Goodness. What must Miss Russell think as she observes all of these incredible changes over the years?

  11. I would love to hear various thoughts on the Kindle.

    I work for a small Catholic publisher and our director just brought in the Kindle for the editorial staff to examine. Being an avid lover of books, I was opposed to the contraption. I will admit that it could have benefits (the search abilities could be helpful), but it saddens me that we’re so steeped in the electronic age. Reading a book is more than simply gaining knowledge or reading the words. It involves the act of taking time to get into the book: feel it, open the covers, hear the crack of the spine, smell the glue and paper and ink. It involves the satisfaction of closing the book upon finishing it and putting it on the shelf, or not being able to put it immediately away because you want that book to stay with you. “Locked Rooms” is still on the floor by my bed because I can’t let go of those characters yet.

    What happens to the ritual of reading?

    Stepping off my soapbox…

  12. I love new hardcover books- just the feel of holding them in my hand, and knowing that they’ll last a good long time. Plus, when I loan them to my mom, she can’t destroy them like she does wrenching open the spines of mass-market paperbacks while she reads. As for electronic formats, I have a hard time imagining why I would want to give up actual books- I mean, I can’t imagine curling up on the couch on a rainy day with an electronic reading device. I find modern technology as useful as the next person, but I draw the line at its intrusion into my world of books.

    And it isn’t just about comfort, or the ritual of reading, either. I mean, I sure would find it convenient in some ways if I could carry around all my textbooks on a little computer instead of carting them back and forth to my classes (history classes have mountains of textbooks)… but then I wouldn’t be able to use highlighter pens, and make notes in the margins, and do all those other things I do that make it look like I actually understand the material…

  13. Actually, the Kindle has a keyboard and all the fittings to bookmark, comment in the “margins”, etc. My British publisher, who’s a real techie, showed me his recently, and downloaded Touchstone then and there to show me how he was taking a dozen books with him to Australia, without the weight. And the screen is quite readable, although the display is not instantaneous like most computer screens are, it takes a moment for the text to appear. It seemed to me like it would be great for academic use, if they every manage to convert textbooks to the purpose, but hard to toss a $400 machine into a backpack and read it on the beach or in the bath…

    Laurie

  14. I don’t have a Kindle yet (because I let other folks get the bugs out of first generation stuff — I don’t have an iphone either), but I do covet it at times; the idea of being able to take 20 books or so on vacation is alluring (even on my biking vacations, where I am otherwise engaged all day, I read 5-10 books in as many days). And Laurie is right — it would be a godsend for technical/academic reading. I’m sure I would use it on the beach or the bath (I’ll bet there are lots of people who use their ipods in those places. Is this any different?)

    I love physical books, but I can see this making a difference in how, when and where I read (and in my ability to find a passage that I want to go back and reread, to look up definitions of words, etc.) I’m sure that the papyrus users complained about the inferior qualities of the book, when it was invented. And the Kindle is about the size and weight of a small book, so I don’t think it would be that hard to get used to.

    But not only are there the physical characteristics of the device, it’s how it changes how people buy (or, really, rent on the Kindle) book-units. I don’t really yet see what the next model of paying authors will be, but it’s definitely going to change.

  15. One of the best things about beign (more or less) gainfully employed is that I don’t have to always wait for a book to come out in paperback anymore. I can buy a hard cover new release to keep! I re read and I get story cravings when the library is closed so I like to have my favorites on hand. Libraries are great (I’m a librarian after all) but nothing beats having your favorites in the bookcase by your bed. BTW, I have 2 paperback reading copies of Beekeeper’s apprentice; one to (re)read and one to share. I retired the 1st ed. hardcover when I happened on the value at Malice.

  16. I love the touch and feel of books. I have often purchased a soft copy of a book in addition to the hard copy so that I can get my husband to read it. He doesn’t like to read my signed, first editions. I view first edition books the same as I view art – the provanence (sic) of who owned it, read it, loved it, etc. is as important to me as the book. I like the smell of bookstores as well. I also find it difficult to find certain authors in bookstores and am amazed at what they don’t carry! I use online bookstores to find the obscure authors that the megastores don’t or won’t carry. I went to a book signing of an author of whom I had never heard and ended up purchasing all three of her books! I will buy books that later I end up giving away or donating without ever reading them. There is so little time and so many books, and I want to support as many authors as possible so their books keep getting published. Laurie King books are one of the ones, especially the Mary Russell books, that I purchase as soon as possible and devours immediately! Keep writing, I will keep buying.

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