Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A writer wants to sell books

Funny when you encounter the same unexpected thing twice in twelve hours.  Last night I was sitting on the sofa reading an essay about Kurt Vonnegut in this Steve Almond collection (it's good, you should read it) and came across this quote: "It's what writers do, this shuck and jive, this nevous dance to balance the emotional needs of those you love against your own need for glory."

Almond goes on to talk, briefly, about the writer's need to be noticed, to have his books read, which he shares with Vonnegut.  I didn't think much of it until I woke up and read this HuffPost piece by Julianna Baggott, which links to an Andre Codrescu piece (full disclosure: I didn't read that, as Codrescu makes me want to claw my eyeballs out) about facebook.  And in it, Baggott says, "And I know I'm supposed to feel guilty for wanting people to buy my books... and books in general? Novels and poetry, they belong to the realm of art. How dirty of us to try to hawk art! But, after a decade of hand-wringing and apologies, I can't quite muster the guilt anymore."

I feel bad for anyone who has experienced even a moment of guilt for wanting people to buy her books.  In fact, I think Baggott is lying--I don't think she's ever really felt guilty about this.

Because honestly, if we don't want to be read, what the hell are we doing?  If we write and don't send out our stuff, it's because we're afraid of rejection.  If we have writer's block, it's because we're afraid of failure.  But not wanting to be read is not any writer's problem.  If you don't want to be read, you're not a "writer."  You're some other thing.  A diarist, perhaps.

Now, as for Codrescu's complaint, if I am friends with you on facebook, and you use more than, say, 1 in 20 posts to promote your own work, then I find you annoying, and I have you hidden in my news feed.  facebook is for being mildly amusing and posting links to videos of stampeding baby goats and pictures of your kids with ice cream on their faces.  If you listen to your publicist and treat it like an advertising medium, then you're crapping in the pool.

But I sympathize: I want to be noticed, too.  Everyone does.  Am I not blogging right this minute?  The thing is, the correct way to be noticed is not to ask people to notice you, it's to make more stuff for them to notice.  If you want readers, write a lot, unshittily.  Don't post ads on facebook, post content.  (I have at least one friend, Lou Beach, who has a book coming out that consists entirely of short stories written there.)  Same goes for twitter, and your blog.  Listen carefully here, writers, because this is important.  Content.  Do not post reports on how many people came to your reading or what nice things book reviewers said about you.  This is called bragging and it makes you look like an ass.  People will read your books not because you're telling them how much people like you, but because your writing is worth reading.  So, on the internet, give them more of that.  Give people more of yourself.

And quit feeling guilty about wanting people to buy your books.  It's like feeling guilty about wanting sex, or breakfast.  And yes, there are people who feel guilty about those things, too.  Take a good long look at those people.  Do they look happy?  No, they look hungry.  And horny.

Desire readers.  Then write.


Diana Holquist said...

I just finished an advice book by a NYT bestseller. In it he writes, "It doesn't say bestwriter. It says bestseller. Chose which one you want to be because it's almost impossible to be both..."

Anonymous said...

No, it's almost impossible to be either! I'm still hoping to become the latter by accident, but it certainly won't be on purpose.

Pale Ramón said...

Funny that Baggott co-authored a novel with Almond entitled Which Brings Me to You. Wonder how they worked things out for the book tour?

Jhon Baker said...

sound advice - write more and a lot. I only disagree on the writers block thing - that isn't the only reason it gets experienced but it is primary.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough....Rhian may have some thoughts on that.

Cassian Grey said...

I sympathize with the idea of feeling guilty or afraid of people reading/buying your book. Literature has a very powerful bearing on the word and with that a responsibility.
My fear is that my work--subtle, sarcastic and offensive-- will be misunderstood. That someone or another will take the wrong words to heart. Or even worse, the dread foe of popularity. Forever being seen as something you aren't because of one misinterpretation and a horde of zealous fans.
Does this mean I write poorly, because the reader can't understand? That is up for debate.

Anonymous said...

No matter how awesome you are, there will always be someone to tell you that you write poorly. It's the nature of the game.

"subtle, sarcastic and offensive" sounds pretty good to me, though.

Anonymous said...

"But not wanting to be read is not any writer's problem. If you don't want to be read, you're not a "writer.""

Agreed. In addition to the above, a writer who wants to be read also needs an audience, or a platform on which to find an audience.

I've finally overcome the fear of rejection and failure, and have been writing, a lot. I even think some of my work is particularly unshitty.

So what next? How does an aspiring writer with zero MFA connections/resources go about trying to get published? (This isn't a complaint. Just a sincere inquiry.)

I'm working on a novel, and have a veritable shit-ton of writing to complete before I even consider the next step, but I would appreciate a link or some advice re: publishing short fiction in the mean time.


ps If my writing ever earned me scores of zealous fans, I think I'd find a way to survive!

Dylan Hicks said...

I have a friend who's a serious and talented writer--funny, inventive, erudite, large-hearted--and though he has published his stories and essays here and there (and published lots of journalism), he hasn't sought publication for the vast majority of his work. I know that some of his work has been rejected, but he's also had editors attempt to coax him into submitting work, and he doesn't always follow through. The guy takes great pleasure in writing, shares some of it with his friends, but simply doesn't seem to care as much as the rest of us about recognition. Anyway, while I agree that there are few writers (or artists of any kind) whose work is exclusively and forever private, I think there's a scarce species of writers--the lightly published Emily Dickinson of course was one--who are seemingly content with a small group of intimate readers, and who do serious work all the same.

Sasha said...

My mother is a painter, and she has this idea that the more people see your work, the more responsibility you have to your viewers and to their image of you, and you end up just giving them what they want instead of what you need. So she says she doesn't want to be famous.

I say--the more money you get for this painting, the more art supplies and time you can buy. The more people love you the more you can demand from them.

But that's the difference between a daughter and a mother, I guess--I think more love will get me more things, and she thinks that love will require her to give more of them.

Anonymous said...

Sure, this is getting down to a discussion of what kind of relationship to have with your audience, once you have one. Most of us, myself included, are probably not going to have much more than a small one, and the more you think about them, the more anxious you get about losing them.

The way I think of it is, I'm not obliged to give anybody anything in particular. But I do like imagining that I ought to be giving them something. If it's new and different, they might not like it, and if so, that's too bad. But I'm not going to try to be what I've been in the past to preserve what small audience I have.

This is why early success is so dangerous--one is tempted to do more of the same. But you can't, really--you can only do well what you truly want to. And it's possible to let other people color what you think you want.

jon said...

I have one published book with a tiny but real audience. It was frightening, because it is a violent, sarcastic and offensive and not at all subtle book. It was amazing and gratifying and still is to find total strangers who loved it. But what they love often turns out to be something different than I intended, and who they think I am is hilarious. Especially young men tend to think that the author and the protagonist are one. They are disappointed to discover that 'Buzz Callaway' is not some crazed underground junky but a poet with a family and kids who prefers John Donne to William Borroughs. And my relationship to that book is ongoing. Do I write like that? Is that what I'm good at, as opposed to what I desire to write AS A READER? Any audience is good but I am my first audience anyway and like the rest of life, it all keeps moving. I would love to have the opportunity of turning down mega success!

Sung said...

"If you want readers, write a lot, unshittily."

I'm putting this up on a Post-It note on my desk. It's coldly inspirational.

- Sung