Was reading a book, a “summer read” many would call it, devoid of epic themes or turgid prose, or need of a thesaurus within reach. Generally a fast, breezy romp, a summer read is a simple story simply told. In this case: Boy meets girl. Girl loves boy. Boy and girl are forced to work past what keeps them apart and get their shit together.
Unlike how some critics grouse and dismiss as mindless “summer reads,” I like them. When well crafted and earnestly told—like this one—I feel good when done. That’s all I want from a summer read: something that feels familiar and that I’m confident will provide the emotional payoff anticipated.
Thing is, a writer I know recently posted on social media an unpleasant encounter with a reader who’d bought one of her books. A novel. Reader complained that it had no sympathetic characters and that she didn’t like it.
The author defended herself, arguing that she had no obligation to the reader to write sympathetic characters. And, anyway, so what? Reader had already bought the book and the author had already received her royalty for doing so.
Yes, you read that right. In other words: The product you purchased comes with no guarantee. You don’t like it? So long as I got mine, fuck you.
Which reminds me of a story…
In the early Nineties we had a conference where the substance of a talk by our featured speaker did not go down well. I didn’t sense it in the room at the time. It was brought to my attention when squeezing out of the men’s bathroom afterward by one of our longtime workshop leaders, with tears in her eyes.
“Michael,” she began. “That man… What he said was offensive and demeaning and demoralizing to writers and you should never had him speak and I don’t understand why you had him here and I disagree with everything he said and…”
Sufficient to say, the workshop leader was livid. And while I’d just finished a needed relieving myself, the relief felt when she finished left me feeling extra empty inside.
See, our speaker was a very successful TV writer. In his heart, however, he was a poet. He took writing poetry personal. He wrote it freely. He published chap book collections and gave them away freely. Even un-prompted, he opined at length about the beauty of poetry. Freely.
In my mind, that’s some serious poetry-loving right there. It’s beautiful. Maybe laudable. But you want to know what so deeply offended the workshop leader?
In his talk the speaker posited that writers who accept any money for their work, or even write with the expectation of being paid for the work they’ve written, are prostitutes whoring out their creative output for profit. He argued that his TV writing work—his livelihood—was done as a profiteer. It was his profession. His poetry was pure, unadulterated so long as he never accepted money for it.
Which brings us back to today, 2017…
Who Are You Writing For And Why?
Brand? Product? Platform? Likes, Friends and Followers? Are you even a “YouTube Influencer?” Too often these are the questions writers are now confronted with in pursuit of selling their books, by literary agents, acquisitions editors, even readers.
The book is the product. The author is the brand. The multitude of likes, friends and followers is the platform. And the bigger the numbers the greater the odds of success. Or so it’s perceived. So much so that even excellent manuscripts are rejected for no other reason than the brand isn’t big enough to mitigate risk. But you know, on a personal level the numbers often don’t add up. Let me give an example.
Just recently I read the latest product from a well-respected brand with a massive platform. It’d best be described as up-market fiction. Or maybe it’s literary. I don’t know, I stopped reading at 84%. It sucked. Yet despite the breadth of its sucktitude, enough units of the product sold that it became a legitimate bestseller.
Congratulations to the brand. Good for the publisher. But what about the reader?
The author mentioned earlier, the one only interested in collecting a royalty? That writer is not writing for me.
The TV writer who inferred that writing with an expectation of being paid was somehow less than a “pure” artistic endeavor? That’s my writer. Reason being is because a writer who values satisfying the needs of his audience first will most often be rewarded with the opportunity to do so again. The work itself has intrinsic value and that writer should be compensated for his creative labor.
This “summer read” I just finished? Its author doesn’t have a huge platform. He’s not a big brand. He does have a track record with a previous book, but was unable to secure a sufficient deal with his second due to its not fitting snuggly enough into a clearly defined genre. Despite the high quality of the material his numbers simply didn’t add up.
But here’s the thing: I read his first book. He didn’t write the second for them. I am the reader he wrote it for; me and thousands of other readers just like me.
So, at least in this case, for every correct reason and mindful of the requisite responsibilities that come with the decision to do so, the author opted to publish his new book independently. For money or not is irrelevant.
Only thing that matters is the end product. And the brand. And the platform.
Or maybe just the writer and his reader.