Well readers, I bring the joyous news that you can now, at long last, read the scribblings of yours truly on two internet sites. Primer magazine, which I reviewed in the past, was kind enough to publish an article of mine which I’ll be shamelessly plugging here. In addition, it got me thinking about writing in general, leading to our topic for today.
How can we make writing viable?
See, for the vast majority of would-be authors (myself included), writing simply isn’t a viable career, (excluding TV and movies, which are arguably a very different process). Yes, you’ve got such career novelists like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but these people represent the rare exception to the rule that writing is something you do when you’re not at your real job.
We could probably talk all day about the role of the publisher and the marketing team and everyone else involved in the process of getting the work out there, but today let’s just focus on the consumption of the product. I think there are a few factors that really contribute to the situation as it stands today.
Let me break it down here:
I. Our Attention Spans are Shorter
I hate to admit it, but there does have to be something said for our attention spans in this culture. As much as it pains me, I think that even my own attention span has been eviscerated by TV and the internet, and the task of sitting down for an hour or two a day and slogging through a book is, well, a chore. We want ever-shifting stimulation and instant gratification (more on that in a sec) and books simply aren’t designed for that.
II. Books are Expensive
And even so, it’s not just that our brains have been fundamentally rewired (or fried) by our busy lifestyles. Simple truth of the matter is that a decent book from any major outlet is gonna put you 15 bucks out of pocket if it’s cheap. Used bookstores aren’t all that much better.
And that’s really the rub, aint it? Writers want/need their works to be pricey enough for them to get a livable paycheck, but the more expensive the book is, the less likely are people to buy it. It’s a catch-22 that seems to be acting as just a wrench in the mechanism of the whole thing.
III. You Can’t Tell If A Book’s Good Until You Read It
Once upon a time, that statement above was true of most everything. Music, movies, you name it. Nowadays, however, that’s just no longer true. You can listen to a clip of a song before you decide to buy it, you can watch a teaser or commercial of a TV show before watching an episode, and so on and so forth. Not books though. That’s perhaps the one thing that hasn’t changed.
Buying a book is a risky investment, and with all the lousy assembly line paperbacks that get churned out (another topic worth discussion) in combination with how pricey books are in general, I guess I’m just surprised that the market exists at all.
With all that hashed out though, maybe we can take some steps to least addressing those issues.
I. Audiobook Everything
For all my sheepish whining about shorter attention spans, I have managed to read two novels over the course of this past week- and that’s thanks to them being audiobooks. I can play a game, work out, clean up my house (okay, maybe not that last one) and simultaneously plough through Asimov or McCarthy. Maybe that’s still lazy, and there’s definitely a case to be made for the difference between listening to a book and actually reading one, but the fact remains that I’ve gotten reading done.
Now this is mostly just true of major novels- I’d like to see this trend, somehow, bleed through to short stories (we’ll cover that more in a sec). As much as I love short stories, I don’t know that I’d ever subscribe to a literary magazine. A subscription to those same stories as an audio file? Skinflint that I am, I’d at least give it some consideration.
II. Serialize Novels (Again)
Back when the novel was first being developed, stories wouldn’t typically be presented in complete form but would rather be published chapter by chapter or segment by segment. A lot of this had to do with how expensive books still were at the time, but it was also a means of giving the average man a chance to access a whole bunch of books at once. With the economy still lousy and books still expensive, maybe we can start bridging the creator-consumer divide by reviving this style of publishing. Give the public a cheaper alternative and a way to test out a variety of different authors. If the story’s good enough to capture your attention, you’ll keep on buying ’em and the total price would amount to about the same as a single book (upwards of 15 bucks)- if you don’t, well, you’re only out a buck or two and the author’s made some cash he or she might not have otherwise.
III. Real Book Reviews
I’ve been complaining a lot about the price of books, but even with easy access to the local library, I still find myself only checking out books by authors I already know. They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, and that really is true. You also can’t judge a book by the synopsis, the online comments, or the blurbs on the dust jacket. It’s just too easy to skew reviews, and you’re stuck again making an investment (in time, if not money) with no real assurance of payoff. We need a reliable system out there for reviewing books- and while that does exist in some capacity, it just doesn’t seem to be enough. When a movie comes out, I can turn to my trusted critics for a good recommendation. Same for video games, music, or cigars. Maybe it’s due to how many books get put out every year, or just the time involved in reading them, but I can’t turn to a single, cohesive source for commentary on a truly wide range of books. New authors can’t get decent coverage and established writers can’t expand their fan base.
And in all honesty, I’m not quite sure how to solve this one; maybe you can help?
What do you think? How do we get writing to where it can be sustainable and reading to where it can be viable?
Let’s hear it.
There’s definitely no question that the print medium is dying, but that fact notwithstanding authors are definitely still getting work. It’s not like it was ever a burgeoning profession to begin with, but as it stands bookstores continue to stock work by people who are definitely not King, Patterson, et cetera.
Ignoring the partial question of “How do I become a published author?” the one you’re mostly hitting on is “How do we keep the print medium alive?”
That being said, audiobooking everything is certainly no solution. The other two, however, are definitely worth considering. What both require, of course, is for the publishing industry as a whole to stand behind them. Serialized novels is a great idea, but requires the support of publishing houses to “rent out” their high profile authors to make the form appear viable. A Roger Ebert would be fantastic, provided we had someone who could read more than two books a day without becoming exhausted AND who had an even, discerning eye that all great critics require. In general, even a Metacritic-esque aggregate site that compiled both book critic reviews as well as reader ones, creating average ratings, would be a step in the right direction.
Regarding “trailers” for books, Amazon will let you read an excerpt of most of their books for free before you buy it,
I did consider that, but the issue there is that a book works a lot differently than a movie or a piece a music does. One segment at random from a book probably isn’t going to be a great example of what the book is like all the way through- just imagine trying that out with Stephen King’s “IT”. Depending on where you open up to, you’re going to think you’re reading a history of rural Maine, a story about the persecution of gays, a biography- you get the idea.
True, but I still think that, in most cases, it’s pretty helpful. It’s helped me determine whether or not I’ll probably like a book before buying (though, to be fair, it’s a lot better for screening out than in, if you know what I mean).