Literature

Writing a book doesn’t make you an author.

A twitter stream or a hardback tome: which makes you more of an author?

Fifteen years ago, becoming an author meant following a fairly straightforward, established path. 1) write a book, 2) get an agent, 3) agent sells your book to a publisher, 4) sign books, give lectures, move into a hammock. But as publishing has transformed—and continues to transform—and media distribution becomes increasingly fragmented, would-be authors are being forced to ask just how much they really care about writing books. So, how much do you care about writing books?

Are you willing to write books even if you never get paid for it?

Are you willing to talk about books even if you never get paid for it?

Are you willing to spend ½ of your allotted writing time not writing books but writing about books, and of course, are you willing to never get paid for it?

The role of author has transformed almost as drastically as has media distribution support system. Authors can no longer be expected to simply produce content. Anyone with $10, a manuscript, and access to the internet can get a book listed on Amazon within minutes. Rather, the role of the author is to be an active, participating member of a book-loving community—by both consuming and creating content—and most importantly by legitimizing the importance of the literary community itself to those who may not be a part of it. Yes, even if you never get paid for it.

Social Media as the (literary) community

Authors have been reluctant, generally speaking, to fully embrace social media perhaps because the book form itself is such an intimate medium. Simply stated, books are dialogs between an author and a reader. Social media, on the other hand—with its cross-medium system of comments, hashtags, hangouts, group messaging, and forums—is more roundtable than dialog. Where once the bookclub was a rare in-person gathering of book lovers, now bookclubs can happen at every status update. The entire system is foreign for many authors. And those that do embrace the system often use it poorly, as a means of hard-selling en-masse.

Authors tend to be voyeurs rather than participants. We are most comfortable observing, digesting, and contextualizing. After-all, being the outsider is our calling. And though some authors can still get away with reclusive producing (Thomas Pynchon, I assume, is doing just fine monetarily), the majority of authors are in desperate need of a paradigm shift. We must no longer align ourselves to either a culture of literary consumption or literary creation. Instead, we must meld the two and embrace literary community.

Curating the literary community

Curating literature is no longer the responsibility of academia and booksellers alone. This is not to say that academia and booksellers have no contemporary role in community-building; word of mouth is and always has been the best driver of booksales. What I’m saying is that the mouths that spread the words don’t have to be professors, PR departments, and bookstore clerks. The conversation has become much wider, more varied, and potentially more influential than in years past, not in spite of the fragmented media stream, but because of it.

But some argue a potential downside. Erin Hoover, over at The Nervous Breakdown, mentions a book called Program or Be Programmed by Douglas Rushkoff taking from it that, “Rushkoff suggests that if we don’t learn to program software, we risk allowing those who do to make critical choices that influence the ideas we come across,” specifically in reference to product management algorithms such as Amazon’s “If you like this, you may also like this,” recommendation system. The take-away seems to be that if we leave literary curation up to algorithms, then we risk losing what is so human about book culture. But, is this concept even true?

Algorithms dominate our every online—and much of our offline—life. Every Google search, every “impulse” buy, every banner ad we ignore, every email cc: recommendation, every Friend Request recommendation, and on and on are all the result of algorithms. What is important to understand is that in most cases the algorithms factor in our social opinions and connections (Google, for example, recently began rolling Google+ data into the primary search results, providing an unprecedented level of transparency and product favoritism to Google search). Therefore, to apply this specifically to books, don’t readers influence the algorithms that influence the readers? Granted, I haven’t read Program or Be Programmed, so perhaps Rushkoff addresses this very assumption, but I’m speaking of a broader concept here: author participation is integral to reader participation and literary community-building in a world where even the Pope has a Twitter stream.

Cud away at these numbers for a moment: 60 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute; 510,000 comments, 293,000 status updates and 136,000 photos are added to Facebook every minute; 120,000 tweets are sent every minute; 60 new blogs and 1,500 blog posts are created every minute. That means in the time it has taken you to read this article so far, over 95 new videos of cats, 435,543 new mentions of Kim Kardashian, 54,543 new cruel comments about gay kids, and at least 734 new pictures of wieners are now online and available for every crazy cat lady, black basketball player, suicidal teen, and disgraced US Representative to denounce/hate/take comfort it/feel bad about, but most of all, to share. Incredibly, communities exist around each of the aforementioned topics. Thriving communities. Books need to remain competitive. Readers and authors need to become a stronger part of the algorithms. Those 60 hours of video should be about books. Those comments, status updates, photos, tweets, and blogs should be about book culture, about readers, about authors.

Are you willing to write books even if you never get paid for it? No? Become a copy-editor or write for TextBroker.com.

Are you willing to talk about books even if you never get paid for it? No? Become a librarian. Sell books or become an events coordinator for a bookstore.

Are you willing to spend ½ of your allotted writing time not writing books but writing about books, and of course, are you willing to never get paid for it? No? Try freelancing content for The Atlantic or The New York Times Book Review.

Yes? Then do it.

7 Comments

  1. Pungently true words, Caleb. As you alluded to, nowadays everyone and their Momma views themselves as a writer. The questions you pose are a necessary litmus test for writers in this new age; but the answers, are possibly even more important to reader and writer communities. Given the increase in accessibility to publishing venues, what you describe is the new leveling mechanism for the market, so that books by casual authors and works by writers can be properly sorted out. Those that can’t live up to these new rules of engagement will likely be left behind. And “writely” so. Thanks for this swift kick in the pants.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Michelle. I think the saving grace with the “everyone and their Momma” view is just what you mention: the litmus test. Publishers and acquisitions editors use to be the litmus test for authors (I’m ignoring writers for the moment), but as production becomes easier, there has to be something else. This crowd-sourcing mentality is something I use to fear but now embrace.

  3. Ha, yes, I don’t think we have a choice but to embrace it. What frightens me the most, is the potential for loss of poetry in the midst of so many voices. On the other hand, it may be transformative, in that fresh thoughts from far corners, finally have means for mass expression. Which is sorta exciting to consider 🙂

  4. I think you’re right. The algorithms that are used to present ads that show us what we like on the basis of aggriated search results of people with similar habits will tend to make us more like us. They cut down on the random and spontaneous – the things that make us different, not the same.

    Cheers!

  5. Minor point here:

    Google, for example, recently began rolling Google+ data into the primary search results, providing an unprecedented level of transparency and product favoritism to Google search

    Yes, but you can easily turn this off. I suspect that most people who know this already have.

  6. @Phil. True. I know I’ve disabled mine. The larger issue is that just about the importance Google is placing on social signals, and the amount of resources they’ve dedicated to the Search, Plus Your World initiative.

  7. Thank you for this thoughtful and honest post.

    When I realized that the ‘marketing’ for my upcoming novel mostly revolved around writing about and talking about books, I got excited. And relieved. This is what I love – books and what they can do for is. It brings me back to my days as a young bookseller when days were filled with conversations about the books we read and how they shape our lives.

    What a wild, crazy ride this writing life is now. I’m holding onto my hat and enjoying the twists and turns!

Leave a Reply