I see posters around New York City advertising “LEARN HOW TO GET PUBLISHED”. This seems to me a rather indirect goal; a more useful advertisement would say “LEARN HOW TO GET READ”.
Of course, a writer yearns to be published and widely read, but only an innocent writer believes that publishing a book guarantees a real readership, or a long-term career. A look at Bookscan or any other source for book sales statistics shows that most literary novels by new authors sell less than 1000 copies. You can spend years working to get that first book out, but if it fails to make a splash it may be quickly forgotten, along with your glorious future in the literary field.
Emerging writers should dream of fame and fortune, but they’re fixating on the wrong goal if they obsess over official “publication” as the only route to success. Recent articles by Laura Miller and Angela K. Durden aptly describe the current explosion in book self-publishing (but seem to fall short in equating writing with book production, as if a book must exist for reading to take place). Elsewhere, misfiring pundits like Nicholas Negroponte lazily predict the death of the print book, but then hilariously suggest that it will be uncomfortable electronic devices like the Kindle and the iPad that will kill the print book.
In fact, digital technology has already been changing the literary landscape in a more immediate way: it’s allowing new talents to find reading audiences online, through blogs, online publications and social media. Book deals may arrive for these new talents, or in some cases book deals may be an unnecessary afterthought: the relationship between writer and reader can be fully consummated online. This is already forcing a redefinition of what the word “writer” means. Before the Internet age, you were a writer if you got published. Now, you are a writer if you have readers.
In 1995 I published my first full-length work of creative writing online: a set of ten lyric essays and short stories about raising a family in New York City, arranged in the form of an imaginary 1960s folk-rock album called Queensboro Ballads. I put posters up, emailed friends, and got a lot of nice coverage in venues like the New York Times and the Village Voice. I considered Queensboro Ballads a big success at the time, and to this day people will still warmly mention the project to me.
However, few people then (or now) were willing to call me a “real writer” because of Queensboro Ballads. The success of the project led a small publishing company called Manning Books to offer me a modest book deal for an anthology of online writing called Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web, which came out in 1997, failed to become a hit, and quickly went out of print. I believe that several thousand copies of the book were sold (most of them, I suspect, by the parents and grandparents of the 47 writers included in the book).
Far more people have read Queensboro Ballads than ever read Coffeehouse. People still read Queensboro Ballads today, while Coffeehouse is impossible to find. And yet, according to the conventional definition, it was Coffeehouse that turned me into a “real writer”, because it was published by a “real publisher”. It had an ISBN number, and it got a couple of sniffy reviews in a couple of newspapers. Queensboro Ballads, on the other hand, earned me no status upgrade at all.
More recently, I was talking to a friend about the first draft of the memoir of Silicon Alley that I wrote here on Litkicks, one chapter per week, in 2009. This friend asked why I don’t work at finding an agent for the memoir, and compared me to Stephen Elliot, a “real writer” whose own memoir Adderall Diaries has gotten a lot of positive attention in the past year.
Well. I am reading Adderall Diaries right now, and I like it. Stephen Elliot has obviously got a lot of talent. I’m sure his memoir has sold many thousands of copies. But my memoir has also racked up many thousands of pageviews, tens of thousands, even though it’s still only a first draft. I think that’s pretty good. Why am I not also “a real writer”?
The answer is clear; I only need to reach up and grab it. I am a real writer, and if you have a website and you have readers, then you are also a real writer, and you don’t need anybody else’s rubber stamp. And I’ll even take this further: if you used your fancy college credentials or your parents’ connections or your favorite MFA teachers recommendation letter to wrangle yourself a first-novel deal with Simon and Schuster or Random House, and your first novel came out and nobody read it and nobody reviewed it and nobody bought it, then you might not be a real writer. Because, it turns out, what you need to be a real writer is to have real readers.
Personally, I may or may not ever get a book deal again. I’ve tried a couple of times since Coffeehouse, but I’ve never tried very hard, because I don’t care enough. I already have Literary Kicks, and I love it that people read my words right here. This gives me the satisfaction I need, the satisfaction that I suspect every writer craves.
Hello, everybody. This is my blog, Literary Kicks. I am a writer, and this is where I write.