“A writer should do what they do best and only this: write.”
I heard this statement again at the Digital Book World conference in New York City last week, and I began really considering if I agreed with it. We are at a funny time in the world of creative expression, one where the artist, the musician, the writer no longer absolutely NEEDS middlemen in order to make a living with their art or craft.
Layers have been removed between the writer and their audience. No longer is a publicist or an agent or a publisher required. YES, they are powerful partners in one’s writing career, but they are now an OPTION, not a requirement. That is a huge shift.
So for you, the author, you get to choose whatever type of writing career you would like. There is no single path anymore. Yes, you can just write and do nothing else. No marketing, no social media, no book tours, no worrying about cover design, or translation, or rights, or file formats, or metadata, nothing. Just write. Go ahead, I don’t mind.
With 1.5 million books published last year, what we are seeing is that lots of folks are doing just that: writing. Which is why I focus more and more not on getting one’s work published, but ensuring it is read; ensuring it finds a reader who appreciates the work, and is affected by it in a positive way.
It sounds romantic to say that a writer should just write. The implication is that a writer should not become marketers. They shouldn’t sell out, and belittle their writing talents by becoming a salesperson. Insert complaint about authors yelling “buy my book!” on Twitter, all day, all night.
This romantic vision aligns with a vision we hope to have of the world, one of the authentic craftsperson or artist, honing their skills with a zen-like focus over the course of years.
This has always been a favorite image of mine, from the movie The Last Samurai:
This is someone perfecting the tea ritual. This is what they do, period. They slowly perfect the tea ritual with complete focus on even the tiniest of details. I love the thought of this, of being the guy in the village and all I do all day is hone the tea ritual.
The person perfecting the ritual is doing so for reasons other than just sharing the tea. The ritual itself provides a deeper purpose to their experience in this world. For a writer, the act of crafting stories or sentences can provide the same function. And that is fine. In fact, I love that.
But what about connection to an audience? If that writer – if YOU as a writer – want your work to be read, then we have to shift the conversation. We can’t just posit romantic notions of the tea ritual. This idea that a writer should just sit in their attic and write write write, never considering their audience because that would somehow corrupt the creative process.
But if your writing is about connecting it to readers, then you can’t assume that the other half of the process is magical. That work of high quality naturally finds its way into readers’ hands.
In a small village where one person makes tea, sure, they don’t need to worry about marketing. But with 1.5 million books published last year, estimates of more than 2.5 million to be published in 2013, plus the collected works of human history already published, you are not the lone writer in your little village.
So when I consider the question “Should writers JUST write?” I am not implying that they need to become publicists or marketers and make their writing take a backseat to promotion. Rather, I believe they may want to consider connecting to their audience in meaningful ways. Or, of you are a writer who needs to support yourself via writing, better understanding the business side of publishing.
When you offload the ENTIRE connection to your readership, then you give away so much more than you may realize. You won’t own the channels by which to reach readers, so you will always need distributors and publishers and partners; you won’t know what messages encourage readers to turn interest into action and book sales, so you will always need copywriters, marketers and publicists; you will not know where readers are, what else they are interested in, and how you align with them in other ways, so you will always be guessing as to what they may want to read next; where they want to show up to meet you; and what they would love to chat about when they do meet you.
When you offload these things, it creates a distance between you and your potential audience.
To some writers, this distance is romantic. I always hear about how introverted writers are, but having met hundreds upon hundreds of writers in many venues and channels, I have to say: I don’t find writers to be any more introverted than the average person.
Which is to say: most people are introverted to some degree. Most people would rather be home right now watching a movie or reading a book. Most people would prefer to have coffee with a friend in a quiet corner than go out to lunch with 12 colleagues.
So I want to look beyond the romance of distance between the creator (author, musician, poet, artist, etc) and their audience.
And I want to consider some business realities. At Digital Book World, author Hugh Howey was interviewed along with his agent Kristen Nelson. The discussion was interesting in several ways:
- His agent described how, before she met him, she assessed how much he made on his own self-publishing and felt there was nothing she could say to lure him to work with her because he made so much money on his own.
- As she got to know Hugh, she tracked his sales, and how he went from pulling in $50,000 per month in book sales to $150,000 per month in book sales. PER MONTH!
- That they were getting million dollar deals that they quickly rejected because it was clearly a bad business move.
But it’s not all about the money.
The coolest thing I heard about Hugh’s appearance at Digital Book World came from Porter Anderson. Porter chatted with Hugh after the session , and asked how finds the time to write. Hugh told Porter that he was at his table in the grand ballroom, writing a book up until the moment he was called on stage.
What I loved about this is that at this 1,000+ person conference about publishing, filled with big publishers and agents, there was actually an author in the room WRITING A BOOK! Here’s a photo of Hugh and his agent Kristen Nelson taken by Porter:
I also like how this statement shows the duality of Hugh’s world: agreeing to appear at the conference to share his story, while also finding time to write.
It is clearly not easy, it takes discipline. No, Hugh wasn’t in his village, doing the tea ceremony by himself. He did it while sitting among 1,000 other people, just before getting interviewed on stage. I don’t know Hugh, but my gut would be that he would describe himself as an introvert. And here he is, writing moments before getting on stage in front of all these people.
Which brings me back to the question: “Should Writers JUST Write?” Some questions you may want to ask yourself as you find your own personal path of being a writer:
- Do you own the understanding of who your audience is?
- Do you own the ability to connect to your audience any time you want?
- Do you own the channels by which to reach them?
- Do you own the ability to craft messages that moves them to take action?
- Do you own the financial understanding of how to create sustainable writing career?
While you likely won’t be a master of all of these things, be careful about 100% offloading them to others. Consider the skills you develop when you take on some of these things yourself. When you entirely offload these tasks, you don’t just offload the work, you offload the knowledge of what you learn by engaging with others.
You also miss out on the serendipity and good feelings and validation that happens when a creator connects with someone who appreciates their work. Plus, you may feel a greater sense of ownership and control of your writing career, something I know that can be elusive to many.
Overall, these are skills that provide value beyond their immediate action. That sending a Tweet is not about promoting your book, but about connecting with like minds.
Look at the actions many successful writers take. They go on book tours, they speak at events, they comment in the media, they engage with others in book groups, libraries, and social media. This is not just publicity. This is their way of living the LIFE of a writer. Defined by more than just publication and sale of a book. By CONNECTING with others about topics or stories they both admire.
Is some of this “work?” Yep. I don’t know why J.K. Rowling feels compelled to stand up on stage and answer questions  when she may have some stage fright. Or why Cheryl Strayed continues to tour tour tour  around her book. Or why Neil Gaiman uses Twitter .
I assume it comes from a place other than the notion of “well, I suppose I will go ‘promote’ my book now.” That there is other value in connecting with readers around their books.
Janes Friedman recently wrote a post looking at “commodity publishing.”  The post is a great read and asks interesting questions. Bob Mayer responded in the comments section:
“I’ve been thinking about the quality/quantity argument and here are my thoughts: when I was making my living in traditional publishing I wrote four books a year, writing under my name and three pen names. Publishers didn’t want more than one book a year because their production schedule was geared that way and they had little clue how a book did for at least six months… I know a lot of writers. I’ve collaborated with other writers. And frankly, those who take a year or 18 months to write a book, often simply don’t glue their butt to the chair.”
If you are a writer, and you want to “just write,” I 100% support that. But more and more, I am focusing on the challenge of ensuring a writer’s work gets read – that it has an effect on others. And that doing this is not viewed as “selling out,” but rather, forging more meaningful connections to others in the world.