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Free the Writers! (From Each Other)

Image - iStockphoto: Paha_L / in the Moscow subway system [1]
Image – iStockphoto: Paha_L / In the Moscow subway system


We’ve had a lot of laughs at publishers’ expense lately, about how many “actual readers” they may have met, right? What if our writers know even fewer “actual readers” than our publishers? 


You’ve been around too much lately, Helen, you ought to stay at home more.

Scanned title page from Noel Coward's "Design for Living" (1933) from the Internet Archive [2]
Scanned title page from Noel Coward’s “Design for Living” (1933) from the Internet Archive [2]

That sentence, husband-to-wife, from Noel Coward’s Design for Living [3], was one of my most successful laugh lines on stage.

Theatergoers: this was many Provocations in Publishing ago, it’s perfectly safe to return to the theater, I’ve turned in my tights.

The reason I could trigger a loud, fast, prolonged laugh on the line was that I was coached very astutely—by a choreographer friend, ironically—to hold still; to turn downstage to the audience as Henry, Helen’s husband, and deliver the line, in near paralysis, directly out into the house.

Not a glance stage-right at the actress playing Helen. Not a hair moving. And not a whit of actorish expression on my face or in my voice.

This was my first experience of the peculiar power of an almost monotone delivery, the pure, unadorned wit of Coward sailing right out into the house. At the moment I said this, I was pretty much a human page, reducing myself to almost nothing but the words for the audience.

[pullquote]What do we need to do, in-community, to keep reminding each other to turn to the audience and deliver our best lines to the world, not to each other?[/pullquote]

Maybe the most important lesson about the comedic element, though, was this: The logical intimacy had flipped—the audience and I suddenly were in relationship, a near collusion, while Henry and Helen had become briefly and laughably estranged.

I thought about this for the first time in years when reading comments on our Writer Unboxed colleague Julia Munroe Martin’s [4]piece here, Writing the Rails [5]. (Good headline, by the way.)  The piece, March 1, you’ll recall, is about the Amtrak residency for writers and Martin’s astute observations from her own mini-residency on the rails.

The farting lakes, yes, that one.

After the piece ran, many of us, myself included, carried on about how much we’d love such a residency. Martin and I plan a horrifying and brilliant Racine-like literary showdown at the Continental Divide, don’t ask.

[pullquote]Authors are striding through the sleeper cars and dining carriages of Twitter asking other writers to “buy my book!” This is hashtagged hokum.[/pullquote]

Of course, then Amtrak opened its application process for a whole round of residencies and before we’d made it from New York to Philly, many folks became quickly concerned about the terms of the application. If you need information on the situation, Victoria Strauss’ [6] Writer Beware write up, Rights Concerns: Amtrak Residency Program [7], is a good place to start. It turns out that our National Railroad Passenger Corporation, AKA Amtrak, feels a need to own and even be able to transfer rights to your application writing sample. You will, of course, scour the Official Terms [8] of application carefully before submitting your work under said circumstances, won’t you? Well, of course you will.

In getting back to Martin’s good WU post, let me assure you that no one here is being criticized for any comments on the piece. They were perfectly natural, fun, and even logical in the context of WU and its highly prized community.

[pullquote]Only if you’re selling a “book book”—a book about how to write a book—should you be marketing to other writers as your main sales activity.[/pullquote]

But joyfully giddy suggestions of “a train full of writers!” brought into focus for me a singular and growing problem in the author community today.

Again, we all know the “train full of writers!” (enjoyed by several of our commenters) was a cheery joke in the moment.

Or do we?

Here’s the issue. I see authors engaging so thoroughly in the online world’s wonderful creative community for support and laughs and inspiration (because you have to belieeeeeeve in yourself, Lena Horne), that they frequently appear to be losing touch with a readership, losing sight of even the goal of a genuine, public readership. Their best efforts in social media marketing are aimed at each other. They’re striding through the sleeper cars and dining carriages of Twitter asking other writers to “buy my book!” This is hashtagged hokum.

Only if you’re selling a “book-book”—a book about how to write a book—should you be marketing to other writers as your main sales activity. And if you don’t have a “book-book” to sell, thank you and kindly do not write one. We had enough of those things 10 years ago and we do not need anymore, they’re all here, move along please. (Don Maass [9], you’re the exception, for writing-Writing 21st Century Fiction [10].)

Your fellow authors are not going to put you over the top as an audience. And yet I keep seeing writers confused by the ready, avid, warm embrace of their associates online into thinking that their colleagues are their prime customers.

Authors I work with are frequently surprised at how easy it is to brainstorm together about “adjacencies,” those large, organized groups of potential readership that could be attracted to a book by elements of its theme, character, setting, whatnot. Until such a session, it seems, they’ve been locked into an idea that books are best understood—and bought—by other writers.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [11]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

We wouldn’t expect the great stone masons of Europe to think their cathedrals would be thronged by other stone masons, would we? No matter how well one might get along with one’s cohorts in that rocky guild of chiselers, one would remember that a far wider flock of the faithful (and tourists) were the target crowds.

And yet, somehow, writers are being lulled by this fellowship of the virtual gathering.

An awful lot of authors have been around too much lately, Helen. Maybe they ought to stay at home more; write; reach out to their readers; interact with the market, not so much with each other.

Know what I mean?

What have you done today to reach beyond your writerly colleagues and shake hands with readers? Have you found those readers? Do you know them? And how much time do you spend with them through the marvelous activity of these digital media? (That’s still a plural word, damn it, one medium, two media). What do we need to do, in-community, to keep reminding each other to turn to the audience and deliver our best lines to the world, not to each other? 

About Porter Anderson [12]

@Porter_Anderson [13] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [14], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [15] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [16]