Books: the ultimate consumer product

I once wrote a novel. It took a long time. I poured my heart and soul into it. I asked my friends to proofread it and then give feedback and then I paced nervously for a month and got really insecure that because they hadn’t finished — yet — they were not actually my friends but this of course wasn’t true — they were busy — but I couldn’t see that because writing a book, a novel, something you pour your heart and soul into literally means exactly that. You are exposing your heart and your soul and it’s terrifying and cathartic, and the experience makes you insane, but it is still an experience you wouldn’t trade for anything when you’re done because you’ve managed to carve out a little portion of your being and set it outside your body and something about that is sacred.

But then when you decide you’re done — you never think you’re actually done — you have to sell it. Now you have to convince people to pay for it — what a grimy feeling — and read it. Not only are you asking for $15 but you’re asking for their time. My book was over 300 pages — 900 minutes of reading, fifteen hours, a chunk of every evening for a month. When we buy books we know we’re committing hours of our life to…something, we’re not sure because we haven’t read it. But we know that for those many hours we need to enjoy ourselves. If at any moment the writing falters, gets boring, repetitive or is simply unclear you are wasting a reader’s time. This is on your mind as a writer — one of the worst parasites to creativity. Am I wasting someone’s time? Does this part of the story make sense? Will the reader get this reference or should I explain it — if I explain it will they say “No shit, pal, stop wasting my time.” Oh god.

It doesn’t end there. You not only want to keep a reader entertained but you want them to feel what you are feeling. I wrote a tragic scene and when I wrote it I cried. That’s how real the scene was to me. And it terrified me that a reader would not feel the same. I had to, in a strange sense, sell the environment that created those emotions — manufacture a sadness that was real, palpable. I didn’t use marketing and slogans, I used characters, and verbs. I asked readers — had to convince them — to spend their time with me in this alternate reality, to feel it with me. Please.

I don’t know if I’ll write another book. I want to, but always think of a road slowly winding up an unusually tall mountain that goes into the clouds and I can’t see the top. But I do know that it would be silly of me to act like what I had created was any less of a consumptive part of our economy than razor blades and cheaper shoes. Just because this work was so exhausting does not mean that my efforts as a human contributing to this here planet is more privileged than anyone else’s. If some kind patron wants to step in, wonderful, but there is no sense in demanding corporate altruism. Some authors, or at least some authors propped up by a large publisher, playing the artist card, want to set themselves into a special class of worker — a harmful, misguided and narcissistic approach to a problem that has long transcended writing, that they are someone exempt from the forces of economics and the tides of technology that are wreaking havoc — and will wreak far far more — on people’s ability to make a living. It’s a tired mantra but it is a fact: if Amazon didn’t level the book industry someone else would. Information still wants to be free and expensive at the same time. That’s the nature of, yes, this business. We writers create goods for the public, but because we try to provide knowledge and perspectives, because it can require thousands of words and countless hours to pass that information along for people to consume, we just have the hardest sell of them all.