Writing Books? Waste Of Time, Argues NYT Editor Bill Keller

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Here’s the editor of The New York Times in this week’s Times Magazine on the utter folly of writing books:

So, why aren’t books dead yet? It helps that e-books are booming. Kindle and Nook have begun to refashion the economics of the medieval publishing industry: no trucks, no paper, no returns or remainders.

But that does not explain why writers write them. Writers write them for reasons that usually have a little to do with money and not as much to do with masochism as you might think. There is real satisfaction in a story deeply told, a case richly argued, a puzzle meticulously untangled. (Note the tense. When people say they love writing, they usually mean they love having written.) And it is still a credential, a trophy, a pathway to “Charlie Rose” and “Morning Joe,” to conferences and panels that Build Your Brand, to speaking fees and writing assignments.

His larger argument — an extended whine about losing his staff to the distraction of writing books instead of filling his pages — is that writing books (and we’re speaking here of non-fiction) is a waste of time because they don’t get reviewed, (or get trashed), don’t sell, don’t make money.

So, why exactly do we authors keep stepping up to the craps table, eyes agleam, a stack of chips clutched between our fingers?

As author of two well-reviewed non-fiction books, and a former reporter for three dailies, and a 20-year Times freelancer, a few reasons:

Writing books means a respite from the endless hustle of pitching ideas

Writing books means not cranking out endless articles of relative meaninglessness for as much freelance pay as offered in the 1970s

Writing books means fleeing the bizarre, tyrannical or petty demands of the worst editors

Writing books means finding and working with an experienced agent whose skill and enthusiasm will champion your work, not a revolving door of editors half your age

Writing books means reading and speaking with your audience face to face, finding out who actually reads your work and how they feel about it

Writing books means your success (or failure) is wholly yours, not the reflected glory and easier access to sources of working for a Big Name Organization

Writing books means finding a welcoming tribe of fellow authors, generally happy to share information about how they got there — a break from the elbow-in-the-eye competitiveness of writing for a daily newspaper

Writing books means, after months of thinking deeply and broadly about an issue or a person, you’ve thought it through enough to possibly offer something new, lively and provocative – – not “just the facts”

Writing books means having months to think, research, read, interview, write, edit, revise — not minutes or hours

Writing books means breaking as far away from the pack as possible, not running as fast as you can to keep up with it on Big Stories that are often, within weeks, forgotten

Writing books means taking an idea and exploring it from every angle your editor and publisher — and word length — will allow. Journalism these days simply does not offer anyone sufficient real estate to explore anything beyond, at most, 5,000-7,000 words, the length of a book chapter

Writing books means exploring an idea or person or issue about which we are passionate — getting paid to learn

Writing books can give you access to grants and fellowships to help you do the work

Writing books means sharing your ideas and passion with readers who care as much, or soon might thanks to you, about this stuff. Intellectual evangelism!

Writing books means creating and enjoying intense relationships with your agent, editor, publisher and publicists. While writing and revising remain intensely solitary work, the production and promotion of your work, relying on the skills, experience and enthusiasm of others, becomes a team sport

Writing books means creating new, and often astonishingly intimate, relationships with total strangers — your audience. It’s fantastic to open your email and read, as I have with Malled, “Your book bolsters me” or “Have you been sitting on my shoulder for the past 23 years?”

Writing books means finding new, unlikely and unexpected alliances. I interviewed a man in Canada for a guest blog for the Harvard Business Review. “I want to promote the hell out of your book,” he said after 10 minutes of conversation. And so he has, to his large and international network

Writing books places your books and ideas in libraries worldwide. Talk about a global economy!

Writing books, as Keller grudgingly admits, can create entirely new (and lucrative) opportunities for the lucky few. “Malled” (did I tell you this yet?) has been optioned by CBS as a possible 30-minute sitcom. That’s pretty cool.

15 thoughts on “Writing Books? Waste Of Time, Argues NYT Editor Bill Keller

  1. Caitlin, he’s obviously never written any books! Thanks for writing this piece to remind those of us who have written them (non-fiction in particular) of the reasons we do write….and congrats on how well “Malled” is doing.

    1. Thanks

      If you read his piece (which I didn’t quote in full), he points out that he is actually having to re-pay an advance because he’s twice failed to produce a book himself. Bitter, much?!

    1. I have to be careful about biting the hand that feeds our family, but to slag books and authors is simply silly and rude….many NF writers, as I did, come out of the training ground of newspaper journalism.

  2. I think your reasons are absolutely valid. I also don’t agree that writers only enjoy “having written.” There is a joy in the process as well, and if the editor who wrote this article doesn’t feel that, then I think it’s a real shame he’s writing articles at all.

    1. It’s too ironic that the man edits a newspaper, writes for a living and employs writers — yet has such contempt for those among us with such ambitions.

      After anyone has been cranking it out for a few years, or decades in journalism you’re burned out or eager to do something bigger and more lasting. A pile of yellowed clips is not a great end to a career for some of us.

  3. Possibly 30-minute sitcom!?! I’m so excited for you! 😀

    I really wish you’d write a blog on this topic: “Writing books can give you access to grants and fellowships to help you do the work.”

    1. Thanks…

      Grants and fellowships that I know of are focused on career journo’s…so the ones I know of (you’re a professor, I think?) might not be a fit…The biggie for journos is the Neiman, a free year at Harvard, or the Alicia Patterson, $65K for a 12-month project of your own design or $35K for six months. But I’ve applied 3 or 4 times for it and never won.

  4. Pingback: Writing Books? Waste Of Time, Argues NYT Editor Bill Keller (via Broadside) « The Neophyte Writer

  5. theteachingwhore

    Like others mentioned, I do enjoy the process of writing. I’m more of a storyteller, but even with that, the characters that I am going to tell about are always with me and give me ideas at the weirdest times. Who doesn’t love a rich imaginary life?? Anyway, thanks for the column and the great list of reasons.

  6. What a wonderful list! Those points are definitely going up on my wall as a reminder on why I prefer to write books as opposed to articles.

    And congratulations on Malled’s success and the potential sitcom! Great news!

  7. God, this guy went on and ON!
    “Writing books mean…”

    That was a VERY irritating read, and a frustrating one. The first guy was right though- it IS a waste of time to write non-fiction, but it’s a waste of time to write fiction as well. It’s easier to get an acting agent vs a literary agent, even when you do EVERYTHING you are told to. I should’ve gone into acting or game design, but I was a fool, thinking I’d ever get a book published. WHAT WAS I THINKING????

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