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.