This Article Is Not About What You Think It’s About
You. The readers. Without you there wouldn’t be a book industry.
I can understand what motivates authors to write such lines. Everybody can understand this. Gratitude. And that’s one fine emotion. We could use more of it in the world. It’s great stuff. It’s completely logical — and completely commendable — when authors appreciate their readers. I’ll even go so far as to say that a writer who does not appreciate readers is a raging cad. Unthinkable.
Good authors appreciate their readers.
And that’s not what this article is about.
Here’s some more:
We owe you so much, and we are forever in your debt. Thank you for reading late into the night. Thank you for reading to your children. Thank you for missing that subway stop, for your word of mouth, your reviews, and your fan emails.
Thank you for seeking our books in so many ways—through brick and mortar stores, online, and in libraries. Thank you for enjoying these stories in all their forms—as digital books, paper books, and audiobooks.
Ring a bell? Let me jog your memory:
Thank you for staying in your car in the driveway because you were transfixed by the end of that perfectly marvelous NPR feature on All Things Considered…yeah? You’ve heard these public-radio pledge-drive pitches, too, right?
Well, that’s not what this article is about, either.
I do brake for Nina Totenberg, of course, we all do. But except for Totenberg’s amazing Supreme Court recitatives, I can’t imagine feeling unable to open my car door and exit the vehicle because of NPR’s undeniable excellence. And yet, some of this crucial national medium’s promos have become so smarmy on the airwaves — unintentionally, I believe — that it’s embarrassing at times. What you’re likelier to feel in the driveway is NPR-u-over-yourself-yet? Cloying come-ons have crept up on our good friends and colleagues at NPR in DC, as operating budgets were pressured and competition for donations has grown. It’s understandable, yes. Also: annoying.
Likewise, in recent months, the publishing industry’s endlessly tortured debate has seemed to include more and more similarly pandering approaches to the readers! the readers!
And that is what this article is about.
Not the goodness of NPR nor the politics of one camp of authors over another; not who’s right or who’s wrong. Nope.
It’s about how we’re talking to and about the readers.
May We Come To Your Home And Turn The Pages For You?
Amazon has built a business based on the belief that you, the reader, can make your own choices about what you want to read. That is real freedom, of a sort readers and authors have never had before.
In the case of the material I’m quoting, as you can tell, “you, the reader” — in case you’ve forgotten who you are — are being asked to align yourself with the interests of independent authors who support Amazon over the publisher Hachette in their ongoing sales-terms negotiations. This is from the petition Stop fighting low prices and fair wages.
And remember, those negotiations and who you should support are not what this article is about. It’s about how we’re talking to the readers:
It’s painful to watch, dear reader, as you are subjected to so much self-serving industry and millionaire author propaganda. The New York “Big Five” devalues readers and authors alike.
That’s a reference to another petition that preceded this one, of course, with its letter written by Douglas Preston and calling on Amazon to change its tactics.
That one, shorter, is written as “A letter to our readers,” and it does refer to “our loyal readers” — which some might feel presumes a thing or two
Much like the independents’ petition, it makes similar efforts to imply that everyone, writers and dear readers, are all in the same lifeboat. And it’s not above a tinge of purple, either:
None of us, neither readers nor authors, benefit when books are taken hostage.
As the Thought Catalog Chorus and Orchestra’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” swells — a fave of many NPR listeners, I’m sure — here’s more of the independents’ petition which has outdrawn signatures on the other by some seven times: at this writing, 7,370 signatures:
It’s about you, the reader, and the changes you’ve helped bring about with your reading decisions. You are changing the world of books, and you are changing our lives as a result.
What It Is About
The independents’ petition is just one of myriad places you can find this sort of address to the reader. Again, my point here is not to side with the exhortations of that document, nor with the countervailing Preston party, nor with public-radio funding debates, for that matter. (Those can make a hot summer hotter, too.)
No, what this is about is more serious. And, at its core, it’s also (a) less complex than we make it and (b) symptomatic of the wider corporate-cultural landscape in the United States, not just of publishing and its authors’ dilemma.
In many creative industries, our system has developed in such a way that support people, if you will, are given reasonably stable, paid, secure careers, while the creative folks whose work the others purvey? — are left with far fewer advantages.
At a museum of art, for example, the curators, conservationists, publicity people, membership officers, and security guards are on salary — as well they should be — with benefits and some job security. Who doesn’t get these things? The artists.
That art-museum example is tricky because, of course, only the most contemporary of such institutions’ artists may be alive.
So let’s look at the Thought Catalog Chorus and Orchetra. The symphony and singers are paid a salary only because they have contracts fiercely negotiated for by union representatives on their behalf. Otherwise, we’d be looking at the same issue — execs, PR and marketing folks, music librarians, fund-raising officials, rehearsal facility personnel…all might have ended up salaried while the musicians were not. And the composers? They’re going to need residencies and music-director positions to get anything stable going for themselves.
At a publishing house, the editors, designers, marketing, sales, and publicity people are on salary, with benefits and some job security — as well they should. Who doesn’t get these things? The authors.
And, by the way, at a self-publishing platform, ahem, there are formatters, Web masters, proof-readers, marketing folks, executives and others who are on salary, with benefits and some job security — as well they should be. Who doesn’t get these things? The authors.
This is the way of the world. Which doesn’t mean it’s any good. It’s unfair. It’s also fiendishly hard to change. Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
And this is what can send creative people, not just in books but in any cultural field, appealing to that dear audience, the beloved patron, the faithful fan…to you, the reader — in case you’ve forgotten who you are.
Strangely, it’s a mistake.
The issues facing our writers and their colleagues in publishing today are fraught with interlocking interests, market contingencies, the pressures of fast digital change, the resilience of the aspirational writers, and the weight of an entertainment industry that threatens to overwhelm the entire fracas with videos, games, film, television, and music.
No wonder some folks feel like heading straight for the readers.
But see that first line I quoted? Directed at readers: “Without you there wouldn’t be a book industry.”
It doesn’t fly more than 10 feet. Blink, and it’s settling the ground. Because without writers, there wouldn’t be one, either. The line, way too quickly, sounds like pandering.
And ironically, the readers are one of the few groups we can afford to worry less about this time around in the great bid to make cultural work fairer. That’s unusual. Maybe there’s even something hopeful in such an historical anomaly. We might need to worry that the readers will wander off into the fields of video and binge TV viewing. But otherwise, the readers today are doing fine. Better than fine.
They, the customers, have more to read than they’ve had at any moment in history. And in the aggregate, I think it’s safe to say that more of it than ever before is affordable. In fact, low, low prices are one whole area of concern: we have an awful lot of people who have arrived, wanting to make a living in publishing, and trying to figure out how they’re going to manage that is beyond any of us at this point. Many people are working on it from many angles at many levels — that’s all good. No such effort is criticized here, we want every good idea. And meanwhile, those readers are reading on their phones, on their tablets, on their e-readers, on their paper, on their OLED-projected refrigerator monitors, and on Twitter where David Mitchell is blasting out a 6,000-word short story to them and Arjun Basu can crack them up with a single tweet from a story…that doesn’t quite exist. Wonderful days for readers. They’re grinning.
And they’re smart. Like NPR listeners, readers are perceptive. They, the consumers, know when they’re being fed a line. They can see your eyelashes batting. They know when you’re driving a wedge between them and somebody else. And far from getting you anywhere, that flattery can so blow up in your face.
This article is actually? — about them, the workers. The cultural workers. Especially the publishing workers. From the executive suites’ reception secretaries to the unknown writers at the corner desks in basements.
And if more energy goes into honest, forthright dialogue between members of the publishing community — especially members who think they don’t like each other’s positions — there’s a lot better chance that “you, the reader” will come out with a better, less dysfunctional publishing industry.