My Two Cents – Tin Ears Miss the Message of Tin House

Tin House publishing has kicked off a mini-controversy with their plan to accept manuscript submissions from writers who can prove they’ve recently bought a book.

As Anne Trubek of Good puts it: “What we have is a glut of people who want to be writers, who do not buy the consumer products of the industry they are seeking to join.”

This is exactly what I am talking about when I say that publishing is in danger of effectively becoming a pyramid scheme.  Real-world economics will not support a business model that forces writers to market themselves to readers, who are then tempted with the hope of becoming writers, marketing themselves to the next wave of readers, and so on.  Eventually, you end up with too many producers pushing a product too few buyers want to buy.

There is only one model for publishing that’s viable over the long-term, and that is having a broad consumer base of readers, among whom very few are also writers.  The idea that publishing might long survive with this model upside down, with a bloated writer base among whom very few actually read enough to write well, is simply absurd.

It’s like trying to host a Battle of the Bands with more musicians than paying audience members, and none of those musicians listen to music.

The Solution
More Readers – Fewer Writers

The clear solution is to increase the enthusiasm for reading relative to the enthusiasm for writing, and implementing this solution is everyone’s responsibility.  Tin House is stepping up to the plate with their book-buying requirement.  But we need to go further.

Publishing pros need to stop encouraging every Tom, Dick, and Mary to write a book.  Why not encourage reading the product from which you make your living, and promoting discussion of things we’ve read to spark word-of-mouth publicity?  How about flooding the internet with advice on how to get the most out of a multi-layered novel, where to best read a book so you can really lose yourself in it, and how to find time in a busy schedule to enjoy reading?

Stop glamourizing “everybody can write” events like NaNoWriMo.  How about NaNoReaMo instead? Or, how about we really work the groove with Summer Novel Reading Month, Autumn Novel Reading Month, Winter Novel Reading Month, and Spring Novel Reading Month?

Stop pretending like becoming a writer is a simple gimmick or formula available to anyone regardless of native ability. And, stop writers’ conferences from selling fairy stories about a writer’s chance of success.  In other words, stop stringing people along.

Too often, what we see now from publishing industry pros is uncritical cheerleading driven by positive-thinking motivational talk, and it is just flat dishonest.  It’s not being “nice,” it’s cruel and unfair to those who cannot write and will never be published.  And, it’s fraud (ish) when you take money for it.  Most importantly, it’s endangering the long-term viability of publishing as it shifts our love of the written word from the genuine thrill of reading to the delusional thrill of hoping to become a famous author.

Reading is still as enjoyable as it always was; real writers know this.  The reader base can be rehabilitated, weaned from the intoxication of spinning the Rowling-Meyer lottery wheel, and reintroduced to a thrill everyone truly can achieve: getting lost in a well-written story.

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4 Comments

  1. You hit the nail on the head! Great, great post! I keep preaching the same things in my writing classes and in talks to writers. Writing isn’t easy and anyone who tells you it is, is either misinformed or has an ulterior motive. As in workshops, making everybody “feel good” so they’ll continue to come back. My latest class is a good example. After the first week, I ended up with 12 out of the 19 who began. Even had a writing instructor quit. Why did they leave? Simple. I told them their story and story structure sucked and in about those words. They were shocked. Nobody has ever told them the truth. Now, we’re down to ten and they’re the ones who will succeed. We’ve spent six weeks in class already and the majority are still writing their first 500 words. And, they’re making significant progress. For the first time in their writing lives, they’re realizing that writing is rewriting.

    J. I’m also trying to create a retreat/workshop and the best way I can describe it is it’ll be “Bobby Knight Bootcamp for Writers.” There won’t be any coddling and stroking of egos. If the participant’s work isn’t any good, we’re not going to tell them it is. We’ll also offer them ways to get better. But, if you don’t know your work is bad how can you ever imagine you’ll fix it? There are too many of these things going on that are mostly “feel-good” social events where people keep coming back to be told they’re good and the market is just tough. The market’s always been tough… for those who can’t deliver. It’s the ten-percent rule, imo. Like in any endeavor, you can forget the bottom 90 percent. Let’s say you have a writing contest and 5,000 people enter. The good writer knows he or she isn’t up against 5,000 people. He’s up against 50 people. That’s it. Those are the only ones who are real competition.

    What’s happened is that people have been sold a bill of goods. Crapola circulating like, “Everybody has at least one novel in them.” Well, most of the time, that’s where it should stay. In them. People think that since they can read… they can write. It’d be like I saw a show on the Discovery Channel showing a brain operation and thought, That looks easy. I can do that. I only hope a person who thinks that doesn’t use me for their first operation…

    And, I keep getting students who don’t read who think they’re going to write something publishable. That’s so absurd that I don’t even know how to respond to that. Our entire culture–beginning with public schools–has evolved into a culture of making everyone feel good. Well, some people just don’t have any talent. Others have a bit of talent but no work ethic. Takes both. And, that still doesn’t guarantee any kind of success. The truth is, most of what I see isn’t writing. It’s typing.

    Anyway, kudos to you for posting this. This is valuable. We need more plumbers, anyway.

    At most writer’s conferences, I’m thinking… Why aren’t you home writing? There are no secrets to be learned here, dude. The only “secret” is to take Jim Harrison’s advice. “Read everything in the Western canon of literature for the past 400 years. Then, if you live long enough, read the same 400 years in Eastern literature. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, how can you expect to know what passes for good now?” The other part of the “secret” in writing is… to write. Every. Single. Day.

    There are good writers out there. They’re just outnumbered by talentless wannabes who think they’re entitled to getting published and mad when their work isn’t deemed good enough.

  2. Les, thanks so much, and I think your approach is right on the mark.

    I have been somewhat concerned that my take on it might be misconstrued to say that there shouldn’t be any writing classes, writing books, writing advice, etc. That’s not at all what I’m saying. I think they are valuable, but only as a way to process pre-existing raw talent, not as a magical formula for turning literary dross into gold.

    We definitely need to abandon this “feel good no matter what” ideology, and move into a “find what you’re good at and do that” model in our educational and professional cultures.

  3. Exactly! Of course there’s a place for all of those–classes, workshops, books, et al, and for the folks you identify.

    The reading thing has bothered me forever. Recently, I was contacted by a writing group and invited to attend their meeting. As it turned out, they were getting ready to discuss one of my books, the Voice one. Now, I’ll go just about anywhere to help out writers, encourage them, etc., and was all prepared to drive for two hours one way (at my expense and on my time–no expenses or anything offered and that was fine), but then in one of the messages to the group, the leader mentioned she’d been able to buy my book used and told members where they could also. No way I’m going to a group like that! If they can’t even help support the writer by buying their book new so they gain the royalty (in this case, about a buck a book), and are telling people to buy my book used (where I don’t get a dime), and then expect me to spend my time and gas to give them free advice… screw ’em. If the ten members had each purchased a book, I would have realized ten bucks–certainly not even close to paying for my time and gas–but I would have been delighted to appear. But, telling them how and where to buy my books used? Give me a break! This is just Basic Courtesy 101. The way you support fellow writers is simple. Buy their books. Duh…

    For the past thirty years, my family and I go to a local bookstore every single weekend–usually Borders or one of the B&N outlets… and we always buy books. Usually 2-3 apiece–myself, my wife, and my son–and we haven’t missed a single weekend. We have thousands and thousands and thousands of books. This week is typical–so far, I’ve purchased six books and am getting ready to buy a seventh. New. I realize I’m not the norm, but I’m a writer and this is the best way I see of helping out our industry. And, we don’t have much money, believe me! I wouldn’t expect a nonwriter to do this, but I would a writer.

    What really gets me is people go to book signings of friends… and don’t buy a copy of the book.

    Or, attend a workshop, pick up the copy of the book of the speaker at the signing table, say “Hmm,” put it down… and want the author to spend three hours with them telling them the “secrets” of the writing trade.

    As far as readers, I was writer-in-residence at the University of Toledo for three years and taught four writing classes each semester. At the beginning of each class, I’d tell the students that very few of them, if any, would ever become writers. And that was okay. We needed readers more than we needed writers. What I hoped to get across was how hard it was to write well, and hopefully engender some appreciation for good writing and help them become better readers. Actually, I have to agree with Flannery O’Connor, when someone asked her if she thought writing programs in universities discouraged writers, and she replied, “Not enough of them.”

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