John Winters describes himself at Salon as “a self-publishing failure.” His mystery novel couldn’t find a publisher, so he brought it out himself and undertook its promotion as well. It turns out that not only are self-published books usually not very good, but self-promoted ones usually aren’t promoted very well, either. At least, not until they become material for a Salon piece.
Winters links to a Joseph Epstein column of about 10 years ago in which Epstein reveals that “81 percent of Americans feel they have a book in them.” I wonder how many of those people really want to write a book rather than merely have a book to their name. Ask any actor, rapper, politician, or professional wrestler the difference between the two.
Writing a book is hard work, doesn’t pay well for most who try it, and isn’t necessarily all that satisfying once it’s done. Few authors in this day even get to see their work on a bookstore’s shelves. As bookstores disappear—Borders is gone, Barnes and Noble has closed its Georgetown and Union Station stores in D.C.—and self-publishing proliferates, the status that once came with being a not-self-published author is falling. Professionally published books and the do-it-yourself kind alike arrive on your mother’s doorstep in the same brown Amazon packaging.
“My guess is that many people who feel they have a book ‘in them’ doubtless see writing it as a way of establishing their own significance,” Epstein wrote in 2002. A moment’s reflection shows what a hollow ambition that is, even apart from the diminishing significance of books today. It’s on par with desiring to get a Ph.D. without making an original contribution to a field. The only books that ought to be written are those that come from the opposite direction: the desire to do and say something original, for which the book happens to be the best medium. Nowadays, most of the time the book will not be the best medium: write an essay or short story; make a YouTube clip or for that matter a feature film. There’s no magical status that arises from extending a story or nonfiction work beyond 100,000 words. That doesn’t make anyone more of a writer than someone who posts to a Blogspot site. And more people might read a good post on Blogspot.
Before writing anything, however, consider the words of Albert Jay Nock some 80 years ago:
The fact is that relatively few literate persons can read; the proportion appears to be quite small. I do not mean to say that the majority are unable to read intelligently; I mean that they are unable to read at all—unable, that is, to gather from a printed paragraph anything like a correct idea of its content. They can pretty regularly make out the meaning of printed matter which is addressed to mere sensation, like news-matter, statistics, or perhaps an “informative” editorial or article, provided it be dosed out in very short sentences and three-line paragraphs; but this is not reading, and the ability to do it but barely implies the exercise of any faculty that could be called distinctively human.