What if We Give it Away?
I’ve recently decided to give away all of my writing that’s not currently under contract to a publisher. Novels, short stories, whatever. If I write it, I’m making it available for free. I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’d like to share my personal and political rationale for this.
I love to write. I also need to write. I fully believe that engaging in creativity is essential to having a fulfilling life. And writing is what I’m good at. Well, that and cooking.
And I hate marketing. I’m a bad salesperson and have never felt fully comfortable asking people for money.
And, of course, the publishing industry is done with me. I had my shot and got a lot of books published in the years 2002-2012, so I can’t really complain. Part of this is age discrimination, part is my underwhelming sales record, and part may well be a sincere belief that my work isn’t marketable anymore. This is entirely possible! My sensibility is not what you’d call mainstream, and for whatever reason the work I was doing ten to twenty years ago was able to appeal to people in publishing in a way my current work can’t.
Whatever the case, trying to get my work noticed by publishing professionals saps the fun out of what is otherwise a very fun process for me. I know my work is good, but wow is it discouraging to query 16 agents and get 4 rejections and 12 ghostings. And even getting an agent might not be a win—I’ve had agents for most of the last 10 years who couldn’t sell a thing I wrote.
So—the publishing industry is done with me, and I’m also done with it. And I’m actually fine with that. After 7 years in the part-time wilderness, I got a full-time job last year, and my salary is modest, but I’m able to (mostly) pay my bills, so I’m no longer hoping that one big (publishing) score will magically pull me out of penury. Now I get to just have fun!
My friend Emily had a similar publishing drought and recently got her historical novel The Lioness of Boston published. (It’s good! You should read it!) And she’s spent the better part of a year hustling. Visiting bookstores and bookgroups and networking and going to conferences and doing all the things an author needs to do to move copies.
She’s very good at this stuff. I’m not. (Like when a publisher arranged a networking dinner for a bunch of writers and librarians at the ALA conference years back and I said how much I hated a book that was popular at the time, and the librarian at the table said, “I gave that book a starred review in Booklist.” OOPS!). And even if I had time to do all those things, I don’t want to. I have no desire to hustle.
Also, when I was regularly getting published, I found myself constantly defining success upwards. Which brings me to the
though of course the personal is political and vice-versa. When you measure the success of your art by how much money you make from it, the problem is that you can almost always define success as what’s happening to someone other than yourself. Here’s an example: for about two years, I made a sustainable living from my writing. And rather than being like, “Ha! I’ve made it!” I was constantly comparing myself to other people. So instead of happiness, I got envy. Where’s my bestseller? Where’s my movie deal? My book is as good as or better than books by clowns who are having more monetary success than me!
I have heard that there are people who can avoid this trap. I was not one of them.
Defining success in monetary terms sucks, but also it’s a way that we reinforce the structures of capitalism in our minds. Even if, intellectually, you recognize that capitalism has poisoned the earth and our minds and made life measurably worse for everyone in the last few decades, you buy into it the second you define success in terms of money.
Ultimately, for me, success in writing means that someone besides me reads it and hopefully likes it. Money devalues this. This started with my first book, It Takes a Worried Man. It was a commercial disappointment, selling “only” 5000 copies in hardcover. Thousands of people read my book, and I walked around feeling like a failure, and like those people who engaged with my work didn’t matter because there weren’t enough of them.
That’s what capitalism does. It devalues people. It devalues the part of art that’s essential, which is the human connection it fosters. Now, no disrespect to anyone selling their art as I did for many years—it’s just that I’m in a place in my life where I don’t want to and don’t have to. So I’m not going to.
Have fun. Give stuff away! Connect with people! Go grab some free books!