Wednesday, February 04, 2009

You're Searching For Good Times But Just Wait and See

By Kevin Guilfoile

It was an admission so honest and unexpected that the collective gasp in response should have made your ears pop.

I was scheduled to be on a panel at a large literary conference/festival with four other writers. Before it started, I was making small talk with one of the other authors, a fellow I had heard of but whose books I had never read. He was giving me a pretty frank assessment of his career. His first novel had been an international blockbuster with millions of copies sold around the world. His second book had sold not quite as well. His third novel had sold even fewer copies. He was now on his seventh or eighth book and although his residual readership was still considerably larger than mine, his career had continued on the wrong trajectory. With each book he was losing readers, not adding them. His agent couldn't figure out why. His publisher couldn't figure out why. He couldn't figure out why.

We had a lively, hour-long discussion in front of maybe 200 people. Then somebody asked what books each of us were reading. We went down the line giving brief assessments of our latest good reads. When it was this guy's turn he said,

"I don't read. I haven't read a book since my first novel was published 10 years ago."

As I said, there was a gasp.

He said, "I don't have time to read. Whatever time I have to read I would rather spend it writing."

Remembering our earlier conversation, I thought, "Well there's your answer."

As I've thought about it over the years, I've realized there's more to be learned from that comment than just the reasons for one author's declining sales. All writers have felt the same tension--the occasional guilty feeling when you are reading that this is an indulgence keeping you away from your work. Most writers would never admit to having given up the enjoyment of books altogether, although I often suspect, when reading a particularly cliched or unimaginative novel, that this fellow isn't the only one.

But it gets to the heart of the biggest problem facing the publishing industry. All readers have increased demands on their time and reading eats up hours at a pretty good clip. There are no doubt millions of people who find sitcoms less satisfying than books, but television and internet are both cheap and provide immediate gratification and TV at least comes in a little capsule of time that fits confidently into the daily budget of waking hours. For all the discussion about how to save publishing, this is a problem no one can answer and it's only going to get worse.

Time is the writer's ultimate foe. It puts insurmountable obstacles between readers and his work and then one day, often without warning, it rudely ends his career.

Still there is something especially arrogant about a writer who doesn't read. About an author who expects people to digest his words by the tens of thousands when he has no time for anyone else's.

For the last month I've been furiously reading through the nominees for this year's Tournament of Books (an event for which I serve as both commissioner and color analyst and about which I will have much more to say later). I'm trying to read 16 books, some of them substantial, in about eight weeks, which has basically forced me to about double the amount of time I usually spend reading each day. I thought it would be difficult, but I've found it to be the opposite. It's been liberating. It's forced be to reassess how much of my time is wasted each day on stuff less important and less enjoyable than reading. Its caused me to re-prioritize my leisure time. To ask myself why I am still watching Heroes when, honestly, I no longer have the slightest idea what's going on anymore.

Sometimes a little forced labor will set you free.


Mark Combes said...

The rise of graphic novels. E-Books finally taking hold with the introduction of the Kindle and Sony Reader. These and other things suggest to me that the "average reader" is looking for shorter, tighter, stories. Shorter, tighter entertainment. Yeah, you better be reading the current books - 'cause it seems books are getting shorter and tighter. I'm currently reading Charlie Huston's "The Shotgun Rule" and sure it's noir, but it's short and tight.....

I have a Kiwi writing friend that writes non-fiction. He once told me that he gets paid the same amount for writing a 50K word book as he does for a 75K word book. So if you can say it in 33% fewer words (is my math correct?) then why not? You might actually GAIN readership......

JD Rhoades said...

Well, Mark I hope you're right, because I tend to write short. 85K is a long book for me.

Problem is,I've heard some editors opine that a lot of people aren't willing to pay 25-27 bucks for a skinny hardcover or 7-8 for a slim paperback. For that kind of dough they want heft.

Sara Paretsky said...

The New York Times had a front-page story last week,, that more people are publishing books than are buying them. It was a little bit of deliberate hyperbole--but while many of us started to write because we love books, love the word on the page, others are drawn by the narcissistic pleasure of their name on the page. That said, I don't read as much as I used to, myself--not because it cuts into my writing time, but because I spend too much time idly cruising the web. I'm reading Team of Rivals--way in need of a good editor--and Grace Paley's short stories. Also the Hound of the Baskervilles, when I can get it away from my husband.

Dana King said...

It amazes and appalls me any writer would admit to not reading. As a classical musician in a former life, I know listening to others is as important as practicing, especially once you get the fundamentals under control. Whether he reads his contemporaries or past masters, reading is the way to keep his attitudes and prose from becoming stagnant.

Forget the lack of time to read. It sounds like this guy is so in love with his own words he has forgotten the value of the words of others.

Mark Combes said...


Publishers are behind the curve in their pricing strategies. For pities sake, they still print the price on the cover rather than let the retailer set the price for his or her market. Logic dictates that shorter books should cost less. An 800 page tome should cost more than a 200 page JD Rhoades mystery. So your books should be retailed for less than the latest Matthiessen epic - which is pretty damn good by the way.

I think e-books are gonna drive a revolution in pricing for books in general. Until recently, iTunes charged a flat rate per song and album with few exceptions. I think e-books are gonna do the same thing to traditional books. But I'm digressing from Kevin's original post so I'll stop my babbling now.....

Libby Hellmann said...

I'm with Dana. I have to read when I'm writing. It's the only thing that validates my struggle to string together words and sentences and paragraphs that are somewhat meaningful. But I'm not sure I agree with the trend toward shorter books... I keep seeing the opposite. Authors writing books that are way too long, boring, and expensive.

Judy Alter said...

Thanks for giving me justification for the mysteries that too often get me so involved I move away from my own writing.

Carla Buckley said...

When I first started out, I was afraid to read because I worried I would unintentionally steal from other authors. That was a long, miserable year! Now I understand that reading, for me, is an essential part of the writing process. I see it as homework. When I'm writing my first draft, I limit myself to reading books by authors who I feel have a gift for plotting. Doing so really hustles my work along. When I'm revising, I read books that have a particular flair for language, and I find that doing so lets me relax into my own voice.

I will admit that the line between these two kinds of books has grown imperceptibly slimmer. Not keeping up to date with what's going on out there hopelessly dates a novel and loses readers.

Steerpike said...

Great post, Kevin... "the answer" seems so obvious you have to wonder how he could have missed it. Time is finite, and it takes a lot more of it to write a book than to read one (unless you're Piers Anthony). But you have to read. You have to read as much as you can, reading is like brain polish for a writer. Without it skill begins to deteriorate.

In a related aside, we see a lot of this in the videogames industry - many developers say they "lack the time" to play games any more. Perhaps unsurprising that we see so little in the way of excellence and innovation.

jnantz said...

I'm so far behind trying to read all of the new writers I've come across (and the ones I should have been reading all along...Child, Lehane, Crais, etc.) that I can't imagine not taking time to read, even if it DOES inhibit my writing. I think your new acquaintance is just plain nuts.

Gayle said...

Your disbelief at the author who said he didn't read reminds me of my reaction years ago to a fellow teacher who said they didn't like to read. I remember thinking what kind of teacher (especially early elementary) doesn't like to read. We are supposed to foster a love of learning, how can that be done without reading?

And as for authors reading, Stephen King is a prolific reader and writer. In his book, On Writing one of the things he talks about is how many books he reads.

If a book is good, I don't care about the size. All I'm concerned about is the story. I've learned that sometimes short books are sometimes the best as they are tightly written. My favorite short book writer would probably be James Sallis.