Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Writers and Readers 

Sometimes I wonder if there aren't more aspiring writers out there, intent on publishing their stories and novels by whatever means (even via self-publishing), than there are readers. Especially -- self-involved or naive writers vs. discriminating readers. I get a certain number of self-published books in the mail for listing on Locus Online (and I list them; you've seen them), and I've just finished a survey of short fiction published in 2005 (for Locus Magazine's February issue) that made note of certain websites that enable anyone to self-publish their stories (e.g. SFF World). I can't help but wonder, every time I see one of these writers' works, how many of these writers bother to read their compatriots, much less read widely in the field, much less are familiar with the works of the generally acknowledged best writers in the field, much less are familiar with the generally acknowledged canonical books of the field, much less are familiar with the generally acknowledged canonical books of contemporary or world literature.

And still feel they have something new to add, that commands your (my) attention?

Vanishingly few, I'd suppose. Most of them, instead, feel the 'restless urge to write' and implicitly suppose that there's an audience out there waiting for what they have to say.

But from a reader's standpoint, it boils down to the question -- Why should I read your story or book, rather than anything else??.

I've been doing my annual survey/tallies of short fiction for many years -- over a decade -- and the bottom line result is that there are more stories published every year. Magazines and websites come and go, and anthology trends wax and wane, but somehow, the story totals increase every year. Where are all those writers coming from... if not from readers? The circulations of the professional magazines are declining every year!

I suppose the trend is due to technological advances -- it's easier and easier to self-publish, via POD, or websites.

Still, what are those writers thinking? Do they realize what they're asking, what their odds are?

OK, I'm being harsh, too cynical. Many writers of works that have become regarded as best or canonical started out as unknown as all the currently self-publishing wannabes. Give 'em a chance.

And beginning writers know that they're not really in competition with the grand masters. They're in competition with each other. Time will pass. A few of them will survive to become professionals, and fewer of them will survive to become recognized as masters, and a few in a generation will even survive to become grand masters, authors of canonical works.

Still, as a reader, one has to prioritize. Life is short. After a certain amount of time being receptive to newbies, one realizes there is only time to read so many more books, ever. Frankly, this was a factor in my giving up trying to review short fiction, 4 years ago now, feeling the obligation to spend much time every month reading as many new magazines and anthologies as I could. There's only so much time, and there are so many more rewarding things to read. OR: Maybe it's more meaningful to manage information that helps other people decide what they should read. Maybe that was it.
I hope you're getting some greater satisfaction from maintaining the Locus Online website, and not just substituting one chore for another. To paraphrase a common saying, no one ever lay on their deathbed thinking "I wish I had spent more time keeping the website up to date."
Your observations are not cynical. I tend to look at it metaphorically. We are increasingly becoming smaller voices in a growing cacophony of voices that are heard through many channels. Frequently we have no choice to listen.

I think most fledgling writers just want to be heard by someone, even if it's just one person.
I think it can be best said by a quote I read once...the actor who lives, breaths and eats theater is the one who makes it, not necessarally the more talented actor; and so it is with writers...the persistant ones who continue to submit their works, despite rejection, will prevail.
Lulu predicts 2052 as the date of authorgeddon, when there will be more writers than readers.
An interesting observation...Here's my take, for what it's worth. Writers are readers, and readers are writers - obviously. At Worldcon, Joe Fletcher at Orion said to the folks in the dealers' room that we - Crowswing Books, Elastic Press, PS Publishing - were the new mid-list.

Small presses are vibrant in the UK, using traditional methods - litho - of production, as well as POD. For any writer, self-published or not, with a small press or a major - the trick is to sell the books.

Many of our customers at Crowswing are writers, and by definition readers. Every publisher puts out books that appeal to their taste, and with a view of making a profit for all concerned. What we're ultimately talking about is quality, and that can come from a variety of sources - self-published, small press, major publisher. But we all have the same goal: selling books.

Good luck to all those who publish books. But it's not luck you'll need, but a loyal customer-base and some damn fine writers.

Sean Wright - MD, Crowswing Books (UK)
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Mark R. Kelly

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Mark R. Kelly, and do not reflect the editorial position of Locus Magazine.
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