Why Write Books at All? A Case Against It

Is writing books still worth the effort?

I know writers at every level who are asking that question, from new writers I meet at writers conferences to authors with multiple published books. This week I will make a case against writing a book, and next week I will make a case in favor of it. Please jump in with your own ideas or considerations I may have overlooked.

Here are some reasons not to write a book:

1. The Market is Already Flooded.

For me, this is one of the most discouraging reasons of all. Bowker, the organization that publishes Books in Print, reports that 347,178 new books were published last year in the United States. Let that sink in for a moment. Picture 10 books lined up in front of you. Now picture 100. Now 1,000. Now try to see a warehouse filled with 100,000. Now triple that. And you want to pour out your heart and soul to add one more book to that enormous pile?

The statistics are actually even more daunting than I have indicated. More than a million additional public domain books and reprints were also published last year, so a writer of a new book has to compete with those too. If you want to look at the figures for yourself, see the article on Bowker’s website here.

Of course I am mentioning only the books published in 2011. Let’s not even think of the millions of books published in the years and decades and centuries before that, or the ones that continue to pop up every day.

2. In the New World of Publishing, Books are Devalued.

Thanks to how easy and inexpensive it has become to publish e-books, books are no longer the valuable, prized possessions they used to be. Right now I couldn’t even tell you how many unread free downloaded books I have sitting in my Kindle. I don’t even recall the titles or authors of half of them. Those books are in addition to the many other impulse-buy 99-cent books that are there, along with a smattering of $2.99 books that I haven’t yet opened. This trend toward cheaper books is good for consumers in a way, but if a book costs about as much as a medium soda, will I value it about that much? What message does that send to publishers and readers about how much authors should be valued?

I remember when buying a book took a greater amount of thought and deliberation and even financial sacrifice than it does now. When my favorite authors came out with new books, I often wanted them right away, so I would Continue reading

Should Authors Value Fans Only—Or Do They Also Need Opponents?

In this era when authors are expected to spend much of their time seeking the approval of readers—by “building a platform,” doing blog tours, conducting interviews, and praying for 5-star Amazon reviews—it may be helpful to look at how writers of an earlier generation used opposition to their work to make themselves better writers.

My friend and colleague Diana Glyer wrote a remarkable book called The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent State UP, 2007). It analyzes the ways the group of writers known as the Inklings influenced one another. This group, which included Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others, met regularly for seventeen years to read and critique each other’s work. Much of the influence these friends had on one another was positive and friendly, as they supported each other as resonators and collaborators, and as they promoted each other’s books through reviews and by other means.

But my favorite chapter of The Company They Keep is chapter 4, entitled “Opponents: Issuing Challenge.” I urge you to read it for yourself to get the full treatment of some of the fascinating encounters among these authors, but here I want to highlight a few things I learned as a writer about the value of Opponents.

“Oh, God, no more Elves!”

Can you imagine the privilege of sitting in a room and listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read from a draft of The Lord of the Rings? How would you like to relax by the fire and hear C.S. Lewis read a work-in-progress called The Screwtape Letters? That’s what the Inklings got to do, but they weren’t always happy about it. Tolkien, for example, didn’t like The Screwtape Letters. He was embarrassed that the book Continue reading

The Best Discipline I Ever Followed: One Hard Thing a Day

On any given day, certain tasks loom before me that I really don’t want to do. I’m not referring to bothersome but routine chores that are merely unpleasant. I’m talking instead about things I dread doing. These are actions that I know I can’t put off forever but that I can delay for a good long while. They linger on my To Do list day after day, sometimes month after month. I can never quite get away from them, as they niggle at my brain and make me feel guilty for neglecting them.

I call these tasks Hard Things. They circle around me like deadly predators, and the more I try to stay away from them, the more of them lurk at the edge of my consciousness. As they accumulate, I feel besieged and defeated.

A few years ago I started a discipline that has helped me get these paralyzing duties under control. Very simply, I do one Hard Thing a day.

I don’t try to do three hard things, or ten. Taking on that many would quickly lead to defeat in the form of procrastination, rationalization, or Continue reading

On the Necessity of Cultivating a Secret Life

When people hear of someone having a “secret life” or “secret self,” their first impression is probably negative. They might think of someone having an affair or extorting money from his company. They might think of a politician using secret funds to hide and mistress and a baby.

But a secret life—or lives—doesn’t have to mean hiding something illicit. I would go so far as to say that for me, maintaining a secret life is necessary for holding on to my joy and sanity.

One of the most popular novels of all time—Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—is about a secret life. I teach this book in an Honors literature course at my university, and every student who approaches it already knows the basic story, even though most have never read the original novel. The story is so popular that near 100 films and TV shows have been made of it. The story has been retold in comic books and in other forms. It has been translated into many languages.

Why is the Jekyll and Hyde story so popular? Some see it only as a morality tale about a man’s evil side taking over once that evil has been given free reign. I do think that’s partly what the book is about, but I think its deeper appeal is that it touches readers’ desires for a self that can experience lives other than the mundane, somewhat Continue reading