By Mark Guarino
2:11 PM AKST, February 1, 2013
A few weeks ago, I opened my mailbox and pulled out something I never imagined would be keeping company with my Verizon bill: A contract from the University of Chicago Press for a nonfiction book they want me to write. The book contract arrived two days before I would fly to Bennington College in Vermont, where I was preparing to workshop my first novel in its highly respected low residency master's program in writing.
I didn't expect these events to occur within days of each other, so I spent a full afternoon patting myself on the back with a fly swatter. But cutting short the celebration was an essay published days later in Printers Row titled "Why I'll Never Write a Book."
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Tribune senior correspondent Ellen Warren is passionate in her argument for why, despite the stories she has racked up in an esteemed journalism career, she had no interest in writing a book. She quotes several friends — many published authors — who support her three reasons why aspiring writers should abandon hope if they are struck by the book bug: debt, doubt and despair.
Dang. Here I was feeling pretty good about myself, and a nearly 1,400-word essay appears saying that I'll likely rack up thousands of dollars in debt, drop out of society for an extended period, and then find out there is no payoff once the manuscript is finished.
But I have another perspective.
Imagine that a woman shrieks "help me" out a window of a burning building. A firefighter stands on the ground looking up at the ladder he must climb to save her.
Does he think "I do not have it in my heart to accomplish this task"? "What are the benefits I will gain from scaling this ladder?" "Will this endeavor hurt my back?"
No, no and no. He is a firefighter. He scampers up the ladder and plucks the woman from the window. He doesn't give it a second thought.
Why? As countless firefighters have said, "I was just doing my job."
The same, I imagine, is true for writers facing a blank page, or screen, as the case may be. The writer is not likely to say "But how will this benefit my chances of getting a second mortgage?" "How long will this take?" or "How will this help me get a bigger advance than the lady who wrote all those books about the vampires?"
He will not say these things because these things do not matter. He is writing the book. The book is his job.
I take that back. I suspect that what writers really mean when they say they are only doing their jobs is that they are following their vocation.
The word "vocation" is not often used anymore, but for me, it's a deeply soulful and significant word. Jobs can be vocations, but vocations are never jobs.
Long before I ended up writing for a living, I wanted to be a priest. I was enrolled in Catholic school and admired how the priests in my parish moved with purpose to their lives. These good men were there for others during the best and worst of times, particularly the elderly and families in crisis. For them, work did not end at the top of the hour or when a meeting wrapped up. Their job was to provide consolation, guidance and insight when these were needed, which was often. They had freedom. They had resolve. They had a calling.
Callings may seem quaint in the embers of a recession, when any job is worthwhile as long as the check clears and health insurance is included. But writers follow the call to write books despite economic hardships and doubt because writing offers a powerful way to enlarge the world they live in and make sense of their experience.
"I'm compelled to write," says Will Burgess, a novelist who runs a catering company in Manhattan with his wife. "It's the only way I can find the answers to the questions I have about being alive." Burgess, who is in the Bennington writing program, has had one novel published and is finishing a ninth one.
From Warren's perspective, Burgess should have bowed to debt, despair and doubt, but that didn't happen. "Cowards," his debut novel on St. Martin's Press written under the name W.A. Burgess, received widespread praise in 1997 and sold 25,000 copies. Burgess was 26. "I thought it was going to be easy," he says.
Not so. The publisher dropped its literary fiction division, and his three-book contract became worthless. "Probably one of the worst things that happened to me," he says. Burgess returned to the kitchen, but he remains unwavering in his commitment to writing. For him, commerce and the call to write are not mutually exclusive. Now that major publishing houses are reinventing ways to market new authors, Burgess says, there is no better time to write.
"The reason I'm pushing to finish this book is I believe that new media is reopening the doors that had been closed a long time ago," he says. "People who are writing for artistic reasons can now find an audience without starving to death."
Social network sites like Goodreads.com are deepening the relationship between readers and the publishing industry at a fast rate. Publishers can now connect directly to readers who support a certain writer, genre or subject, and groom readership for a new book. Last year Goodreads hit 14 million members.
As much as writers crave to tell stories, "readers crave interaction," says Elizabeth Khuri Chandler, Goodreads' co-founder. "We're living in a world where there's more books to choose from than ever before, and if you want to read a book, you can pretty much read it instantly. The problem isn't content or access anymore, it's 'what do I read next?'"
The site, among others, is creating a new marketing model for the industry; publishers give away books to launch new titles, create live video chats with authors and link to blogs to track a title's popularity, which can generate buzz, even for unknown writers.
Colleen Hoover, who self-published her novel "Slammed" in January 2012, gave away several copies to influential reviewers on the site in February, and it caught fire. In August Simon & Schuster's Atria Books picked it up and published another of her books, both of which landed on the New York Times best-seller list. Warren is wrong when she says that self-publishing is creating uncertainty or cluttering the market; it is driving publishers to understand what readers want. "The Internet gives publishers and authors an opportunity to find an audience that was very difficult to find in the offline world," says Jo Henry, director of Bowker Market Research in London.
One example is a new genre — new adult fiction — that was born after publishers noticed on social media sites that an increasing number of older women were buying young adult fiction for themselves; more than 14,000 titles have been released since 2011 under the new designation, according to Goodreads.
Countering the myth that young people don't read is this: Generation Y, those born from 1979 to 1989, spent more money on books than baby boomers in 2011, according to Bowker; 43 percent of Generation Y sales were online.
The rise of e-books is eliminating production and warehouse costs; even the costs of print book production are falling because of digital formatting. These developments are allowing publishers to take greater risks with unknown writers or little-known genres.
Who won't benefit from all of this? Writers such as celebrity bio scribe Kitty Kelley, who told Warren that "publishing right now is a scary business" and that the shift means "publishers are not giving the huge advances they used to."
Indeed. The millions Kelley typically receives will likely go the way of the dinosaur once publishers, like their counterparts in the music industry, realize that niche publishing is more sustainable over the long term because it grooms an expanding network of loyal readers, as opposed to impulse buyers.
In this environment, as Warren notes, doubt is never absent, but it is tempered when you realize your work is resonating more deeply than you once thought.
Which means, for most writers who hear the call, the publishing world shouldn't be such a scary void to enter once the time comes to send their manuscripts out. That doesn't mean doubt is never absent, but when it crops up, I find the easiest way to drain it from my head is to take a long walk and circle back to where I began.
Mark Guarino is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.