Why You Should Think Twice Before Writing a Book

Posted on January 6, 2014


Sometime during the Christmas season past my wife said, “hey, let’s go to Barnes & Noble and browse a bit.”

Being a book nut, and liking B & N’s coffee bar, I agreed, although I had had a big plate of barbeque—with all the sides– earlier and was still groggy from eating it all.

I should have stayed home. I was still semi-dazed from the food and not even B & N’s espresso pulled me out, but, more than that, I was dismayed going up and down the aisles, looking at the dozens, scores, hundreds, thousands of books on every conceivable subject man has ever imagined.

What could I add to all this?

To make me feel better, I looked up my name in the computer data base of B & N’s full inventory and found a few of my books. Of course, they were not available in the store and so I wandered away, consoled only slightly by being on B & N’s list of probably millions of books.

Arrayed along the aisles I found Christian books, Confucius books, New Wave books, cook books, fiction books, history books, big books, miniature books, books for half price, self-help books, war books, peace books, and categories I didn’t even know existed.

Who writes all this stuff? Bill O’Reilly for one. He is killing everyone with his books on killing Jesus, killing Kennedy, killing Lincoln, killing everyone it seems and they are piled in the middle of aisles, conveniently located as you wander around the store. You can’t miss them, unlike my books.

Now, as an historian, I know O’Reilly doesn’t have anything new under the sun to say about famous killings, but he is making a killing marketing his books. This is called envy, but I put it aside as I pass by the section on Christian books.

I commented to my wife, “see all those books?” pointing to the killing spree. She nodded politely, “hmmmm,” but was into her own section, I think on cooking. “Publishers pay big bucks to have their books flogged like those,” I said knowledgably to no one in particular, my wife having wandered away from cooking to puzzles I think for the grandchildren.

And today anyone can publish a book, literally (to employ a far overworked word). Anyone has always been able to write a book, but now there are dozens, probably hundreds, of self-publishers available on the Internet who will take you to stardom and the New York Times bestseller list in the wink of an eye. Just send them the manuscript, and a check for $nnnnnn, and, presto, you are in business. You have written and published a book.

The question is, of course, who is going to buy it? Even before “who is going to buy it?” you need to face the question “who in the world is going to see it to be able to judge if they want to buy it,” especially when there are a zillion other books out there being flogged by “publishers” making oodles of money off of rubes like me who think because they wrote a good book they are going to zoom to the top of charts.

Ok, I have to admit, I used a self-publisher a few years ago. We used to call them “vanity” publishers, but now they have more elevated titles to make you feel better, rather than face reality: your manuscript was published because you paid for it rather than on its own merits, so determined by a traditional publisher.

I wrote a little primer for Christians a few years ago, Cleared for Landing. Go ahead. Check it out on amazon or B & N or any other big online book dealer. It’s there. Really. The fact that I haven’t received a royalty check on sales in several years is perhaps an indicator of how widely it sells.

The publisher, Xlibris, contacts me periodically to announce a new, truly exciting marketing scheme, almost guaranteed to get your book before the eyes of thousands, maybe millions of readers, even in China if you choose Option 26. Or I can go the blog or online advertising route, via maybe Google books, where hits and sales are all big, and so is the price tag of marketing. For, that, faithful readers, is what self-publishing is all about.

One, you have to have a good product. Nobody gets to be a Broadway hit show by just advertising and marketing. You gotta have some Gershwin in you. And, two, you have to have muscle to push the product into the market.

Which brings me back to B & N that night during the last Christmas season.

Why even try when the market is so saturated with something about everything under the sun? By the time I left the store that night I was feeling better. The barbeque had finally digested when we walked out into the cold, crisp night. I put all the hundreds of thousands of book titles behind me, and I remembered one thing.

I do have readers. Not too many, but enough for respectability. They read my academic books that helped give me a leg up on things like tenure and promotion in the university world. Publish or perish and all that stuff.

On the other hand, I give away copies of Cleared for Landing: On Living a Christian Life to the prisoners in my jail “congregation” on a regular basis and they really read and study the book, and are grateful to have it. That’s reward enough.

However, if you have the next Pulitzer Prize in fiction locked up in your head and want to open the door and let it out, go for it. And, if for some reason you don’t get the Pulitzer, you can give it as gifts to loved ones and friends next Christmas. They make good stocking stuffers.

Published in my column The Port Rail as Think Twice About Writing Your Own Book in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2014.

Posted in: Life in America