The World Needs Carnival Barkers, Too

At the risk of giving too much attention to a certain Huffington Post article, I really must comment on a few ideas its author shares.

The premise of the article is that you must not, under any circumstances, publish several books in a single year—that you must take your time and publish less frequently, because that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you create art.

It’s directed at self-published authors, who are allegedly being told that publishing often (up to four times a year) is a good idea.

Frankly, I don’t know if publishing so often is a good idea for you. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. It’s not a good idea for me personally because I simply don’t feel comfortable writing that quickly. It ain’t my style. (Also, I have a full-time job.) But depending on your goals and your abilities as a writer, it could be a perfect approach for you. I don’t know you, my dear writer friend, so I won’t presume to know what’s good for you.

That’s why I object to the author’s blanket prohibition on publishing often as a legitimate career path. She writes:

“No matter what experts tell you, no matter what trends, conventional wisdom, social media chatter or your friends in the Facebook writers group insist upon, do NOT write four books a year. I mean it. Don’t.”

I don’t dispute that writing quickly could result in crappy prose or poetry, as the author maintains. In fact, I agree that writing too quickly is likely (though not guaranteed) to make your writing suck.

But I object to the author’s assumption that self-published authors don’t care about quality. Every single self-published author I’ve met—even the ones who choose to publish multiple titles in a year—has cared deeply about quality. The author of the article assumes that the self-published author prioritizes quantity over quality because quantity is mentioned first in Bowker’s advice to them. Based on my knowledge of self-published authors, I can only assume that quantity is mentioned first because the need to write high-quality stuff is such an obvious given that it need not be mentioned.

(For what it’s worth, Bowker sells ISBNs, so they have an incentive to tell self-published writers to publish often. It’s unclear to me how prevalent the “publish often” approach truly is, and the article does not shed light on it any meaningful, data-driven way.)

So to the author of this article, I say: Perhaps tending to your own garden would be the best approach.

Here’s why:

If you throw out edicts like, “Don’t publish four times a year,” you’re telling those writers who want to publish frequently that their approach is wrong, and there is no possible way you could know that it’s wrong if you don’t know what a given writer wants to achieve.

In your “clarification,” you write that your article isn’t a suggestion that there’s just “one way” to do things. You may believe that there are many ways to be a writer, but you are saying pretty clearly that this particular way is wrong. And that’s where you’re wrong.

Maybe it’s because I’m now living in the “Live Free or Die” state, but I feel like writers should be left to write and publish or not publish as they please, without unwarranted criticism from other members of the writing community. Such criticism creates an atmosphere of self-doubt, and self-doubt can crush a writer’s productivity. The article is the opposite of supportive, and writers need support from their peers to thrive, even if that support comes by creating an atmosphere that welcomes all comers.

So if you disapprove of someone publishing four times annually, here’s what you can and should do about it:

Nothing.

Nothing—because it doesn’t affect you if someone puts four lousy books on Amazon in a given year or over the course of a decade. Maybe those prolific and hasty folks will further damage the bad reputation that self-published books have. But maybe not. I believe discerning readers will know the difference between well- and poorly-written books and ignore the word on the street about self-publishing as a practice.

On The Bookshelf at New Hampshire Public Radio, I give self-published books and traditionally published books equal consideration. I can see through the nonsense. The quantity of books in the marketplace doesn’t make my job harder, nor does it diminish me as a writer. So it’s not for me, or anyone, to say how often self-published authors should release new work.

The truth is that not many years ago some people at elite institutions and in the publishing world issued similar commands about self-publishing in general. They argued that self-published authors wouldn’t have access to the same editorial guidance, savvy marketing professionals, or design specialists who know how to make a book a thing of beauty. And they were wrong—both in their assessment of the self-publishing world and their decision to issue “advice” when they had no authority to do so.

There are lots of different kinds of writers out there. There are writers like Donna Tartt and Anthony Doerr who each take about a decade to write their novels. There are writers like Stephen King who write at least one each year. And there are some who pump them out every three months. It’s how they work. And there’s not a damned thing wrong with that.

The author of the article writes: “You are a professional author working [on] your book your way. Be an artist, don’t be a carnival barker. Be a wordsmith, not a bean-counter. Be patient, not hysterical. Transact wisely, but don’t lose your soul in the process.” (Italics original, but I added the “on” because, well, it seems like someone was writing/editing too quickly.)

I really don’t understand what “your way” means in this context. After all, the article is slamming the very people who make it their way to write and publish often. “Your way” must mean the slower pace the author herself prefers, though I hesitate to say for sure what it means. But I digress.

Carnival Barker at the Vermont State Fair, 1941

Carnival Barker at the Vermont State Fair, 1941

In my view, it takes all kinds of writers to serve the diverse reading public. Some readers like the work of the so-called “artists.” Others like the work of “carnival barkers.” Some like both. In fact, lots of readers devour the carnival barker books while waiting for the artists to get around to publishing their latest opus. One could argue that carnival barkers keep readers in the habit of reading while they wait for their favorite “artist” to produce something new.

So carnival barkers should keep barking at their own pace, and ignore the call from artist-types to slow down. Such calls are reminiscent of that especially wonderful kind of vegetarian—the kind that has chosen not to eat meat and tells everyone else at the dinner table that they too should go veg. What’s more annoying than that?

So hurry hurry hurry, step right up, ladies and gents, because there’s something fun underneath that circus tent, and fortunately for you, there are lots and lots of tents.

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