Friday, November 04, 2005

Don't writers need readers anymore?

Poets & Writers Magazine is polling its readers:
Would you rather publish a book of poems that would attract 2,000 readers, or publish those poems in newspapers, magazines, and elsewhere to attract 20,000 readers?
Just now, the results were showing that out of 213 voters, 53% had chosen "publish elsewhere" for maximum exposure while 46% wanted to publish an actual book, even if that meant few readers.

Here's what prompted the survey:
During a recent trip to New York City, Joseph Bednarik, the marketing director of Copper Canyon Press, noticed something while riding the subway that got him thinking about the ways in which poetry is distributed. “I watched an elderly man read one of our Antonio Machado translations off a PSA Poetry in Motion placard. ‘How wonderful,’ I thought. ‘Machado’s readership is growing before my eyes.’”

So he began an informal survey. He asked poets whether they would prefer “a beautifully produced physical book, with the guarantee that it would find two thousand engaged readers” or “no physical book, but the guarantee that, through various means of publication—anthologies, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, and so on—the poems would find an audience of twenty thousand engaged readers.” Bednarik included the following caveat: Either choice has equal effect on job security and advancement, review attention, and financial rewards.

“To be honest, the results were startling to me,” he says. “Everybody I talked to early on wanted a physical book and was content with a finite readership. I simply couldn’t believe it, because my impulse is to expand readership.”

I am equally surprised. Isn't it the hunger to express ourselves and reach others with our ideas that drives us to write? Are so many of us actually willing to settle for an image of success rather than the real thing?
Has the importance of readership been overshadowed by the book as status symbol? What is a poet’s priority?

I'd love to see some fiction writers weigh in on this question. What's more important to you: seeing your name on a book or knowing you've touched people through your writing? Anonymous comments are allowed, so go ahead and spill your guts. Then drag a couple of your writing pals over here to spill theirs.


Jen said...

There's something to be said for an actual, physical book. If I just want to reach a lot of people, I can write on my blog. There's something about the sense of permanence that you get from a book -- immortality, if you will.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a writer, so I can't speak to that particular issue...but I do know that when a book is special to me, I want to keep it. To have it, and to own it. I read lots of books, paperbacks which I re-sell, or library books, etc.

But when a book means something to me, or is particularly treasured, I want to have a physical, hard cover book. Seeing my favorites on a bookshelf or table gives me comfort by their presence.

I know this is not exactly the issue you are discussing, but isn't it perhaps somehow related?


Chris said...

If one precluded the other, I'd go for number of readers and the longevity a piece here, a piece there would bring. Still, I think The Book is the goal our eyes are on.

Someone buys your book because they want your book, whereas they may buy the paper for Classic Calvin and Hobbes and stumble upon your poem/story/article looking for the movie listings. Your book may become a best seller, but The Wittenburg Door #202 selling out because of my piece is an even longer longshot.

--Chris (dFm)

pacatrue said...

I think this is a very human response whether or not it is the best one. We all love feedback. Another question: Would you rather have 1000 people read your story and be moved, but you never heard a word about it, or would you rather 100 people read it and send you a little note thanking you for your work. A lot of people would choose the latter.

I think the issue is less a book, though us writers and readers all love them. I'd be OK with a toss-away ugly-covered magazine dedicated to me with 20,000 readers over a beautifully produced book with 2,000. What is appealing is that there is a publication about my work. It's all about me!

All this said, I think it is the wrong impulse. Some of the greatest novels and poetry ever written were published serially in magazines, surrounded no doubt by filler ads and articles that we have all forgotten. More authors should be excited about this publication route.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same as Brenda's sister,
about the books that mean somthing too me :-D

Robin Bayne said...

It's the smell of the new book. . . .

Mirtika said...

Chris nailed it for me: When people buy, say, The New Yorker, they're not buying it, usually, for your piece of fiction or someone's poem (although, I have purchased it specifically for a work of fiction, for example, an Alice Munro story back in the early nineties). If they buy your book, they're buying YOUR book, YOU, they're buying YOU.

And that matters.

I think most writers would want both, poets certainly: Poems or stories published in a wide circulation periodical or anthology, and individual works to serve the readers drawn by the works in periodicals and anthologies.

Most of my modern poetry individual books I bought because I read a poem online or in a journal or magazine that I really, really was moved by, prompting me to seek out the author's indivudual collections: Luci Shaw, Catharine Sasanov, and Geoffrey Hill, for example from poets.

Same with stories: If a story blows me away in a magazine or anthology, I will hunt down works by those authors. I discovered Doris Betts and Theodore Sturgeon that way, two of my all time faves. They had stories in anthologies. I then went and bought what I could find of their own works.


LaShaunda said...

As a person who has been published in a magazine. Its nice, but OOOH I can't wait to see the book that bears my name.

Hopefully those who have seen me in magazines, will buy the book.

Anonymous said...

Don't you realize the real "immortality" is in the hearts and mind of the "Masses" that you have touched or inspired, and not in the hardbound book that is only remembered by a few.

Mirtika said...

I disagree with anonymous. People touched by a story in a periodical will also die. Periodicals are not kept in print. If a book stays in print--think Pride & Prejudice, think Jane Eyre, think Aristotle's POETICS, think Plato's REPUBLIC, think, Aquinas' SUMMA, think Shakespeare's FOLIO--or an author's work is kept in books on shelves by admiring academics and authors--think Sappho's fragments, think Petrarch's sonnets, think Epic of Gilgamesh--then you've achieved a sort of immortality in print. But it must remain in print. People are less disposed to throw away books than magazines.

Immortality, though, is a concept I believe is inherent within us. I will remain conscious/alive in one form or another, forevermore, from the day of my birth onwards. So, even if I never publish, I'll be around. :D


Anonymous said...

The real question here is motive!. Do we write to have an impact or do we write to have our name on a cover of a book? Do I as a writer want to touch and maybe change the lives of 1,000 people or 20,000.

Mirtika said...

Well, if it's a choice between 1,000 or 20,000 touched by my writing...I choose 2 billion. :D

Brenda Coulter said...

I've been watching this discussion with great interest, and I have to say I'm still surprised that so many would choose "the book" even if that meant a substantially smaller readership for their work.

You people are just so delightfully weird. ;-)

Ninth Wave said...

Might these results additionally be about the reduced expectations of poets (and writers in general) reaching an audience? Most people view publication as the measure of their writing quality, and everyone who has tried to get published in book form knows how hard it is to do. Magazines are perceived as an easier medium to get work published - whether that is actually the case or not - and so it carries less credibility. And blogs, well, anyone can put up a blog, so if I self-publish on my blog that gets me very little publishing credibility unless I somehow become a blog phenomenon - and even that can be passing. It is the status associated with the different mediums that is likely tipping the balance toward a smaller audience choice. So ultimately book publishing becomes about the ability to convince the smallest audience of all, that of the publishing house, to read your work.