BACK TO THE HERD
Books were the world’s first mass medium. The patterns of communication first established by a few simple printed pages have shaped vast media industries and swayed the fate of nations. Fun stuff.
And yet now whenever books come up in conversation, the thought – spoken or otherwise – that “nobody reads books anymore” inevitably colors the discussion. Sadly, many people live outside the company of books. However, reports of the medium’s death are premature. As we’ll see, the industry is undergoing a transformation. But book sales are still strong, and book reading is still a common practice.
Even those who don’t currently read a lot of books can take heart. One of the wonderful things about books is their long message life. Some other media such as newspapers are outdated almost as soon as they’re printed (vitally important today, hamster cage lining tomorrow). Books are the exact opposite. Ideas that were first written down thousands of years ago are still very much alive today thanks to books.
The Written Word
Nobody is really sure how old human language is. We can’t stick a date on the beginning of oral communication, because of course it left no permanent record of itself. Writing, on the other hand, can be traced back to its roots somewhere around 6000 years ago.
The earliest writing wasn’t exactly used to record great thoughts. Apparently people were more interested in keeping inventory records than preserving stories or poems. Some historians refer to this as proto-writing, because it doesn’t express thoughts using language.
Many early systems used pictograms, small pictures that represented what they depicted (a picture of a cow meant “cow”). From there written language moved to ideograms (like pictograms only representing ideas, so a picture of a cow might mean “strength” or “wealth”). Though some languages such as Chinese stuck with ideograms, others adopted phonetic systems in which written characters represented sounds. The alphabet I’m using to write what you’re reading right now is a phonetic system (and a complicated one at that).
Somewhere around 4600 years ago in Sumer (in the “fertile crescent,” where modern Iraq now stands), people started writing down ideas more profound than ownership records. Stories, poems, laws and religious texts were designed to be read by different people in different places at different times. The first whisperings of mass communication began.
Eventually paper replaced clay and stone, at first on scrolls made from papyrus reeds. Then around 2000 years ago the Chinese invented paper. The invention spread west, where the codex (what we’d recognize today as a book) replaced the scroll.
In the Middle Ages, monks kept literature alive in Europe by creating illuminated manuscripts. They copied books by hand, allowing them to use beautiful scripts and add illustrations as they worked.
The Gutenberg Press
Many illuminated manuscripts were incredible works of art. But only skilled copyists could create them, and they took a considerable amount of time to produce. Thus they were in short supply, making them too expensive for anyone but royalty and the church to own.
Then in the 1430s in Strasbourg (in modern France not far from the German border) the world changed forever. A man named Johannes Gutenberg invented a new way to make books using a printing press. Though presses had been in use for awhile, Gutenberg’s invention used metal, movable type. Each individual letter was a separate piece, so when printers were done making multiple copies of one page they could take the type apart and use the same pieces to create the next page.
The Gutenberg press allowed printers to make hundreds of copies of a book in more or less the same amount of time it took a monk to make one copy by hand. Metal type could be used over and over again, and typesetting didn’t require as much skill and talent as manuscript illumination. Thus for the first time in history copies of written thoughts could be mass produced.
Mass production of books allowed ideas to spread easily from place to place. The press also made books cheap enough to be purchased by the newly-emerging middle class, which encouraged literacy not only among academics and the clergy but among the general population as well. And once people started reading and thinking for themselves … well, the rest as they say is history.
Books are one of the few things in the world – in or out of the mass media realm – that you can get completely for free. No purchase price. No commercials. All you have to do is go down to the local library and check it out.
Libraries’ history dates all the way back to the ancient world. The library at Alexandria, Egypt, was one of the great assemblies of written philosophy and literature before a mob burned it down. During the “Dark Ages” monasteries with scriptoria (facilities for copying books) maintained libraries to give the monks something to copy. And when universities became common, large libraries were one of the best ways to attract students.
In the United States in the 19th century public libraries thrived due at least in part to support from wealthy philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie. But this support had a Social Darwinist slant; the idea was that making books available to everybody would help “superior” people succeed even if they happened to come from humble beginnings.
Today libraries tend to provide communities with more than just books. They stock records, movies and other media as well. Many also make computers with Internet connections available to those who can’t afford their own private equipment. Though few libraries stock as many titles as their counterparts in the online bookstore world, it’s hard to beat the library’s price.
For years the only folks who seemed to want e-books – works designed to be read on computers, e-readers or other electronic devices – were book publishers.
From the publishers’ perspective, e-books are the greatest thing since sliced bread. Printing books costs money. Shipping cuts into profits, as does sharing income with bookstores. And worst of all, unsold copies have to be recycled and their printing costs written off as a loss.
E-books solve a lot of these problems. They aren’t printed, thus eliminating publishers’ costs for printing and the expense of unsold copies. And they’re sold to readers directly or through an online retailer. So publishers can charge less for e-books and still end up turning a bigger profit.
From the consumer’s point of view, however, e-books were a significant departure from the centuries-old practice of reading a “dead tree” book. Early e-readers were expensive, cumbersome devices. They were also single-purpose, meaning the only thing they were good for was reading e-books. Computers – the only other way to read an e-book at the time – were likewise a problem. People liked to curl up with a good book in a quiet moment in an easy chair or in bed before falling asleep. Books are also great to occupy time when other media aren’t available, such as on a subway or in the bathroom. You can’t easily curl up with a computer or drag it to the toilet with you.
Then Amazon came out with the Kindle, an e-reader that finally combined the elements it needed to succeed. It was easy to carry, easy to use, easy to read and not prohibitively expensive. Plus it didn’t exactly hurt that it was marketed by one of the world’s biggest online retailers.
The Kindle system isn’t just limited to actual Kindles. E-books in the Kindle system can also be downloaded to computers and mobile devices. Waiting rooms may never be the same.
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Legend has it that when Abraham Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe, he remarked “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The reference – whether or not Lincoln actually said it – was to one of the most popular and most important novels of the 19th century.
In 1850 Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which made it a crime even in free states to help people fleeing from slavery. Stowe, who came from a large family of abolitionist Christians, decided to write a book about the evils of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first released in installments in a magazine but then republished as a novel. The book told the story of the injustices suffered by slaves at the hands of even well-meaning owners. It also detailed some of the system’s worst elements, from separation of families to brutal beatings.
It provoked quite a reaction. Critics in the South were outraged, accusing Stowe of spreading lies. One slaveholder even sent her a box containing a severed ear from a slave (which of course sort of proved her point). In the North the book helped build support for the abolitionist movement. So throughout the country Uncle Tom’s Cabin deepened the rift between pro- and anti-slavery factions, a divide that led to the Civil War less than a decade later.
By our standards Stowe’s novel is badly outdated, exploiting Black stereotypes. Indeed, the story’s hero is so full of meek forgiveness for his tormentors that during the civil rights movement of the 20th century “Uncle Tom” came to be a slur used against Black people seen as too cooperative with the status quo.
One of the truly beautiful things about the book business is that publishers can get away with things that other media can’t. Because “nobody reads anymore” – or more accurately because readers are a more select group – books can explore materials and tackle controversial issues that most other media wouldn’t touch.
The publishing house of Faber and Faber is a case study in making money from books that other publishers rejected. Its most famous success is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was rejected by several other publishers due to its young protagonists, violent content and generally pessimistic take on human nature.
Faber also specializes in poetry, considered a dying art form by many mass-market-oriented publishers. T.S. Eliot – who was an editor at Faber for awhile – is the most famous author on this company’s list, but it published many other poets over the years, including Ezra Pound and Jean Cocteau. The publisher also has a well-respected drama department, including works by Tom Stoppard and John Osborne.
In a world that sometimes seems to be dominated by ghostwritten celebrity bios, Faber is a nice reminder that there’s still a living to be made catering to smaller, more intelligent audiences.
They say “the classics never die.” But to keep classic works of literature alive, somebody has to keep them in print. For many books of historical and artistic importance, that “somebody” is Penguin Books. The publisher has an entire division – Penguin Classics – that specializes in the sort of things that college professors force students to read.
On the surface this might seem like a no-effort enterprise. Most of the division’s books were written by people who’ve been dead so long that their work is no longer protected by copyright. But particularly with literature that began life in another language, Penguin supplies modern translations that uncover nuances in the original text and expresses it in language accessible to 21st century readers.
Penguin Classics also pioneered the use of color-coordinated paperback covers. Newer editions also feature attractive artwork (again mostly public domain stuff) that helps get customers to buy the books they really should be reading.
The rise in e-book popularity has left the future of Penguin Classics in some doubt. Many public domain classics are now available for free via web sites such as Project Gutenberg. So it remains to be seen whether fancy new translations and pretty covers will prove to be more attractive than not needing to pay for a book.
If you’ve never read a book by Theodor Geisel – better known to the world as Dr. Seuss – you should sue your parents and your elementary school teachers. His books have sold more than 200 million copies and have been translated into 15 different languages.
Seuss was one of those rare individuals who worked equally well with both words and images. On the word side, many of his children’s books are poems written in anapestic tetrameter, a technical term describing the “beats” of the syllables. Kids enjoy simple, consistent language, so Seuss’s rhythm helped him reach his readers with a soothing, musical quality.
He also had a highly distinctive drawing style. Even in his pre-kids-books work in advertising and World War Two propaganda, just a quick look reveals who drew the pictures. His high-contrast inks with limited colors appealed not only to kids but also to publishers (who could reproduce his art using less expensive printing techniques).
Nor were his books just pleasant poems and pretty pictures. He encouraged kids to think about issues of actual real-world importance, such as racism (The Sneeches), environmentalism (The Lorax) and consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas). Children were learning without even knowing it.
“Inventory” was the single biggest obstacle to the pre-Internet world of retail sales. “Brick and mortar” stores can only hold so many items, limiting what could be offered to customers. As long as the shelves were full of nothing but popular items, stores thrived. But shipping and stocking items in many locations across the nation only to find out that the demand was nowhere near as high as expected has bankrupted more than one business.
Online retail is considerably less risky. The Internet reaches spots all across the country – and all over the world, if you don’t mind international shipping – so sellers don’t kill their businesses by stocking things that don’t turn out to be in high demand in a particular area. Giant warehouses in central locations can serve the needs of most anyone who orders from a web site.
Amazon.com was one of the first online retailers and is currently the largest (even bigger than Wal Mart, at least on the Web). Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1994 in his garage. At first it specialized solely in books, but soon branched out into other media and then into more general consumer goods. Amazon’s business plan didn’t predict profits for more than five years after initial startup, which made some investors nervous especially when other tech companies started failing in the “dot com bubble burst” in 2000. But those who stuck with it were well rewarded. Today the company is worth billions.
Thus it came as no small surprise when Amazon started killing its “brick and mortar” competition. In 2011 Borders Books – previously the largest book retailer – closed up shop due in no small part to its failure to compete effectively in the online market. Some readers regarded the death of Borders as the wheel turning, as the big book chain had a reputation for putting small, independent bookstores out of business.
Nonetheless, some traditional bookstore customers lament the passing of the physical bookstore. There’s something about being able to actually look at books, hold them in your hands and see what they’re really like, that just can’t be duplicated by a web site.
I like our local Renaissance Festival. If you can tolerate the constant bombardment of fake English accents, it’s a nice place to get something good to eat, listen to some good music and shoot some pictures.
However, I have a bone to pick with the notion of calling it a “Renaissance” festival. In Europe, three technologies first flourished in the time that’s now come to be known as the Renaissance. They defined the era and gave it the historical significance we commemorate today. And I’ve never seen any of the three in actual operation anywhere at RenFest.
First, effective use of gunpowder changed the balance of military power. Before the Renaissance, wars were fought by swordsmen and archers who had to practice their skills in order to effectively kill their enemies. On the other hand, even an uneducated, untrained peasant could slay an opponent with a gun. Improved killing ability enabled European monarchs to not only fight each other more effectively but also to conquer new territory on other continents (and of course build vast stores of wealth from the looted territories).
In the art world, oil paint completely revolutionized the way artists did their jobs. The new medium was considerably more flexible and forgiving than older styles of two-dimensional art, especially cumbersome, wall-bound fresco painting. Many of the great works of geniuses such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci would not have been possible if not for this new way of applying color to surfaces.
And of greatest importance to the world of mass communication, the printing press completely knocked the foundations out from under the old system. The new, open flow of ideas from place to place allowed people to share thoughts that challenged long-held beliefs. This “rebirth” of respect for learning set Europe on the path toward new structures that valued humanity and encouraged the search for rational solutions to society’s problems.
For readers, book technology is about as easy as it gets. You open the book. You read it. You turn the pages to continue reading. And when you’re done, you close it. From the publisher’s point of view, however, book creation is a more complicated task.
To start, the publisher has to choose between three formats for the new book: hardcover, trade paperback and mass market paperback. If a book is expected to do well in the marketplace, it will typically begin life as a hardcover (or hardback). The pages in a hardcover are bound between rigid protective covers typically made of cloth-covered cardboard. Then to protect the cover, the publisher usually adds a slick paper dust jacket. And if the book is going to be used by a lot of readers – say in a library – a librarian may also add protective plastic around the dust jacket. Hardcovers are also often printed on acid-free paper, which doesn’t decompose as quickly as cheaper papers. The result is built to last but costs more than paperback editions.
Trade paperbacks are a bookstore clerk’s nightmare. They come in a variety of sizes, so they can be hard to place on tables or racks together. On the other hand, they’re a great way to appeal to consumers. They’re as big as hardbacks (if not bigger), they feature the same colorful design work of hardcover dust jackets, but they don’t cost as much to print.
If a book does well in the marketplace as a hardcover, the publisher may re-release it as a mass market paperback. These books are smaller than their trade paper relatives, pocket sized assuming you have large pockets. Though thickness may vary, these books are all the same width and height. That makes them easy to swap in and out of uniform-sized racks in places such as grocery stores and airports.
Thus mass market paper printings are usually books designed to appeal to big audiences (bestsellers that have already proven popular with readers in hardback) or specific target groups (such as mystery or romance fans) who buy a lot of books from places other than bookstores.
We use typography more than any other art form, and yet we pay less attention to it than to just about anything else. That’s a sign that typographers are doing a good job. Great type design keeps the reader’s focus on the message being communicated rather than drawing attention to itself.
For printing body copy – long passages of text that will be read carefully – designers usually use a serif typeface. Serifs are the small marks at the ends of the lines that make up individual letters. Though you likely don’t notice these marks when you’re reading, they help your eye move from letter to letter and word to word. Thus they cut down on visual fatigue and help you pay attention to what you’re reading.
If you want to examine a serif font, look closely at what you’re reading right now. This text is probably in either Georgia or some variation on Times, depending on what operating system and browser you happen to be using.
Fonts without serifs – or sans serif fonts – are usually used for headlines, subheads and other short bits of text that need to grab attention but won’t require the reader to follow sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph and page after page. The absence of serifs makes these fonts look more “blocky,” but that increases their visual appeal for larger letter size and smaller word count.
If a standard sans serif font isn’t quite eye-catching enough, designers sometimes use display (or ornamental) fonts. These are elaborate choices for specific tasks. For example, an artist designing a poster for a horror movie may want to print the title in a display font that looks like it’s dripping blood.
Designers may also use specialized fonts for specific kinds of work. Wedding invitation designers tend to love script (or cursive) fonts. Scientific and technical journal layout often requires the use of special symbols not found in standard typefaces. And once in awhile a designer likes to throw in a dingbat, a font made up of small pictures rather than letters and numbers.
The Writing Process
Most media jobs are fairly straightforward. If you’re a movie editor or a radio deejay, you’ll always have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to do when you’re at work today. Writing, on the other hand, is much more a matter of individual habit. Especially if authors are working on novels – a time-and-effort-consuming process – the way they get it done will vary widely from writer to writer.
Those talented and lucky enough to do nothing but write for a living develop work habits that suit their personalities. Some start writing in the morning and finish up around dinnertime, just like writing was an ordinary day job. Others work less regular schedules, doing their best work in the evening or even late at night.
Before you hit it big, you’ll probably have to work your writing around another job. This makes a regular writing schedule even more important. Unless you set some time aside specifically for writing (“Leave me alone from noon to six on Sundays so I can work on my book”) you’ll find other activities taking the place of the book you’d like to write.
Though writing styles vary from author to author, all successful writers have three things in common. First, they read. Reading helps you get a “feel” – both consciously and subconsciously – for how writers use words. A story written by somebody who doesn’t read much will stand out and not in a good way, because the language won’t flow the way it should. Styles vary depending on what kind of book you’re writing; mystery writers organize thoughts and structure sentences differently from romance or western writers, and so on. So you should make a habit of reading the kind of thing you want to write.
Second, you must write. That might seem like a “well, duh” thing to say. But as a teacher I shudder when I think about how many students I’ve seen who say they want to be writers and yet don’t. You may have the brains and the talent, but unless you make the time and put in the effort, you’re going to be stuck in your day job for the rest of your life.
Third, professional writers take it seriously. Writing is one of the most enjoyable things in the world to do, and it’s even more fun when you actually get paid for doing it. But just because it’s a pleasant job doesn’t mean it isn’t a job. If you’re going to make a living at it, you’ll have to treat it at least a little like flipping burgers or processing paperwork. Sure, that takes some of the fun out of it. But in exchange you get the chance to write for a living rather than flipping burgers or processing paperwork.
If you have writing talent, that pegs you as a creative type. Unfortunately, unless you’re one of those amazing people who are good at everything, you may not be so hot at other things such as negotiating business deals or examining contracts. To handle the business end, you might want to get an agent.
Agents set up working relationships between authors and publishers. Big publishers generally won’t accept manuscripts directly from writers, so to “break into the big time” you’ll have to have an agent with the right connections.
Getting started with a good agent can be a tricky business. Writers typically “query” agents, supplying some writing samples and requesting representation. Different agents want different materials in queries, so check ahead to find out what’s expected.
Also, beware of con artists pretending to be agents. Real agents work on commission. They get paid a percentage of whatever the publisher pays you. So if a potential agent wants money up front for “reading fees” or other expenses, beware.
Editing and Editors
Editors are the great, unsung heroes of the publishing industry. Though writers are understandably wary of people who make changes in their work, a good editor is a priceless asset to publisher and writer alike.
Once a publisher accepts a manuscript for publication, an editor goes to work on it. Some books don’t require a lot of editing. Others require heavier revision. Even the classics you may have read in school were corrected – sometimes heavily – by editors.
A good editor works tirelessly to help authors express themselves. No mortal writer, no matter how talented, ever produced an entire novel with no spelling or grammar errors, with every sentence construction absolutely perfect and with every thought clearly expressed. An editor who catches all the goofs is the writer’s best friend. Problems should only arise if the editor does too much (changing the author’s fundamental meaning) or not enough (missing the author’s mistakes).
Does anybody still read?
“Nobody reads books anymore.” How many times have you heard that one? One word response: wrong.
Book publishing is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business. In 2010 industry profits actually went up despite the failing of mega-retailer Borders Books. And in 2011 publishers finally got their wish when sales of e-books surpassed printed copy sales for the first time. So apparently a lot of people still read books, and they’re still willing to spend money on their habit.
Though the overall outlook is good, the sunshine doesn’t extend to every corner of the industry. Many “brick and mortar” bookstores have fallen on hard times, struggling to compete with Amazon and other online retailers. Small, independently-owned stores have been hit especially hard.
Further, some critics question current publishing trends. Many of the books on the best-seller lists – especially the nonfiction side – are written by celebrities and political pundits rather than professional writers. Though sales figures may be positive, they argue, the kinds of books people are buying say nothing nice about America’s intellectual climate.
Many media use genres to market their products. People tend to buy certain records or go to certain movies because they offer familiar, beloved kinds of content. The book industry is in some ways an exception to this rule. Even within publishing’s subcategories, writing styles and quality can vary widely.
However, genre fiction is the exception to the exception. Some kinds of books are marketed to readers who have specific expectations about what they’re going to get from a book. If you purchase a mystery, for example, you’ll generally expect that before the end a crime will be committed (most often a murder), an investigator will sift through clues and examine suspects, and somewhere along the way the author will reveal a clue that will allow the protagonist to bring the criminal to justice. Other genres – such as science fiction, romance and westerns – also have their own conventions, things readers expect to get for their money, time and effort.
This leads some critics to look down on genre fiction as a watered-down version of actual literature. They argue that such books are less about innovative, creative writing and more about satisfying readers’ expectations.
Yet some of the most respected writers in history – from Jane Austen to Edgar Allan Poe – are at least in some sense genre writers. Sometimes specific genre requirements are a challenge that prompts good writing rather than impedes it.
Odds are that if you’re reading this Survival Guide then you’ve already been exposed at one point or another to the world of college textbooks. So you already know that they’re expensive (and getting more so by the year) and quality can vary greatly from one to another. And of course when you try to sell them back at the end of the semester you typically get pennies on the dollar.
If you’ve suspected that the textbook industry is a bit of a racket, then you’re at least partially correct. Publishers charge whatever students will pay, so if students have no choice but to buy a specific book required for a class then it’s likely to cost more than if the book was optional or if there were competing texts rather than just one choice. Further, textbook creators are legendary for making minor changes in books in order to release a “new edition,” which reduces the resale value of the previous edition thus making it harder for students to sell them back.
In the publishers’ defense, however, textbook printing is a costly business. In order to make learning easier, many books include lots of colorful illustrations. Color increases printing costs, and of course the artists who produce the illustrations have to be paid.
It’s also generally wrong to blame the college’s bookstore for the problems. The store’s percentage of the purchase price is usually fairly low. And they don’t pay a lot during buyback because they can’t turn around and sell used books for much unless they’re going to be used again at the same school in the next semester, especially if they’ve been replaced by a new edition.
Authors receive payment for the sales of their books in the form of royalties, a percentage of the money people pay to buy them. For a big best seller this can be a significant chunk of cash, but for most books royalties are “take your family to Olive Garden rather than McDonald’s” money rather than “quit your day job” money.
On the other hand, Hollywood is constantly on the prowl for new stories to turn into movies. Even a moderately successful book can attract movie studio attention. And that’s when the cash really starts to flow. Ancillary rights – the right to put a book to a new use such as making it into a movie or a video game – frequently sell for big money. J.K. Rowling’s royalties from the Harry Potter season would have left her well-to-do, but by the time the Potter name was attached to everything from movies to jelly beans she was wealthier than the Queen of England.
So if your novel gets “optioned” by a studio and turned into a successful movie franchise (and your agent made sure your contract gave you a fair share of the ancillary rights money), you officially have my permission to call the boss at your day job and tell him what you really think.
Who Owns What
The book publishing business is one of the rare exceptions to the rule that five or six huge corporations dominate each of the mass media industries. To be sure, some familiar names (News Corp. and Time Warner as the most obvious examples) do control a good-sized chunk of the book world. But if you make a pie chart of the whole industry, the slice belonging to “independents” is actually more than 50% of the pie. That isn’t true in any other business we’re studying in this guide.
Though that doesn’t automatically make books a free-wheeling haven for independent thought, it does at least give smaller players a fighting chance.
In the Corporate World
If you see yourself in a job with a regular paycheck, health insurance and a pension plan, then writing books may not be the best option for you. Though some writing – particularly technical manuals for computers and the like – is done “in house,” most writers work on their own and get paid based on how many copies their books sell.
A writer who’s a well-established success – or a celebrity or other author whose next book is likely to sell a lot of copies – may be able to get an advance from a publisher. An advance is money to live on while you’re working on a book. It can help give you the time you need to finish your work, but the sum will come out of your royalties once your book starts selling.
If you love books but would feel more comfortable with something closer to a traditional “day job,” publishers have a constant need for editors. And of course they have the same need as any other business for clerks, accountants, lawyers and so on.
Beware of Scams!
Authors in the 21st century have many publishing options that weren’t available to previous generations. Distributing a book via an e-publishing system such as the Kindle is easy, at least from a technical standpoint (finding readers, on the other hand, can be trickier). Even the “dead tree” world is much easier now thanks to print-on-demand services.
Sadly, the book market is still rife with con artists waiting to prey on writers desperate to be published. Demands for payment up front from the author are generally the easiest warning signs that you aren’t dealing with a legitimate company. Actual publishers usually employ their own editors and thus won’t refer you to an outside “book doctor,” especially not an expensive one.
Many writing contests are also thinly disguised rip-offs. Again, be wary of any competition that has no reputation in the industry or charges more than a nominal entry fee.
To be sure, some legitimate small presses offer deals that don’t lead to huge paydays for writers. And many “vanity presses” lurk in the middle ground between actual publishers and total scams. If you’re going to deal with a company that expects you to pay your own printing costs (and you’re willing to do so), at least do some checking to make sure it’s a real business and not a fly-by-night operation.
Writers’ associations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America provide valuable online listings of known scams. That won’t protect you from a new con artist (or an old con artist with a new name), but at least you can spare yourself from being taken by someone with an established record of stealing from writers.
The 20th century’s one clear contribution to the world of literature is “creative nonfiction.” These books are combinations of the older arts of the novel and pure nonfiction. The idea is to create a work that is completely factually accurate – nothing “made up” – but written to be exciting and “readable” like a novel.
The technique was pioneered by writers such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. They wrote about subjects as diverse as the space program and the execution of Gary Gilmore, but rather than stick to the “just the facts” approach of traditional nonfiction they structured their stories so the characters and situations seemed more “three dimensional.”
The effort to make dry facts more interesting and easy to read seems like a good idea on the surface. But creative nonfiction can cause some ethical problems. Some authors have gotten a little too creative, to the point where the “non” disappears from the “nonfiction.” For well-known and well-documented subjects, the risk of over-fictionalization is slight (or at least easy to detect). But many creative nonfiction writers focus on their own personal experiences. In such cases lies are harder to spot. Several large scandals have erupted when the truth has come out only after a book has already climbed the best-seller lists.
The style also raises questions about what is and isn’t worth writing a book about. Critics charge that some creative nonfiction writers produce works that are little more than glorified diaries about people who aren’t all that interesting (though perhaps readers should be left to make their own judgments about subjects’ worthiness).
The evil of censorship has no more gut-wrenching visual form than old, black and white movies of Nazis throwing books into bonfires. In the United States we are by nature and by law fundamentally opposed to destroying books, even books we think are bad. Thus outright government bans on books are rare in this country.
Unfortunately, censorship does sometimes crop up in more limited contexts, particularly in libraries. If some members of the community learn that the local library is considering acquiring a book they don’t like for some reason, they can issue a challenge. If the challenge succeeds, the library is barred from buying the book. If the book is already part of the collection, the library must get rid of it or at least remove it from the open stacks so it can only be read by adults who specifically request it.
Books used in schools are also subject to challenge. And of course in a school the people challenging the book are also likely to be parents of students who might be assigned to read it.
The reasons stated for challenges vary, but the most common excuses are sexually explicit material, offensive language and content unsuitable for children. Parents initiate far more challenges than any other group, and schools and school libraries are the most frequent targets.
In response, some schools offer compromises that allow parents to keep their kids from reading particular books without denying access to the rest of the students. Such compromises are often the best solutions, given that the list of challenged works includes many classic works of literature.