Saturday, March 18, 2017

Literary community: Paying for what we value

Today’s post is the third in a three-part series. You can see the first part, on how reading factors into literary community, here, and the second part, on how regular local literary happenings cement community, here.

The currency of community is friendship, common aspirations, goodwill.

But the currency of community is also currency—money, that is—and members of a community should strive to keep it flowing to support the things they claim to care about.

When a friend scores a book deal, congratulations flow, both in person and on social media. We tend to be happy for our fellow writers when they get a book contract, even if we’re also a little envious, because success for one suggests the possibility of success for others. At an even more basic level, a book contract means that there’s going to be a new book in the world, and that’s a beautiful thing.

So the currency of goodwill flows, even if some of it looks counterfeit. But the currency of money doesn’t move quite as freely, and it really needs to if the community is to thrive.

After the announcement of the book contract comes the post with a link for pre-sales. Literary titles rely heavily on advance sales, which help to determine the number of the initial press run. If all of those congratulatory friends put their money where their mouth is, a release gets a promising boost at the start, and the publisher can have a bit more confidence in the project it is investing in. But if congratulations end at the word, “Congratulations!,” and pre-sales don’t follow, a publisher may be more cautious with an initial order, and perhaps more cautious about promotion.

As a writer with three chapbooks and a full-length collection, I’ve received many kind words, and they really do warm me. But nothing feels quite as good as seeing my book in a friend’s hand, or hearing that a copy has arrived at someone’s doorstep. I was out of town recently and I met a friend for dinner, and at one point he pulled out my book for a signature. The friend is a voracious reader, but he doesn’t ordinarily gravitate toward poetry, but the book looked as though it had been read—the pages were fluffed out, the corners were curled. Nothing makes a writer feel more loved and appreciated than seeing a clear sign that someone has given time to her.

Friends should buy their friends’ books. Friends should read their friends’ books. And friends should spread the word about their friends’ books. That’s all pretty basic, and the reasons are obvious. When those friends are writers, too, the favor is likely to be returned at some point, but my own friend is not a guy with book aspirations; he’s just someone who cares about me, and this is how he enacted that care.

My friend is part of a community—one that includes him and me, our spouses, our mutual friends from our college days. And the people who celebrate each other’s accomplishments in person and on social media are also part of a community; they interact and communicate; they cheer and debate and share their indignation.

But beyond these specific communities is a larger community that is composed of readers and writers of new work. The members of this larger community may never meet or speak, although there is an instant kinship when we do encounter one another. This community is larger than our personal ones, but probably smaller than the community of, say, Star Wars aficionados or gun enthusiasts.

For the literary community to flourish, we need to fund it. It’s not crass to have this discussion; rather, at a time when the National Endowment for the Arts is targeted for elimination in the proposed federal budget, it could not be more urgent to talk about how we support a literary culture that is threatened by loss of public support.

Presses need our dollars if they are to produce the books we love to read. Likewise, literary journals, the proving ground of new writers, have to cover their expenses, and so do festivals, reading series, and the other literary institutions we love.

Today, like most days, I’m supporting the literary community by contributing to an ongoing conversation about what it means to live and work as a writer and a reader. I’m also starting to think about ways I can put my money where my heart is and support the presses and journals that carry the community on their backs.

And maybe after I’ve launched this post, I’ll head out to my local bookstore for a bit, or I’ll preorder a book by a friend, or I’ll just sit down outside on a beautiful day and I’ll read. 

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