Why Writers Shouldn’t Tell Readers How to Buy

001I took this picture in a roadside stand in Hatch, New Mexico on our way from Santa Fe to Tucson. My mom needed a new ristra – the name for these bundles of dried chile peppers – and I texted this to see if she liked this variation with the dried corn husk pieces. It ended up being such a cool image, I thought I’d use it here. One of the things I love about living in New Mexico is the variations on what have been traditional Christmas themes for me. I’ll try to keep posting local color holiday photos throughout the month.

Every once in a while, an author will succumb to the temptation to write a post about how readers can help their careers.

If you’ve been around the internet communities of readers and writers, you’ve seen them before. Or heard about them. The latter occurs because word tends to travel among people annoyed by such things. Which a lot of people are.

Now, let me go on record here as saying I’m a big believer in asking for help.

Every one of us needs help at some time or another and it’s usually a big mistake not to ask for it. Pride can get in the way, with people not wanting others to know their weaknesses and need for help. Many of us were also raised with the idea that asking for something from other people is akin to begging and not working for what you want.

Amanda Palmer addresses this idea beautifully in her Ted talk on The Art of Asking. If you haven’t listened to it, I highly recommend you do.

There’s a fine balance in the commerce among human beings between giving and receiving vs. selling and buying. The transactions are the same in essence, yes? In both cases, we exchange something, usually of value. The sticking point is whether we exchange something back again, to compensate the other. Arguably, there is always a “price” on a gift – whether it’s the expectation of gratitude, or later recompense or a trade of some other kind.

Only an anonymous gift is truly free of all strings.

But that’s a side argument because we’re talking about selling and buying. Between writers and readers, there is an expectation that readers will buy our books. (Yes, I’m leaving out fan fiction, free stories, etc. – for a person who earns their living as a writer, selling books is how it happens.) In that sense, we’ve already made the request. I might be standing on the street corner, with my cup full of matches and a stranger gives me a penny for one. Presumably that person wanted the match enough to pay a penny for it, but I asked first. I stood out there and made the proposition.

Just as I do with my stories.

Even with this website, I’m *already* asking. I’m saying, look at my books! Would you like to buy one?
And, miraculously, people do!
Though I’m far from being a freezing, starving little match girl, each time someone buys one of my books feels like a small miracle. It’s a profound experience for me, that people will pay to read my books. I’ve learned that even people who receive my books free in exchange for a review, then go buy it also – which means they give me twice as much as I asked for.
It’s not easy to explain, why the income from my stories feels so much more valuable to me than the monthly salary I receive from my day job. Certainly my day job income is still far greater, so logically I should value it more.
But I don’t.
Because the money people give me to read my stories feels more direct. Like we’ve exchanged a bit of our spirits, too.
Which is what I think Amanda Palmer is getting at – the back and forth.
My husband David, who left 25 years at a state job to become a Doctor of Oriental Medicine has noticed the same thing. The money he receives from patients – still nowhere near what he made at his previous job – feels far more precious to him.
It’s almost sacred.
This is why, I think, that it feels jarring for authors to write up instructions for how this special interaction should occur. Usually the writer in question is angling to get on the bestseller list, so he or she wants the readers to buy the books at specific times or from particular vendors.
To me, this is saying, “This sacred thing happening between us isn’t enough for me – I want you to do more.” It exceeds asking and moves into the realm of demanding.
Maybe that’s not fair.
But that’s why it’s off-putting to me. Often the writer will mention something like “friends and family ask how they can help me, so I’m posting this here.” What they’re saying is, “some people have offered to give me more, so I’m trying to recruit the same from everyone else by asking publicly.”
If your friends and family offer more help, absolutely take them up on it. That’s why they’re your friends and family. We already have multiple levels of giving and receiving with them. That’s why they offer. Have those conversations, within the realm of those personal relationships. I’ll go to lengths for my friends and family. That’s what people do.
Taking that out to the greater world, however? It smacks of greed.
Greed is what cheapens the sacred and makes it tawdry. That’s why it leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
Ask and ye shall receive.
Resist the urge to demand more than that.

4 Replies to “Why Writers Shouldn’t Tell Readers How to Buy”

  1. May I show this blogpost to a particular someone? Sorry, that was kind of snotty, but reading that particular post about what I can do to help out their career really made me mad.

    When I read stuff like that, it comes across as if you’re putting more conditions on fandom.

    So, it’s not quite enough that I buy your book, review it (possibly – b/c not everyone does) and use word of mouth to help sell your novels, now I’m told that I should do it at a certain time and purchase a certain format if I *really* want to help you out.

    I already do what little I can. Making sure people know I like their books, talk them up when I get a chance on a blog etc.. and it’s not enough. I have asked authors in the past what I can do to help, but most of their responses have been in the form of “buy whatever format is convenient for you, talk to your friends, write a review if you feel like it.. etc.”

    *shrug* I’m not 100% sure if I’m referring to the post that sparred this on, but reading it made me feel bad. And not inclined to help that particular person.

    1. First of all – thanks for wanting to share this! I’m pleased that it made sense, because I kind of struggled with how to phrase my feelings on this topic. You probably are thinking of the right post, but that person wasn’t the first to write something like that and, sadly, likely won’t be the last. Of course it’s totally up to you if you want to share this – just as it’s up to you whether to review or talk up a book/author – but I’m not sure if it would be helpful to them. The message went out, annoyed a lot of people and the damage is done. Hopefully writers will start to figure this out!

  2. For me, I’m just always so thrilled whenever someone reads one of my books and I always hope they enjoyed the story…I totally agree with your analogy about the money I receive from people who read my stories – it is wayyyy more special to me than the day job paycheck. Funny that, but so true. I always like the way you address these types of issues…HUGS!

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