John Adams (from 1776, Columbia Pictures)
John Adams (from 1776, Columbia Pictures)

Since it’s fairly close to July fourth… and since I happen to be a fan of the movie “1776”… I feel it’s an appropriate time to borrow a question that was posed by John Adams in the dramatic finale of that movie, and which hangs somewhere in the mind of anyone who writes a novel, short story or article.

The question came up when I came across a blog post by Roz Morris, a response in letter form to a fellow writer who’d had a crisis of confidence in starting a book.  In that post’s responses, I commented on something that I felt Roz had missed pointing out: That a writer should consider whether their desire to write is impacted by the possibility that no one will read their work (or, if put on sale, that no one will want to buy it); is it worth the effort if no one touches your work?

This resulted in a second posting by Roz, addressing exactly that question.

I was gratified to see a number of responses to the question at the end of Roz’ post.  I continue to be slightly dismayed, however, by those who believe that there is something inherently wrong with writers who write primarily for monetary gain. Interestingly, my initial question of whether or not an author’s work was read in any form always ends up centering on the question of whether consumers should pay to read my books.  The mere mention of payment for books seems to ignite instant controversy that burns past other issues and instantly polarizes writers and readers.

Although it is the desire of every writer, however unspoken, to have someone (and preferably a lot of someones) actually read and approve of their work, the idea of asking for financial compensation for same is often considered to be somehow contrary to the point of writing (and the desire for reading).  This is often held up as an example of the difference between an artist and a craftsman—an artist creates because they must, a craftsman creates for money—and every writer would rather be considered, by themselves and by their readers, to be an artist as opposed to a craftsman.

Many writers like to say that they write because they “feel an urge” to do so, independent of any other need or compensation for the effort—they have a story that must come out.  They also like to suggest (if they won’t say it directly) that they are producing for posterity, creating art for the world to enjoy.  These are the words of artists, seeking a “higher plane” in which to enshrine their creations.

I wouldn’t say that there’s anything wrong with feeling that way; however, I am not so vain as to think the world needs my writing, no matter how important I, myself, might think it is.  There are plenty of writers and plenty of stories… if they can’t enjoy mine, they can go read Dumas or Dickens, and it will matter little to posterity.  In other words, I do not consider myself an artist; I am a craftsman, a skilled writer, one of many.

I am, however, vain enough to believe that, as a craftsman, I am a valid member of a society that is founded upon certain implicit and explicit agreements; and among those is the idea that I have a right to ask any compensation for my services that I’d like, and other members of society have the right to either pay my price for my services, or not pay my price and forego my services.  This is the goal of any craftsman, a person who understands the worth of the skills they possess.

Are the needs of artists and craftsmen mutually exclusive?  Let’s put it this way: Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling for nothing… nor is it worth any less because he accepted payment for it.  It is possible to be an artist and still be paid; it is possible to be a highly skilled craftsman; and it is reasonable for art to have a price tag placed upon it.

There is no question that the state of publishing is in a severe state of flux, thanks to the digital market.  The present reality of ebooks allows individuals who never had a realistic access to the commercial publishing system to create and sell or give away their writing, while the old commercial system struggles to maintain its relevance and dominance in the market.  Prices are literally all over the place, and at this point it’s anybody’s guess where things will stabilize in the near or far future.

But there are still a few writers out there who honestly believe that their craftsmanship is worth financial compensation, and that other card-carrying members of society should not have a problem with the idea of paying to enjoy that craftsmanship.  They believe that many people who consider themselves “artists” are merely those with not enough confidence to ask for due compensation for their efforts; so they give away what they should sell, and hope to somehow be compensated for it later.  They understand that free doesn’t necessarily confer value.  And they appreciate compensation as being (quite literally) worth more than accolades.

Now, all that said… let’s return to the original point, which was: Does it matter if no one reads your book?  Is a writer satisfied that they have created a masterpiece, that all the effort was worth it, if no one ever reads it?  And in today’s ebook-glutted world, it’s entirely possible that no one will ever read your book.

Is that okay by you?

Many authors would answer “yes” to that question: The work is worthwhile, even if no one touches it.  Honestly?  I don’t believe it.  No matter how much they might protest, every author wants someone to read their work (and appreciate it).  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother to save it; they’d just sigh, think to themselves “I did it, I’m done,” and hit the delete key.  The very fact that they don’t immediately trash their work is an implicit indication that they do want someone else to see it.  And I suspect that, if they did create such a personal masterpiece, and could get absolutely no one to look at it beyond the title, that it would drive them slightly mad.

I suspect those who do not go mad, avoid it by telling themselves their book will be discovered after they’ve died, and they will clearly hear the accolades from their purchase in Heaven (probably seated somewhere between Shakespeare and Hemingway and sharing the same bottle of port).  Metaphysics aside, they are sure posterity will benefit from their munificence, even if they don’t specifically live to see it.

Other writers are more practical than that.  And, like a craftsman who builds chairs, and suddenly looks around his shop to see a roomful of unsold chairs… some writers understand when it’s time to stop writing what no one is reading. No one needs a world full of unread books; in such a world, why spend time writing books no one will read?

In “1776,” John Adams despairs that no one cares about his efforts and sacrifices to create a new, independent nation, for them as well as himself.  In the end, he has the commitment to keep going, making effort and sacrifices, sure that he would ultimately prevail and achieve his desired goal.  One must wonder what he might have done if he continued to receive assurances that his goal of independence would never be ratified by Congress, and that the rest of the nation didn’t care about the outcome… if he’d been ostracized by his fellow politicians and condemned by the people, until he was completely alone in his efforts to free his nation.  Would he have continued his efforts, if he was convinced that no one cared?

Of course, the desire to write a single book and have someone read it hardly compares to creating a new nation; and committing to writing a book that perhaps no one will read isn’t likely to result in your being hanged.  All the same, a writer should realistically consider whether effort not appreciated equates to effort wasted… and given all the potential outlets of entertainment and information already available to the world, they should consider this question, not in terms of its impact on posterity, but of its impact on themselves.