The Future?

The Future?DoeringerFreeBooks

This is actually a slightly used post, having spent a week as a guest article on Dereck Flynn's blog Songbook at writing.ie, which was pretty neat. (Thanks, guys!) Now I've found a home for it here. And here it is!

On a miserable wet morning in June, I was leaving the DART station on my way to work when somebody gave me a book. An honest-to-God novel, printed, bound and professional: Too Far by Rich Shapero. There were boxes of these books, and bored girls in luminous jackets were pressing them into the hands of strangers as they passed. Some took a copy. Some didn't. Most of us looked at this thing with the fear and mistrust you'd give any free gift – the unspoken question being, 'What do you want?'

I assumed it was something to do with the Jehovah's Witnesses.

When I got home I googled the author and found that the answer to this question was simpler than I'd thought. What does Rich Shapero want? Well, apparently he's an American venture capitalist with pots of money, and he wants you to read his book. This is how he's going about finding readers.

too far frontSo I gave it a read. It wasn't bad. The story concerns two six-year-old best friends named Robbie and Fristeen who live with their families in the Alaskan wilderness. Each chapter follows the same structure: the kids meet up, go exploring in the woods, have strange encounters with imaginary beings, and go home to disintegrating family situations. There are really lovely and vivid descriptions of nature that left me homesick for Canada and some nice moments between Robbie and his father. As I said, the chapters all follow the same structure and this gets repetitive, but I didn't mind. It felt almost like meditation.

But here's what kept me turning those pages until the end: I had no idea what to expect from any of this. Rich Shapero hasn't gone through a publishing house. He has no need to try to please an agent or an editor. He doesn't even need you to 'like' him on Facebook – the book's already in your hands.  So with no one to worry about pleasing or placating, the plot could have gone anywhere. He could have killed off his two young protagonists. Or burned down the forest. The top of Robbie's head could have flapped open on a hinge and Rich himself might have emerged from it and embarked on a sprightly song and dance number outlining his philosophy of life. (Spoiler: None of this happens, although there are a few icky, almost-sexual moments between the children.) The suspense of knowing that the writer is doing whatever he wants and is so sure of himself that he's effectively hauling people off the street and saying, 'Hey! Read this!' kept me hooked.

Is this the future? Obviously most of us don't have the cash to print our books and pay people to shove them at wary strangers, but what about taking money out of the equation entirely? You could argue that to some extent this has already happened. It seems established fact by now that most writers don't make a living from book sales. Even the big names have to supplement their income with teaching and grants and sometimes an understanding spouse. So why not abandon the whole pretence that this is how you earn your keep?

Look at what's happening with self-publishing on the internet. While it's true that self-published authors make more from individual book sales, the choice of books is bewildering, and many of them are trying to reach new readers by offering the books for free, either permanently or in limited offers of a week or less. I downloaded one myself a few weeks ago from a recent Twitter contact.  And I wasn't alone – later the author reported that in the week she'd let the book go for free, it had been downloaded a thousand times.Fairfields-small

A thousand copies a week! That's what I want for Christmas. And this plants the book firmly in best-seller territory, though technically nothing's been bought or sold. Well, if the whole point of writing is to communicate and get your story out there, then why not give it away?

Or you could use the writing to try to do some good and actually help people.

Fran O'Brien is a writer living in South Dublin. In 2005 she established a publishing company, McGuinness Books, with her husband Arthur. The object was to use the money from sales of her books to raise funds for the LauraLynn House, a children's hospice located at the Children's Sunshine Home in Leopardstown. Fran has written and published six novels over seven years, all of them weighing in at 300 pages or more. ('You must never see each other!' I said to Fran and her husband as I was buying a book off them last Christmas.  'Yeah,' Arthur told me, 'I mostly just feed her.')

The books are mainly romances and 'women's fiction' (which is a more polite way of saying 'chick lit'). They are attractive and professional looking, and they certainly wouldn't seem out of place in a shop next to books from established publishers. Other individuals and companies have chipped in to help Fran and Arthur: bookstores that take no margins, editors, typesetters, and proofreaders who donate their services, and the courier company, Cyclone, that delivers the books free of charge. Her latest, Fairfields, which tells the love story of Fran's grandparents in 1907 Cork, was published this fall and is available online (www.franobrien.net) and in shops, along with her five other novels. To date, Fran has raised 160,000 Euros for the LauraLynn House and her fifth book, Who Is Faye?, has been optioned for a film.

Is this the future? Well, you could argue that two of these examples are not exactly sustainable – you'd need pretty deep pockets to do what Shapero does and I assume he'll want to see a profit someday.  And running an enterprise like Fran O'Brien's requires a certain amount of co-operation and goodwill, which might disappear if there were suddenly a hundred other charity books on the market.  Then there's that free download. Are you really going to read it, or will it sit on your Kindle or computer idling away for years?

But money seems to be disappearing from the publishing industry, and it's worth considering the question: if you knew you'd be making exactly nada from your writing, would you still do it?

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