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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Authors now must be self-marketers. So ...

As publishers have slashed their marketing budgets and staff, it’s become standard for most book writers to be expected to do nearly all their own marketing. This tends to push your thinking away from wanting to do the best book you can, to wondering what will most likely sell. For writers like me who have left the corporate publishing world and are bringing out books independently, or with small presses, this pressure on our thinking is the same.

Should we resist this, or embrace it? If we embrace it and build a more market-savvy approach, does that mean we likely won’t produce our best work? Or just that we’ll be working more usefully in the real world?

I’m in the grip of this dilemma. As a writer of realistic young-adult novels, I’m working on a project that is the most challenging and meaningful work I can bring through myself right now — but market-wise, it’s a risky proposition. This looks and feels like one of those books that could really go somewhere, but will have huge odds against it.

I’m writing for a marketplace that’s strongly inclined to favor stories which run close to teenage readers’ present-day lives, to their familiar dramas. That's the kind of book I’ve written and published so far; but this new project is set in the mid-1980s, in the frontier city in northwest Pakistan where the first stirrings of what would become the al Qaeda terror movement were taking hold. My main characters are four teenagers: an American, a Pakistani brother and sister, and an Afghan refugee who’s a waiter in the American’s hotel.

You see the challenge, right? To find readers among American middle and high schoolers, this book will have to be really good. I’m not positive I can do something that good. But then ... what if I can? And if a work that’s pushing up inside me is both a huge challenge and a big risk in the marketplace, does that mean I shouldn’t write it? Or that I have to try?

You sometimes hear that you should produce the book that only you can write — and for me, this is that book. It’s a story I’ve been developing for over 30 years, since I was a young journalist venturing into that part of the world. This story will never come up in anyone else; but now that I’ve got to market and promote my own work, there’s that voice saying, Do something safe! You need to make some money! And I think that’s not a useless voice. It pushes me to write for real readers; it counters the absorption in our own ideas and dreams to which writers are prone. And isn’t it sensible to produce work for which I know there’s a demand?

I strongly suspect I’m not the only one wrestling with all this. Now that book writers are each our own marketing department, this weighing of priorities, between doing your best work and your most salable work, has to be happening inside a whole lot of people who, like me just now, are sitting before screens trying to come up with something people will want to read. And that people will be glad they did read, after they (and we) are done.

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