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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.

Writing, music, and community

In this part of Vermont’s Champlain Valley, I’m lucky enough to play music in a couple of local bands — and recently, a bandmate got an email from a friend. The friend’s wife and their family had just gone through a serious health scare, and listening to our music had helped them get through it. Hearing this touched us all, and it got me thinking about music, books, and community.

Writing is lonely. It’s solitary, and you can work for years on a book that never sees print. That’s just how it is, and I’ve done this work as a fulltime freelancer and writer of books, published and not, for over 30 years. Making music in groups is newer for me, I’ve done it for about half that time — and when you do that in front of people, you often see they’re having fun and they’re happy. People like your stuff. They come to see you, and maybe your music even matters in their lives. In local music, I’ve found, the community that develops doesn’t have to be huge to be matter and be satisfying. Why can’t book-writing have a similar aim?

Traditional book publishing has been taken over by huge corporations. Foreign-owned multinationals control all of the “Big Five,” the corporate houses that have absorbed nearly all the long-standing publishers. Unless they see you as a bestseller, it’s extremely hard to get these houses to pick up your manuscript — but at the same time, there’s been a profusion of small, independent publishers, of hybrid publishers where the author helps pay the cost of bringing out a book, and of self-publishing efforts. For those of us who’ve taken “indie” paths, it’s not terribly realistic to hope for a big bestseller — but in this connected time, when people of similar tastes and interests can find each other, we can hope to build a community. It can even be worldwide.

And why not? You won’t get rich this way, but very very few writers ever have. Can I find or help build a community of people who like a book I’ve done, and can we be supportive of each other? That, I think, would be a solid form of success. I've even seen it happen: there's a nationwide, even international, community of people, mostly in middle schools, who have worked with and cared about The Revealers. That book didn't make me rich, but it helped me earn a living and keep on writing, and it made me a whole lot of friends. So I’ve seen how much that can mean — and honestly and truly, it makes all the solitary work worthwhile.

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