Supporting your “beyond 101” writers

This morning, I was asked to comment on this blog post by Raven Grimassi, concerning the pagan publishing industry.

The problem that Mr. Grimassi describes here, that the pagan book publishing market is flooded with silly, superficial, “101 level” books, has been a problem for over twenty years.

In all that time, the solution that people suggest is almost always the same: “we need more intelligent, serious, and deeper books to be published”. Yet in twenty years, it appears that little has changed: hence Grimassi’s complaint.

Grimassi’s explanation, or part of it anyway, is that some reviewers do not write meaningful reviews. They skim a book quickly and comment without a full understanding of what they have read. Prospective readers thus get turned off. But in my view, this factor is quite minor, compared to the next three:

Too many publishers are not willing to publish the serious, intellectually rigorous books, because they believe they will not sell. Remember, a publishing company is a business. It is a business with an important place in culture and the intellectual and artistic character of a community, but it is a business nonetheless.

Too many authors are not willing to write those more serious books because they believe they will not sell, or because they are simply not competent to write such books and, perhaps, do not know that they are not competent. I do not wish to name names nor point fingers here. This isn’t meant to attack anyone. But I’m sure you can think of a few examples. Think of the lead characters from “Dumb and Dumber”.

– And finally, too many readers are not willing to buy them because they find them intimidating, difficult, controversial, insufficiently gratifying, or too expensive.

I think the real solution, then, is somewhere between these factors. Publishers have to be willing to include a few serious and challenging books in their catalogue. But some publishers, such as my own, certainly are so willing. Thus, as far as I am concerned, this problem is now solved.

Writers have to be willing to write better books too – and willing to learn how to write them. But the advanced books do exist, and there are lots of good writers continuing to write them. So I think this problem is also essentially solved.

What remains are the problems related to publicity, marketing, and sales. Perhaps that is where Grimassi’s gripe about incompetent reviewers can come in. But it should also be pointed out that in the non-fiction publishing industry, writers are expected to do almost all of their own marketing. Well for my part, I think I know a thing or two about writing a book, but I certainly know almost nothing about promoting one. Most other writers I know are the same. It is extremely hard, time consuming, expensive, and stressful to promote a book, especially when I would rather be writing the next one. Hence why I run contests, submit review copies everywhere, try to get interviews on prominent podcasts and websites, attend events and do presentations, and the like. I do the best I can, but there is only so much I can do on my own.

Finally, given that we live in a capitalist market, the solution to the problem of the glut of superficial pagan books rests also in the hands of readers with money to spend on books. The market is saturated with superficial pagan books because people are buying them. Readers have to be willing to spend their money on books that will challenge them. If readers are not willing to change their purchasing habits, the problem will persist.

How to recognise a more advanced book:

– It poses serious problems, and asks tougher questions. It is concerned with what is true, what is real, what is right, or what is beautiful. It does not dismiss the seriousness of these themes under a morass of inoffensive relativism. It takes a stand on an issue that matters, and is unafraid of criticism or controversy. As Aristotle wrote, ‘the great soul cares more about the truth than about what people think.’

– It rejects as false the popular dichotomy between theory and practice.

– It is not primarily interested in ritual or spellcraft. There are already thousands of books that speak of nothing but spellcraft and ritual; there are also thousands of blogs and websites. I doubt that we need any more.

– Rather, it is primarily about a problem that matters – and not just to pagans, but to everyone in the author’s whole society, or to every human being on earth. Furthermore it identifies a problem that is a real source of suffering or pain in people’s lives.

– It does not settle for superficial or easy solutions to those problems. It builds arguments, considers counter-arguments, investigates alternatives, and provides answers together with reasons for why the answers are good answers. Further, it provides answers which can stand the test of a reviewer’s critical attention, and which lead to further good questions.

– It appeals to the reader’s intelligence, and does not try to manipulate or subvert the reader’s intelligence. It does not treat the reader like an ignorant child.

– The author makes no promses he or she cannot fulfill; nor does she claim to possess any knowledge or talent or prestige that she does not in fact possess.

– It opens the way for readers to pursue for themselves the evidence in favour of the author’s argument: the reader does not have to take the writer’s word for it. The author’s own experience of something, while relevant and important, is not the only thing that matters. The book asserts nothing on the basis of faith alone.

– Its theme is focused, specific, and timely; it does not try to do too much at once. It is generally better to do one or two things well, than to do seven or eight things poorly.

– Its author cares about ideas and cares about knowledge, cares about the community he or she is addressing, and cares about humanity and about life on earth. He or she cares more about these things than she does about her personal reputation.

– Its authors sees writing as a spiritual calling first; a source of monetary profit second. The publishing gurus who recommend that writers not start a book until they have a contract are simply wrong here. Writers who think of their books as products are living with divided minds. Writers who think of their books as living things that they are compelled by the spirit to create are writers who can captivate and change the world.

How to support an author who writes better books.

– Buy the books.

– Talk about them, review them, criticise them (constructively), practice or experiment with the ideas or practices that the books describe.

– Recommend them to your friends. Spread the word about the books that you think really are of good quality; ignore the rest.

– Start a book club, and read them with your friends.

– Share this blog post. 🙂

Happy Lughnasad to you all!

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