Colin Robinson, co-founder of the New York independent publisher OR Books, has published a call in The Guardian that fits right into the dog days of summer. Entitled “Writers should take a year off, and give us all a break,” his plea asks for:
“a writers’ moratorium. What if everyone could be persuaded to stop scribbling for a period of, say, 12 months?”
Now, OR Books claims to be “a new type of publishing company,” which “embraces progressive change in politics, culture and the way we do business,” but progressive enough to do without its product for a year? And if “our editorial standards are fastidious,” are they fastidious enough to disdain 12 months of new writing? What’s up with Robinson?
Well, the most positive aspect of his manifesto is a veneration for the act, not of writing, but of reading. Cynically, a publisher might be able to survive without writers, but they absolutely cannot last without readers. But more properly, Robinson praises the virtues of readers. “Readers set out wanting to experience, or learn, something new,” he says. “They share the attributes of intellectual curiosity, of modesty, of a capaciousness that seeks fulfillment through the ideas of others.”
Contrast writers, who, in Robinson’s view, “by and large, have made up their minds and seek to deliver the resulting verdict to what they imagine is a waiting world.” Their self-esteem, “irrigated by the supportive words of family and friends, as well as publishing professionals too busy, or lazy, to offer a critique,” is then “spurred further by online retailers prepared to sell anything with an ISBN.”
Perhaps Robinson has just been hanging out with the wrong sort of people. One too many pretentious and self-regarding scribbler can be enough to tax anybody’s patience. But if he is privileged enough to hobnob with folk who only need to write to stroke their egos, then he must be moving in very different circles to me and to most writers I know, who keep churning out the words to try to pay the rent. An ego, along with a publicist, is one luxury many writers just can’t afford to have.
By all means, urge writers to read well in order to writer better, but isn’t that supposed to be part of the editor or agent’s job? And yet Robinson seems to have had enough of it. “On darker days, it seems that my job as an editor comprises little more than hacking away at the Gormenghast-like tangle of poorly crafted words in order to admit sunlight for the few well-composed ones that are left,” he laments.
And this cuts close to what’s perhaps the gist of his critique: “The constant cutting of book prices or, worse, the giving away of millions of books through initiatives such as World Book Night are undermining the idea of reading as something for which one should be expected to pay.”
Perhaps. But is anyone expected to pay for reading a library book? For downloading a free classic from Project Gutenberg? For perusing a book lent by an enthusiastic friend? Reading and payment have never actually been that close together, but a hard-working publisher feeling a little underappreciated might tend to forget that.
Well, I’ve a counter-suggestion. Why don’t publishers take a year off?
They could stop polluting our biosphere and pulping forests for a bit and let the carbon balance recover. They could spare themselves the stress of dealing with authors’ egos for a bit, while practicing virtuous austerity through learning how to live without their chunk of those authors’ revenues. They could raise standards by not having to over-promote mediocrities to sustain their product cycle. And they might recover a sense of humility and proportion of their own, instead of castigating hard-working and often poorly-rewarded individuals whose labors pay their rent and bankroll their promotional parties.
After all, thanks to self-publishing, we know that whatever we may think of writers, we can certainly manage for a year without publishers.