Monday, April 26, 2021

Attempting to Divorce a Book's Worth from Capitalism

A Post by Mary Fan
Happy Fool's Spring, everyone! Well, it's Fool's Spring up here in New Jersey, at least. Who knows, you might get Actual Spring where you are, instead of having to dig out your winter sweater again because it suddenly dropped to 37 degrees...

Anyway, as y'all may know, capitalism is increasingly seen as the villain behind many societal ills, and with good reason. It reduces people and the things they do to dollar signs and bottom lines. It's no different when it comes to books. They are, after all, just "widgets" in economy-speak. Items to be sold for a profit; their value determined by how much green they put in the bank.

After all, how do you decide which books should be considered worthy? What makes one author more prestigious than another? The answer: capitalism. This author was published by a huge corporation and sold millions of books after an enormous marketing push! They're a great author! Let's invite them to speak at conferences, to participate in special events, to be upheld as a prime example to emulate. That's capitalism at work: The author is considered worthier because of the amount of money generated. Meanwhile, that author over there, who was published by a basement press and made maybe a few hundred bucks? They're not legit. That's also capitalism at work: The author is considered unworthy because of the lack of money generated.

There's a good reason why people use capitalism as a stand-in for worth: It's easy. No one has the time or willpower to read every book ever published, let alone compare and contrast and rank based on content. The number of decisions that would take would burn out anyone's brain. Popularity and bestselling status are convenient stand-ins. If tons of people liked a book, it must be good, right? 

And hey, why not. Most books are good enough, and if you're like most people, you'll enjoy what everyone else enjoyed. 

By the way, did you know that award submissions are often run out of the marketing department? Because awards, too, are capitalism. They're not the objective marker of merit that we like to think of them as. They're an advertising tool (trust me, I work in marketing). 

Faced with an ever-growing deluge of content, I can't blame readers for using capitalism as a stand-in for worth. Heck, I do it myself. I know the unique agony of standing in front of an enormous, stuffed shelf at a bookstore with no idea what I want, then grabbing the first title that feels familiar - because I've heard of the title, or the author, or have seen the cover somewhere. In behavioral finance, we call this a "familiarity bias".

Another useful concept from behavior finance? "Anchoring," which is used to describe an irrational bias toward a arbitrary benchmark figure. If you've been around author circles, you've probably seen this apply to Amazon reviews - the idea that 50 reviews is the magic number, or 100, or 250 (okay, that one might be Goodreads). Heck the very idea of a "six-figure deal" is kind of an example of anchoring.

Ultimately, this capitalistic way of viewing books revolves around institutional approval. The bigger and richer the institution, the more their opinion is worth. But here's the dirty little secret: these institutions are run by human beings, who are every bit as flawed and biased as everyone else. Their opinions may be held in high regard, but they should not be the only arbiters of worth.

Anyway, why am I going on about capitalism and behavioral finance? It's because these ideas and fallacies around worth revolving around numbers can be toxic to creators. Everyone loves to list their capitalistic accomplishments as proof of their worthiness - achieved bestselling status, got a Netflix deal, sold foreign rights, got a four-book contract, hit six figures... money, money, money, money. And again, awards aren't exempt from this. They're just a more palatable manifestation. Awards cost money to enter, after all, and the size of monetary prizes are sometimes used as a marker of how prestigious an award is.

It's lovely to get these things, and I'm not saying that writers shouldn't want them. We all do; I definitely do. But in my head, I'm trying to divorce these things from worth. As in - having them doesn't make a book inherently worthy... and on the flip side, the side that will apply to many more of us, not having them doesn't make a book unworthy.

I've seen writers lament that their work must not be any good because it didn't make the New York Times bestseller list, or consider themselves failures because they didn't earn out their advances. I've seen them talk about giving up because they didn't sell enough. That's the kind of mentality I'm trying to divorce myself from. I started writing because I love telling stories, and not because I want to measure myself the way a door-to-door salesman does, treating these stories as only objects to be converted into dollars. It's not easy in a world that's conditioned me to think that money alone can bring the elusive idea of "success."

The book is the book; just by existing, the book by itself has worth. The book could sit alone in a box in a closet, having never been exchanged for currency, having only been read by the author, and still be worthy for its ideas, for its craft, for the love and dedication that went into it, alone.  

And, of course, the same should apply to the person who wrote it. 

1 comment:

Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

Great post, Mary! I think it's easy for readers and writers to mistake marketing dollars for worth. It's all a subjective mess.

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