Saturday, September 10, 2011

Writers Helping Writers: On the Value of Literary Friendships

As the Editor-in-Chief for the website The Compulsive Reader, I get about a hundred review requests a week.  Of these, maybe one will be accepted.  Not because ninety nine of those aren’t good books, but because we simply don’t have the people power to read and review everything out there.  And there is so much out there.  How do we filter?

For me, I try to filter on quality.  If a book strikes me as being, in some way, extraordinary, I’ll try to take it on, even if I’m already overloaded (and I am; I am).  All writers are my ‘fellow writers’.  We are all plying our trade, and most of us doing it in conjunction with a day job, families, and a ton of other commitments.

 I want to help everyone.  But I can’t.  Every now and then, someone I “bump into” online will strike a personal chord with me.  We’ll ‘bond’ in a virtual sense, and keep up the conversation, continuing to support each other’s work, and communicate our triumphs and losses.  I think you could call it friendship, though perhaps not quite in the conventional sense.

When the time comes when one of my friends needs a review, back cover quote, some advice, or help with promotion, I’ll be there.  Why?  Isn’t this a kind of literary favouritism?  Does it really help?  I believe it does.  Here’s why:
  •  A healthy concern for those who have similar talents, ethics or who are members of our family/social circle is part of what it means to be a human.  We can’t help everyone.  But we can, and should, help those that we care about.  It’s the bedrock of our social existence. Some might call it nepotism, especially if family is involved (and I have a rather artistic family – we all support one another), but I agree with author Adam Bellow (In Praise of Nepotism, Doubleday, 2003) that nepotism, when combined with meritocratic principles, can be a positive force.  
  • According to Bowker, over one million (1,052,803) books were published in the U.S. in 2009.  Of these books, a large number of titles won’t sell more than 100 copies.  There are many more books on the market than book buyers.  Most book buyers will purchase books based on familiar names.  Emerging authors need all the help they can get to simply get their titles noticed amongst the hype and names that dwarf them, but few of us can afford the publicity powerhouse that big names get as part of their publishing packages.  Supporting one another is one way to help redress the already negatively skewed balance.

  • As professional writers, we treat what we review professionally, regardless of whether it was written by someone we know or a stranger.  So when I review a book by a friend, I review it in the same objective (as objective as any book review can be – we always bring in our tastes, biases, and perspectives) way that I would review any book.  I don’t always give my friends glowing reviews.  It isn’t easy, but I have occasionally had to refuse a review, or have had to publish a review which is negative.  That happens.  Friendship doesn’t mean I compromise my integrity, otherwise my review or support would have no value.  What it does mean is that I’m willing to give your book some priority in my crowded stack. 
  • Writing can be a solitary occupation, but promoting a book isn’t.  Being in a position to help someone whose work is superb is inherently gratifying.  We are all disciples at the altar of the well written word, and promoting excellence wherever you find it is a privilege.  That said, the production of my first novel, Sleep Before Evening, found me in a position where lots of people were needed to help me get the word out.  I got a tremendous amount of support, and in this dog-eat-dog world where money and celebrity often rules over quality, that support helped me as much emotionally as it did in terms of my book’s success. 
Writing novels is a mug’s game, at least in the beginning.  It can be immensely gratifying, but it is also painful, hard work. Helping one another is also part of the game. Without the support and community of like-minded authors, there’s simply no way to get one’s foot in that tiny crack of the promotional door.  The more we help others, the more we help ourselves.  Social networking is the hottest buzz around for writers, and the kinds of networks we develop, with people whose work we admire, helps define who we are.  

So why not offer your writerly support to someone today.  Offer to do a review, host their guest blog, go out and buy the book of someone whose writing you admire, or just mention their work in your blog.  It’s the kind of good deed
that will come back to you.  

Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader.She isthe author of the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future.She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at


Nancy Famolari said...

Well said, Maggie. As writers, we need our friends to help us not only to market, but to act as sounding boards for our ideas and initial drafts. Writer's on the Move has been great for that!

Margaret Fieland said...

Thanks for a terrific post. A great reminder that we're not in this alone. Help generously given returns tenfold.

Karen Cioffi said...

Maggie, great post about paying it forward, professional courtesy, and helping one another. Writing books is a tough business, we can use all the help we can get!

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