Alabama

Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige

Though my work as a writer and author in Alabama and the writing and publishing being done in New York City are two different species, they are still the same animal. When Closed Ranks was published last fall, people would ask me where they could get a copy. When I would respond, “Amazon . . . bookstores . . . anywhere you buy books,” some seemed genuinely surprised that a person they knew had a book on Amazon. They seemed equally surprised when I would add that Closed Ranks is my sixth book, not my first.

There are two things that seem difficult for people to understand about those of us who are (somewhat condescendingly) called “local writers.” First, we are real writers who write real books. Our work takes just as much time and effort and skill as those by far-off wonders in New York City and Paris. Beyond that, the fact that we write about the subjects that encompass our daily lives shouldn’t diminish the respect we earn for doing it.

Second, when people ask, “How’s your book doing?” the sad truth is usually: I don’t know. In this muddied and lengthy process, a writer contracts his work to a publisher, who makes physical books from the manuscript, which are then shipped to a distributor, who then send them to booksellers, both online and brick-and-mortar, who then put them in the hands of readers. There isn’t a middle man in this industry— there are middle men, and lots of them! It may seem strange to readers that writers don’t know how our books are doing, but it’s the norm that we usually don’t.

What also works against the Deep Southern “local writer” is something that I wrote about in a previous column: people in the Deep South read less than the national average, and those national rates aren’t all that great anyway. As a writer of nonfiction books about Southern culture, which have a limited audience, I am vying for attention from an audience that less-often engages with products like I make. If a person applies common sense to the facts that we know, you get this: fewer people are reading + online sellers make more books available = a lot of books sell fewer copies. The rise of internet bookselling has been great for readers, but not necessarily for writers and publishers.

Although literacy is commonplace in our culture, writing and publishing have remained mystical endeavors. In a recent The New York Times article titled “How Hollywood Gets the Publishing Industry Wrong,” writer Sloane Crosley explained how “everyone thinks they can do what we do, even though no one has a clue what we do.” Later in the article, discussing sales and promotions, she remarked that “we try to sneak books into your house and under your pillow. We crumble them over your food when you’re not looking. In return? Bupkis.”

I know that, when people ask how my book is doing, they’re asking because they care. I wish I could get out my phone, check an app, and share an exact number of copies-sold, but I can’t. I know how many people show up to book talks and how many I sell afterward, but not much more than that. Perhaps sadly, I’d add to Sloane Crosley’s assertion that I’m not sure that any of us in the book business know exactly what we do, or why some books sell well and others don’t.

Speaking for myself, I just want people to buy my books and visit my blog because they believe that my writing is worth reading, because they want to know more about the subjects, and in the case of my books, because they know that they’re spending their money on a worthwhile product. Physical copies of my books cost me money, so I can’t give them away free, and I have a support page on this blog, because I believe the work merits it. I hope that you-reading-this believe that, too. Perhaps more important than the question to me – “How’s your book doing?” – is my question to you: How’d I do? Which you can only answer if you’ve gotten one and read it.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige” posts will be published regularly on Tuesday afternoons.

To read recent posts, click the date below:

February 5, 2019

January 29, 2019

January 22, 2019

January 15, 2019

January 8, 2019

January 1, 2019

Or to find and read earlier posts, click here for a full list.

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