Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship?

by Sal Falko / Flickr

by Sal Falko / Flickr

The backlash against Literary Citizenship is underway, and perhaps it was inevitable.

For those unaware of term, it’s widely used in the literary, bookish community to refer to activities that support and further reading, writing, and publishing, and the growth of your professional network. In some ways, it’s a more palatable (or friendly) way to think of platform building.

What I’ve always liked about the Literary Citizenship movement:

  1. It’s simple for people to understand and practice. It aligns well with the values of the literary community.
  2. It operates with an abundance mindset. It’s not about competition, but collaboration. If I’m doing well, that’s going to help you, too, in the long term. We’re not playing a zero-sum game where we hoard resources and attention. There’s plenty to go around.

In her piece All Work and No Pay Makes Jack a Dull Writer: On Literary Citizenship and Its Limits, Becky Tuch raises a red flag on all this positive spin, and points to a downturn in publishers’ marketing budgets:

Who, then, must make up for this [economic] shortfall? Certainly it’s not the owners and CEO’s of publishing companies who lend a hand to writers in times of duress (in spite of the fact that their profits are derived precisely from those writers). No, it’s writers who are expected to look after themselves and one another.

Tuch argues that writers are being exploited under the guise of marketing activities as “enriching” activities. She asks us to question and challenge this system, and the corporate publishers or corporate-culture machinations that have led us to the necessity of literary citizenship, and calls for “frank discussions about labor power and financial remuneration.” She is also kind and generous enough to mention Scratch magazine as a step in the right direction, a publication I started in partnership with Manjula Martin, to have more transparent conversations about the economics of writing and publishing.

Manjula and I live on different coasts, and this is something that, if we lived closer to each other, I’d run off to a coffee shop and talk to her about for an afternoon—because I think we have different approaches to this issue (which helps strengthen the publication, I’d argue).

Here’s a high-level summary of my own approach to this—and it’s something I’ve been deeply contemplating the last few months as I’ve prepared for my keynote talk at The Muse and The Marketplace on May 3 (a talk that is free to the public, I might add).

1. The disruption faced by publishing affects the entire media industry (and the world) and goes beyond economics. Publishing is not a specialized activity any longer. Anybody can publish. That’s not to say anybody can publish well, but publication alone is not meaningful in and of itself in many cases. From the time of Gutenberg until roughly 2000, to print and publish something was to amplify it because of the investment and specialized knowledge required. That’s largely not the case today (though for some print-driven work, it still is). To amplify something takes a different kind of muscle, and amplifying through print distribution is becoming less and less meaningful as 50% of book sales now happen online (whether for print or digital books). Publishers of all types and sizes are struggling with this disruption and what it means for their value to authors, readers, and the larger culture.

2. Authors can transcend publishers when it comes to reader loyalty. Most of us don’t buy books because of who published them; we buy them because of who the author is. And if we don’t know the author, we often buy based on word of mouth. Publishers try to encourage this word of mouth, but few have brand recognition or connections with actual readers, because they haven’t traditionally been direct-to-consumer companies. They’ve sold to middlemen instead—bookstores, libraries, wholesalers.

In the last 5-10 years, authors have gained tools to connect directly with readers—tools that they’ve never had before—which give them tremendous power amidst the disruption. This is power that many publishers still lack.

Unfortunately, in the literary market, involvement with the readership is often seen as undesirable—writing for an audience or engaging with them is seen to lessen the art. (“I don’t write for readers” — you’ve heard that one, right?) I won’t address the problematic nature of this belief here, but this cultural myth is prevalent (I’m using the word “myth” neutrally here—as in Joseph Campbell “myth”), and may be the subtext of some criticism of literary citizenship.

3. The abundance mindset trumps the victim or scarcity mindset. In Zen terms (pardon my Zen nature): are we going to see ourselves as part of the publishing world, or as acted upon by the publishing world (victims)? It may seem a slight and meaningless distinction, but it powerfully affects your outlook and how you decide what to do next—if you believe you are the person who has control of your life and work.

Also, we have to remember that when one area of the network or community suffers, it will invariably affect another part. (Watch this terrific video on this concept.) We’re already seeing shifts in the market that point to how publishers have to change—e.g., 25% of the top 100 books on Amazon last year were self-published, authors are successfully crowdfunding new books, and Wattpad has launched the careers of new, young authors, which uses a very different model than any we’ve seen before.

New business models are out there, and authors are finding the opportunities amidst the change. Benjamin Zander wrote in The Art of Possibility:

The frames our minds create define—and confine—what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.

What frame are we using to look at the economic problem writers now face? I would suggest it’s not useful to use the framework of, “Publishers are taking advantage of writers.” Let’s change the frame we’re using—not to whitewash any potential unethical behavior, but to spot a productive way forward.

One of the more inspiring things I’ve read lately is Elizabeth Hyde Steven’s Make Art Make Money, which is all about balancing business and art, as mastered by the late, great Jim Henson. I can’t think of a better way to close than quote something she learned from studying his career:

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

For more reading on the disruption in publishing:

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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship. She speaks around the world at events such as BookExpo America, Frankfurt Book Fair, and Digital Book World, and has keynoted writing conferences such as The Muse & The Marketplace. She currently teaches digital media and publishing at the University of Virginia. Find out more.
Posted in Publishing Industry.


  1. Both of these posts make excellent points, but I must take issue with the omission of one key touchstone: What makes us feel good? It feels good to learn about and from other writers; it feels good to take part in readings; it feels good to buy and read a book from an indie publisher that one eventually likes, and then pass on news of it. Citizenship feels good. Being a good citizen was never without cost, no matter what type of citizenship it is. At the end of it, we writers are in the business because it’s where we feel at our best, and doing it makes us feel good. So, too, the rest of it, because none of us is entirely altruistic. (Granted, none of this precludes why the publishing industry might love “literary citizenship” for its “free labor,” which is…ick.)

    • Hear, hear.

      It should also be said that people who work inside the industry are often some of the most dedicated literary citizens themselves. (Was it Rob Spillman of Tin House who originally coined the term?) They practice what they preach and take as much responsibility as the author, at least on an individual/personal level.

    • Coercion (not) aside, I would agree “no one should be working for free.” However, after I received my last direct deposit for work (May, 2010) all my work has been “for free” and I would have it no other way, now. While not published in the traditional sense, each day I put my stuff “out there” on Google+, on Facebook and on Twitter (as well as sending via email to a few select people).

  2. Ditto, Jane and Yi Shun Lai! It does feel good to learn and share and celebrate with people who have great ideas and are passionate about reading and writing. If I switch it up and think about my yogi-citizenship, equestrian-citizenship, river-love-citizenship…the motivation to engage originates from a similar place. The things I love matter to me and bring me joy, so I choose to contribute in many different ways with other awesome people.

  3. Jane asks, “…are we going to see ourselves as part of the publishing world, or as acted upon by the publishing world (victims)? ” and I say, “There it is, in a nutshell, stated brilliantly.” There is so much wisdom in that question. Thanks for this post.

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  5. Great piece, Jane! I’ve had publisher marketing meetings which were 99% “what is the author doing?” But rather than complain, we must push for more – from ourselves AND the publisher. Appreciate your point #3 in this regard. Thanks!

  6. Great piece! After all, isn’t the very act of publication the creation of community? Reading this made me smile and breathe deeply and feel hopeful. Thanks.

  7. As someone new to the world of writing and publishing, the
    unknown was overwhelming. There was so much to learn. There is so much more
    to learn. Everywhere I turn; talented, positive people give their time and
    knowledge or do what they can, just for the pleasure of it. They are an inspiration.
    Thank you, Jane, for sharing your talent and expertise.

  8. I am just doing a stream of conscious thinking. Defining books being just about words is really limiting publishing and other artists that want to use the book as a vehicle. My background is photography and I think the photography book is a great medium. But, and especially in self publishing, there is an absolute vacuum. Now certainly there are photographers working in self publishing, but the chance that two of them might bump into each other are about as great as meeting a chicken in a dentist’s office. But every time I meet a book/publishing crowd, the idea that “book” is not shorthand for “novel” is completely unfathomable.

    I think it is really great writers have a way of getting their work out. Literary Citizenship is marvelous. But there is more to books, publishing, and authorship than just writing.

    Not sure where I am going with this. Naturally, publishing is dominated by writers, but with other types of books becoming much more economical, especially in e-versions, it seems a whole segment of publishing is being simply forgotten or ignored.

    • Interesting you should say this, and I’ll add another angle. I was just having an email exchange with an innovative indie press that is defining their mission as tied to literature rather than specifically publishing, so that it leaves the door open to all kinds of events, activities—and means of profit—aside from producing traditional books. A huge step in the right direction: thinking beyond the book.

      In any case, more to your point: Blurb, a publishing services provider focused on photography books and four-color books, just announced a distribution partnership with Amazon. It’s been fun to watch that service grow and prosper.

      • Unfortunately, Blurb is a vanity press in the good old fashion meaning of the word. They are very expensive which makes books though them almost impossible to succeed financially. And if you want to put your imprint on the book, they charge you more. There are other limits to their service which makes them even less appealing. It is a great concept, but the only people that will make money from that is Amazon and Blurb. Is it Ingram that has a POD service with distributors like Amazon and B&N? The Blurb thing is not the first, but maybe the easiest, at least for people that don’t know how to make books.

        I have used local presses for photo book projects. And it is in some sense a great time to experiment with illustrated books. But paper is always an expensive route. I like what Apple did which is to make an authoring platform that really supports different media. I recently read the Taschen has been using iBooks Author for some of their publications.

        • I equate Blurb’s services with other POD companies such as Ingram Spark and CreateSpace. Their prices are pretty fair considering the quality you get. (I designed and ordered a single, full-color hardcover book, and it came out beautifully. $30.)

          That said, if I wanted to distribute a B&W book to major retailers, I’d use CreateSpace or Ingram Spark. And if I wanted an interactive digital full-color book, I’d probably use iBooks Author or Vook.

          Have to match the service with your goals (not to mention your expertise or lack thereof in producing book files plus your budget).

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