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The Price of Earthen Vessels ($3.49) and the Value of Writing

April 24th, 2012 | 6 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

The quickly lowering price of Earthen Vessels for the Kindle (now $3.49, for a limited time) prompted this question from a friend:

At what point is that kind of painful? It's such a great book; you slaved over it for ages. And now Amazon wants to charge less for it than the latte I'm drinking?? This is a very messed up country.

The real question, of course, is why she was drinking a latte when there are digital copies to be sold. Does it matter that the supply is limitless? I think not.

But there’s a serious question here that prompted a lot of thought. I’ve specifically avoided writing about writing and publishing, in part because it’s rather clichéd for writers to go meta as soon as they’ve found a little success and in part because I still haven’t found much success. Ask me again when I write something that comes out like Oliver O’Donovan, Annie Dillard, or Rick Warren—three writers who all mastered their respective approaches, different though they might be. In other words, it seems presumptuous to speak about the craft of writing at my age (though probably not more presumptuous than speaking of theological anthropology—consistency, who needs it?).

Yet I have realized that with respect to this project, at this stage in my life, I simply don’t care how much the publisher charges. The less it costs, the better, if it increases the odds that the thing will be read.

As an author, I sometimes feel a tension between something like charity for my audience and a burning to simply say something that needs to be said, in the precise way I want to say it.  Such a burning isn't necessarily rooted in a lack of concern for the audience.  Rather, there is a sense of disaffectedness, a detachment from the need to listen to the market's opinions that selling a book necessarily introduces.

It is a little weird that we sell books at all, actually.  Yes, we need to eat and publishers have to pay bills.  All of that is well and good.  But every now and then, we ought to think about our books outside that context and hope that we've written something that is good enough that (paradoxically) it should still be around even if it doesn't make any money at all.   

Some writers, I gather, have learned to manage the shifts and turns that market demands invariably create.  I don't think I can.  Call it a lack of fortitude:  after all, that is probably what it is.  But the focus on a books reception quickly becomes a concern for a book's sales--because the two are rather different.  I wanted the book to be read:  I realize now that I was less concerned that it be sold and bought, as evidenced by the somewhat ludicrous number of free copies I've handed out to various people along the way.

I've taken to joking recently that if people buy the book that I don't mind if they read it.  That is, of course, a coverup meant to ease the blatant insecurity that if they read it they'll be like the majority of folks who've read it and offer their resounding "meh."  But still, there's something to having the book read that is for an author--at least a first-time author--irreplacable and, quite literally, invaluable.  It’s easy to write a blog post that is forgotten and move on in the morning. It’s quite a bit harder with a book. Which is why if you’re friends with a first-time author, just swallow the time and your lack of interest and trudge through their terrible prose. For the writer, there’s nothing quite like it: it’s sui generis, one of a kind.

I don’t think, however, I will approach every project as I did the last, with such a heavy emphasis on being read.  I suspect the new focus will be on the saying, with a new litmus test for success: what is it that I would shout to myself in a dark room, alone and forgotten? The burden of carrying a readership and its concerns is simply too heavy for me. It may not be for other writers, many of whom seem happy and able to adapt themselves to the vagaries and demands of the market with ease. Me, well, not so much. Because the only thing worth saying is that which we cannot keep in, which means leaving it bottled up long enough so that it’s ready to explode.

Before I ramble further down this road, let me close off with two observations.

First, we have obligations in our words to something deeper than the people who are reading them. The telos of the written word is correspondence with truth and beauty: to say just the thing we mean, and nothing more, is a sweetness and pleasure that is self-justifying. Assertion is a tough business—that is, both difficult and a show of force. The danger in prioritizing the readers over the message is that the latter is compromised, that it is muted and so loses its force. It is ours, always, to speak lovingly. But only if we speak at all.

Second, when we write, we leaving something permanent in the world—or something much near it. And there is no reason to let any particular generation define what “lovingly” entails. All writing is a product of its age: we cannot do otherwise than birth works that are products of our times. But that does not mean that their horizons must be limited to the age, that we cannot reach beyond in our speech and say something that will resonate with those who are yet to come.

None of this justifies, of course, ignoring an audience. The opposite, even. If the message is a human one, it must be rooted and addressed to the particulars. Writers speak of conceiving of one person that they are writing to, and that seems to be a helpful trick. But even in this the writer must not become co-dependent upon his imaginary audience, must not allow their preferences to preclude him from saying the thing that really needs to be said.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.