Thursday, June 23, 2011

What Makes A Book "Real"?

If you're a writer, maybe this dream is familiar to you:

You walk into a bookstore, and there, faced out, is a book with your name on it. You take it off the shelf, run your hands over the beautiful jacket with embossing and the expensive paper and a perfect blurb. Then you pull the jacket off, mooning over the hardcover's surprising color. And they splurged on the imprinted title!

You open your book, the spine cracking oh-so-splendidly. The pages are perfect, with a beautiful font for each chapter heading and even a little graphic that matches your book's tone perfectly.

Finally, your book is a "real" book.

I've been thinking a lot lately about this idea of a "real" book. For better or worse, it seems that we writers have this ideal in our heads. I can admit to it; I've fantasized about publishing for a long while. But the longer I've spent on the fringes of publishing—as in knowing a lot about the business and knowing a lot of people in it—the more I've come to see how dangerous this ideal can be. Especially in a time when the traditional idea of a book is changing rapidly.

I have 13 completed books on my hard drive, most of which haven't seen much past my little crit partner circle. Are these books not real because they aren't printed between two hardcovers?

I feel a bit like Pinocchio. I just want to be a real boy! I want my stories to have skin and bones and all that real boy stuff.

But did Pinocchio being wood invalidate his humanity? His feelings? One could argue he was just as human as a puppet as he was as a "real" boy, no? Different package, sure, but human, mistakes and all. Hell, you could even argue that being a puppet has its advantages.

Is a book "real" if it debuts in paperback? With no pretty jacket or stiff spine to crack? Is a book "real" if it's only a digital copy for sale online, just words on a screen as it always has been? Is a book "real" if it's never been published in any form at all?

I think we all know the "good writer" answer: Yes! Of COURSE these books are all real. Even the roughest first draft is a real book.

Why doesn't it feel that way then?

Why do I feel like my stories are "less" because they aren't encased in an expensive hardcover? Why does it feel like paperback debuts are "lesser" than a hardback debut? Why are digital books seen as "less" than both hardback and paperback? I don't know the answer, really, except that it probably has to do with that fantasy above, and reality often falling short of it.

A friend of mine compared it to envisioning your wedding day. Most girls have plans, ideals, for what that day will bring. I remember wanting to have my reception in a fancy ballroom with a big chandelier and a live band and amazing food.

I had my reception in a church cultural hall. AKA: A gym. No chandelier. Because it was free and we weren't made of money, still aren't. I made my own playlist, and my sister put it on her iPod. We played it from some small speakers. BUT. The food was amazing, thankyouverymuch. Peppermint cheesecake FTW. My priorities were made very clear, heh.

If I wanted to, I could focus on all the things my wedding day wasn't. Honestly? It did not even come close to what I pictured as a little girl.

But it was still the best day of my life.

Because the important things were there—the most essential being a man I would marry over and over again. I was so in love with him that all the details didn't matter. I didn't let them matter.

I hope that, when publication comes, I can handle it like I did my wedding. I hope I can focus not on what form my book takes, but on what's between the title page and the acknowledgments. I hope I can rejoice in the fact that a stranger out there might buy it and read it and love it. I hope I can remember that my books are as real now as they'll ever be.


  1. I think people get it into their heads that something's only real when someone else says so. Until that point, it's still a dream.

    Also, human nature comes with the quirk of wanting others to tell us we've done good or done something no one else has or can do. We want to feel special and getting that book in a form others can share is special

    I used to write fanfiction, and the "books" I wrote for that weren't commercially viable, but they were still books. People still read them and still enjoyed them, but if I hadn't had any sort of response, I probably would have felt that time was wasted, even though it was great practice for future writing.

    Writing's like the tango - it takes 2.

  2. I think, like your wedding, you won't let what your book 'isn't' matter. Because like your husband, the part that matters are the words. The day someone you don't know reads your book and emails you, or leaves a comment here, to tell you how much they loved it. I bet THAT'S what you'll remember.

  3. Heh, I've never fantasized about my wedding day, but boy oh boy do I dream about that book with my name embossed on it...

    This is a great post, and I know exactly where you're coming from. I even have an e-published "book" -- and book is in quotes for a lot of reasons. First because it was originally a web serial, written only for fun. Second because, even after it won a contest with a major publisher, it felt "invalid." (It breaks a lot of "rules.") And now, even after selling it via all the major ebook retailers, I can't bring myself to call it a book (without quotes). I can't bring myself to say I am published. Because I still have that ideal/fantasy in my head.

    I guess I'm still trying to figure out the shifting definitions. Publishing is changing, and so must our mindsets.

  4. That's my dream. Published. And read widely.

    My dream isn't really in seeing my book in a book store, but rather in seeing it in the hands of a stranger.

    Maybe I'm setting myself up even worse. :-/

  5. I feel like books really live when they're read and get the chance to exist within the imaginations of their readers. So, the novels gathering dust in my hard-drive don't feel particularly real to me.

    So, they live in my mind, but I'd prefer they get the chance to expand and breathe in the minds of others.

  6. Wow. Profound thinking. Love the wedding analogy.

  7. Another brilliant post! I love this! What a great perspective to have - in all areas of life!

  8. :) :) :) You know, I haven't been following your blog very long. But it's posts like this that have me convinced that your books are probably very "real" - really lovely, really funny, really moving. And someday (SOON!) they'll be really published! I think everyone's completely confident about that.

  9. The craziest thing is that you have a dream, and then it shifts. "If I can just get published I won't CARE if it's hardback or paperback"... Then the dream shifts again as things get closer and closer, and suddenly you care. Deeply. It's good to look these dreams squarely in the face and then kick them straight out the door and remember the important things to begin with.

    I didn't let them matter.

    That's something worth taping to my computer.

  10. This may be one of my favorite posts of yours...

  11. I loved the wedding analogy. Mine was a simple one but still my special day. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Hope we'll all fee the same when we get published. Yes, when for us two Natalie's.

  12. Very nicely said, Natalie. The wedding analogy works perfectly.

  13. There's something special about print. Maybe to those of us who grew up with it, who read and admired books and never knew any of the authors personally, that specialness is easy to understand. The people who wrote those books were professionals! Their books were gorgeous, and sold in actual stores for actual money! My handwritten stories just didn't look the same. And we had no digital equivalent back then, either--a book was something bound. Kids growing up today may view digital books in the same light that my generation viewed printed books.

    I never thought of paperbacks as less than hardcovers, because when I was growing up, paperbacks were all I bought.

    Ultimately, the story is in our heads and the joy of having written or read it needs no outside approval. To me, that's still the best and most rewarding part of the experience.

    But there is something special about holding one's own printed book. I'm not going to pretend that isn't a thrill. Human beings are not just brains; we have skin that likes to touch the texture of a page, and we have noses that appreciate the scent of crisp paper. I'm not saying that print is the *only* valid publishing experience--I've had some stories and poems e-published myself, and of course it's always special. I'm just saying that yes, the bound book (hardcover or paperback) is indeed a thrill.

    (And it's perfectly okay to hug a box of author copies. Just sayin'.)

  14. I've given a lot of thought to this prior to your post, and thank you for expressing it so spot on! The whole notion of a book being real goes back to paper for me because that's what I grew up with. I'm trying to roll with the times, and remembering that I typed "The End." It's real, even if I don't get the fancy stuff:)A little peppermint cheesecake and a few readers would be awfully nice!

  15. Great post! I think it's a fair question to ask what makes the book (and the author) "real." I used to say, gotta have that physical book in order for me to say, "Yes, you made it." But I've read some pretty fantastic self- and e-pubs lately, and I wouldn't say the author's aren't "real" authors.

    It's a good question, for sure.

  16. Wow, this is a lovely post. I've shared that dream of yours for a long time. Though I've always been a fan of paperbacks over hardcovers. Maybe it's because I find dust jackets annoying to hold.

    Part of why I pursued traditional publishing instead of looking into self-publishing is because I wanted physical books to be on shelves. I don't have the money to invest in a print run myself, or the contacts to set up distribution. I just want that book.

  17. This is something I've thought a lot about too, especially with the whole e-book revolution going on. With my most recent WIP, I put it on my Nook, complete with a mock cover, to do some final out-loud reading.

    It was amazing to me how that made it seem "real" to me, even though it wasn't published. I had the same realization that you did-- "real" doesn't mean much at all. I wrote it. I made it as amazing as I was capable of. It's absolutely real to me, no matter what happens with it.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  18. Thanks for the post. I've felt the same way numerous times.

  19. Very well expressed idea, crystal clear and inspiring. Your analogies really drive this idea home to me. I'm actually not an aspiring author, like you and all of your inspiring followers, I just like to write my little blog about being a mommy. But I find your blog inspiring to me when I sit down to type just that little corner of my world. Great post.

  20. I wonder about this too. I'm nowhere near publication ready, and I worry that by the time I am, there will be very few books even being released in hardcopy. I want a hard copy baby too :(