A few months ago, I was in the middle of a conversation with a small group of my husband's baseball friends when someone dropped the news that I had written a book.
"Really?" said one of the men, an attorney for the players. He seemed clearly unaffected, and I brushed it off. But a few minutes later, a wife asked how she could find my book. "Oh, it won't be released for another year," I said.
The attorney's face lifted in surprise. "You mean, you've written a real book?"
That's when it hit me. In today's world when it seems nearly anyone and everyone has self-published one to three or more books, When is a book really a book?
Shortly after this incident, I joined several writers' groups on the social networking site, Linkedin, and was immediately overwhelmed by the hundreds and hundreds of writers promoting their self-published books. I've written a book about the incest in my family, writes one woman. I've written a memoir about growing up in the Rockies, still another. Hundreds, probably thousands, of books.
For someone who's been through a rigorous MFA program, which included the arduous task of completing revision after revision of a manuscript, and who continued this process long after completion of the MFA, and who subjected herself to dozens and dozens of rejections from literary journal editors to agents to noteworthy publishers before finally signing with a publisher, I admit I'm coming down with a mild case of literary snobbery. I suppose, like the rest of the publishing world, I just need to get over myself.
Still, the rules of the publishing world may be changing, but they aren't changing yet for me. In my world of academia, self-publishing is (pardon the cliche) the kiss of death. Why? "Because publishing is supposed to be hard," said one grad school friend, who went on to explain that the traditional method of publishing is a weeding out process. "Imagine we're all in a bottle," she said, "and the goal is to swim up through the neck of the bottle and out to the world....only you've got to make it upstream against the tide of really, really good writing." In other words, the writing has to be deemed worthy by those highly placed in the publishing world, and by a process other than sheer vanity, hence vanity presses.
I don't know. Are those writers who refuse to play the bottle game just smarter than the rest of us? Time was when it meant something to say you'd written a book. People would gasp and praise, say things like, "I've always wanted to write a book," or even glibly add, "You know, I could write a book, too, if I just had the time." And we traditionally published writers would quietly think to ourselves, You have no idea how hard it is to write a book, let alone get one published....
But tell someone today you've written a book and you're more likely to hear, "Yeah? Well, I've written five," which is what I heard at a writer-friend's recent book signing. Or face, as I did with the attorney, a totally unaffected demeanor.
So again I ask, When is a book really a book?