One day about 50 years ago, Paul McCartney read an article in the Daily Mail about an aspiring writer. The topic fascinated him, he told The New Yorker decades later, “because I was a young paperback writer, sort of. My age group was.” McCartney drove to John Lennon’s house in Weybridge and proposed a song written as a letter. “Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book/It took me years to write, will you take a look?” Lennon said, “Good, that’s it,” and so we got Paperback Writer(1966).
The song captures an eternal fantasy. I’ve just begun writing another book myself (though if McCartney wants to make a song about me, he should call it Ebook Writer). However, the fantasy has grown ever more detached from reality. Writing a book used to be like spending years carving out a stone, then chucking it into a lake and watching it sink without a splash. Now writing a book is like chucking that stone into an ocean. You don’t even hear a plop.
Back when Paperback Writer came out, only about 20,000 books appeared in Britain a year. A paperback writer could expect his publisher to post his book to all the reviewers, and then nag them over lunch if they ignored it. Often, especially for non-fiction, the reviews were the way a book marked the culture. Few people would actually buy your iconoclastic new biography of Hegel, but many in the bookish classes would read the 2,000-word review in the New Statesman or The New York Times.
Soon afterwards the book would probably go out of print, which meant that it effectively died. Even by the 1980s, when I was working in a London bookshop, if a customer asked for an obscure text, we’d pull out a thick red volume called, simply, Books In Print. It listed about 100,000 titles. If a book wasn’t in there, we told the customer to forget it. If the book had only appeared in the US, it would cost a fortune in shipping. The deaths of past titles helped focus the reader on new ones.
How times have changed. Last year, well over one million books (many of them ebooks) were published in English. Each of them is available to anyone in the world at a click, as are all the books published the year before that, while even your father’s long-lost tract on fly-fishing is for sale somewhere online, probably for 1p. “Books, for perhaps the first time in literary history, are cheap to buy,” writes DJ Taylor in his elegant new The Prose Factory, “and at times — as many an author has noticed to his chagrin when touring the download sites — obtainable gratis.”
But in this ocean of words, many new books will be noticed only by the author’s mum and dad. Publishers now focus their marketing budgets on a few potential bestsellers, while thick review sections have made way for Amazon reviews that rarely mark the culture.
Even the people who buy your book won’t necessarily read it: just look at the unopened tomes on your own bookshelves. A book is usually an aspirational purchase, symbolic gift or status marker more than it is a consumer item. Thomas Piketty’s 700-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century sold more than 1.5 million copies, but when maths professor Jordan Ellenberg studied which pages readers had highlighted on Kindles, he concluded that few got beyond page 26. Distraction is almost inevitable when the internet is a click away, especially if you’re reading on a device.
Then, probably quite swiftly, your book will go out of date. When my grandmother died, she left shelves full of 1950s and 1960s paperbacks that had become irrelevant, often ludicrously pompous and, if non-fiction, generally plain wrong.
Yet millions of us keep writing, almost always as a second job. There’s the joy in the crafting: it’s hard to write a sentence, harder to construct a paragraph, and almost impossible to make a whole book cohere. There’s the triumph of completion: writing a book, even a mediocre one, elevates you above the frauds who tell people at parties that they want to write one. There’s the satisfaction in expressing yourself more fully than you ever could in your day job: your book may not be the best that mankind has thought and said, but it’s quite probably the best you will think or say.
And then there’s the tiny hope, as with buying a lottery ticket, that the book will “make a million for you overnight”, or give someone somewhere the thrill that only a very good book can. Your ideal reader is probably aged under 20, and therefore ready to be marked for life. I’ll never forget encountering Catch-22 as a teenager. Today, I watch my children, their noses stuck in comic books, surrender in the same way to the text.
But most books won’t achieve that. Writing is increasingly a private satisfaction. The effort invested is almost always out of proportion to the impact. Having accepted that in advance, I am writing anyway.
De FINANCIAL TIMES, 16-17/01/2016