Timothy Egan complains that Joe the Plumber is about to become Joe the Author. He rightly points out that Joe wouldn’t want Timothy to fix his toilet. So why shouldn’t an author like Egan feel plumb cantankerous toward someone he suspects has, at best, marginal literary abilities?
I feel for Timothy Egan just as I feel for all of those in our profession whose greatest competitors for publishers’ dollars are non-professionals. But Egan has directed his anger and sarcasm toward the wrong target.
Joe the Plumber isn’t our problem. It’s Joe the Reader.
Plenty of people in non-creative fields dream of success in more creative ones. But only publishing gives those without the most rudimentary ability or proclivity the opportunity for instant “achievement.” It turns those lacking in any of the essential skills, experiences or talents of its profession into immediate stars of said profession. The bookshelves of your local Barnes&Noble sag under the weight of tens of thousands of titles by literary Milli Vanillis.
And the reason real writers find it difficult to compete against those Milli Vanillis is you, dear reader.
Publishers know you’re more likely to buy the book with the recognizable name on the cover even if that name is in no way associated with well-written phrases or heart-stopping stories. You buy the celebrity and assume literary competence. And you usually aren’t completely disappointed because the book will have been written by someone competent. It just won’t be the “author” whose name appears on the cover.
Almost all those books “by” famous non-writers aren’t really by them at all. That doctor’s weight loss bestseller, that lawyer’s courtroom thriller, that celebrity’s tell-all memoir? Milli Vanillis, every one.
Most readers probably realize this, probably understand that a politician who can’t string together a coherent sentence when speaking will have exponentially more trouble when penning a narrative of 60,000 words. But readers go along. They buy the book “by” a doctor they saw on The Today Show or “by” a singer who went through rehab or “by” a lawyer about her most famous case.
Celebrity sells. And it will continue to sell books as long as readers allow themselves to be duped into believing that they are getting the famous person’s own words. Meanwhile, actual writers find themselves losing the competition for publishers’ advance and royalty dollars. Especially in this sinking economy. Fake “authors” get the big bucks; real ones scramble for the pennies.
So, Joe the Reader, assuming that you’re still reading, do an author — a real author — a favor today. Buy a book that’s actually by the author whose name appears on the cover. You’re the only hope we have if we’re to maintain a viable literary culture. We’re counting on you. You really liked us when the Milli Vanillis of the literary world were “lip-synching” to our prose. I suspect you’ll like us even more when you know whose words you’re reading.