SO I READ A PIECE IN THE NEW YORK TIMES

 … .so I read this piece in the New York Times about parents who publish their kids’ books. As an author and a person who likes the internet and new media things, this sort of thing interests me a lot. But I did get a strange, queasy feeling about it that I wanted to parse a bit. Let me say a few things off the top.

1. I approve of kids writing books. I am FOR this activity! This is why I talk about give money to NaNoWriMo. If you are a kid who wants to write, you should be writing. You should be going for it with all your might.

2. I don’t really care what people do with their own time or money. That may be a *bit* of an overstatement, but it’s generally true. If you want to spend your every last dime on statues of koalas made out of butter or giant foam rocks or hilariously large cowboy hats, then let me be the first to say, “DO IT.” Because it’s your money. And if you want to spend $500-$3000 printing your child’s book of poetry, that is your business. Go nuts.

3. It’s a valid point that parents spend money on activities for their kids. Dance lessons. Sports. Music lessons. Space camp. These things all cost money. 

4. Self-publishing may be the way of the future. I say “may” because I don’t know the future. It could be. Or it could be a fad. I think it’s more likely that more and more books might go that way, though.

Having said all of that … here is why I think this is a bad idea. I will label THESE points with letters so they are clearly a different list, and that is fancy.

a. If you pay for something, it’s a service. I could go to any mall in America right now and get my face put on a shirt that says World’s Best Grandma. I’d pay for it, and it would be mine. It doesn’t matter that I have no grandchildren. I could pay for a good or service that would make that claim for me, and furthermore alert the world that I am best at it. It doesn’t make the statement true.

Likewise, if you pay to publish a book, you have paid to publish a book. Yes, it exists and is published … by you. Which is fine. It’s not a crime or anything. It might even be a good thing in some cases! But in the case of kids, I think it gives the message that they are now published authors, when in fact what they are are kids with generous parents who paid to have their work printed. Many of the kids in this piece are saying, “You can do anything if you put your mind to it!” When in fact, the lesson is, “You can do anything if your parents pay for it!” Which isn’t much of a helpful lesson.

My suspicion … and this may get me labeled as a bad person, but I’m going to take a chance here … is that those books will now be foisted on a bunch of people who don’t really want them. But you know what I mean, I hope. Like, that person the one parent works with? Who is guilted into buying that book? And all the friends on Facebook? “Buy this thing my kid did!” Everyone hates that person.

b. It takes a long time to learn how to write, and the process involves criticism. This is simply a fact. If you go through your life avoiding all criticism … well, it’s impossible, but if you do, you are missing all the tricks. Criticism is not a bad thing. Criticism makes us grow, it shows us things we didn’t see before, and it teaches us how to cope … sometimes how to cope with criticism itself.

99.9% of all writing is bad at the start. Whenever we start anything, we are almost guaranteed to be bad at it, because we don’t know how to do it yet! When we start playing sports or dancing or playing the tuba or cooking or driving a car, we are bad at it! Because we are learning! It doesn’t take away our worth as people—on the contrary, learning is wonderful and noble! We love to watch children learn!*

In the same way that you don’t rent out a concert hall to showcase your child who has taken three violin lessons (unless you are crazy, or like Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane who buys an opera house for his girlfriend who can’t sing and makes everyone go) … you don’t just print everything your child writes. Why the rush? Why highlight a developing skill long before that skill is ready to be showcased?

c. “But my child’s book is amazing! It will be a bestseller!” If you’re saying this, I’m already reaching for the restraints. Yes, I know about Christopher Paolini. I still don’t want to hear it. Because a). for every Christopher Paolini there are a million non-Christopher Paolinis, and b). is that really the goal? Writing is a business and a profession, and do you really want to put your kids into business at a young age? (I know some parents do, and that has always weirded me out. Sorry. I’m never going to be into it.) 

Also, I have major problems with the concept of someone taking a child’s work and publishing it. I am not saying it is being taken by force or from an unwilling child (though it might be) … but I am saying that you need to give consent for the publishing of your own work under any circumstances, and that consent must be informed. I question whether or not a kid can make really informed consent on a matter like this.**

d. You need to give your writing a chance to grow. This is the most important one. I was going to say that you don’t pick the flower before it blooms, but I don’t really know how to grow or pick flowers, so maybe you do pick a flower before it blooms. But I know you don’t pick it before there’s even a flower on the plant. You don’t pick it when it’s just a little green nub in the ground. When you take someone who’s learning and you rubber stamp their work as DONE, you aren’t actually doing them any favors. Really. 

e. “You don’t even have kids. What do you know?” About this, a lot. I have ten books under my belt, over ten years of professional experience with almost every major publishing house in the country and twenty or more around the world. I write and deal with publishing every day of my life. I’m surrounded by it at all times. This is the one thing I do know.

I write under pressure all the time, and I can tell you, it’s hard. Sometimes it sucks. But I can do it because I am an adult and a professional. I’ve been criticized and rejected and corrected. I don’t freak out or take it personally when someone doesn’t like my work (99% of the time). I can handle the pressure in the way that we all learn to handle the pressures of our chosen walks of life. And let me tell you, it’s really, really hard to take chances or do new things when people are staring at you. When people expect something of you. And your work can be admired or derided for more or less any reason. Some people will be right and some people will be wrong. You need a few years of experience to figure out who to listen to in the great clamor of voices. And the voices, I promise you, are only going to increase in number and vociferousness. The internet is a wild and wonderful ocean, but you need to know how to deal with it.

To be clear … I have no problem with the writing part. I am for the writing part. I also like the idea that the kids are reading their stories out and sharing them. I like all of that! What I object to is this commodification of the process that gets you the label published. And this is a label we are all trying to sort out now, because published is a word that sort of gives you the laurel wreath, isn’t it? It used to mean that someone read your work, judged it worthy, worked on it, and printed it at great expense. It meant that there was the high possibility of rejection, and perseverance. Now none of us know what it means, really. Some great stuff is going to be coming our way from the self-publishing world. But why push so hard to give your kid the label of published? That’s the question for me. I feel like something very, very important is being short-circuited here in favor of this more or less meaningless label, like my fictitious World’s Best Grandma shirt.  

Let the kids write. Let the rest come in time.

* I realize this sentence could should a bit creepy out of context. But there’s something: we must learn to read in context!

** I don’t really mean this in a heavy legal sense, nor do I think the consequences will be dire. I just put the idea out there that publishing your writing must be an informed process.