This blog was featured on 01/21/2019
Stewards of the Literary Ecosystem
Written by
Janine Kovac
January 2019
Written by
Janine Kovac
January 2019

This post is the first in a five-part series about community involvement and why, if you are writer, you need to be active in your local lit scene. IRL—in real life, not just in shares and retweets.

I’ll talk about why it’s important to be on a first-name basis with your local librarian and why it’s vital that you buy books from an indie bookstore. I’ll offer tips for starting and sustaining a reading series and present options for community involvement to fit any budget and schedule.

Why? Because if you write, you are a documentarian of stories, real and imagined, that help us understand who we are and who we can be. But if stories don’t reach readers, we might as well not write them down.  

Last month, as part a speaker series sponsored by my company Moxie Road Productions, I spoke to the literary arts students from the middle school at Oakland School for the Arts. I was there to talk about my work curating readings, events, and panel discussions such as the day-long Pursuit of Publishing series for Litquake.

I sat at the front of the classroom and looked at the group of tweeners in hoodies and glittered headbands, the next generation of the literati. I asked them a question: what’s the difference between a writer and an author? After a short discussion the students agreed that an author did more than just write, although they weren’t exactly sure what the “more” part could be.

My answer was this: anyone who writes was a writer but an author was someone who actively engaged with an audience through her writing. This engagement could happen through books and magazine articles (and that’s where publishing came in). But it could also happen through channels such as blogs, readings, or an author newsletter. In other words, an author was part of a literary community.

One kid raised her hand. “But where does the audience come from?”

This, of course, is the question that is the most asked during my publishing panels. Who is my audience? Where is my audience? And how can I get them to buy my book?  

Sometimes the question is skirted completely. “Just write the best book you can,” say editors and writing teachers. Or the obvious is stated: “That’s why platform is so important.” (This one usually comes from agents without disclosing exactly how that platform is built and sustained).

But here’s the answer an author will give: the audience comes from the community. And before you find your audience of readers, you must invest in the community. It’s not just about you.

I like to think of it as a literary ecosystem made up of booksellers and libraries, literary festivals and open-mic readings. If you’re an author, you should also be an audience member. You should have a favorite indie bookstore and a favorite library. If you have the means, you should donate to literary non-profits. If you have the time, you should volunteer for them. You build your audience by being part of one.

The middle school kids nodded, unsurprised that their author life would involve visiting libraries, perhaps because they remember library story hours. (The emerging writers at the publishing panels on the other hand, were more disappointed. They were hoping for a quick formula to fame.)

But that’s the trick. When we recycle bottles and cardboard or conserve water, we don’t see the direct benefit of our actions. But collectively, we make a difference.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the indie bookstore and ways to support indies even if you don’t have one in your neighborhood.

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