The term literary citizenship has blossomed in the last few years. Depending on whom you ask, the idea either makes a ton of sense — i.e., a good literary citizen networks effectively and cross-promotes well and supports the local scene — or it’s a euphemism for publishers dumping on already stretched authors.
Whether authors lament the decline in marketing support from the major publishers or they roll with the punches, no author can succeed without an established community. The upshot is that aspiring writers with no base often can’t get contracts because publishers recognize that those writers have no built-in market to sell to. Literary journals and small presses do better on this front; “platform” (the size of your social-media following) is generally less salient, the smaller the press. By implication, then, these small presses need broader communities of support that aren’t tied to specific big-name authors.
A typical “good literary citizen” will:
- Buy books produced by local authors or local indie presses.
- Shop at locally owned bookstores before heading to a national chain or to Amazon.
- Attend author readings or other literary events.
- Support local literary non-profits.
- Join critique groups.
- Socialize the work released by local authors and small presses.
- Contribute to anthologies and literary journals with submissions, subscriptions or advertising.
- Write frequently, even if it’s just for fun.
- Provide reviews of locally published authors.
If you don’t do these things, you will not be cast into the fiery pits of hell. Your absence from the LitCit front ranks, though, does carry an opportunity cost borne by others:
- Authors’ spirits sag when they attend events with an audience of less than 20 — because people can’t be bothered to show up.
- Aspiring writers lack access to robust peer critique groups — thus blocking their work from publication with a real press.
- Promising books languish because no one’s blurbing or reviewing them — undermining those projects’ profitability.
- Small presses chase today’s dollars for keeping the lights on — so they don’t have time to focused on tomorrow’s editorial development.
The convention, once upon a time, was that a submitting author would buy a sample copy of a literary journal to assess whether it’s a good fit. If just half of the submitters to The 3288 Review bought a sample copy from us, the journal would be independently profitable and could even fund either license-fee increases or offset costs for the press as a whole. Instead, it’s a significant financial drain to the tune of roughly $6,000 per year, not inclusive of the hundreds of hours of uncompensated time spent pulling it all together. Don’t misunderstand: We love this journal and will keep it afloat, but if we had a nickel for every time someone examined a copy at our sales tables, admired its design and contents, then set it down before asking us how much he or she would get paid for a submission ….
I digress, with a heavy heart.
In the context of the West Michigan literary scene, you can help build a stronger community by:
- Buying some of our books, or a four-issue subscription to The 3288 Review. Or buying other great stuff, like the most recent Division by Zero anthology by MiFiWriters.
- Visiting locally owned bookstores like Schuler Books & Music (Grand Rapids), Bombadil Books (Grand Rapids), The Bookman (Grand Haven) or Readers’ World (Holland).
- Supporting the work of literary non-profits like the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, which is currently engaged in its annual fund drive. Your contribution helps the region’s literary trains run on time and without derailment.
- Signing up for activities that hone your author skills or support local talent, including the Jot Conference (next one’s scheduled for 9/9 in Grand Rapids!), a Caffeinated Press seminar, a KDL conference or a GLCL special event.
- Participating in creative-writing exercises like National Novel Writing Month, where you can meet local writers and sharpen your saw, or submit to the various contests and awards that are open to writers of all stripes.
- Joining a critique group, where you partner in a small setting with authors at your same level to advance your writing, and the writing of your peers.
- Engaging in the social-media platforms of favored authors, publishers, bookstores or non-profits. Retweet, comment and share!
- Join the Caffeinated Press Reviewers’ Circle — a group of beta readers who get advance review copies of our works and have the chance to offer feedback before the book is released to market.
No stakeholder in our local literary community is an island. We all depend on each other to thrive. Good literary citizenship ensures that readers get great books, authors obtain the exposure they deserve, indie bookstores remain viable and small presses can fund worthy projects.