Building a Modern Home Library

woman choosing books at library

A Random Assortment of Texts

Almost everybody has a bookshelf in their home.

Whether you have a huge house or a tiny apartment, you probably have a few texts sitting spine-out, or piled haphazardly on a coffee table.

But have you ever given a lot of thought to the books you own, or what they say about you?

As part of my overall move to be “more intentional” with my choices and object ownership, I sorted through a bunch of old books on my shelves (and in boxes) to sell or donate. It got me focused on my book collection, or personal library. It turns out the internet says those are different things! This article on AOM and this piece over at BookRiot are solid starting points on the history of, and differences between the two.

Suffice to say, I seem to fall into the “personal library” category since I’m not any sort of enthusiast collector looking to round out a focused, complete set. I prefer a varied flavor of interests, spanning fiction and non-fiction.

How To Choose Your Books

I’ve hung on to a number of books, mainly paperbacks, through school and book trades. Once I started filtering, I realized many of them would go into the donation pile. Being older and more settled means I’m not averse to adding hard covers into this more curated personal library. I used to move around a lot, and my fear of immovable boxes full of hard covers was intense.

This is the tough part. Defining what I really want to keep. What really deserves a spot on that limited shelf space? What “sparks joy”, to get all Marie Kondo about it.

My hardbound edition of Moby Dick and overly extravagant copy of Lovecraft’s Complete Cthulu Mythos were easy picks, and there were some hard fought paperbacks that ended up in the Goodwill stack. I have been selecting keepers using a system of “what would this library fundamentally say about me to a stranger?” So far it’s shaping up as a potpourri of horror, early 20th century American literature, and books on writing craft and photography.

An unintended goal of a personal library (or book collection) is accumulating value. Part of me feels like when I die, it would be embarrassing to have called myself a writer and not have at least a few books that are worth something on my shelves, even if my relatives just sell them on eBay or at an estate sale. Nobody wants a 9th edition paperback of Gibson’s Neuromancer scrawled with my insane margin notes…

Lists To Get Started

pexels-photo-1148399Back in 1998, a (now) controversial list of the Top 100 Novels was released by Modern Library. It has been criticized as not diverse enough, and also as a guerrilla marketing tool for Penguin Random House’s classics division.

I have to say, at least for me, there is some good stuff on it. I might have a hardbound copy of As I Lay Dying on its way from eBay. Might.

You might have already read a bunch of these books as required from school and formed an opinion of them. If they aren’t your speed and you want something a little more contemporary, I have been plumbing the list of Man Booker Prize award winners. This Goodreads list puts them in a nicely rated chronological order, and you can peruse details. Honestly, you could do a hell of a lot worse for a personal library OR a book collection than to get every Booker winner inside four walls.

Beyond big lists, I’ve found that social media groups, forums, and Reddit are great if you’re looking to shore up more specific genre tastes that are outside the mainstream.

Do You Collect or Curate?

I foresee my personal library as a long-term, ongoing effort. Being a frugal Yankee, most purchases now land on my Kindle, but that only makes the physical books “worthy” of a shelf slot all the more special.

Do you have a book collection or personal library? Do you have any tips or a specific system you use to grow it? Or is your home just filled with teetering towers of unread tomes? Feel free to share down in the comments!

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Free Books and The Devaluation of Art

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I’ve written on the topic of art devaluation before.

I’m a subscriber and regular listener of the Print Run Podcast because I enjoy their agent’s take on current publishing industry trends. In a recent episode, they touched on the devaluation of art, specifically books, and I tossed around some ideas that are now this post.

I’d like to talk about giving away your work for “free”.

First, I assume you want an audience. That’s probably our shared goal as writers and authors, right? A readership who connects with, and enjoys our work. (To be clear, I am not counting sending out ARC’s or other review copies to outlets. That’s a necessary part of any book marketing plan.)

That said, money is nice too. Even if you take those profits and reinvest 100% of them into pencils, cover illustrations, or an ink cartridge to print query letters for your next book, it can be a wonderful motivator to encourage the creation of new work.

Here are a few trends I’ve noticed over the past year–positive and negative–that seem to be emerging around authors giving away their work for free.

Less Authors Are Giving Their Books Away

It seems like “freebies” are less frequent, outside of contests, in major channels like Amazon and Bookbub. There are still a number of ebooks priced around a dollar, but I find that far more acceptable than simply giving work away.

I still look back on my Kindle giveaways as a mistake. Sales are one thing, but I gave away hundreds of ebooks and have no measurable way of knowing that they ever got read. While this may be a good strategy for authors who have an established backlog to get new readers drawn in, I have always felt it’s the equivalent of a sleazy club promoter trying to get bands to play free “for the exposure”.

The marketplaces are far too crowded to “get noticed” by giving away free stuff. It’s just an outmoded tactic. You’re better off giving away book-related chachkies at a live event hoping they convert paid sales.

I take less authors giving away free books as a good sign, which leads me to my next point.

Buying Books Is a Good Thing

Why? Because cost underlies perceived value.

In a world of supply and demand, scarcity breeds value. Since the “digital revolution” has essentially made scarcity a thing of the past, worth is reduced. Maybe you’re old enough to remember buying CD’s. One album that cost between $15 and $22. Now $20 will buy you a 4 month subscription to any number of music services that have nearly EVERY SONG EVER RECORDED on demand.

Ergo, music is effectively worth about $5 a month. Sure, your favorite song is still a priceless work of art, but don’t tell that to the record execs. Another example is the recent resurgence of vinyl records, which are relatively expensive, but buyers attach value to the highly analog experience of listening to their favorite artists on a record player.

What I’m getting at is when you price your book at $0, there isn’t much reason for readers to care about it. They’re much more likely to read something they plunked their hard-earned cash on than not. Even more compelling is the psychological phenomenon that they are more likely to ENJOY your book, rather than let their brain suffer “buyer’s remorse” after spending said cash.

Giving Away Books Hurts Authors

It hurts all of us. Seriously.

I hate the term “a race to the bottom”, but in this case it kind of is. I used to naively believe that self-publishing was a bold new frontier, and in many ways it is great. That said, the ingenious (and kind of sinister) way Amazon and other online retailers have allowed self-published authors to wage a proxy war against “gatekeepers” on their behalf is hurting everyone. The marketplaces are flooded, with prices going down the drain as everyone tries to undercut for “visibility”. Writers are generating an almost endless supply of books for Amazon’s horn of plenty, and sets readers expectations that books “should” either be cheap, free, or part of an unlimited monthly subscription.

It is insidious because you cannot really blame anyone without sounding like a curmudgeon. Everyone wants books. And why not for cheap, or even free?

Well, because ultimately in this cycle, authors don’t get paid. Even the self-published ones who see better return percentages need to enter the market at low prices and constantly fight the monthly tsunami of new releases.

It’s a slow erosion.

Books Are Worth It

To end this on a more positive note, if you put all this time and effort into making a phenomenal book, or busting your hump to find an agent and publisher, then you should be paid for your efforts.

Don’t feel like you owe readers freebies simply because that is how popular culture and tech have devalued art & media.

Writing is a craft, and craftsmen get paid for their time and skills.

So how do you feel about giving your work away? Have you ever given away free copies of books or submitted stories to non-paying outlets? Is it a strategy that has actually worked for you and your readership?

Tell me down in the comments.

Why I Started Reading Less Books

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“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” – Stephen King

Oh Mr. King, I still believe you, but so much has changed since 1999.

Enter…The eReader

Reading for pleasure is one of my favorite hobbies. I’ve always loved books, and in our hyper-paced, media-obsessed culture, I look to them for quiet solace and entertainment even more than I used to. They are also a source of inspiration to study of the craft or writing, particularly in my chosen genre.

So imagine how my reading life changed when I got a Kindle as a gift way back in 2012.

The thing was a revelation. So many books all at my fingertips, and so much easier to bring on vacation! Plus, that Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, and the untapped gold mine of authors giving away their books for FREE! What could be better?

Fast forward to 2017, and I’m totally burnt out on reading. My gusto to read has waned across all genres, but especially horror, and when I do pick up the Kindle, everything on it feels “same-y”. Yes, I am a writer and have mastered powerful descriptive techniques.

…And Then What Happened

After spending a few months with my Playstation in lieu of books, I got the hankering to read something new. Rather than immediately charge up the Kindle, I perused Reddit looking for book recommendations. I stumbled upon The Fisherman by John Langan, which ultimately became my 2017 Book of The Year (read it!)

It charted me on a new path with a huge revelation in the rear-view mirror. Moving forward, I would be extremely picky about which books I actually read, and consider each one as a valuable time investment.

Careful Curation

Reading less books is the last thing Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Goodreads want you to do. Right? They pummel you with nearly unlimited choices in an effort to get you just the right book to suit your fancy.

The fact is, they want your money. Quality (outside the measures of their algorithms) is fairly inconsequential to them. In fact, once you’ve bought the book, they don’t care if you read it or not.

I burned myself out reading too many crappy cheap and free books that were set up as “marketing funnels” (gross) or just tossed into the Amazon ebook digital sludge heap, and forgot what good stories were.

Aside: Yeah, I know there is this “anti-criticism” mentality in a lot of internet writing communities that masquerades as “only giving constructive criticism and support”. But lets get real, there are some BAD self-published and small-press books on Amazon. Ones with little thought or care put in before they got slapped up in the marketplace. I reserve my right to levy harsh criticism against anyone who is obviously just phoning it in. They hurt the rest of us who are legitimately trying.

I’m still refining my own system, but here are the key points I now read by:

  • I pay for books. Even if it’s a dollar. Print or ebook. Paying for the book creates a tangible relationship of value in my mind, and drives me to read what I purchase, no matter what I ultimately think about the book when I finish it.
  • I research before I buy. I’ve cut down on impulse purchases. They are almost exclusively limited to great sales on my various “Wish Lists”. Less books means a lower signal-to-noise ratio. Less choice equals greater happiness. I heard that in a TED Talk or something…
  •  I won’t finish what I don’t like. I am a horrible completionist. I used to keep reading books I didn’t like just to give myself closure, or under the pretense of “giving it a chance to get good”. No longer. Even my carefully chosen books must keep me interested, lest they be banished to the Forbidden Zone (a bottom bookshelf where my DNF pile goes to await library donation).
  • I study and contemplate what I read. I read much slower, and try to fully consume (mentally) what I read. Prose, theme, subtext. I give myself a few days in between books to really absorb and contemplate what I read. This is where I’m “reading like a writer” and gaining the takeaways to use in my own stories.

Not only have I re-discovered the pleasure of reading by reducing the number of books I pick up, but I’m also retaining far more of what I DO read, than when I was marathon’ing a bunch of stuff that just congealed into a Goodreads Annual Goal bar.

It came down to treating my reading time, and the books I choose, as a valuable commodities. Quality trumps quantity, always. There are now enough books on Earth to fill multiple human lifetimes, with more published every day. You should definitely be picky about the ones you choose to read in your own.

So here is Stephen’s quote again, updated for 2018.

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot of carefully selected, high quality books, and write a lot.” – Stephen King & B.L. Daniels

How To Quit Facebook (As A Writer)

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I get a lot of questions from fellow writers, and some readers, about Facebook. Mostly around my complete lack of having a Facebook account. Some are shocked to learn I got rid of it over 6 years ago (before the scandals) and my reason wasn’t personal privacy, but rather a loaf of bread. Yup. You read that right. Bread.

I’ve decided to be all artsy-fartsy about it and detail here the steps I took, why I took them, and what happened. All in short story format.

Notes:

  • The focus is on writers, but this guide could be for anyone looking to regain control of their time
  • If I sound preachy, I’m really not trying to be. If Facebook works for you and makes you successful, I’m glad it’s a useful tool for you
  • I’m so totally 100% aware you’re looking at that Instagram feed over there on the right side of this page (Facebook owns them) and going “OH THE IRONY!” The thing is, I play with Instagram once every couple of weeks, and I strictly curate it to focus on my love of art, books, and gory b-grade horror movies
  • I quit Facebook years ago, but I tried to make the story relevant to someone using it in 2018
  • This post is going to be long, and I’m writing it in the 2nd person, just to be asinine on a Monday.

 

Chapter 1 : Choosing to Quit Facebook (A Crack in The Mirror)

You decided to quit Facebook. Because you wanted more time to write. Maybe you sat down to write the next chapter in your novel, and ended up wasting forty five of the precious ninety minutes you had, looking at endless streams of encouraging GIF’s stating “Writer’s write!” Maybe you were in your local grocery store and saw a Facebook logo on a loaf of bread, and you said–

“Why has everyone accepted the dominance of this corporate force into their lives, to the point where food packaging is branded with a tiny F? Why do food companies want me to “connect” with them? Shouldn’t I spend my limited time on this mortal coil exercising my freedom of creative human expression, instead of connecting with Pop-Tarts on social media?”

Then you shouted, “I reject this, Mark. I reject all of this! I want more time to write!” And freaked out the elderly woman standing next to you in aisle nine.

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Writer versus Author

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Is there a difference?

I was inspired by author K.M. Allan’s post ’10 Signs You’ve Upgraded To Being A Serious Writer’ and began thinking about all the ways people who write label themselves and one another, especially on the internet.

If you’re reading this, chances are you like to write. Maybe you fancy yourself a “writer”, an “author”, or an “aspiring writer”? How many times have you read the words “aspiring writer” on the internet this week?

The way writers self-identify is fascinating to me. The way literary circles and internet marketing use these words as labels and identifiers is even more interesting.

Let’s take a look

Writer

  • Someone who writes
  • Someone who writes for a living (novelist, journalist, blogger)
  • Someone who writes books (specifically)
  • Someone who wants to sound cool at parties

Author

  • Someone who writes
  • Someone who writes a lot
  • Someone who is the author of published book(s)
    • Traditionally or self-published? Take your pick
  • Someone who is a well-regarded and successful writer of books (upper-echelon, or possibly “mid-list author”)
  • Someone who wants to sound cool, and a bit pretentious, at parties
    • bonus points for claiming “auteur” status

Aspiring Writer

  • Someone who writes
  • Someone who fantasizes about writing
    • but maybe doesn’t write a lot?
  • Someone who writes and still has big dreams because the soul-crushing weight of a stack of rejection letters hasn’t demolished them yet
  • Someone who is the recipient of endless writing advice (of varying quality) on the internet
  • Someone who is the recipient of endless writer-focused product pitches (of varying quality) on the internet
  • Someone who is just trying to meet another someone at the party

I come from the old school thought that “Writer’s write, but authors get paid to do it.” I find it keeps me grounded and helps me remember that writing may be an art, but publishing is a business. However, I know many of you think otherwise.

There’s no lack of enthusiasm and encouragement these days for people who want to write, which is great.

That said, I have found the common thread among all writers/authors I know is their evolution was grounded in rejection, exposure to criticism, and continued perseverance. In other words, “you keep writing even when it gets tougher and less nice”.

What do you think? Is there true meaning behind the way writers label themselves with these terms, or is it all semantics?

What do you refer to yourself as when you’re at parties? For the record, I say “writer”.