Someone asked me recently about the first book I ever
published. How big a thrill was it? Honestly, I remember a bit of disappointment.
Maybe I had been expecting too much – trumpets and fanfares would have been
nice. Instead, the delivery guy dumped a
box on my office floor, mumbling about how hard my office was to find. (Yeah,
well, I admit it was in the basement of the Physics building, not where one
would expect to find a “published” professor of medieval history.)
Gamely I unpacked that box and trotted off to the dean’s
office to present him with the first copy. He looked at the cover, didn’t
bother to open it, and said, “That’s nice, Carolyn. But what have you written lately?” I was
crushed. Little did I realize that that
phrase –- what have you written lately -- would be the recurring chorus of the
rest of my life.
When did the thrill come?
Not until a couple of years later.
I was in Washington, DC, working on a project for the NEH. On the weekend, my husband and I went to the
actual Library of Congress, where I headed straight for the card catalogue (no
electronic searches in those days) and hunted for my name. And there it was, among those millions of
other cards: The Dilemma of Arnulf of
, by Carolyn Poling Schriber. Gasp.
I was a real author. In a real
I tend to forget that feeling these days, with several books
to my credit and little need to visit a library, thanks to the Internet. But libraries, whether they are stately
edifices or dingy back rooms or computer screens, have always been an important
– maybe the ONLY important – link between an author and a reader. And it’s that connection that matters – the
moment when an author says something important and a reader gets it.
I needed to remember that fact yesterday. I was at a meeting among friends and
colleagues. The other attendees were all
good people, dedicated to serving their communities and helping those in need. In a casual conversation, someone mentioned
that my book, Beyond All Price
become the number-one bestseller among Amazon’s free Kindle editions of
historical fiction. What did the other
listeners hear? “Free.” One fellow shook his head in pity: “That’s nice,
Carolyn, but those are all copies you just gave away. They’re worthless. You didn’t make a cent on them.” I don’t
remember what I mumbled in response. But
here’s what I SHOULD have said:
“Worthless? More than
thirty thousand people now have my book in their hands. It didn’t cost them
anything, but they asked for it because they wanted to read it. How is that different than a patron going
into the town library and asking to borrow an interesting book? A library buys
one book and passes it around until the cover falls off. The author may earn a few
cents (although I never earned a dime from The
Dilemma of Arnulf of Lisieux), but the readers get it for free. Money doesn’t bestow any value on a
book. The only thing that gives a book
value is the moment when a reader picks it up and “gets” what the author has to
offer – whether that’s new knowledge, an emotional experience, inspiration,
understanding, or just pure entertainment.”
So, in answer to all the critics of electronic books, as
well as to all those who judge an item’s worth by dollar signs, I suggest that
Kindle’s free book offerings are the equivalent of a great public library. Both provide free books to readers. Sure, you still have to pick and choose among
the offerings. Some books will be
wonderful and some will be trash. But it matters that they are free and
accessible to millions of people who would not otherwise be able to read them.
My own moment in the sun, here, is about over. Amazon seldom leaves a book on the free list
for more than a week, so within a day or so, the price of my book will jump to
$2.99, and sales will plummet. Beyond All Price will fall off the
bestseller lists, although the label will stick, at least for a while. What
will last the longest? The readers who
connect with me, if only for a moment, make the writing process
worthwhile. I will remember them longer
than those who paid for the book to be polite and left it unopened on a shelf.