Seven years ago, when I quit my job as an English professor and began this work of writing full-time, friends who were writers gave me great encouragement and wisdom. They talked to me about writing goals and encouraged me to focus on my practice not the product. The reminded me to keep my eyes on that which I can control – butt in chair and words on page. They held me steady in those first hard days. Many of them still steady me now. They are my people.
A few years later, when I had more than a tightrope of hope beneath my feet, I sent out an email asking for colleagues to help spread the word about a project I was undertaking. (I can’t even remember what the project was now.) Almost everyone responded by tagging me on Facebook and tweeting the link or just telling a few friends who told a few more. But one woman wrote back and said she’d be happy to do that, but the cost could be this amount. I balked – not because I don’t believe people should be paid for their work. I do! – but because I had helped this woman start her business. I’d recommended her links. I’d shared her work. Now, I was asking for a return on that openly given gift. She wanted to be paid. I wanted a friend in the community. I cut all ties with her, and while I don’t even remember the project, I remember that woman. She was not a good literary citizen.
My definition of a good literary citizen is, “A person who recognizes that the writing world is one in which community, reciprocity, and encouragement are the strongest currency and who recognizes that other writers are your allies, not your competitors.”
To that end, I make it a constant goal – with measurable tasks and everything – to be a good literary citizen. It’s a fundamental part of who I am as a writer in this world. It’s also something I struggle with – especially in terms of boundaries – a LOT. So here are the five things that I think are essential to being a good literary citizen in the worldwide writing community.
For the love of Pete, if you read a book, review it. Review it wherever you’d like, but know that Amazon is the mothership of book sales. So if you love a writer, give her/him a review on Amazon– you’ll help them get more sales. Even a short review of 2-3 sentences is a big deal. You don’t need to pander or overstate your love for anything. An honest review is all a writer needs.
Read a poem, essay, or article you found powerful? Recommend it. Share it on Facebook. Hand a friend a copy. Instagram the cover with a note about why you love the work. Tell your book club about that read that kept you up late last night. Tweet a title. Leave a great book with a note on the bus. Suggest that our local library or school district get copies for their shelves. Tell anyone and everyone who might be interested about what you loved about what you read.
Hire folks in the industry to help you if you can. Cover designers, web designers, formatters, editors, publicists – lots of those folks do that work to support their writing, and you can help. Plus, if you hire writers to work with you on your own writing-related things, you can expect they get the work more than, say, someone who builds websites primarily for engineering firms. Pay them a fare wage, and you’ll get great work as well as the satisfaction that you are supporting other creative people.
Also, encourage your fellow writers (and yourself) to expect pay for their contributions when reasonable. Not all literary journals can pay in cash, but many truly do give you exposure, give you a credential that can be useful when you go to an agent or publisher, or build a connection with an editor that might be valuable in lots of ways. When a publication can pay in cash, I believe they should. . . and they can when they make revenue from ads and such, but I also don’t believe that cash is the only currency.
The flip-side of this expectation is about pay is that there is a great reward – for both spirit and business – for offering your expertise and experience for free. Jane Friedman, publishing and marketing master, is my role model for this side of our work. Her website is chock-full of great resources for writers that are totally free. No pay wall. No membership site. Just great free information. (The same is true of Gabriela’s DIY MFA podcast, by the way.) Sometimes, it’s just really important to offer quality without the expectation of income from it.
However, we all need to eat and have a place to live, so we can’t give away everything for free. We must come to a place where we understand what we can afford – both financially and emotionally – to hand out and what we must charge for. We also need to understand that in terms of our time. We can’t always be reviewing books or writing blog posts of great content. We also must write books and make courses and edit client work. So we have to set boundaries – either in terms of time or in terms of quantity. We must hold those boundaries steady, too, which isn’t always easy.
Here’s what I’ve found though – the better I am as a literary citizen, the better my business. It’s like there’s some sense of literary goodness out there, and when we are good, it comes back to us ten-fold. That’s not the reason I believe in this citizenship idea, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
Andi Cumbo-Floyd is a writer, editor, and farmer, who lives at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains with her husband, 3 rabbits, 4 dogs, 4 cats, 6 goats, and 38 chickens. She is the author of The Slaves Have Names, Discover Your Writing Self, and Steele Secrets and writes regularly at andilit.com and godswhisperfarm.com.