The book trade is a . . . trade

James Dawson, YA author, feels it’s somehow wrong to hold back on cussing in his fiction. He wrote an article about this in the UK Guardian called “Why Teens in Books Can’t Swear.” He thinks it’s unrealistic. He thinks it’s about gate-keeper censorship. You know, parents wanting to steer their children towards certain experiences and away from others.  


Dawson’s approach to the whole problem is wrong-headed. This isn’t about the virtues and vices of fiction. Or about gatekeepers, especially in today’s ebook world.  Or what experiences parents want to provide their children. And it’s not about art reflecting reality. Reality includes trips to the toilet, and yet we somehow fail to include realistic bum wiping in so many of our tales. Good heavens, have we betrayed our artistic integrity? No. We’ve just naturally chosen to include things that appeal to us and leave out others that don’t. Every book is an exercise in hundreds of such choices.

The fact is that Dawson’s forgetting that a fundamental aspect of the book trade is the trade.  The buyer trades his or her money for a product (the book) that provides a service (the entertainment, thrills, chills, etc. of the reading experience) he or she values.  A customer preferring one kind of experience over another isn’t censorship (the horror, the horror).  It’s choice.  

As an author, you make your offer. If folks like it, they buy it. If not, they don’t. Nobody owes you a purchase.

This means that in any business, and selling fiction is a business, the most sensible way forward is to offer your intended buyers something they are likely to value.  Something they’re going to like.  Something they want.  If your buyer is thirsty and wants water, offer him a cold glass of water, not a waffle iron.  And if you can’t bear to develop anything but waffle irons, then, by all means, develop waffle irons.  Just make sure you offer them to the folks looking for . . . waffle irons. 

This business of making offers also means that we package our products and services so that customers can easily tell what’s in the box. You don’t want someone to purchase your box thinking it contains breakfast cereal when in reality it’s a bunch of bolts.

Yeah, writing is an art. But offering it in trade to others is also a basic economic act.

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8 Responses to The book trade is a . . . trade

  1. This topic reminds me of how so many fiction authors claim they aren’t writing for the money. They tout the rich rewards of educating young people or creating enduring tales that will transcend lifetimes. And while those are wonderful goals, and I share them without reservation, I would also like to get paid for my work.

    Computer programers speak of the elegant solutions they devise in order to solve computing problems, and their work can be beautiful in its way, but they aren’t shy about demanding a paycheck. And I feel the same way.

    You’re right, the business of writing is a business. We either deliver what our customers want or we sell no products.

    — david j.

  2. John Brown says:

    And even with those who truly don’t write for the money, they still want compensation. They want to see their story affect people. They’re asking people to trade their time. And so it’s still a basic economic act.

  3. Rehcra says:

    I feel your wrong here for the simple reason that it’s just how your looking at it. Look at it either way but just because someone else has a different take doesn’t mean their wrong.

    “It’s all about the food. With out it you would die so the only reason your getting money is so you can have food and not die.”

    The economy of it may come first in your reasoning, it may come second and it may even feel like implied background to the over all picture.


  4. John Brown says:


    Dawson is complaining that some customers don’t like what he has to offer. That they “should” like it. What would you say to a guy who makes wasabi ice cream and then complains that a lot of retailers or ice cream eaters he offers it to don’t want it?

    When I say “economic act”, I’m not saying people should write thinking about dollars. I’m saying that writing for the purpose of being read starts with the assumption that you’re going to be asking folks to trade something of value for the opportunity to read your story. Are you saying that it doesn’t?

  5. Rehcra says:

    First I’ll have to point out that not only have I not read any of Dawson’s blogs but that I have no clue who Dawson is.

    Second; What if the wasabi ice cream is the best ice cream flavor ever in Dawson the Ice Cream makers mind? Does he have a valid complaint now that people preconceptions about Ice Cream flavored like Wasabi seem to differ so greatly from what he sees as reality?

    People lately often make economics god. As if all things start and revolve around it. But the truth is the economy revolves around us not the other way around. Only in our minds do we revolve around the economy. Chasing the revolution may be best for some but others may just see it as a less important given. The sun will rise you don’t have to worship it in any way. And yes their is very little we can do to change that revolution but its actually easier to go against the grain of the economy then to try and change human nature.

    All ideas do not need to start with the economy. They can’t escape it but a good book is still a good book no matter how many of it are sold. And a bad book is a bad book despite the acclaim it may get for being a best seller.


    p.s. That was a lot more pointless and off topic then I had planned.I didn’t even answer your main question (It doesn’t have to START with that consideration.) but I decided to post it anyway 🙂

  6. John Brown says:


    I don’t know that we’re talking about the same thing. Dawson is the author of the article I linked to in this blog. Go read that, if you haven’t already, to see what I’m responding to.

    As to your point about Dawson’s love of wasabi, his job then is to find those that are like-minded or try to convince those who aren’t to give him a try. But in no case is it reasonable for him to demand customers like and purchase his product.

  7. JohnW says:

    It seems to me that Dawson is complaining that his intended audience does want swearing (and shagging and slaughter), but that there are “gatekeepers” that are trying to prevent Dawson from giving his audience what they want.

    The question I have is, who is more correct, Dawson or the gatekeepers (about what the intended audience wants)? Sometimes people just do things because that is how they have been done for a long time. Is that why the gatekeepers are doing it? Or do they really understand the wishes of the intended audience?

  8. John Brown says:


    First, why must the market be monolithic?

    There are indeed YA customers who want swearing, shagging, and slaughter. And there are probably just as many who don’t.

    It’s folly to think all readers are alike. It’s folly to think you’re selling a book to every YA reader or school librarian that exists because there is no book in the history of the world that will appeal to all readers. Tastes vary too much.

    What anyone selling anything quickly learns is that they’re trying to sell into a specific demographic. On a basic level: sell water to the people who are thirsty. Not to those who aren’t.

    Just because Dawson writes one kind of story and finds some customers like it that doesn’t mean that all readers will. Dawson’s job is not to convince every reader to buy his book, just those whose tastes run that way.

    So both the the publisher AND Dawson could very well be right about what readers want. There is more than one segment to every market.

    Second, Dawson’s making a mistake when he suggests that the reader is the ONLY customer in this supply chain. Publishers and parents and school librarians are customers in a supply chain. The customer is the person who makes the decision to trade. Or has a huge influence on the decision. When trying to make any sale, you MUST convince the decision maker the trade is going to bring them value. And in a supply chain, you have decision makers at every link in the chain.

    Who are the decision makers?

    Unless you’re going direct, that will include publishers, librarians, and parents. Their tastes matter. You can’t ignore them as customers. They, along with the readers, ARE your customers.

    The first customer, unless you’re going direct, is the publisher. They have a target market in mind. They have huge incentives to deliver product that their intended market will like. But even if they’re way off, it doesn’t matter. They are your first customer.

    If you think they’re wrong about what their customers down line want, then it’s your job to convince them of it or find another distributor who is a better fit for your stuff.

    Which takes us back to the first point. It may be that there are people clamoring for your product, but that market might not be one that a specific publisher is interested in for a number of reasons, including the fact that many of the decision makers down line don’t want so much shagging, swearing, and slaughter.

    There’s a reason why the rating system on movies has persisted all these years. Despite all the problems, many parents and children use them.

    I can tell you that my wife and I have a huge decision making influence over what my young girls read. And, as a parent, I believe I’d be abdicating my responsibility not to. There are a LOT of parents who feel the same way.

    I’ve talked to many school librarians who recognize the fact that parents have huge influence in decisions about what their kids read. These librarians want the kids to read. And so they select and search out books they know the parents are likely to feel comfortable with and avoid those they won’t.

    Dawson’s an idiot if he thinks parents shouldn’t be involved in their kids’ lives. Or that a lot of parents don’t care about the levels of shagging, swearing, and slaughter their kids are exposed to. And since they are decision makers, those tastes ripple back up through the supply chain.

    If Dawson wants to include certain things, bully for him. But he’s going to have to convince decision makers all the way down a distribution channel. That’s just how supply chains work.