Why write books?

I reflected on being a blogger recently, and one might ask yourself, why blog? Chuck Olsen’s blogumentary gives some pretty good reasons. Having just had my second book come out, perhaps the question  now is why write a book? After all, it takes ages, it’s out of date before it’s printed, it exists largely in isolation compared with all the blogs, wikis, social software. And so on.

Here are some possible reasons:

i) Money – you’re joking, right? Maybe for the Dan Browns of the world, but the return on investment for most academic books operates somewhere between 1/10th and roughly equal to minimum wage. I remember doing some consultancy after my first book had been published. In two days I earned more than the book had brought in over the year, and it had taken seven months to write.

ii) Bibliophilia – or at least something to do with the physicality of books. To paraphrase Johnny Thunders, you can’t put your arms around a blog. Society has elevated books to items of worship also, despite the crappy footballer biographies, the plethora of chick lit, the endless stream of Da Vinci code copies, etc, we still revere books.

iii) Reputation and status – now we’re getting nearer to it I think. Following on from above, anyone can write a blog (democratisation is after all one of their big claims) but writing books is still reasonably uncommon. Most of the parents of my daughters classmates earn more than me, live in bigger houses and drive Mercedes, but I always have the trump card of ‘I’ve written books’ up my sleeve. Of course, it never quites comes down to such blatant competition, but there is an element of ego in writing a book. Which is ironic really, since blogs are often decried for being all about self-publicity.

iv) Creative impulse – there is something in this, the frustrated novelist and all that. But being a blog writer does fulfill this function to an extent, although there is something about having the extended time and space to explore ideas over 80,000 words.

v) Knowledge transfer – hmmm, I could play the altruistic card and pretend I am doing it solely to add to the sum of human knowledge, but a book isn’t necessarily the best medium for this now. There was a time when that would have washed, but a blog or website would be as good a means now. I do think there is some good interplay between the two media though – you read a good book on the train and then find the author’s blog for more regular thoughts.

vi) Cognitive housekeeping – writing a book (and reading one) is a good means of wrapping up a subject, drawing a line under it and putting in a drawer. A good book on a subject acts as kind of shorthand for a lot of issues. For instance, you can say to a group of knowledgeable people ‘it’s a long tail kind of thing’, and be understood.

There are probably some more reasons, but that’s my lot for now. Not a particularly compelling list is it. Would I write another one? You bet!

One Comment

  • AJ Cann

    Academic brownie points is the reason for those of us in academic. I write books (Amazon me!), they get included in my RAE return. I blog, which gets squat kudos from HEFCE.

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