Of Reason, Unreason, and Tea

So last Friday I took my wife to Richmond’s grand and glorious Jefferson Hotel, a monument to a glorious era of grand hotels and stately affairs from an age long gone. We met up with our friend, artist/writer Colleen Doran, and enjoyed a quite civilized tea service of cucumber sandwiches, Smithfield ham biscuits, macaroons and chocolate-covered strawberries, and, of course, teas.

Colleen’s latest graphic novel, with words by Neil Gaiman.

We laughed and joked and spoke of many things, including book sales, and what other creators were doing nowadays, and some lurid gossip from the convention scene that won’t leave my head, and how social media now plays a part in the marketing of our books. Then I said something that has been on my mind in recent days, as millions of thinking, empathic people across the country can feel the Constitutional pillars that hold up the US begin to crumble in this Age of Unreason. What I said was, basically, “I’m thinking of not saying anything of importance on social media any more, especially politically. It doesn’t change anyone’s minds, and it may cost me book sales.”

I’ve been thinking of this for the last few days, and even so I still find myself posting political ramblings, contrarian cartoons, and sarcastic memes. I just can’t stop.

And then yesterday writer John Scalzi posted this thread of ideas on twitter, and I feel much better now.

See, I’m not alone.

Over on Facebook a post is being passed around in which an author is telling other authors not to take political positions because our job is to entertain, not alienate “half our readers.” So, let me speak on this general concept of authors shutting up and staying in lanes.

Basically: Nah. Don’t shut up, if you would prefer to speak. Also, as a human here on Earth in 2022, you’re in a bunch of “lanes” including “a political stakeholder who has opinions on events that affect their life.” You may decide that “lane” is the important one right now.

Will you alienate readers expressing political opinions? Sure. But, as someone who once received a flaming kiss-off from a reader for expressing a mild operating software preference, I assure you that you can alienate readers by expressing any opinion on anything whatsoever.

You could try to never express an opinion on anything ever again, including *in* your writing (this is a neat trick if you can manage it, good luck with it), but living a life of never publicly expressing an opinion so as to never lose a sale seems enervating and futile to me.

Also, think about the math for a second, for crying out loud. To grossly oversimplify: The US adult readership is about 200 million people. If you alienate “half of them” by talking politics, you have 100 million left. 99+% of books sell 20k copies or less. YOU WILL BE FINE.

More realistically, the market pool for any book will be smaller based on genre, etc. But even then, if you lost “half” the potential readership, you’d still have more readers available to you than you are likely to sell to, even if you are a genre or mainstream bestseller.

But you want to sell more! Well, good for you! Also, have you noticed that bestselling authors on social media tend to be a politically mouthy bunch? It’s almost as if their having a loud public political opinion did not impede their book sales! Curious, that!

Also, look: you could lose readers by expressing opinions. You can also gain them. There are readers who factor a similar worldview into their purchase choices, or when trying out new authors. Other readers don’t care. In my experience, these things even out in the wash.

You don’t *have* to express political or other opinions out loud if that’s not how you roll. Be who you are. But that *is* how you roll, don’t limit yourself because of worries about sales. I suspect you will also find being your authentic self is important in the long run.

On a personal level: With full acknowledgment of who I am and the privileges I get because of it, I have a full and extensive history of being publicly political, long before I was writing books. Lots of people wish I would shut up. But it’s not their call and it’s my choice.

I could not and can not in good conscience be silent about politics and the world, especially now, when fellow Americans are having their rights stripped from them by cowards and bigots and fools. I will speak and not give a damn how many sales I lose. This is an easy choice.

So, yeah. Speak your mind, authors, if that what you think the moment requires of you. You don’t need to be silent against your will, just for the sake of a sale.”

I’m taking this to heart. I’m gonna keep on keeping on, as the song says (and if there isn’t a song that says this, there should be). Over on Facebook, posts featuring photos of morning after pills are being censored by algorithms. Today the Supreme Leaders of SCROTUS “reinstated the Republican-drawn map of Louisiana’s House districts that was blocked by a judge who found it likely discriminates against Black voters.”

Simultaneously, Ghislaine Maxwell was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Cassidy Hutchinson dropped a bunch of big dimes on Orange Julius and his crew that couldn’t shoot straight.  And poetry is slowly becoming more popular in the US.

So…we’ve just got to keep on keeping on. And have some tea.