Monday, January 21, 2013

Of Books and Mousetraps

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.” This may be true for the builders of mousetraps, but definitely doesn't apply to the writers of books. You can write the Great American Novel but if no-one knows you've written it, it will just sit there unless you are lucky enough to have it picked up by a major publisher with tons of money to promote it.

We live in a world where money talks, and the vast majority of writers, try though they might, can barely whisper. The hard, cold fact is that far fewer than two percent of authors can live on what they earn from their writing. For every J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or John Grisham there are a thousand Dorien Greys trying to convince readers to try their books. It is hard for these writers—for me—not to get discouraged by the frustrations of trying to stand out from the vast, roiling sea of other writers.

Success in writing is often a matter of sheer luck. A book by a writer of whom no one has ever heard before will suddenly appear out of nowhere and become the rage du jour. Where it came from and how it got there are largely a mystery. The writer of the sensation becomes famous and wealthy, with advances for as-yet-unwritten books pour in. Meanwhile all the tens of thousands of writers who weren't as lucky struggle on, unknown and unnoticed.

I know of one publishing company in which the average number of sales per author is fewer than 100 books a year! Of course it must be said that being an author is, for many people, more of a vanity thing (“oh, yes, I've published a book”) than a true calling. They write a book, get it published somewhere, somehow, and then just sit back and wait for the royalty checks to start rolling in. Few really realize that writing a book is only the tip of the iceberg. The unseen part, beneath the surface, is the incredible amount of time and effort necessary to let people know the book—and the writer—exist.

Many writers write simply because they cannot not write, and I am one of them. Probably the majority of authors write because they really feel they have something to say and want to share it with others, and I certainly am among that number as well. At the risk of seeming immodest, I consider myself an above-average writer and story-teller. From what I've heard from readers, people seem to like my characters and, after 14 books in the Dick Hardesty mystery series, many have come to look on them as friends. But that may be partly because I consider every book to be a casual, if one-sided, conversation with a friend. I never, ever forget that they are there. To have a reader appreciate what I've written is the best possible form of validation.

We humans are a race of story tellers. Stories have been our way of passing information, ideas, and a sense of wonder from generation to generation since we began to walk on two feet, and probably even before. I suppose a case could be made that stories and books are a form of mousetrap for the mind. I sincerely doubt that many people have ever given thought to the similarity between the two, but I do think there is one. But where mousetraps are made of metal and wood, and are intended to kill whatever takes the bait, stories are made of words and the responses those words elicit in the reader, and their purpose is to open the doors of imagination and set the soul free. As it is the strength and construction of the metal and wood that determines the effectiveness of the mousetrap, it is the strength and construction of words which mark the effectiveness of a story or book.

And so I and many more like me leave the building of a better mousetrap to those who build mousetraps. I'll merely continue trying to build a better story, and better mental doorways and windows to a wider and hopefully better world.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (


Eileen Thornton said...

So very true!

Kage Alan said...

You nailed it saying we can't 'not' write. Writing is as natural as breathing for me. And if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing.

Travis Brown said...

What you are talking about has always fascinated me. You are talking about the notion of a "tipping point". Why do some things catch and spread like the flu in a daycare while other clearly superior things languish away in obscurity? Malcolm Gladwell writes about it in his book "The Tipping Point". It is a fascinating read for those of us that are deeply right brained.