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Why do so many people want to write a book?

It's Sunday, November 27, the tail end of Thanksgiving weekend. Muddy Waters is full of students returning for last classes and final exams. But the young people trying to wedge three laptops onto one table aren't students -- or if they are, that's not why they're here. They're participants in National Novel Writing Month, and they have about 48 hours to complete a 50,000-word manuscript they started on November 1.

NaNo, as it's affectionately called, was launched in 1999 by San Francis- can Chris Baty. In 2004 it had 42,000 registered participants. The principle behind it, which Baty explains in his book No Plot? No Problem! is simple: Deadlines make writers, and sometimes the only way to produce a manuscript is not to fret about quality. As NaNo's website explains, "NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved."

Writing is usually seen as a solitary activity. But here at Muddy Waters the atmosphere is sociable. The NaNoers plug their laptops into a formidable eight-socket extension and share stories about infelicitous sentences they wrote when half asleep, or otherwise desperate to fill a daily word quota.

Douglas Beagley, a 29-year-old technical writer from Colchester, says he's written about 46,000 words and is "rolling in to the finish line." Beagley, who has small round glasses and an affable face, has been hosting dinner write-ins at his house where no one's allowed to eat dessert until they reach a word quota. On this, his second NaNo, Beagley says he has "a very different attitude" from the last time, "more relaxed. This year I'm having fun." A "winner" last year with his 50K manuscript complete, he shares his secret: "I cheat by saving up vacation days and using them in November."

To outsiders, National Novel Writing Month may seem like an odd exercise. But it's just giving practical form to a common yearning.

In 2002, a Michigan publishing and consulting service called the Jenkins Group asked 1006 Americans, "Do you think you might have a book in you?" Eighty-one percent responded, "Yes." Roughly equal numbers described their inner books as fiction, general nonfiction and self-help. The percentage of wannabe authors is nearly constant across gender and income groups. As you get older, though, you're less likely to say you contain a book -- 88 percent of those aged 18 to 34 said yes, 63 percent in the 65-plus range.

The Jenkins Group's results were widely reported in the press, sometimes with alarm. It's not hard to see why. As the number of published authors in the United States explodes, the number of people who read books is shrinking. In 2002, the National Endowment for the Arts reported a 28 percent decline over the past 20 years in the number of Americans who read fiction or poetry. In 2004, it announced that only 57 percent read even one such book in a year.

Meanwhile, the total number of books published in the U.S. jumped 14 percent last year, to 195,000, according to R.R. Bowker, the company that compiles Books in Print. The divergence of these trends has some industry wags crying "Authorgeddon" -- a pun coined by Bob Young, of the online print-on-demand publisher Lulu.com. His own study predicts that by 2052, the number of people who publish a book in any given year will outstrip the number of people who read one.

How are so many people getting into print? And, given the apparent decline of reading, why are they so eager to see book jackets emblazoned with their names?

The first question is easy to answer. As in the early days of movable type, the print explosion is largely a function of technology. Traditional offset printing is only cost-effective when the publisher orders a large run. Most name-brand publishers still do this, putting their marketing muscle behind their chosen authors. But the ability to store and print manuscripts electronically has created a new option: print on demand. Instead of shipping copies of your masterpiece to Borders and hoping they don't get returned, a publisher can now print copies as orders come in, matching supply exactly to demand.

Stephen Morris, founder of the Public Press in Randolph, is experimenting with the potential of print on demand to open the literary field to newcomers. The Public Press website touts its ability to "empower authors" and promote free speech by using "economies of scale -- 'small' scale, that is."

Morris is no novice -- he oversaw the publication of more than 100 books when he helmed Chelsea Green, in White River Junction. The idea for the Public Press arose from his frustration as a novelist who was published by powerhouses such as Viking Penguin and William Morrow but not effectively marketed. "Why do they even bother?" he found himself wondering.

The Public Press shares some aspects with vanity publishers. In exchange for a thousand-dollar fee up front, it lists books with big distributors such as Ingram, sets up printing and graphic services, and does some marketing. Morris says the Press is a good option for accomplished, unpublished writers who want to use a bound edition of their work to catch an agent's interest, or for "published writers whose works have been taken out of print by their publishers prematurely. It's a way to give those books a home." He has no illusions that his company will "publish billions of books" or supplant traditional publishing.

But that's exactly the promise of some larger print-on-demand outfits, such as Maryland-based PublishAmerica. The 6-year-old company's website suggests it's doing its best to attract the attention of every one of the 81 percent of Americans who think they have a book in them. "This new century promises to be the era of the yet-unnoticed writer," it enthuses. "It doesn't require rocket science to predict that tens of thousands of these so far hidden talents will see their books in print in the foreseeable future."

PublishAmerica charges authors no fees, but its books' high sticker prices and lackluster marketing have disgruntled writers, who charge that it's essentially a vanity press profiting from the generosity of the authors' friends and relations. Recently, a group from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America tested Publish-America's claim that it is selective in its acquisitions. They submitted a hash of a novel under the byline "Travis Tea" -- and got an acceptance letter.

With PublishAmerica's website claiming "16,000 happy authors," it's hard not to imagine millions of books pulped down for kitty litter or sitting on computer servers in ghostly electronic form, waiting for orders that never come.

Cultural critic Joseph Epstein responded to this scenario in a blistering 2002 New York Times editorial, begging those with a book inside them to please keep it there. Most of the books published each year, Epstein contends, are "not needed, not wanted, not in any way remotely necessary." His advice for would-be authors: "Why add to the schlock pile?"

Another response to the Jenkins Group survey, published online by the America Library Association, warns that librarians should expect to be besieged by local authors with cheaply printed oeuvres in hand, asking for shelf space. But three years later, "It really hasn't happened," says Robert Resnik, co-director at Burlington's Fletcher Free Library. He says he's received no more than "a couple" of emails from unknown authors asking to see their own books in the stacks.

"When it comes down to it, it's hard to write a book," Resnik points out. "They used to talk about how people in the future were going to have more spare time, but it's the opposite. Successful writers cloister themselves for a couple of hours in the morning and write; most people don't have that self-control."

That brings us back to National Novel Writing Month, which is all about harnessing writerly self-discipline. But why would any adult with a full-time job voluntarily go through the wringer of writing 2000 words a day, just to produce a manuscript that may or may not get published, let alone read?

"NaNo draws people who are writers and are serious about writing, but they may have time constraints or discipline problems," suggests Elizabeth Bluemle, who owns The Flying Pig Children's Books in Charlotte. A published author -- her picture book is due out in April -- Bluemle signed up for NaNo this year and got "a fifth of the way there" before a busy fourth quarter at the store derailed her novel.

Bluemle has witnessed the publishing glut firsthand. At her store, she's fielded requests from authors bearing self-published books. "In the rare cases where the book is professionally done, well written, and edited well, we'll happily stock them," Bluemle says. She's also heard many customers say they'd like to write a book.

In his gadfly editorial, Epstein suggests that Americans want to write books as a way of "establishing their own significance." Bluemle agrees there's "something satisfyingly tangible about a book." But she thinks "people who actually sit down and write are a different world from the fame-and-fortune people who think about it and don't do it."

"Just do it" seems to be the motto of NaNo. Some NaNoers have hopes of revising and publishing their fiction -- the website asserts that a handful have successfully done so. Others are in it for something else. Beagley says he has "no intention of publishing," though he does want to print copies of his science-fiction novel, with illustrations by his wife, and give them to family members for Christmas.

Jennifer Carbee, a 30-year-old attorney from Jericho, is hovering at 41,000 words and trying to make up for time spent with family over the holiday. She says of her ongoing "chick lit" novel, "I feel like I have a book in me; I just don't feel like this is it." For Carbee, NaNo is simply a "great creative outlet." Her manuscript "could hardly be considered classic literature," she says, "but it's fun."

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Bio:
Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.

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