The writer’s dilemma

In a report on NPR’s All Things Considered yesterday, fantasy writer Naomi Novik said something that really got my attention: “The biggest danger to most authors, to most storytellers, is not that somebody is going to steal your work and pass it along — it is that nobody is ever going to see your work.”

The quote, part of a story on anti-piracy technology in e-books, perfectly captures the conflict that writers (and most other artists) face, a dynamic tension that can leave the cautious nearly paralyzed. If I put my work out into the public arena, will something happen to it, or to me? If I don’t put my work out there, what’s the point? This is especially painful if one dreams of making some kind of living from one’s work; the old saw, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” comes unhelpfully to mind.

I know a writer who has been shopping a science fiction novella around for a couple of years. He’s gotten a nibble or two, but no solid bites. Because his story has been making the rounds, he is concerned that someone might lift his idea, which is admittedly pretty original, and beat him to the publishing punch. This concern has grown to such a degree that he decided to publish the story himself rather than risk having it languish in some editorial slush pile. All in all, this is a pretty good choice because it allows him to avoid both of the dangers Ms. Novik points out: his work will not get stolen, nor will it go unread.

Maybe there’s hope for us writers after all.

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