JD Salinger's Death Reminds Us that Sometimes We Need Only Write a Good Book

The other day I wrote a post about author J.D. Salinger’s death for my Jewish Issues Examiner column, but I didn’t think too much about what his passing on January 17, 2010, meant to me as a writer. Then, today I happened upon author Mitch Albom’s column in the Jewish Word Review. (If you recall, Albom wrote Tuesday’s with Morrie.) His words got me thinking.

While today writers–especially  nonfiction writers–constantly feel pressured to go out into the world and become visible, J.D. Salinger provided a phenomenal example of how successful an author can become without ever setting foot outside the house. (Well, to be more exact he did set foot outside his house initially after publication of Catcher in the Rye. Only later did he become a recluse.) In fact, Salinger didn’t want fame at all. He just wanted solitude and anonymity. Despite this fact, his work received great acclaim. Catcher in the Rye, his best-known novel, has sold millions of copies since it first was published in 1951–even though Salinger basically went into hiding.

To me, Salinger’s success provides a testament to the fact that good writing sells even when a writer doesn’t promote his or her book. Yet, he wrote his books in a very different publishing environment.

Now, Salinger also wrote fiction. Fiction writers today might still find success with good writing. A fantastic novelist will likely will find an agent, a publisher and an audience.

These days, however, you need more than just good writing to succeed as a nonfiction writer. You need:

  1. a marketable idea
  2. a great pitch
  3. a platform
  4. a superb proposal
  5. chutzpah (or the ability to go out and market yourself and your work with total abandon)

Notice, I don’t have good writing on this list. An average nonfiction writer can hire an editor to clean up his or her writing and make it sufficient–or great. Also, someone who doesn’t like to write can hire a ghostwriter or can “speak” a book and have the tapes transcribed and edited into a book. Thus, good writing, while required in the long run, no longer constitutes a required element for the person wanting to produce a nonfiction manuscript. Agents and acquisition editors look at those first five elements and then they look at writing ability. If an editor can improve the writing, the manuscript might still sell. And if the manuscript is purchased, the published book, once well edited, will sell as well.

One day I posted a question on LinkedIn asking editors and writers what social media outlets they felt worked best to promote writers’ work. Many of the writers spoke strongly about their view that writers must only turn out good writing to promote their work. They need only write, they said. “Let your work speak for itself and for you.”

I protested, “You’re wrong. That’s not enough anymore. Writers, especially nonfiction writers, must promote themselves.”

Although I still believe that, J.D. Salinger’s death definitely reminded me that writers do, indeed, need to write–and to write well (or to get a good editor to help them write well).  It reminded me that every once in a while a writer–even a nonfiction writer–simply writes a really great book and that act is enough for that writer to get noticed–to get picked up by an agent or a publishing house or to find a vast readership for a self-published book. It also reminded me that writers can build platforms based almost (notice the word “almost”) solely on good published writing, and today we have many more places to publish our work.

Sadly, though, I think the days of the reclusive writer might have died long before Salinger took his last breath.

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