The Books We Should Write

With book sales slumping and publishers cutting back on their acquisitions, authors need to take a long, hard look at the kinds of books they write. No one wants to sell ideas that no one will either acquire or few will purchase. In addition, I would hope that writers want to write works that are enduring and helpful far beyond a mere moment in time.

My college had a quote by John Ruskin engraved on the library walls that read, “All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time.” Writing a book for all time is a tall order that many writers will not be able to fill, but this strikes me as a noble goal. Can we write books that are relevant and practical for today that still touch on themes and ideas that can still transcend the moment?

These books for all time are the ones we want to buy because we’ll reread them. They have a powerful message, a compelling story, or a way of dealing with life that connects with readers.

Many books are written to address the matters we face here and now, and that can be a very good thing at times. However, I wonder if our book ideas are too limited to the short term. Have we focused on the present and the needs of a current niche so completely that we’re losing our ability to write works with enduring content?

When I think of my own field of religion, I’m often reminded of Dietrich Bonheoffer’s classic The Cost of Discipleship. He unmistakably speaks to the issues of his day and the state of the church in Germany. However, his message can be easily carried into other contexts, offering substantive concepts that require reading and rereading.

Bonheoffer’s work challenges readers well over sixty years after his death, offering weighty material that has endured the test of time. When I think of a book worth purchasing, I want something that will last, that demands rereading, and offers a story or message that leaves readers in deep consideration.

As for the ideas grounded in the present or more limited in scope, we still have a place for them. These could thrive in ebooks, blogs, magazines, and newspapers. While some of them may sell as traditionally published books, will the tremendous time and costs of the publishing process justify the ends when they could have a much wider distribution and hourly compensation as magazine or web stories?

Many nonfiction books could be broken into profitable articles that could very well gain a wider readership and build a platform, putting an author in to a better marketing position when writing a more enduring book.

There will always be books of the moment. However, before authors invest significant time into publishing a book that may bring in meager profits and attract a relatively small audience, they should consider options beyond publishing a book and books that may bring more long-term value.